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March 14, 2008

Dead Wet Girls - Review of David Kalat's "J-Horror"

Why do I watch horror films? I do not even believe in the supernatural, let alone ghosts. Probably some childhood fear of darkness stays lodged in our minds, providing even those who consider themselves enlighted with a bridge to horror. And the atmosphere of horror films grabs you: the slow threat, the sure sense that something is about to happen...

J-Horror is a genre of Japanese film that originated somewhere in the middle of the nineties of the last century, culminated in films as Ringu and The Grudge, and now still leads a ghostly existence. It is a type of horror film that does away with baroque effects, has little or no CGI and seeks to shock with quiet understatement. This all in part, because the directors had only small budgets - most films were initially made for the direct-to-video market. As so often happens, compelling circumstances gave birth to a new genre.

Although J-Horror uses certain elements that are common to Japanese horror in general (whether film, Kabuki, drama etc.), such as female ghosts without feet but with grudges, it is a sub-genre and not representative of all Japanese horror. For example, in the sixties, much more lavish horror films were made and in 19th c. Kabuki grande-guignol was popular. (For a wider view of horror films in Japan and Asia see my review of Galloway's Asia Shock)

In most J-Horror a dead girl appears, often with the long black hair hanging down in front of her face. That not only makes her spookish, it also signifies that she is loose from all moral bearings and following her own desires - loose hair is traditionally an indication of wantonness in women.

Water also plays a large role, many of the girls have been involuntary exposed to the wet element (drowned in an old well, to mention something) and are therefore both wet and dead. Ask Freud whether he thinks this signifies anything special.

With J-Horror, the Definitive Guide to The Ring, The Grudge and Beyond, David Kalat has written a history of J-Horror and done a very fine job. He dedicates whole chapters to the large franchises as Ringu, The Grudge and Tomie, listing the numerous films and their differences. He is a great help for navigating the dark landscape of J-Horror. And he does not confine himself to Japan, but also unravels the ramifications of J-Horror in Korea, Hong Kong and the United States.

In "J-Horror has Two Daddies" he detailes the history of the huge Ringu franchise and its founders, author Suzuki Koji and helmer Nakata Hideo. The surprising thing is that neither is really interested in horror: Suzuki seems more interested in how to be the perfect pappa for his children and Nakata has since switched to samurai movies. But perhaps for that very reason they created the first peak of J-Horror and put the new genre firmly on the ghostly map. I'll never forget how the ghost of Sadako crawls out of the old well, a bit further each time we see her, long black hair in front of her face, and finally comes slithering out of the TV...

"The Haunted School" is about scared kids, for scared kids - demonstrating the strong roots of the genre in young heroes/heroines and juvenile audiences - no other than the American slasher films. The nineties saw an avalanche of movies about haunted schools, among which Hanako, Phantom of the Toilet is my favorite, if only for the title.

"Junji Ito will not die" delves into the macabre manga of Ito Junji (strongly recommended to those with strong stomachs) and the films based upon them, in the first place the Tomie franchise about a girl who is killed but refuses to die, her voracious appetite for love time and again bringing her back to life again. She seduces legions of young guys with only one objective: to kill them and then get herself killed...

While the Tomie films are not as good as the original manga, another work based on Ito's nightmarish stories, Uzumaki (The Spiral), made by (despite the name, Japanese director) Higuchinsky, is a great art film. Higuchinsky wonderfully captures the madness of Ito's universe in its total obsession with killing spirals.

In "You are the disease and Kiyoshi Kurokawa is the cure" another art director is introduced: Kurosawa Kiyoshi who far transcends the horror genre and often only plays with its conventions. The only pure J-Horror film he made is Pulse, the rest does not fit in any genre - Cure, for example, is more a dark thriller in the vein of Seven.

"A Ghost is Born" introduces the other great franchise of Ju-On, The Grudge, and its director Shimizu Takashi. At first sight a normal haunted house story, the terrible grudge these Japanese ghosts bear becomes a virus that threatens society. And that little boy with his white face and empty stare is really frightening, even more than his ghostly mother crawling down the stairs.

In "The Unquiet Dead" Kalat provides a round-up of the countless other J-Horror movies from this ten-year period. Some flicks worth watching are Shikoku, Inugami, Trick, Parasite Eve, Suicide Club... although none of these really fits the genre. It was all-round indie Miike Takashi who hit the bull's eye with One Missed Call. The film became famous because of its "ringtone of death," and I can assure you, you will look very differently at your cell phone after watching this movie.

"Whispering Corridors" takes us to Korea and K-Horror, a substantial amount of atmospheric, supernatural shockers. Whispering Corridors is one of them, as is Memento Mori, both in the haunted school tradition, but for me the strongest by far is A Tale of Two Sisters by Kim Ji-Woon. It is a creepy psychological horror tale with a convoluted plot that will leave you speechless.

We next travel to Hong Kong for the Chinese take on nightmares and ghouls, in the sophisticated The Eye of the Pang Brothers (what if your eyes become unreliable and in fact belong to someone else?) and the final chapter brings on the American remakes, which - although they cannot touch the originals and I do not see the reason for such remakes as everyone can watch the original films with subtitles - at least had the effect of bringing people to the original J-Horror films - including David Kalat as he tells in the opening of the book.

The book closes with a useful filmography running from 1990 to Kurosawa's recent Retribution. I only missed an index, which would have been useful in a book with so many names. On a positive note, the notes at the end of the individual chapters also have many pointers to articles on the web.

Kalat's prose is a pleasure to read. How "definitive" the book is, time will tell, but it certainly is a very detailed and balanced account, and warmly recommended to all film fans.
See my post about Japanese horror films.