DR. COLLETTE BALMAIN: author- Interview – 01.23.09
Thank you so much for stopping by to interview with us! Can you tell us about your book, “Introduction to Japanese Horror Film”?
Collette- The book is an exploration of Japanese horror cinema from the 1950s onwards. The aim behind the book was to write something that would be useful to students but also of interest to fans of the genre. Writing on film tends to be split between academic work and fan-based work. Academic writing on film can be particularly obtuse – by that I mean the arguments can be very difficult to understand if you have not studied film. And while fan-based work can be extremely useful and interesting, it tends to lack the in-depth analysis of academic work. At the same time, there has been a tendency to categorized Japanese horror as ‘extreme’ cinema and not as much attention to the great variety of horror cinema that has been produced in Japan. So in the book I tried to cover a range of Japanese horror films from what could be categorized as art films, for example Kuroneko and Kwaidan, to pink films such as Blind Beast and the Angel Guts films, key films such as Ring and Ju-on: The Grudge as well as other contemporary films such as Kurosawa’s Pulse and Miike’s One Missed Call. At the same time, I choose not to distinguish between films made for theatrical release and straight to dvd titles and also attempted not to chose films based on my personal preference but chose what I felt were good examples of the genre. For example I write about Entrails of a Virgin, which I cannot say I like, but at the same time, is an interesting example of the influence of pink cinema on Japanese horror film. And if you understand the context, it has some moments of humour in regards to Japan’s censorship laws at the time, which allowed extreme sexual violence as long as there was no depiction of genitalia and/or female pubic hair. I am aware I am being very long-winded here! Although the book is a film book, I am also very interested in traditional folktakes, mythology and religious beliefs, and how particular archetypes, such as the vengeful ghost, in Japanese horror cinema comes to be invested with meaning. I hope readers enjoy the book and find that as well as learning about Japanese film, they come away with a better understanding of Japanese culture and history!
Was there a source of inspiration toward writing a book on Japanese horror films?
Collette-At the end of the day, I think it is the films that inspired me to write about Japanese horror cinema. I watched over 100 films in the process of researching the book and in the main enjoyed them all. At the same time, there was not a great deal written on Japanese horror cinema at the time, although a couple of books have come out recently, and I felt that there was a gap in the market for a book written on the history of Japanese horror cinema. Before the book, I had previously written mostly about European horror cinema, and my doctorate was on the giallo films of Italian horror auteur, Dario Argento. And I would argue that Japanese horror has much more in common with European horror than American horror. If I had to pick a particular film, I would have to say that it was Miike’s Audition that most inspired me to write about Japanese horror film.
How does Japanese horror differ, if at all, than other Asian horror?
Collette-While cultural proximity does without doubt means that Japanese horror cinema shares similar conventions to [South] Korean horror and Thai horror – the vengeful ghost is a shared archetype. Religious worldview accounts for many of the shared archetypes and generic conventions that can be found in Asian horror cinema. At the same time, due to censorship and government regulation, there are few Chinese horror films and those that there are, are not as graphic in nature as some of Japanese or Korean horror films. To get back to Japanese horror cinema, I think that socio-political context has much to do with the particular form that horror takes and the meaning that it makes. Korean horror film, I think is more pessimistic than Japanese, and I am interested as to whether this can be ascribed to the continuing divisions between North and South Korea, and the legacy of the Japanese occupation. I also think it is interesting that Korean horror plays with gender and sexual identity much more frequently than Japanese. The difference between Ring and the South Korean remake, The Ring Virus, clearly demonstrates this. Most of the Japanese horror films that I have seen, with the notable exception of Wild Zero and perhaps Tokyo Psycho, tend to be very conventional in their approach to sexuality and gender. In addition, it is difficult to find slasher and/or serial killer films in Japanese horror cinema, while there seem to be a great many in Korean horror cinema. I am still at the early stages of research into Korean horror so it will be interesting to ask me this question in eighteen months time.
What are some of the major cultural differences between Asian and Western horror that transcend onto film?
Collette-I think that the key difference between Western and Asian cinema is to do with worldview. Belief in animistic religion such as Shinto explains why in Asian horror – especially in Japanese horror cinema – we find that deities (known as kami in Shinto) can inhabit anything whether it is living or non-living. For example, in Japanese folklore there are Umbrella and Paper Lantern Ghosts or yoki. Connected with this is the belief that hair can be haunted (we don’t really have anything similar in the West besides the figure of Medusa and her snake like hair). In Buddhism for example, the living are always in debt, or on, to the dead and there are many rituals that which need to be followed to keep the dead appeased. Otherwise your dead ancestors will return and haunt you and create havoc in your life! This is different to the West where generally belief in ghosts is seen as superstition. It is this belief in the ghosts as real which I think is the key cultural difference between Asia and the West. Although as many Asian countries, including Japan, become more Westernised, these sort of beliefs are gradually being eroded. The other key difference is linguistic. In pictorial languages a slight change of emphasis changes the meaning of the word, and therefore it seems to me that the visual is privileged over what we might see as narrative coherence and continuity. This explains the rich density of the filmic image in East Asian cinemas such as Japan and Korea.
Why do Western remakes of Asian horror fail to capture the scare factor?
Collette-Although there are some very bad remakes such as Pulse and One Missed Call, this does not necessarily have to be the case as both Verbinski’s The Ring and Shimizu’s The Grudge demonstrate. I do not have an intrinsic problem with remakes, although it is true very few are successful. I think it is not just a case of adapting the source material within the conventions of mainstream horror cinema but also what the directors do with it. The Ring works because although Verbinski keeps the basic premise, he reworks it into the slasher format. The ghosts in The Grudge are still creepy, and there is little doubt that Shimizu is an extremely talented director. And while The Ring Two is flawed, it is still worth watching for the impressive set pieces. What has happened so far – and what The Ring demonstrates – is that there is a move from terror (psychological) to horror (physical) and it is because of this I think that most remakes have not worked. In horror cinema, it is often the suggestion of terror that is more frightening than the realisation of horror. Both Pulse and One Missed Call became just more not-so good slasher films, with nothing original about them to distinguish them from the vast quantity of horror films produced in Hollywood. It will be interesting to see what happens with the remake of A Tale of Two Sisters.
What is the prevalence behind the imagery of long dark hair, curses, vengeful ghosts — sometimes on the ceiling, and intense torture in Asian horror?
Collette-The imagery of long dark hair can be found in traditional mythology that is shared by Asian nations because of cultural proximity and historical circumstances (hair can be inhabited by vengeful ghosts) and the prevalence of vengeful ghosts comes from a religious worldview that believes in the materiality of ghosts and that the worlds of the living and the dead are permeable. At the same time, these archetypes can all be found in traditional folklore and fairytales. Certainly in terms of Japanese cinema, extreme sadomasochistic imagery was a central component of pink cinema (pinku eiga) that was commodified in genres such as romantic p*rnography (roman p*rno) that major studies such as Nikkatsu churned out during the 1970s and 1980s. A good example is the Angel Guts films. As all films had to have some degree of sex in film, and were marketed at a male audience, it is little surprise that horror also had scenes of graphic sexual violence and sadomasochistic imagery. It must be pointed out that Japan had a very liberal view of human sexuality (central to Shinto) which was repressed when Japan began to perceive itself through the Other’s eyes when it opened up to the West in the late 18th century. I also wonder whether this links to the the Buddhist idea of the centrality of suffering (dukkha) as a mechanism of achieving Niverna.
Why does the story telling in Asian horror tend to be slow by Western standards?
Collette-This is a difficult question, thanks! I think it is down to different narrative traditions. In terms of Japanese horror, I think that it has a great deal to do with the idea of the relational self which is constructed in relation to the Emperor, Community and Family. This means that the lack of a unified perspective, or unified subject, is articulated in traditional literature through the use of multiple narratives as in The Tale of Genji. This also links into ideas of perspective in traditional Japanese art, which are not embodied within the idea of the omniscient or [male] spectator. I do think that the slow build-up works to heighten tension. When you think about Ring, there are very few moments of horror, but the build up is such, that these moments have much more effect, especially the scene at the end when Sadako comes out of the television.
What is the state of Asian horror in the market today?
Collette-Asian horror continues to be successful, which is demonstrated through the continuing remakes of Asian films irrespective of their generally poor reception. A remake of A Tale of Two Sisters called The Uninvited is in production, and I believe APT. is also being remade. American horror cinema is going through a real down turn at the moment, and there is little new or innovative going out. It either seems to be remakes of classic American horror films – My Bloody Valentine is just about to be released, or sequels, such as Saw V. The fact that nearly all-Thai films being made at the moment are horror suggests that there is a marketplace both locally and globally for Asian horror films. In addition, both The Chaser (Chugyeogja, Hong-jin Na, South Korea: 2008) and Mad Detective, (Sun taam, Johnnie To and Ka-Fai Wai, Hong Kong: 2007), which are just being released on DVD in the UK, have had a great deal of critical acclaim by Western critics. At the moment, the Korean film Hansel & Gretel (Pil-Sung Yim, 2007) is showing at the ICA (an art cinema in London) and has also had an extremely good reception both by critics and fans alike.
I think the so-called demise of Asian horror is overstated to say the least.
Why does Asian horror tend to utilize camera techniques such as misdirection?
Collette-In terms of horror film generally, misdirection is key to whether the film has the desired emotional impact or not. I just think that Asian horror uses misdirection more effectively and of course while Western audiences are savvy to the conventions of many horror film genres such as the slasher films, we are not so knowledgeable about the conventions of East Asian cinema. In addition, the prevalence of animistic and shamanistic religions in East Asia means that things that we might perceive as misdirection, may well be visible to Asian audiences. Belief in the supernatural, the ontological materiality of ghosts and of magic are also key elements of misdirection and as these things are key to East Asian cultures, it is no surprise that misdirection is such a central part of East Asian horror cinema.
Favorite Asian horror film(s)and/or director(s)?
Collette- Directors: Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Takashi Shimizu, Takashi Miike and Nobuo Nakagawa
Films: Three Extremes, Ring, Ju-on: The Grudge, Nakagawa’s Ghost Story of Yotsuya, A Tale of Two Sisters and Sion Sono’s Suicide Circle.
What can we expect to see from you in the future?
Collette- I am currently writing a book on [South] Korean horror cinema, which is taking, up most of my time.
Any last words?
I hope that readers enjoy the book and continue to enjoy East Asian horror cinema.