Selected Reviews

After Sadako:  Women in J-Horror

“Everybody betrays me” (Miki Sakai, “Tomie Re-Birth:  Another Face”)

“Freeze Me” (2000)

Despite narrative similarities to “Ms. 45,” Takashi Ishii’s story of highly personal vengeance is predominantly enacted within the confines of a small apartment.  “Chihiro” (Harumi Inoue) is an office worker who is engaged to be married until she is visited by the first of three men who had previously sexually assaulted her.  “Chihiro’s” painfully re-constituted life is brutally dislocated by this intrusion.  In short order she loses her safety, privacy, job, fiancé, and eventually her sanity.

“Chihiro’s” solution to this nightmare involves horrifyingly graphic bludgeoning of her assailants, after which she stores their bodies in freezers.  Unlike “Ms. 45” that launched its protagonist on a campaign of generalized, anonymous retaliation, “Chihiro” becomes increasingly absorbed by the trophies in her freezer, relishing her absolute control over their inert, powerless forms.  She periodically opens the freezer doors to admire their contents rather than disposing of the bodies.  This arrangement works well enough as long as “Chihiro” remains single.  However, when her boyfriend eventually returns, he makes a grisly discovery.  Unfortunately for him, he fails to appreciate the extent of “Chihiro’s” transformation and fatally misjudges her newfound power and decisiveness.
Along with several other Ishii titles such as “Black Angel” and “Flower and Snake,” “Freeze Me” treads uneasily along the boundary of advocacy and exploitation.  By so doing, these films constitute a type of violation of genre boundaries, and may comment on ordinarily unspoken assumptions about genre and the nature of viewing pleasure.

“Ring 0: Birthday” (2000)

Screenwriter Hiroshi Takahashi, director Norio Tsuruta, and actor Yukie Nakama craft a subtle portrayal of the horror of estrangement within a culture that may hammer down “the nail that sticks up.”  In this exposition of “Sadako’s” backstory, her efforts at a normal life are repeatedly doomed by premonitions and visions of disaster.  Fate is aligned against her, from her crazy mother “Shizuko,” to a reporter “Akiko Miyaji” (Yoshiko Tanaka) who relentlessly pursues her.

“Sadako” is withdrawn from a private school after predicting a particularly awful drowning tragedy.  She is kept in locked isolation by her father who both loves her and understands her fatal potential.  As a painfully shy and awkward young woman, “Sadako” attempts to find a place for herself by joining a theater company.  There she finds the possibility of romance, but thereby also attracts the jealousy of another young woman, “Estsuko Tachihara” (Kumiko Aso) who is responsible for the wardrobe.  The play’s director recognizes “Shizuko’s” potential powers and casts her in a leading role, but this only increases the hostility of other members of the company.  When “Sadako” is overtaken by her feelings – provoked by her very attempts at negotiating the pitfalls of a normal social life – others begin to die in mysterious ways.  With reporter “Akiko’s” prompting, “Etsuko” and other cast members turn against “Sadako” and finally beat her to death.
At “Akiko’s” suggestion they transport “Sadako’s” body to her father’s remote rural residence where “Sadako’s” remarkable regenerative powers permit one last attempt to escape.  The theater troupe, however, relentlessly pursues her to the very edge of an ocean cliff, driving her to the brink of desperation.  Energized by her mother “Shizuko’s” dark spirit, “Sadako” uncomprehendingly turns on them, killing them one by one.  Her broken, monstrous persona – aptly still clad in the white shroud-like costume from the play – pursues “Akiko” and “Etsuko” to an abandoned residence.  A Nambu pistol so confidently wielded by “Akiko” only proves useful to shoot “Etsuko” and then herself in a moment of abject terror.
After everyone has died, “Sadako’s” father concludes that he must kill her to prevent yet others from dying by contact with his daughter.  He poisons her, then batters her head with a chopper, before casting his daughter into the eternal darkness of an old well.  The fact that he so clearly regrets these acts of brutal violence only amplifies the pathos of “Sadako’s” backstory.
This moving, poignant film resonates to so many themes of Japanese culture – traditional and contemporary – that can perhaps be read as emblematic of J-Horror’s universe of social discourse.

“Audition” (2001)

Takashi Miike crafts a deceptively innocuous, languid story of a middle-aged widower (Ryo Ishibashi) who is persuaded by his film producer friend to screen young women as potential dates by staging a fake audition.  Many applicants essentially abase themselves in apparently desperate pursuit of opportunity and acceptance, and in an ironic coincidence, Ishibashi’s character “Aoyama” bears the same name as that of the sexual predator who pursued Okiku to her death in the well in the classic ghost story enacted in Kabuki.

After seemingly finding the perfect candidate in the demure, willowy “Asami” (Eihi Shiina), “Aoyama’s” comfortable expectations of gratification are shatteringly destabilized as he becomes the latest victim of “Asami’s” serial counter-aggression against men.  Part of the shock involves the sudden betrayal of carefully built-up patriarchal assumptions involving power and privilege, ending in a cruelly helpless finale on the floor of “Aoyama’s” living room as “Asami” dons her mortician’s apron and sets to work on him.  In the course of this, she maintains the cheerful demeanor of Yamato nadeshiko (the ideal Japanese woman), that so attracted “Aoyama” in the first place.  Ultimately, it is this stereotype that is dissected along with Aoyama’s legs.

Gore From Outer Space (2001)

Hirohisa Sasaki’s bizarre confection of science fiction, horror and edgy political satire is not as blatantly sexual or exploitative as “Crazy Lips.”  The film opens with the confession of “Satomi Kurahashi” (Aimi Nakamura) who is awaiting execution for the murder of her daughter.  She recounts a seemingly delusional tale of kidnapping that is doubted by the police and denied by her husband.  Guided by the headless spirits of murdered schoolgirls, “Satomi” eventually traces the evidence of her daughter to a mysterious house whose occupants might be her mother and a corrupt politician – or aliens in human form.  When this politician (representing “The Liberal King Party”) sexually assaults her in the course of a trip to “West Virgin Town,” the narrative collapses in on itself.  Criticism of American history and culture returns in the form of two absurd FBI agents who violate norms of politeness.  One of them recounts how his ex-girlfriend (Hitomi Miwa) was an alien, and it emerges that “Satomi” was assaulted in order to breed an alien child.

This child “Misato” may have been “Satomi’s” older sister who died years before in a fire.  In the current narrative “Satomi” douses “Misato,” her mother and the politician from “The Liberal King” party in gasoline and sets them ablaze.  Convicted of murder and sentenced to die, “Satomi” is escorted to the death chamber where she is confronted by the female psychic “Etsuko Mamiya” who is now the warden attired in a Nazi-like uniform ready to gas her in front of the Japanese prime minister!  When “Satomi” realizes that her own government is her real enemy and fights back, the “English gas” is released, along with martial arts mayhem.
After escaping into the woods, “Satomi” is confronted by the spirit of her mother who throws away her crucifix and sings a song about parents killing their children.  “Satomi” rejects this all as both a lie and an alien plot.  After running into the road she is killed by a taxi, then reincarnated as a spider so that she can observe her ex-husband with their daughter and his new wife.
Scriptwriter Hiroshi Takahashi claims inspiration from “The Mothman Prophecies,” “Faust” and Yukio Mishima’s novel “Utsukushii Hoshi” in which people are driven mad by UFOs.