FLOWERS FROM HELL: THE MODERN JAPANESE HORROR FILM
Noir Publishing, 2008.
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.