Book review

Introduction to Japanese horror film, by Colette Balmain

Alessia Alfieroni

Dublin, Ireland

[0.1] Keywords—Ghost; Tradition

Alfieroni, Alessia. 2009. Introduction to Japanese horror film, by Colette Balmain [book review]. Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 3.

Colette Balmain. Introduction to Japanese horror film. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008. Paperback, £16.99 (232p) ISBN 978-0-7486-2475-1.

[1] Author of several articles and books about films with a particular focus on Asian cinema and culture, Colette Balmain here gives us an overview of the development of the horror genre in Japan. As she argues in the introduction, notwithstanding the universality of horror, it also exhibits features that are culture bound. Applying major theoretical points to a variety of interesting examples from Godzilla (Gojira, 1954) to Ju-on: The Grudge (2003), Balmain highlights the differences between Western and Japanese horror movies. Balmain's contention is that on one hand, U.S. horror films are mainly based on the fear of "otherness," usually personified by a monster, as they are built on what is described as the "twin processes" of repulsion of the unknown and the "desire to know" (4), but on the other hand, Japanese horror films represent the rejection of the social transformation that Japan had undergone after World War II. The war and the country's forced modernization, as well as its consequent economic success, had a devastating effect on Japanese society and its national identity.

[2] Even though this book is primarily oriented toward an audience with film and media background, it can be appealing to anyone who is interested in Japanese horror movies and Japanese anime and manga. In fact, through sustained references to Japanese mythology and folktales, it provides the reader with a deep insight into Japanese culture and the Western influence on its evolution. This book can actually be considered an original analysis of a transversal type of transformative work because it showcases the continuous cross-cultural influences between the United States/Europe and Japan that are elaborated and incorporated in each country's movie production. Of particular interest are the author's frequent comparisons with American horror that underline Western and Eastern cultural differences and how they are reflected through a film genre that has universal connotations. Thus, the book successfully overcomes Western readers' possible biases and allows them to fully understand the intrinsic meaning of symbols and archetypes that permeate the Japanese horror genre.

[3] Introduction to Japanese Horror Film is structured in two parts. In part 1, composed of four chapters, the author analyzes the origins of Japanese horror cinema, while in part 2, she focuses on Japanese horror as a genre and on its key motifs, such as the vengeful virgin, the monstrous mother, the demonic child, and supernatural killers.

[4] Chapter 1, "Laying the Foundations," provides the historical and cultural context behind the development of early Japanese cinema. The author characterizes the Japanese studio system as highly influenced by the power of directors who could choose the team of people whom they trusted and would be associated with for most of their career. In the same way, traditional Japanese art forms, such as theatre, had a great impact on film structure and theme. As a result, films borrowed the Kabuki theater's taxonomy of two main genres: the jidaigeki, "historical dramas relating the tragedy of following society's rules," and the gendaimono, a portrayal of "contemporary situations in which choosing personal happiness over filial and feudal loyalty often led to suicide" (15). In this way, the author introduces the concept of ie, the "system of obligations and duties that determined relationships" (8) in Japanese society, and explains how the imposition of Western democratic ideals, such as censorship and endorsement of individualism, affected Japanese society. Although Hollywood cinema deeply influenced Japanese films, especially after the occupation, encouraging more realistic dramas instead of the traditional stereotyped models set by Kabuki theatre, it also pushed Japanese cinema to redefine itself through the self/other opposition. Thus, the threat of Westernization induced Japan to construct films around the theme of Japanese nationhood.

[5] In chapter 2, "Horror after Hiroshima," Balmain explores the rise in popularity of the horror cinema in relation to the "physical devastation and psychological trauma" left by the war. As she argues, "the horror film provided one of the most suitable mechanisms through which to express apprehension and concern over the changing nature of Japanese society" (31). Balmain analyses the two most important postwar movies of Japanese horror: Godzilla and Tales of Ugetsu (Ugetsu Monogatari, 1953). Both films deal with a disruption of the balance between man and nature and between man and society that can only be restored through the female figure. Godzilla introduces the reader to the concept of apocalyptic destruction (so well known to all manga readers), a clear reference to the atomic bomb. The monster represents destruction, disease, and death as the only possible outcome of man's violence and attempt to overcome nature; thus it "can be interpreted as a physical manifestation of the disruption of wa, the harmony between man and nature" (38). Because the male element is here strongly associated with the disruption of this fragile balance, it is up to the female element to restore harmony—hence the importance of the female element, the tragic young heroine who through her sufferings redeems men's bad deeds. Tales of Ugetsu instead "expresses fears around modernization" (31) caused by the introduction into Japanese society of consumerist values. The author highlights how the film condemns the introduction of Western individualistic values that lead men to develop "unrestrained appetites" (45), thus failing to fulfill their duties to the ie system. The protagonist abandons his wife and child, thus disrupting the balance between man and society on which the ie system is based. Again, the female element is the only one that can restore the lost harmony as the man's abandonment and failure as a member of family/society is expiated through his wife's suffering and self-sacrifice. The analysis of this movie also introduces the reader to the figure of the yuurei: the vengeful ghost, mostly female, dressed in white and with "long unbound black hair" (47).

[6] Chapters 3 and 4 conclude the overview on the origins of contemporary Japanese horror cinema by exploring the main motifs of its early days. Expanding on the previous chapter, where the yuurei figure was presented, the author introduces us to the figures of the deceitful samurai, the wronged woman, and the vengeful ghosts that characterize the prolific production of Edo Gothic and Pinku Eiga films in the '50s and '60s.

[7] Describing the family unit as a microcosm of the ie system, Balmain shows that the deceitful samurai embodies the man's selfish desire for individualistic assertion, abandoning or killing his wife, as in the Ghost Story of Yotsuya (Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan, 1959). By neglecting his social obligations toward his family, the samurai engenders a threat "to the very structure of Japanese society" that is traditionally based on the "ties that bind men to women and parents to children" (55). The abandoned/killed wife thus becomes the wronged woman, victim of the man's selfish desire. The author interprets the figure of this vengeful ghost as "the symbolic outcome of the loss of traditional and pre-modern values" (54). Although these spirits appear to be vengeful only toward those who were "wrong" to them, Balmain points out how in the erotic ghost story, a subgenre of Pinku Eiga film, "the revenge of the wronged women is not just limited to those who committed offences against them, but is taken generally against Japanese paternalism as a whole" (75). In the erotic ghost story, the author shows how scenes of romantic passion are used in juxtaposition with scenes of carnal desire, thus again providing a "mechanism of articulating cultural anxieties at a time of rapid transformation in Japan's socio-economic structure" (72). The theme of metamorphosis is tightly linked with the female figures who, through their monstrosity, drift away from tradition. It is interesting as well to notice how certain key archetypes of the modern Japanese horror movies are already present at this stage. Not only do we find the ghost of the wronged woman with unbound black hair, but also the well, where the will-be ghost is thrown, and the cat, a supernatural creature that can assist those who died violently in their search for vengeance and justice.

[8] In the second part of the book, the author tackles the topic of horror as a genre, clustering it into five subgenres, according to the identification of similar patterns in the movies she analyzes, including rape-revenge, zombies, haunted houses and family melodramas, serial killers and slashers, and techno horror and urban alienation.

[9] In the chapter on rape-revenge film, Balmain describes the evolution of the rape fantasy movies in Japan. She starts her analysis with a description of the late '70s series, Angel Guts (Tenshi no Arawata, 1979–94), which is a useful starting point to discuss the emergence of the more recent rape-revenge genre in Japanese horror films. As she emphasizes, rape in Japanese society has not been considered a crime until recently. This attitude lies in the Japanese ideal of female obedience and submission that sees the woman as to be blamed for the violent expression of male desire. As the author states, the '70s saw a common trend in American, European, and Japanese films where acts of violence toward women by men are portrayed as homosocial, nearly homosexual, bonding activities. In Japanese movies specifically, rape becomes a sexless act of cruelty committed on the woman's body, whose main role is to reestablish the power relationship (domination-submission) between men and women. Therefore, rape is "only significant within the main narrative theme of the male alienation in the modern industrial Japan" (101). The protagonists of rape-revenge films such as Freeze Me (1999) and Audition (Ōdishon, 2000) establish a pivotal point of further development of the wronged, abused woman as they transform themselves into "avenging angels who mutilate the male body, transposing it into a series of body parts, the narrative position originally occupied by the woman" (107). Roles are subverted, and as the author points out, both films suggest the existence of an abyssal gap between man and woman as they "expose the contradictions with the Japanese society in which the commodification of sex exists side by side with its traditional discourse on appropriate femininity" (111).

[10] In chapter 6, Balmain provides a description of the zombie genre that retains in Japan its own specificity. Zombie movies have emerged in Japan after the release of the popular video game Resident Evil (1996) and in the aftermath of the collapse of the economic bubble of the '90s. They can be seen as a "type of counter-cultural and sub-cultural resistance to traditional Japanese structures and cultural forms." As representatives of the "trend towards the super-flat aesthetic," they are the mirror of an angry youth cinema that criticizes Japanese modernity and the rising obsession with the consumption of luxury goods. As the author argues, "the zombie film articulates the adolescent struggle for identity in a society built upon knowing one's place in the larger structure" (127). Thus, this battle for self-determination seems to lead to an apocalyptic future of destruction of the world-society as people know it.

[11] "Haunted Houses and Family Melodramas" focuses on how the domestic space, which is considered sacred and safe, becomes instead the source of horror and dreadful acts. The threat, as the author underlines, does not come anymore from outside, but is "inside and knocking on the door of the last bastion of Japanese patriarchy: the family as embedded within the wider community" (129). The author opens her analysis with a discussion of the monstrous mother, who embodies the "patriarchal fear around female power" (133), to introduce an in-depth analysis of two movies, Dark Water (Honogurai mizu no soko kara, 2002) and Ju-On: The Grudge (2003). Dark Water represents the way in which society has been contaminated by modernity: the figure of the monstrous mother reflects the presence of an extreme mother complex that develops as a result of the "absent father" and the "the competitive education system which gave rise to the 'education mother'" (129). Modernity, in fact, affects the nuclear family and diverts the mother from her obligations toward the child. Hence, the death of a child as a result of a neglectful mother's behavior inspires the figure of the "vengeful foetus" that can only be appeased through self-sacrifice of a mother (137–47).

[12] Ju-On: The Grudge, whose comparison with its American remake is the core of the author's conclusion, utilizes the traditional Japanese figures of the wronged woman together with that of the vengeful fetus. Balmain points out how the movie expresses society's fears of the growing episodes of violence in domestic environments as a result of growing feelings of isolation and alienation. The concept of domestic violence, she argues, threatens "not just the notion of patriarchal privilege within marriage, but also the very construction of Japan as a [safe] nation" (145), in contrast to the decadent and dangerous Western countries. The family home thus can be considered a microcosm of Japanese society. Even though, throughout the movie, the female yuurei acts as a dreadful figure, it is rather the male figure of the husband who is infected with anger and a grudge toward the house and all those in contact with it.

[13] In her analysis of the genre of serial killers and slashers, Japanese style, Balmain points out how "Japanese 'monsters,' whether psychological or supernatural, are substantially different from those that proliferate in the mainstream (American) horror" (165). Japanese serial killer and slasher movies focus on "unmotivated, or sexually motivated, crimes" that cannot be simply investigated through the "pop-psychoanalysis" that is used in American horror or thriller movies. Balmain argues, in fact, that the Japanese serial killer can be identified as a "pathological symptom of modernity" (166). Thus, the emergence of the Japanese psychopath is to be blamed on the breakdown of the societal structure that recognizes individuals through a collective identity, and consequently, these films defy traditional beliefs around gender roles in terms of sexual behavior and position in society. As the author suggests, the horror of such movies originates in their "refusal to construct an identifiable subject rather than the actions of that subject" (167).

[14] The last chapter is "Techno Horror and Urban Alienation." The author includes in this section her analysis of movies such as Ring (Ringu, 1998), One Missed Call (Chakushin ari, 2003) and Pulse (Kairo, 2001), which have enjoyed a worldwide success thanks to their American remakes. As Balmain shows, these films associate technology with isolation, alienation, and finally death; indeed, sometimes this process is portrayed as the apocalyptic doom toward which humanity is moving. The emptiness and isolation of the individual in the society is mirrored by the progressive disruption of the family. Parents' neglect of their familial duties generates the figure of the abused child, who transforms into the "vengeful yuurei archetype of conventional Japanese horror" (174), perfectly embodied by Sadako in Ring.