East of Eden

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

The worse times get, the better horror movies become. It's a rule that has held true throughout the first century of film history. What was the last golden age of American shockers--the decade between 1968's Night of the Living Dead and 1978's Dawn of the Dead--but a catalog of social, political, and parental terrors made manifest as mall-rat zombies, possessed preteens, and ripped flesh? Horror movies, at their best, are a mass exorcism of suppressed turmoil. Small wonder the affluent, complacent Nineties served mostly weak tea on the order of Tales From the Crypt: Bordello of Blood.

A thrilling new wave of horror is on its way--stylish, socially relevant, and scary as hell. But it's not coming from Hollywood. For the past year, it has been trickling stateside from Japan, where horror films have surged in popularity since the mid-Nineties. The movie widely credited with starting the Japanese horror craze, the ingenious 1998 thriller Ring, was snapped up by DreamWorks for an American remake with Naomi Watts, coming this fall. The movies of established directors such as Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Pulse) and Kinji Fukasaku (Battle Royale) are drawing large, new college-age audiences from New York to Austin. And Film Comment, America's early-warning tracker of regional cinema, blipped with a special section on "J-horror" earlier this year.

The wave has largely crested in Japan, which makes J-horror the quintessential hipster craze: a trend that flared, exploded, and subsided before most Americans even knew it existed. Even so, just because Japanese horror is the cinephile's exotic flavor of the month--like last year's Iranian cinema or next year's Bollywood--doesn't mean the movies aren't substantial. This weekend, starting Friday, the Sundance Channel offers a smartly selected five-film glimpse of the extremes of the "new new wave." These films are far more potent than their American counterparts at the moment, largely because they're in some measure a reflection of, and a response to, real-life horrors.

On a clear March morning in 1995, during rush-hour commuter traffic, members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult dropped bundles of newspapers concealing deadly nerve gas in the Tokyo subway system. Miraculously, no more than a few people were killed, but more than a thousand were injured, some permanently. In Underground, novelist Haruki Murakami's book of interviews with survivors and Aum Shinrikyo members, the victims describe how ordinary life was disrupted, making everyday rituals appear alien and menacing. That the attack came just two months after the devastating Kobe earthquake only heightened society's general unease, imparting a sense that the ground was about to give way.

The interviewees told Murakami that the Aum Shinrikyo members seemed perfectly normal before the attacks and blended in with the other commuters. They had come from respectable professions and appeared placid and ordinary; passengers couldn't tell when or why they snapped. After the attack, Murakami writes, a second form of victimization awaited the survivors, who were often shunned as the country hastened to reassure itself that all was back to "normal." Meanwhile, the invasive, incessant media coverage constituted an assault in itself--a nightly flashback of trauma.

Thus the Japan that emerges from Sundance's "Modern Japanese Horror" series isn't the post-apocalyptic world of the Godzilla movies, films in which nuclear dread and annihilation assumed literally monstrous form. The world of these five films, all made between 1996 and 2000, is pre-apocalyptic: a country pitched on the brink of nameless, inchoate cataclysm. No rubber-suited reptile emerges to give the threat a shape or a name. The villains in films such as Audition (11:00 p.m. Sunday, May 26) and Cure (11:00 p.m., Monday, May 27; 2:00 a.m. Saturday, June 1) are human. Worse, they share a potential for evil that is no less present in their victims.

One of the great things about Audition, the exhilarating shocker from "bad boy" director Takashi Miike, is that it spends its first hour softly dashing its hype. A lonely, middle-aged widower, Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi), and his friend sit in a bar surveying the aggressive, unappealing modern women around them. Turned off by what they see, they devise a plan. Aoyama will hold fake auditions for a film, and from the headshots he will choose a new wife. His choice is a willowy, soft-spoken wraith named Asami (Eihi Shiina). The old-fashioned girl wins Aoyama's heart; he decides he will keep the false-audition secret from his seemingly demure bride. The mysterious Asami, it turns out, also has a secret. Hers she intends to share.

This leads to the most spectacularly upsetting tonal shift in recent movies--a sensation akin to watching Pretty Woman interrupted by The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The insanely prolific Miike has become a cult hero on the strength of his splattery, eruptive yakuza melodramas Dead or Alive and Ichi the Killer, but Audition is all taut control. Miike masterfully orchestrates a gut-wrenching half-hour finale, which veers from unsettling minor-key hallucinations to an unforgettably sick master class in pain. When the shift comes, we're stunned not just by the violence, but by a hitherto unsuspected capacity for anything this extreme.

As Nashville Scene critic Mark Mays observes, Asami is the incarnation of a standard figure in Japanese legends, theater, and film: the vengeful female ghost, more fleshy and seductive than her ectoplasmic American cousins, yet just as deadly. In Mondo Macabro, his survey of exploitation films around the world, author Pete Tombs says such ghost films became especially popular after World War II--a time when the established roles of Japanese women were changing. The Japanese women who show up in the media today are self-assured modern singles whose free spending has pumped some energy into the shaky domestic economy--a trend that has produced no small amount of resentment and backlash.

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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