THE BEST JAPANESE HORRORS OF ALL TIME
HAUNTED PAST, PSYCHOTIC PRESENT, DYSTOPIAN FUTURE
The very first glance at the bulk of Japanese horror films reveals at least two notable conclusions. The first is the sheer bulk of horrors about psychos, madmen, human killers. Even if you discard the direct-to-video exploitation splatter sickies, you're left with an incredible number of relevant, high quality horrors dealing with this subject. After all, this is the primary reason for dividing this chapter on the best Japanese horrors of all time into two parts. There's just way too many good Japanese horrors dealing with psychos. The second thing that one notices immediately is that Japanese psychos are quite different from the Western ones. Apparently, there is a widespread psychosis inherent in the contemporary Japanese society that a lot of people can relate to and maybe even recognize their hidden feelings and urges in the acts of violence perpetrated so often on cinema and video screens. And there are many elements within this madness that make it typically Japanese.
Western psychos are often slaves of the past: the roots of their insanity lie in some trauma from the past, and usually closely connected with their parents. 'My sick mother/father made me do it!' Boys brought up as girls, girls brought up as boys, boys confused about sex due to a strict religious education, things like that. The shadow of Norman Bates (PSYCHO) looms large over all those. Of course, in slasher flicks psychos are taken for granted, they are ready-made monsters that require no elaborate explanation or motivation. Madness is an alibi enough in itself, now let's get to the real business, which is – slashing oversexed teenagers. Those papier-mache 'psychos' are mostly inspired by Michael Myers (HALLOWEEN), and often wear masks which further distance them from humanity and recognizable motivation.
Japanese psychos, on the contrary, are not so much slaves of the past as they are of the present. Even when their motivation can, at least in part, be linked to some family ties, their madness seems to be primarily nourished by the society en large. Rather than products of disfunctional families, Japanese psychos are, by and large, products of the contemporary Japanese society where alienation, distance and detachment, lack of affect, indifference towards others and selfishness seem to be rules of the day. The necessity to succeed in an over-competitive community produces a lot of strain. Fear of failure is haunting people on every step of the societal ladder, from the elementary school via university all the way to the eventual job one (hopefully) gets. When there is so much pressure, of course there will be outbursts of outrageous, often violent reactions. That is why violence in Japanese films has such orgasmic qualities, rarely achieved in their Western counterparts. While not always convincing on the most literal, physiological level, the Japanese geysers of blood are more than convincing as portrayals of psychological truths: they are vents in a pressure-cooker of a strongly dehumanized society.
For the sake of clarity this overview of Japanese psychotronic cinema is divided into two parts. Part one deals with horrors in which psychosis is seen 'from inside': madmen are their main characters, and the viewer spends most of the time in the claustrophobic confines of their insane microcosm, sharing their sicko frame of mind. These madmen are governed by obsessions, weird passions and perversions which are predominantly sexual. In many respects they live like 'otakus', a particularly Japanese phenomenon to be elaborated on below. Part two of this overview is devoted to horrors in which, instead of a limited microcosm, psychosis is seen in a wider context, 'from outside'. These films often have a structure of a police procedural (as exemplified by the blueprint provided in SE7EN), or sometimes of a slasher-drama. More about those in the next chapter: for now, let's go back to our obsessive friends.
When Japanese are obsessive about something or someone, the results are often more extreme than anywhere else in the world. At least that's what we learnt from their movies. Just look at that classic conclusion of Oshima's IN THE REALM OF THE SENSES (1976) where the strong passions lead a possessive woman to cut off her lover's penis. The strict rules of propriety, decency, hierarchy etc. through the ages have created a rather rigid context which is always a fertile ground for unbridled outbursts of vehement passion. That's why even the classical Japanese literature (should I remind you of Yukio Mishima?) and cinema (A WOMAN IN THE DUNES, IN THE REALM OF THE SENSES,...) abound in outrageous psychosexual acts.
The severe communicational barriers between parents and children led to a series of killings of parents by their sons. It started in 1980 when a boy, who would today probably be called an otaku, had slain his parents with a metal baseball-bat. The 'kinzoku bat murderer', as he was known, was followed up by five or six other youngsters in a very short time. The most famous case was revealed in July 1989 when
There is an even more extreme sort of otaku called 'hikikomori', a name which refers to those who retreat from society into complete nothingness, holing themselves up in their bedrooms at their parents' homes and doing anything to fill the hours. One of them writes: ''I sleep until my eyes are about to rot. I see dreams.'' The sickness of modern society, indeed. It's embodied, among other things, in the 'rorikon', or 'Lolita complex', named after Vladimir Nabokov's novel. It signifies the strange sexual taste for teenage girls which is so widespread in Japanese popular culture, including movies, that Western viewers are often confounded (or attracted!) by the omnipresent fetishism of schoolgirls' uniforms, white panties etc. as seen in the films like WIZARD OF DARKNESS, FUDOH, and their more extreme direct-to-video brethren.
All of this creates a very peculiar cultural background in which psychos are not isolated incidents or exceptions, but embodiments of a pervasive social malaise. Here are the best Japanese films dealing with the obsessions which, no matter how personal and individual they may seem, always represent a madness much wider... and deeper. If you look long enough into these psychos' worlds, who knows – maybe they’ll start looking back!
ONIBABA, aka THE HOLE, 1964
Dir: Kaneto Shindo
A young woman and her mother-in-law live alone in a huge marsh. It is a time of unrest: a civil war is raging, and in their backwater seclusion they merely try to escape destruction and survive. Their mode of survival is ingenious: they seduce and kill the wandering samurai and live off selling their armor. The story proper begins when their son's/husband's friend returns from the battle with the news of his death. The man goes back to his old shack in the marsh nearby. He introduces the element of unrest in the women's life. The subdued passions start raging just like the winds which constantly blow the reeds around them. The older, but still attractive woman decides to scare off her son's wife in her nocturnal vistis to the neighbor using a demon-mask stollen from a recently killed samurai...
While the lonely women from
MOJU, aka THE BLIND BEAST, 1969
Dir: Yasuzo Masumura
A blind sculptor kidnaps a model in order to study her beauty in captivity and create a masterpiece inspired by her perfect proportions and texture. He imprisons her in a black room decorated only with enlarged bas-reliefs of female lips, eyes and other body parts. After several unsuccessful attempts to run away, she accepts her destiny, and begins a genuinely disturbing relationship with an already demented artist which leads to an outrageous culmination.
This is the grand-daddy of all later, idiosyncratically Japanese products which manage the impossible – merging of sado-erotic exploitation with the genuine artistic exploration. No one is better than the Japanese when it comes to providing the sensual titillation at the same time with intellectual stimulation! The above synopsis could be mistaken for the plot of some Z-grade schlocker of Jesus Franco or Ted V. Mikels, but in this Oriental instance it is treated with all seriousness and artistry of a legitimate 'festival flick'. Inspired by the story of Japanese Edgar Allan Poe – Edogawa Ranpo – Masumura's film is a masterful examination of voyeurism and fetishism inherent to all cinema. It is a masterpiece in which the very texture of the film, with its claustrophobic and surreal design, becomes the objective correlative of its ideas and obsessions, and strikes you subconsciously, sidestepping reason and logic, and haunting you forever with the imp of the perverse you'd never known you had.
EVIL DEAD TRAP 2: Hideki
Dir: Hashimoto Isou
A fat, asocial projectionist lives her life of quiet desperation with occasional outbursts of hatred towards normal women expressed through violent butchering in which their wombs are extracted. When her sole acquintance (it would be too much calling them 'friends') gets a boyfriend, a very intimate rage starts brewing... Oh, yes, there will be blood!
(P.S. There is no real connection with either first or third part of EVIL DEAD TRAP: their sole connection is in the haphazard title, and thus each can be viewed independently. Part I is discussed in the next chapter, while part III is disappointing, unoriginal and boring, and does not merit inclusion among the all time best.)
Depression, sexual frustration and feelings of low self worth govern the world of EDT2: it is a claustrophobic, gloomy microcosm of meaningless existence, a death in life which turns into a 'death to life' stratagem of survival, as embodied in the killer's focus on victims' wombs and ovaries. Very few films, either Japanese or otherwise, have managed to capture with such chilling beauty and terror the desolation of a character driven beyond the normal existence. As it usually happens in the best examples of this sub-genre, the world of alienation and emotional distance is not limited to the private world of a psycho: it merely coalesces the forces at work in a much wider context. Rarely has the world of 'normalcy' looked as repulsive as here. Rarely has
ALL NIGHT LONG 2: ATROCITY, 1994
Dir: Katsuya Matsumura
A shy otaku boy becomes a prey of an amoral bisexual lad and his group of thugs. At first he's merely bullied, but later becomes their disciple in the art of humiliation and torture. Otaku resists, but when his cup is filled he turns against his 'teachers' in an orgy of unspeakable bloodshed.
This is the second, and by far the best part out of five (so far) in a highly intriguing and quite intelligent series dealing with the violence in contemporary
While this description goes for more or less all five parts of this series (all directed by Matsumura!), part II is exceptionally good because a) it has more likeable characters; b) it is most convincing in presenting a genuine Sadean philosophy; c) the torture is incredibly vicious even for Japanese standards. Highly recommended only for the strongest stomachs!
MERMAID IN A MANHOLE, 1995
Dir: Hideshi Hino
A painter discovers a real mermaid in the sewer. She's half-dead already. He tries to save her, or at least to preserve her through his art. Her skin decays in scabs and boils filled with blood and pus, while worms and centipedes emerge constantly... Seeing that there's no way of saving her body, he becomes obsessed with an attempt to create the ultimate portrait - painted with her blood and multicolored pus.
Even the most hard-hearted splatter fans will have a hard time stomaching this gruesome flick since it contains some of the most outrageously disgusting images ever committed to screen. However, beyond the oozing body liquids, vomit, crawling vermin and body parts, a careful viewer will notice a dark Cronenbergian poem about human mortality and transcience of all ideals and dreams. Its utlimate nihilism seems to be the suggestion that not even art can transcend the loathsome facts of life regulated by the biological determinism. The flesh is weak... and bloody... and slimy... and there's no escaping it! The only faults in this film can be found in its low-budget origins (spare sets and not always superb make up effects), visulas sometimes cheapened by the video technique, and poor acting by some side-characters. This is by far the most original, inspired and intelligent part of the otherwise boring and puerile GUINEA PIG series.
(P.S. The GUINEA PIG films are worth mentioning only as a peculiar socio-cultural phenomenon, as the epitome of the trend in which sadistic torture of women is sold as 'entertainment', and also as a showcase for quite convincing make up effects. However, they have no other merits and are not worthy to be discussed among 'the best' Japanese horrors.)
Dir: Shinya Tsukamoto
A long-lost twin returns to his brother, a respected surgeon in early 20. century. He throws the doctor into a well and assumes his role. The doctor is left to ponder his attitude towards his underprivileged patients as well as mysteries connected with his wife's past...
This is Tsukamoto's successful attempt to create a genuine Japanese gothic with such ingredients as: family secrets, doppelgangers, mysteries of identity and unrecognized kinship, stormy nights and unexpected, violent twists... GEMINI is a highly stylized film in which for the first time in Tsukamoto's opus one can find colors like golden-yellow, green, violet, red... Even in this costumed, period piece Tsukamoto continues his obsessive scrutiny of the Japanese identity through the character of a man who discovers unknown possibilities within himself (usually with the 'help' of a femme fatale). Rather restrained, GEMINI uses only sporadic bursts of frenetic camera movements or trade-mark quick shock cuts. The music by Tsukamoto regular
Dir: Takashi Miike
A widower organizes an audition for non-existent film in order to meet a perfect wife. He gets far more than he bargained for: a beautiful, but mysterious girl whose idea of possessiveness transcends all boundaries of normality.
Great success at international film festivals brought a revelation to the Western public: an ingenious auteur, a mad genius of unpredictabilty - the one and only Takashi Miike. The film opens like a deliberately paced drama with hints of wry humor and satire on Japanese men's attitude towards women, dating, sex, etc. Then it progresses into the darkly bizarre territory reminiscent of later Cronenberg (a great influence on Japanese filmmakers, both with his early SF-horrors and with his later disturbing psycho-dramas). Towards the end, however, it grabs you by the throat and punches you in the face, guts and groin with unexpected, yet quite meaningful scenes of unpalatable torture and terror, both physical and emotional. The shocking ending will devastate you not only with its perfectly directed visceral imagery but also by its implications. This is a haunting, multilayered, thought-provoking masterpiece of first order and one of the most important films made in any country, any genre, anywhere in the past decade.