Tuesday, 15 November 2011

#4 Japan – Horror Special

An extra special Halloween feature this time

Why I chose these: I found it absolutely impossible to choose one Japanese film to write about. I've probably seen more Japanese films that any other country in the past few years so I have quite a number of favourites. Since it's horror season, I felt that an ensemble review of some of my favourite Japanese films in the genre would both be fitting and allow me to praise as many films as possible.

Note: This article doesn't seek to provide anywhere near a broad overview of Japanese horror, simply the films which I personally enjoy. If you want a more in-depth discussion of the subject, I would greatly recommend the Introduction To Japanese Horror Film by Colette Balmain and Japanese Horror Cinema by Jay McRoy.

Japan's love for supernatural stories goes back far further than the films it has produced. Ghost stories (or kaidan) were popular in the Edo period, where they would be read out in a room of a hundred candles, one extinguished after each story.

Perhaps the first Japanese horror film (although it is more a supernatural drama) was Kenji Mizoguchi's Ugetsu Monogatari in 1953. Ugetsu is a beautiful and heartbreaking work by one of the country's greatest directors and is still considered among the finest Japanese films of all time. Although - like all of Mizoguchi's films I have seen - I respect Ugetsu, it isn't among my favourites. To find these, we will need to jump forward to 1964, in which two films which I consider the very best in the genre were made.

If you ask an average film buff who their favourite classic Japanese director is, 99% of the time it will be either Akira Kurosawa, Kenji Mizoguchi or Yasujiro Ozu. I would argue that these viewers haven't seen enough Masaki Kobayashi films. I find it impossible to name a favourite of his; Hara Kiri, Samurai Rebellion and The Human Condition trilogy are all among the finest films produced in any country. If I was pressed, however, I might name Kwaidan. In stark contrast to the minimalistic black and white of his previous films, Kobayashi's first venture into colour is among the most dazzling and expressionistic ever made. The gorgeous hand-painted backgrounds, slow pace and incredible score (by the incomparable Toru Takemitsu) give the film a magical fairy-tale feel. For a film to keep up the incredible atmosphere and sense of wonder for an hour and a half would be an amazing feat; Kwaidan manages it for a whole three hours over its four separate ghost stories. If you see one film I mention in this review, make it Kwaidan.

Some directors and actors have successful careers which span an incredible length of time; Lillian Gish acted for an incredible 75 years with some of the best performances in film history, the late Sidney Lumet made two of his best films 50 years apart. Kaneto Shindo is another such artist. He made his first film in 1951 (the same year as Lumet, incidentally) and was honoured with a nomination for the top prize at Cannes the next year. He is currently 99 years old and his most recent film is Japan's entry to the Academy Award's Best Foreign Language Film category. Along the way, he has made some of the country's greatest pictures. In 1964 he released Onibaba (meaning demon woman), which still stands as one of the genre's most controversial and influential works. It is inarguably more scary than Kwaidan or Ugetsu and much less compromising in its execution. The high-contrast black-and-white cinematography is as beautiful as the content is ugly, colliding with the rapid editing, angular shots and frenzied taiko drum soundtrack to create an truly unnerving atmosphere.

Four years later, Shindo created a companion piece to Onibaba with Kuroneko (The Black Cat). Kuroneko is its predecessor's visual equal, containing more chiaroscuro lighting in succulent widescreen black-and-white. It is more deliberately paced, building the tension and eerie atmosphere rather than assaulting the viewer. It is arguable which is the better film, but I find myself more drawn towards Kuroneko for its more refined and pure viewing experience.

Now for one of the most original, outrageous and fun films I've had the pleasure of viewing: Nobuhiko Obayashi's House (1977). House can best be described as ultra-cheesy teen-pop adventure mixed with phantasmagorical horror. It's as if someone took a colourful children's book, interlaced scenes from The Shining and directed it in the middle of a particularly bad acid trip (which, if you read up on the film's production doesn't sound too far-fetched). It has everything from a bear working at a noodle bar to a man getting turned into a pile of bananas because he doesn't like watermelon. That's only the start of House's crazy goings-on. The colours are especially vivid and are splashed around all over the frames. Special effects are very predominant, but they look like they were made by a child (which I understand was actually the director's ambition) and add to the surreality of the film. Anyone with a taste for the unusual owes it to themselves to watch House. It is utterly unique and not to be missed.

Whilst on the subject of incredibly insane pictures, it would be a crime not to mention Tetsuo: The Iron Man. David Lynch's Eraserhead is perhaps the only film which can stand next to it in terms of unnerving strangeness (yes, I have seen Death Powder and I think it's awful). The plot is secondary to the surreal visuals, raw industrial music, stop motion effects and disturbing horror sequences. There isn't too much that I can actually write about this film, it just needs to be experienced.

When it comes to contemporary Japanese horror, (or J-Horror as it is often now referred to as) there are many influential directors who have made a great impact in the Western world as well as back home. Takashi Shimizu, Hideo Nakata, Takashi Miike and Sion Sono are among names often mentioned. I myself find myself drawn to the more thematically interesting and humanistic works of Kiyoshi Kurosawa, especially Pulse. Rather than simply setting out to scare people, Pulse is more an exploration of loneliness and alienation in a horror setting. That isn't to say it's not scary - it most certainly is. The atmosphere and horror build up at a very slow pace and provide the perfect bleak setting for the themes. Fans of subtle but very creepy intelligent horror should watch it the first chance they get.

Although South Korea has recently had a better track record in Horror, Japan has a rich and diverse history in the genre which is well worth exploring all corners of. Any recommendations for films which haven't been mentioned are welcome in the comments section.

Recommended from Japan:
Masaki Kobayashi (Kwaidan, Samurai Rebellion, The Human Condition, Hara Kiri)
Takeshi Kitano (Hana-Bi, Sonatine, Dolls, Kikujiro)
Akira Kurosawa (Stray Dog, High and Low, Dersu Uzala)
Kaneto Shindo (Onibaba, Kuroneko, Naked Island)
Mikio Naruse (A Woman Ascends the Stairs, Late Chrysanthemums)
Kon Ichikawa (Fires on the Plain, The Burmese Harp, An Actor's Revenge)
Hiroshi Teshigahara (Pitfall, Woman in the Dunes, The Face of Another)
Yasujiro Ozu (Tokyo Story, Late Spring, Floating Weeds)
Shinya Tsukamoto (Tetsuo: The Iron Man, A Snake of June)
Nobuhiko Obayashi (House)
Shuji Terayama (Emporer Tomato Ketchup, Grass Labyrinth)
Toshio Matsumoto (Funeral Parade of Roses)
Shohei Imamura (Ballad of Narayama, Vengeance is Mine, The Eel, Profound Desires of the Gods)
Kenji Mizoguchi (Ugetsu Monogatari, Sansho the Bailiff)
Nagisa Oshima (In the Realm of the Senses, Empire of Passion)
Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke)
Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Pulse, Cure, Tokyo Sonata)

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