East of Eden

A scary new wave of horror washes in from an anxious Japan

Whether Asami is a misogynist nightmare or a feminist revenge fantasy, however, is of secondary importance to the fact that she's terrifyingly unknowable. So, too, are the dazed killers of Kiyoshi Kurosawa's unnerving Cure, ordinary citizens who commit gruesome crimes without apparent motive. An investigator (Koji Yakusho) wants to know why these people are butchering their loved ones and co-workers, then slashing an X into the corpses' chests. His search leads to a blank drifter (Masato Hagiwara) who can see people's darkest desires and deepest grudges. Not surprisingly, he can see inside his pursuer, too.

A friend said Cure was the only movie he'd seen that effectively captured the feel of life after 9/11. Kurosawa's languid takes and long shots show what should be everyday life, yet the elliptical cutting produces an eerie sense of dislocation. When violence occurs, it is always jarring, matter-of-fact, and impossible to predict. As the drifter's guru-like blandness takes on a sinister cast, and those he encounters fall under the spell of their own secret urges, Cure takes on a function similar to that of its psychic villain: It brings to the surface what no one dares to say.

The other must-see of the series is Uzumaki, a.k.a. Spiral (11:00 p.m. Wednesday, May 29), a macabre Tim Burton-like fantasy adapted from a Junji Ito manga. Stylistically extravagant and surreal in contrast to the cringe-in-plain-sight imagery of Audition and Cure, Spiral nonetheless takes place in a setting where normal citizens undergo bizarre transformations and the placid world erupts with inexplicable peril. The heroine, high school cutie Kirie (Eriko Katsune), notices that the residents of her small town have developed an unhealthy obsession with spiral patterns. Soon the obsession is wreaking physical metamorphoses. A blobby student morphs into a human snail, while an attention-craving classmate sprouts eight-foot vortical curls. The "vortex curse" apparently spreads to the director, Higuchinsky. His favorite camera move is a spiraling plunge to the center of a hypnotic pinwheel (or a reverse of same).

 

Thanks to the Sundance Channel's astute programming, even the lesser entries in "Modern Japanese Horror" take on thematic resonance placed alongside the others. Joji Iida's Another Heaven (11:00 p.m. Tuesday, May 28), a police procedural that mixes grisly shocks with tasteless black comedy, connects the vengeful woman of Audition to the contagious evil of Cure. Its villain is a watery organism that destroys its host's brain, turning a slight girl into a superhuman serial killer. In a montage, televised talking heads blame the killing spree on--what else?--TV, which "shows too much brutality" and "invites crime."

Distrust of electronic media is prominent in J-horror: in Kurosawa's chilling Pulse, about an e-mail message that literally creates a ghost world; in Hideo Nakata's Ring, the film that started the craze, which concerns a deadly chain video. In these films, the media--bearers of unceasing bad news to the Japanese citizenry throughout the late Nineties--become outright transmitters of evil. In the Sundance series, Nakata is represented by an earlier film, 1996's Ghost Actress (11:00 p.m. Thursday, May 30), in which the medium for ghostly transmissions is celluloid itself. As a film crew shoots in a haunted studio, a woman's pale World War II-era image materializes in the footage.

On the whole, Ghost Actress is slow and stingy with shivers. But the actress's first appearance is a memorably spooky moment. More important, the idea of an insuppressible past, at a time when Japan is struggling with the legacy of wartime atrocities, is thematically bold. The idea of a pool of darkness underlying Japanese life arises everywhere from the Godzilla movies to Haruki Murakami's novel The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, which concerns a roiling murk of evil under the city of Tokyo. It is the common thread that links these diverse films, from Spiral's mysterious town pond to Cure's poisoned psychic wellspring.

Spurred by senseless crimes and a rise in juvenile delinquency, Japanese citizens now fear once-unthinkable acts of violence. Yet the movies have carried these terrors once again into the realm of abstraction, offering some hope, however tiny or seemingly trivial, of catharsis. Does the stomach-turning grotesquerie of Audition or the creepy intensity of Cure offer a facsimile of our own cinema in years to come? Perhaps. When we crave a diet of Auditions, it's because we hunger for anything that can wash the taste of the real world from our mouth.

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