Jim Harper
Noir Publishing, 2008.

Book review
Dejan Ognjanovic

The lucrative phenomenon of J-horror film has already produced several titles dealing with it. Some of them include Asia Shock: Horror and Dark Cinema from Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, And Thailand by Patrick Galloway, Nightmare Japan: Contemporary Japanese Horror Cinema by Jay McRoy and J-Horror: The Definitive Guide to the Ring, The Grudge and Beyond by David Kalat. Here comes another book devoted to it. This one is about the most vital and developed of all Asian cinematographies – the grand-daddy of them all, Japanese.
            Its title is sadly reminiscent of a far superior one, Eros in Hell by Jack Hunter, the unsurpassed look into Japan's more otherworldly forays into Eros + Thanatos (pinku + horror + cyberpunk SF + avant-garde and experimental cinema), but this is an entirely different book and should not be mixed with the former. Its ambitions are explained thus: "Flowers from Hell is not an encyclopedia or a movie guide, and I have not attempted to cover in detail every RING-inspired 'vengeful spirit' movie or direct-to-video horror anthology that appeared in the '90s. The purpose of this work is to track the major themes, films and creative talents that have appeared over the past twenty to twenty-five years, so I have concentrated on films that either typify a certain trend or are in some way significant because of content, cast and crew or general quality" (from Introduction, page 9).
            The book is organized into chapters which follow this ambition, some named after themes, like "Vengeful spirits", "Demons, Monsters and Beyond", "Psychos and Serial killers" etc. while others deal with a representative author, like "Hideo Nakata and the RING Cycle", "Love and Mutation: The Works of Junji Ito on Film" and "Takashi Shimizu and the JUON Series". This makes the book rather easy to follow, although it still leaves a bit to be desired in terms of organization and clarity.
            The author decided to deal mostly with the films made from the mid-80s onwards, claiming that the development of J-horror up to that point "requires several books of its own". This leads to starting the book rather arbitrarily, and without a sufficient introduction into the trends and motifs up to the mid-80s. Very little is said, and very briefly at that, about the folklore beliefs, legends, literature and early films which are the basis of what followed. Instead, right from the very beginning of Chapter I, Mr. Harper jumps into analysis of specific films by Nobuhiko Obayashi (HOUSE and IJINTACHI TONO NATSU) and Kiyoshi Kurosawa (SWEET HOME). Thus, some knowledge of the cultural and cinematic background against which J-horrors appeared is necessary for the full understanding of this book, and must be looked for elsewhere. 
            The analyses of the specific films are mostly decent, but not too profound nor elaborate: they provide the basic plot and elementary commentary on the film's qualities or lack thereof (acting, photography, pacing, plot logic, etc.) but rarely delve deeper than that. The styles or worldviews or obsessive themes of particular directors are rarely invoked, and even the connections and thematic similarities between different films are barely sketched, which makes the critiques rather simple-minded and devoted only to the most obvious. This hurts especially when one comes to the true masterpieces of J-horror, which often remain misunderstood by the author.
This is what Mr. Harper has to say on Miike's AUDITION: "Attempts have been made to read the film as a critique of patriarchal Japanese society, but in truth Miike's main intention is simply to shock the audience. This might not be a particularly noble ambition, and it's certainly something the director has tried before, but AUDITION is the most effective and successful attempt..." (page 70). Reducing this masterpiece to a mere shock-machine (albeit successful!) exemplifies the shallowness of the writer, not of the film in question. Later on, the author rightly labels BATTLE ROYALE "a milestone of contemporary cinema" but his brief and generic 'reading' of that film barely sustains such a ponderous claim. 
What, exactly, makes BR a milestone remains to be seen in some other, more ambitious study. A lengthy retelling of the film everyone has seen, Nakata's RING, is not a basis for anything deeper than the conclusion that it is, just like AUDITION, yet another film made merely to scare you, and that's it! Here goes: "RING does not attempt to carve out new territory or push the boundaries of the genre (although it did end up doing so, ironically). Its aims are much humbler: it seeks only to scare" (page 118). Even if one reduced these films to mere scare-mongering, their analyses leave a lot unsaid about HOW, exactly, these particular films work, unlike so many other which try the same, yet fail.
Jim Harper's writing is fluid and simple, easily understandable. It did require more proofreading and editing than it got, as many typos and clumsy sentences remain in the text. For example, it will take you a few pages of reading to see what, exactly, was meant by a sentence like this: "As Mima struggles to come to terms with the demands of her new career – including a graphic rape scene – others are equally unhappy with the situation..." (page 72). Lavish illustrations in black and white are spread throughout, while 32 pages in full color show-off numerous photos and film posters in the book's middle, which means that the book's text is skimpier than it appears. Although the full book has 192 pages, without photos the text would barely fill over 100. 
Therefore, Flowers from Hell may not be as thorough and detailed as some might want, but, on the other hand, those looking for a brief, simple, down-to-earth introduction to a phenomenon much more complex than here presented will be pleased by the user-friendly approach taken here. Basically, Jim Harper's writing is on the level of a slightly above-average user comment on IMDb and, as such, it can provide the basic information and elementary criticism on the J-horrors from the last 25 years. Noir Publishing did a good job with this finely printed and solidly designed book which has a greater appeal for the masses than for the smaller numbers of already initiated and devoted connoisseurs looking for something more and deeper.



Country : Japan
Genre: Horror
Running Time: 1H25

Katsuya Matsumura

Cast: Yukiko Okamoto, Asuka Kurosawa, Kota Kusano, Mami Nakamura

Story: Yoko Noguchi is a beautiful and successful plastic surgeon with a very peculiar patient- a psychologically unbalanced woman named Yoshie. Yoshie begs Yoko to perform surgery on her when all other doctors refuse. Yoshie behaves like a very obvious loony, but she is loaded with money (although does not appear to be rich) which she lavishly pours on Yoko. Yoko ultimately accepts the challenge, but after the operation realizes that it was only the beginning: after having her face corrected, Yoshio wants her belly and later her virginal vagina operated as well… Yoko succumbs to these demands as well, but making Yoshie beautiful is only the preparation for a very ugly ending…
Review: If you are tired of J-horror being equated with ghostly female black-haired apparitions, THE TERROR OF BEAUTY offers a reminder of another popular staple of Japanese horror - the equivalent of hard R splatter in which the accent is put on body horror with strong surgical overtones, filled with moralizing about human mortality and hypocrisy. As this sub-genre is usually very low budget (unlike its more respectable, ghostly cousins), another element commonly found in it is plenty of sex and nudity.

Who would be better to provide this kind of entertainment than Katsuya Matsumura, whose fame lies mostly in the wonderfully, unbearably sicko/sleazy ALL NIGHT LONG series (five parts so far, but only the first three are available in the English speaking world). Beneath the veneer of crude direct to video exploitation the ALL NIGHT LONG flicks actually provided a genuine, original and surprisingly intelligent satire on modern Japan, especially the world of otakus, outcasts and youth gangs indulging in all kinds of depravity. THE TERROR OF BEAUTY would seem to provide an excellent opportunity for another inspired mixture of satire and sleaze, ideas and gore, sex and death, social concerns and opportunistic exploitation. Unfortunately, the end result is below the expectations that this author and these themes would seem to inspire.
THE TERROR OF BEAUTY suffers from a lame script which is too simple-minded and straightforward to provide enough food for either brain or… well, whatever organ the gore hounds have. By deciding to mystify Yoshie’s origin, including the incredible amounts of money at her disposal, the scriptwriters deprive the film of any real drama. The two main characters are sketched in broad strokes: a beautiful but greedy plastic surgeon and an ugly AND creepy disturbed woman. That is all you learn about them. Yoko’s boyfriend is not even a cipher- it seems that his sole function in the flick is for Yoko to have someone to talk to and thus speak up her thoughts to the audience.
Of course, coming to a film like this, character development may not be your first demand- but Matsumura, surprisingly, disappoints even in what he’s usually doing best. The nudity quota is relatively low (for his standards), the surgical tools are barely touched, the explicit operations are present in a couple of uninspired seconds and the gore scenes are limited to splashes of unconvincingly colored violet/red liquid. To be honest, there are a few queasy moments involving liposuction and at the very end, when the frail beauty, recently operated, starts unstitching. The common viewer has enough of unpleasantness to cover his/her eyes from, but more experienced splatter-fans, anxiously expecting to see what kind of aces Matsumura may have up his sleeves could be a bit disappointed.

THE TERROR OF BEAUTY is obviously a quickie whose no-budget makes the ALL NIGHT LONG series look like SCREAM. It’s limited to three different rooms and as many ‘characters’, so there’s not much production value to speak of; the camera is barely functional, but most of the scenes are over-lit and lacking in any kind of beauty. The score is sweet, quiet and barely noticeable while the make up effects are decent, though obviously cheap, and not nearly as prominent as you might expect from a film with a ‘surgical’ plot like this. All in all, this flick is watchable since it’s not too boring (but it’s not too exciting either!), so some viewers –you know who you are!- may want to rent it, but note that it is not a highly rewatchable film which would require a constant place in your collection.

DVD [ NTSC, Region 1 ] :
The DVD comes in a bland, unattractive cover which fails to even mention its main selling point: namely, that it’s made by the director of ALL NIGHT LONG films. For some reason, the pictures from the film on the back cover are all in black and white (?!). It’s not clear whether Media Blasters is trying to sell this as some kind of TETSUO or RUBBER’S LOVER, or if they’re merely cutting costs in saving their color for better films. THE TERROR OF BEAUTY is presented in color, 1.85:1 anamorphic wide screen, with the kind of visuals you can expect from a direct-to-video flick. The same goes for the sound, in Dolby stereo: there is a Japanese audio track, with decent English subs. The extras include a 20 minute ‘Making of’ feature (with interviews with the lead ladies, but mysteriously – no Matsumura; was he a hack for hire in this product?), trailer for this and several other Tokyo shock flicks (IZO, ONE MISSED CALL…), and that’s about it.