February 21, 2011

Japanese genre horror (1)


This is only a representative sampling of movies I've actually seen, and all the shorter because the horror genre is for me more the exception than the rule, to be avoided unless I have a good reason not to.

To start with, the genre seems dominated by extremes of "bad." At one end, by splatter flicks, these days stripped even of eye-pleasing gratuitous sex and nudity (e.g., Freeze Me). At the other, by coldly mathematical morality tales. And in the middle, elaborate practical jokes: "You though X. Ha! It's really Y!" M. Night Shyamalan's entire oeuvre.

Most modern horror isn't scary or frightening. It's some banal combination of the depressingly nihilistic and the startling, like a balloon popped behind your ear. Not the same thing at all. I don't like roller coasters either.

The scariest thing I saw as a kid, maybe ever, was--no kidding--Disney's Miltonesque Black Hole, and Anthony Perkins getting rototilled to death by a killer robot, totally sans blood and gore, not even a nosebleed.

But a few films do the same-old, same-old with sufficient wit and bravado--that don't confuse iconoclasm and heresy with the juvenile giving of offense--and actually manage to create something new. Or did that new thing first to start with.

Kenji Mizoguchi's Ugetsu (1953) deserves to be on Time magazine's all-time 100 best list. It's a morality tale based on well-known ghost stories, told in the context of Japan's medieval warring states period, albeit with obvious contemporary allusions, considering it was made immediately following the end of the American Occupation.

Aragami (2002) is a recent addition to the same story line, in which a wandering peasant or soldier takes shelter in an old temple that turns out to be home to a surly demon. Aragami does nothing new and sports a groan-inducing Shyamalan-style ending. The world doesn't need any more ninety minute Twilight Zone episodes.

Makai Tensho ("Samurai Resurrection") is a perennial classic, remade now at least three times. The story comes from the 1637-1637 Shimabara Rebellion, in the wake of which almost 40,000 Christians were killed and Christianity was outlawed (upon pain of death) for the next two centuries. But, hey, bygones!

Christianity nowadays (the trappings thereof) is cool. In the early 17th century, it was very bad for your health. The leader of the Shimabara Rebellion, the "Christian Samurai" Shiro Amakusa, rises from the dead to wreak vengeance and it's up to Yagyu Jubei (another historic character and samurai flick favorite) to save the Shogunate.

The 2003 version has the best production values and is the least gratuitous, though it lacks the cheesy, exploitation flick exuberance of the 1981 version (often titled "Samurai Reincarnation"), starring Sonny Chiba as Jubei, a quasi-historical role he played often.

"J-horror" was big in the U.S. for a while, but I got bored with it about as soon as it began, movies about ghosts with big hangups and a misdirected sense of revenge. The "vengeful ghost" is big in Buddhism. Like Ghost or The Sixth Sense, except these dead people need tons more therapy.

The following "big three" are generally acknowledge to have launched the "J-Horror wave": The Ring, The Grudge, Dark Water. Of those three, I've only see the English version of the first. Like I said, not my cup of tea. Two hours of mood for a few minutes of "Gotcha!" I'll wait for the ten-minute Simpsons parody.

I can only put up with so much moody angst before I want to know what happened next. When stuff does happen in J-horror, it's usually according to a strict moral algebra where everybody who does X and Y predictably gets Z, except in the maddening passive voice. Give me a protagonist who will just punch the creepy ghost's lights out.

Which is why I greatly prefer shamelessly pandering action/horror flicks like Constantine and End of Days.

Kiyoshi Kurosawa (not related to Akira) made the postmodern psychological thriller his thing (for a while, with Koji Yakusho in the lead role). I just can't get excited over his stories of Nietzschean excess, about weird things happening to people I don't care about. But they're a far sight better than the recent spat of inexplicably popular "will-to-power" amorality tales.

We're not talking about vigilantes ridding the world of far worse guys, but the kind of sociopathic twerps Jimmy Stewart upbraids in Rope, that we're supposed to root for because they're so, so clever and filled with so, so much Freudian angst.

The execrable Death Note franchise perhaps represents the nadir of this particular sub-genre. It really is just Rope turned upside down and given a spiffy polish. Rope was made in 1948. Talk about recycling old material and pretending it's hip and new.

Code Geass is a hundred times smarter, and the Hamlet-ish conflict Lelouch starts out with is a hundred times more interesting. But by the end of the first season it's clear you're stuck rooting for Hitler or Stalin, and I'd rather they both dropped dead.

Seriously, parents and preachers and politicians, you should wish your kids were watching porn and not soul-killing crap like this. On the other hand, it once again demonstrates that there is zero correlation between what tickles the teenage mind and what actually motivates a teenager to get off his butt and do anything.

I've long concluded that there is a depressingly large population of (especially "indie") filmmakers who believe that there's absolutely nothing worse in this world than growing up middle class. Back in high school, they concluded that life sucks and never grew up. Teenagers do love being told how put-upon and long-suffering they are.

Anyway, I did like Koji Yakusho in Shinji Aoyama's Eureka, a psychological thriller/serial-killer crime drama with a strangely hopeful conclusion. A little authentic hope goes a long way. Otherwise, horror is like hitting your thumb with a hammer for the pleasure of stopping. Better not to hit your thumb in the first place.

Shikoku and Inugami are based on novels by Masako Bando, the "Stephen King" of Japan (his Maine is her Shikoku). The former is low-budget and ends like an Indiana Jones sequel. The latter is a crazy mix of Oedipus Rex, Shinto mysticism and a Hatfield/McCoy feud. It's a gorgeously-shot film, with heaps of gorgeously-shot sex and nudity.

Inugami is a good example of an "art film" where the director mistakenly thought that setting a mood was the same as delivering a message. All I remember about it now are the lush establishing shots, the stuff about traditional paper making (the most interesting parts), and attractive women without any clothes on.

Well, sometimes that's enough!

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