Nightmare Japan: Contemporary Japanese Horror Cinema

Jay McRoy,
Nightmare Japan: Contemporary Japanese Horror Cinema.
Amsterdam and New York: Editions Rodopi B.V., 2008
ISBN: 978 90 420 2331 4
US$67 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by Rodopi)

In the opening pages of Nightmare Japan, Jay McRoy outlines his task: to “advance current studies” of Japanese horror cinema, and to answer the call for a “much-needed aesthetic and critical introduction” to the subject. This critical introduction is intended to situate the films in question “within a specifically Japanese cultural context,” and to offer an “expansive socio-cultural analysis.” Ironically, McRoy goes on to show himself both too expansive (in his social analysis) and arguably not expansive enough (in his aesthetic analysis). On the one hand, he evidently has no qualms about a broad-strokes approach to the “socio-cultural” situation of Japan, even as he rejects a similar level of generalization with respect to the films: a comparably “exhaustive” treatment of Japanese horror as a genre would be, in his words, “an act of indefensible hubris, not to mention foolish” (pp. 4-5). In his willingness to piece together a taken-for-granted general narrative of “socio-cultural transformations” and “anxieties” in contemporary Japan, a narrative assembled from poached bits of secondary sources by writers with more or less authoritative views on the matter, McRoy succumbs to the hubris that he sets out to avoid in his study of the films themselves.

But if he is then too “expansive” in his pseudo-sociology of Japan, he also unnecessarily constrains his perspective, on the other hand, with respect to the films. He explicitly relieves himself of the work of an “extensive genre archaeology,” a conceivably productive approach which he mysteriously considers “disallowed” by the “specific historical and cultural moments” under consideration in the book (p. 6). Is this to say that a thorough and historical study of the cinematic kaidan (ghost story), for example, is for historical reasons irrelevant in a book on contemporary Japanese horror cinema? McRoy’s brief discussion of the noh and kabuki repertoire of ghost plays in chapter three, where he addresses vengeful spirit films, suggests that there is something to be gained by “genre archaeology” after all. He does furthermore, in spite of his initial dismissal, suggest an interesting dual lineage for contemporary horror sub-genres, citing on the one hand the ghost films (Ugetsu 1953), and on the other the disaster/monster films (Godzilla 1954) of a previous generation as precedents for the shape of horror cinema today.

He even offers the ‘erotic-grotesque’ ‘pink’ productions of the 1960s and 1970s (notably Ishii Teruo’s Tokugawa bondage films for Tôei) as precedents for the contemporary torture films to which he devotes his first chapter. Given these concessions to genre history, the reasoning, whether unarticulated or imprecise, that absolves McRoy of greater rigor in this area ultimately deprives his study of the scope, precision and film historical insight one would hope for. It is telling, for example, that the name Nakagawa Nobuo, virtually synonymous in Japan with a previous generation of Japanese horror cinema, does not receive a single mention from McRoy. What this book then offers as a contribution to the field, as the stimulus to “further writing and discussion” that it imagines itself to be, is mostly only a reinforcement of the impression with which McRoy begins his inquiry: that research is, and remains, wanting.

Something is to be said for the decision to organize the book thematically rather than as a series of auteurist director profiles, for example, and the themes McRoy sees in contemporary horror cinema lead him to include some unexpected and obscure films (albeit with little accounting for the significance of their obscurity). Each of the six chapters takes up a sub-category of contemporary Japanese horror (unfortunately corresponding to a set of the aforementioned “socio-cultural anxieties” which the films are claimed to “reveal,” “expose” and, especially, to “critique”). The first chapter deals with “body horror” in relation to the torture film, specifically with a number of entries in the mock-snuff Guinea Pig series, an enduring subject of urban legend and online speculation. This is an unfortunate way to open the book as these are arguably the most problematic films McRoy addresses, from all sorts of angles (not least of which is their status within the category of Japanese horror cinema), and also the films in relation to which his less-than-critical horror-fan posture and his often foraged theoretical and sociological insights are most strained and inadequate. In grandiose language, he reads the films both as a “barometer for the multiple social and economic fluctuations endemic to late industrial culture in Japan” (p. 36), and also as more actively critical, even “Brechtian” counter-cinema texts in their “radical politics of identity (conveyed) through visual displays of corporeal extremity and disintegration” (p. 46). The torture and dismemberment of the human (often female) body is supposed to function primarily as an allegory for, and reflection upon, the incoherence of “the Japanese identity – in all its biological, psychological and national manifestations” (p. 40). This line roundly fails to convince as it is argued, not least for the reason that it does not adequately account for the ways that the depiction of torture functions beyond its questionable interpretation as social “critique,” much less for its neglect of the otaku phenomenon (in which the Guinea Pig films have famously figured in Japan) and the international and specifically ‘underground’ interest in the films. The rhetorical weakness must also be attributed to McRoy’s insufficiently critical posture toward the films themselves, which is a problem of the book as a whole. Critical engagement is repeatedly displaced from the films onto the patchwork of “larger societal concerns” (p. 61) they purportedly expose and critique, while McRoy’s attention to the texts themselves generally takes the form of hyperbolic praise: describing Flowers of Flesh and Blood (Japan 1985), he goes so far as to speak of “poetic reflection” and “lyricism” (p. 32), and “masterful,” “brilliant,” “radical” are among the adjectives that reflect his constantly congratulatory attitude toward what are some very ambivalent films to say the least. As a result, the book tends to read more like an extended fan commentary than as a work of scholarly criticism.

All this gives the impression that McRoy is at pains to salvage (on “radical” political grounds!) films he does not care to criticize, a point which is perhaps most apparent in his side stepping around the “femicide” motif. Here he comes close to acknowledging a problem, but rather generously interprets the torture and evisceration of women in these films as serving a kind of radical exposé of “social anxieties” (as always) over the changing role of women in Japanese society. This calls to mind Christine Marran’s argument in her recent book Poison Woman (Minnesota, 2007), where she takes to task critics (Maureen Turim and Joan Mellon) who have sought via a number of “interpretive strategies” to rescue the early films of Oshima Nagisa from their discomfortingly exploitative representations of women. Prizing Oshima as a politically radical filmmaker, these critics interpret the violence against women in his films as anti-patriarchal critique. But Marran argues that they thus close their eyes to the ways in which Oshima is also engaged in an “unselfconscious (…) celebration of a particular kind of sadistic masculinity” (Marran, p. 158). If the ambivalence in Oshima’s sadism can be said to inspire “interpretive strategies,” McRoy’s effort to salvage the Guinea Pig films from charges of misogyny seems nothing short of an interpretive contortion.

The remaining five chapters continue in a similar vein, each proposing ways in which a contemporary horror sub-genre reflects or critiques a more or less well defined set of issues in Japanese society. Chapter two prolongs the discussion of body horror through two relatively obscure films by Satô Hisayusa, Naked Blood(Japan 1995) and Muscle (Japan 1989), where the “splattered or transfigured” human body is said to serve a “political agenda” as “an unstable nexus of often contradictory social codes informed by the cultural logics of contemporary Japan” (p. 50). Chapter three addresses the rather more mainstream vengeful spirit films Ringu(Japan 1998), Dark Water (Japan 2002) and Ju-on: The Grudge (Japan 2003) in relation to “various (re)constructions” of the Japanese family brought on by “late capitalism,” taking these ghost films as “key texts for mapping crucial socio-cultural anxieties” (p. 81). Chapter four turns to what McRoy, quoting the Japanese Cinema Encyclopedia, terms “dove style violence,” referring to the violent persecution of the weakest member of a social group as doves are evidently said to peck at the weakest member of the flock. This is a potentially interesting approach to widening the conception of the horror film, and McRoy is certainly right to identify a social “anxiety” with a cinematic career in the issue of bullying. Here he examines Iwai Shunji’s All About Lily Chou-Chou (Japan 2001) alongside another decidedly subcultural shock series, Matsumura Katsuya’s brutal All Night Long films, as well as Miike Takashi’s Ichi the Killer (Japan/Hong Kong/South Korea 2001). Once again, the analysis situates the films in relation to a “transforming Japanese cultural edifice” (p. 123), focusing here on the problem of group identity and alienation, and furthermore, strangely on “mutilation” as a figure for a redemptive (?) politics of hybridity and “contamination” in the face of the “binary logics [sic]” (p. 116) of strong and weak, inside and outside. Perhaps this deserves more “critical attention” as McRoy notes.

Chapter five is the best the book has to offer, particularly the reading of Sono Shion’s film Suicide Circle ([aka Suicide Club] Japan 2002). This comes as a surprise given the particularly convoluted and problematic nature of that film, and McRoy’s general lack of facility in critically working through such ambivalent texts. But here he manages an interesting, if again too generous reading that compellingly posits a kind of apocalyptic sub-genre in Japanese horror. This allows him productively to situate Suicide Circle alongside two other unlikely films, Uzumaki (Japan 2002) by Higuchinsky and Kurosawa Kiyoshi’s Pulse (Japan 2001). This he does convincingly by demonstrating common preoccupations with “apocalypse and transcendence”, cyclicality, chaos theory and “fractal geometry,” and a general despair over collective belonging and alienation. There is real insight to be had in connecting these three films as he does, but one only wishes, here as elsewhere, that he would dispense with the generalizing “socio-cultural analysis” and follow the substantive threads of his film analysis, into the prevalent critical and literary discourses on ‘eschatology’ that have responded to Japan’s apocalyptic religious cults, for example, or even into other films farther afield of the horror genre, but nonetheless concerned with apocalypse and redemption. Aoyama Shinji comes to mind. It is also intriguing that he suggests the near-apocalyptic disaster/monster films of the 1950s as a precedent for these contemporary films, but he unfortunately fails to do the work to connect Godzilla and Suicide Circle, for instance, in a satisfying way.

Chapter six finally suggests trends for the future, looking primarily to four recent films that he deems restorative to the horror genre (by now defined more loosely than ever), a genre which he sees as compromised by “tropological” and “narratological redundancy.” This is a fancy way of phrasing the not so fancy argument that too many evil girls with long black hair, especially as spawned by the Hollywood remake, have “diluted” the genre and reduced its “potential as an avenue for cultural critique and aesthetic intervention” (p. 171). McRoy does not seem to realize that the kaidan was a highly ritualized, iterative, perhaps “tropologically redundant” form well before Ringu’s Sadako hit the multiplex. It was a genre almost defined by the practice of remaking, also known as the telling of a tale. The tale did not often leave Japan, and perhaps the globalization of the kaidan is part of what McRoy finds objectionable. In any case, his three examples of forward-looking films seem, ironically, to offer more of the same where his own priorities are concerned: a “self-reflexive tendency” (p. 171), reflection upon “a plurality of socio-cultural anxieties” (p. 176), “explicit cultural critique” (p. 182), a “barometer for emerging cultural climates” (p. 190). However groundbreaking these films may be, the criticism they inspire sounds like a broken record, and for that matter it hardly seems to describe what is specific about the horror film. The choice of visionary films is also questionable. I, for one, would place my bets on different horses. If the abysmal Marebito (Japan 2004), for instance, offers a glimpse of the future of Japanese horror cinema as McRoy suggests, it may very well be time to cash out. We’ve come a long way from Ugetsu.

Finally, it feels necessary to raise an objection to the laxness of McRoy’s writing. The book is absolutely full of typographic and syntactic errors (there is hardly a page free of such problems), which not only suggests a carelessness at the level of composition, but also that the manuscript has not encountered the eye of an editor. The frustrations this brings the reader are compounded by McRoy’s systematic misuse of some key words: ‘physiognomy’ and ‘physiology’ are used constantly where McRoy really means ‘body’, ‘narratology’ where he means ‘narrative’, ‘sanguine’ where he means ‘bloody’, and ‘obviate’ is apparently intended to convey the idea of ‘making obvious’. The substitution of terminology for plain language is a choice, and I would not dwell on the matter if McRoy’s disinclination to consult a dictionary were not a reflection of a general imprecision characteristic of the book as a whole. As I have noted, there are interesting ideas here and there, and the selection of films offers what might be a useful overview to those looking to familiarize themselves with the state of “contemporary Japanese horror cinema”, but in light of the weaknesses noted here this cannot be considered an authoritative study. The issue is not that McRoy’s “socio-cultural” picture of Japan is wrong; in fact, the book’s consistent refrain is not bad as a starting point: that the horror film stages, through the torment of the physical body, allegories of the social body and its conflicted configurations of history, national identity, gender relations, and collectivity. There is some theoretical ground here, but it is hypothetical, a point of departure, and unearned as a conclusion. Unfortunately McRoy makes of it precisely a conclusion, both sequentially and as a foregone verdict which each of his texts is made to validate.

Nonetheless, a fan of the films in question, about which McRoy reminds us little has been written, will probably be happy to have this volume, and perhaps also its so-called “politics” that are to recuperate the “act of watching horror films” (p. 184) for those with a guilty conscience.

Ryan Cook,
Yale University, USA.

Created on: Thursday, 17 July 2008

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Ryan Cook

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Ryan Cook

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