Japanese Horror Films

First published in the Mail on Sunday Night & Day magazine.

‘Personally, my favourite cinema right now is this violent pop cinema coming out of Japan. My favourite as far as a group is all the directors doing those kind of movies in Japan.’ So says Quentin Tarantino. And for a cinematic trend-setter like him it’s akin to a top designer announcing, ‘This season, flares are in,’ and backing up his claims with a stunning new catwalk collection. In Tarantino’s case, Kill Bill.

To list Kill Bill’s movie influences would take the rest of this feature. Suffice to say they mainly originate from Japanese movies. In this case the Samurai film, or chanbara, named for the onomatopoetic sound that swords make when they clash, where a lone hero gets to duke it out in the name of honour and revenge with armies of sword-toting enemies. If you’ve seen Kill Bill you’ll recognise any number of chanbara tropes. Snow, for example, virgin white and waiting to be coated with blood thanks to the samurai’s sword skills. Hyper-real sound effects, funky music and corny zooms. Tarantino has gleefully filched hundreds of ideas from the section of his DVD collection marked Japan and chucked them into Kill Bill. Female revenge epic Lady Snowblood (1973) is the most widely referenced, while the bloody climax owes much to Shogun Assassin (1972), and Lucy Liu’s O-Ren Ishii character is a nod to Black Lizard (1968). The list goes on.

Tarantino’s not the only A-lister turning Japanese. Tom Cruise may have swung wide of the Oscar mark with The Last Samurai in the embers of 2003, but his travels east ended a year that included Kill Bill, a successful Hollywood remake of the Japanese thriller Ring, a clutch of other Jap remakes on the way and Oscar triumph for the anime Spirited Away.

It wasn’t always so. Rewind a decade or so and no one was talking about Japan, Hong Kong was the in-thing. Again, this was partly down to Tarantino whose Reservoir Dogs was almost entirely nicked from Hong Kong director Ringo Lam’s City on Fire. Then, Asian films were an unknown quantity. But where Hong Kong films scored big was their emphasis on action, that international movie language – no subtitles required. From Hong Kong came the action triumvirate of Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and John Woo, the mix of martial arts and highly stylised gunplay proving a potent and refreshing mix for Western audiences used to seeing endless and increasingly stale Stallone / Arnie / Willis actioners. Films such as John Woo’s The Killer and Hard Boiled blew the action cobwebs away, and for almost a decade Hong Kong action movies reigned supreme.

But figures released last year showed that Hong Kong movies reported a slump of 17 per cent in 2002, with fewer homegrown films produced than the previous year. Harry Potter was its most successful film, while the home-produced Psychedelic Cop was one of the poorest performing films of all time – seen by just 10 people during its miserable one-week run. Only Infernal Affairs seems to have bucked the downward trend.

So what went wrong? Well, Hollywood got involved for a start. Directing wunderkind John Woo was tempted to La La Land where so-so entries such as Paycheck and Windtalkers were pedestrian at best; while Jackie Chan seems content to play the stunt-mad nutter alongside Owen Wilson – presumably until he dies in a tragic stunt-gone-wrong accident on set. Every film from The Matrix to dire copies such as Equilibrium have appropriated Hong Kong action imagery (when was the last time you saw an action film where the hero held just one gun? Or a fight scene that wasn’t an airborne wire ballet?), until the essence of their eastern roots has fallen away leaving empty, slow-motion flourishes, and audiences with a strange sense of déjà vu.

‘I think people are just looking for something different,’ says Christine Iso, co-producer of The Ring, the US remake which has done as much as Tarantino to open Western eyes to Japanese films. ‘Hong Kong has always been very good at doing action movies, and very good at martial arts, and that led to films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which was an excellent display of martial arts. But where Japan differs is that the films are very much about suspense and mystique, and people are now turning towards that.’

Iso spent well over a year convincing American studios of the power of Hideo Nakata’s Japanese original (called just Ring), a terrifying psychological thriller about teenagers who die when they watch a video. It’s terrifying because as you’re watching you get the sneaky feeling that you might about to be the transmission’s latest victim. It plays tricks with the audience in a unique and clever way – much more so than any number of slow-mo running-up-a-wall stunts. Iso’s passion for the movie was justified. The film was eventually picked up by Dreamworks and directed by Gore ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ Verbinski, starring Naomi Watts. It was a huge hit, and since its success Nakata himself has signed to go Stateside and direct the sequel (his English is perfect, apparently). It’s now almost certain that the entire Japanese Ring trilogy will be remade for an American audience – and will probably be just as successful. Meanwhile, Iso has been busy brokering more Asian-American deals. Next she’s co-producing Antarctica, another remake of a Japanese chiller, with Turn in the pipeline. In the meantime get ready for Oscar winner Jennifer Connelly in a reworking of Hideo Nakata’s Dark Water, as well as remakes of The Eye and A Tale of Two Sisters – Japanese thrillers all. ‘They have something new to offer,’ adds Iso. ‘Intrigue and mystique. And I think this is a new thing for American audiences, who are used to that big visual spectacle, you know?’

If the original Ring marks a keynote Japanese film, another is Battle Royale. Highly controversial, especially in the wake of the Columbine massacre, Battle Royale involves schoolchildren slaughtering one another as part of the ‘Battle Royale survival program’. It’s difficult – actually, impossible – to imagine such a film coming out of America, but it’s nevertheless generated enormous cult success. As if he hadn’t done enough for the Japanese film industry, Quentin Tarantino bowled up to a Boston screening of Kill Bill sporting a Battle Royale t-shirt. This after he’d hired the movie’s teenage star Chiaki Kuriyama to play Kill Bill’s Go-Go Yubari, and paid homage to Battle Royale by having Go-Go stab an unwelcome suitor in the nether regions.

This, shall we say, ‘visceral’ approach to film-making is another element marking the territory of Japanese films and making even the bloodiest American fare seem positively wussy by comparison. Catch a film by the prolific Takashi Miike, for example, and you can, variously, see a man slowly tortured to death by acupuncture (Audition), a woman drowned in a paddling pool of her own faeces (Dead or Alive), and a man slice his own tongue in half (Ichi The Killer). On the other hand, consider the work of the one-man cultural phenomenon Takeshi ‘Beat’ Kitano. First an actor (he was in Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, and latterly in Battle Royale), Kitano moved into directing in 1989, gaining attention for his symbolic, often melancholic Yakuza films such as Sonatine and Boiling Point. More recently, his Zatoichi is a Japanese samurai film which out-slashes Kill Bill, again drawing on Chanbara traditions and ancient codes of morality and honour.

Takashi Miike’s thrilling disregard for the human body finds its way into Kill Bill, as do Kitano’s Samurai codes – this is a world of moral absolutes, and we all know how Hollywood loves those. It’s no coincidence that The Last Samurai was widely referred to as Dances With Samurai, substitute six-guns for swords and you’re almost there.

Of course, to see the likes of Battle Royale or a Takashi Miike bloodfest you’ll need to hunt them out on video or DVD. Similarly the original Ring. Of The Ring remake Christine Iso declares, ‘I was very happy with it. It retained the integrity of the original but gave it a Western appeal.’ Still, it’s generally considered an inferior version (perhaps why Nakata has been hired for the follow-up), so it’s little surprise that audiences are now keen to feast on the new Japanese imports before Hollywood snaffles them for remakes.

‘With Tarantino and Hollywood picking up these films, people have started to discover them for themselves,’ says Paul Smith of distributors Metro Tartan. ‘They’re watching the remakes, enjoying them and then seeking out the originals – and finding they’re even better.’

Even so, history has a way of repeating itself, and with Nakata following Woo to Hollywood, film buffs will no doubt soon be looking for the next new thing – and it’s Korean according to Metro Tartan. ‘Korean films have a much more psychological edge,’ says Sam Reed of the distributor’s theatrical arm. ‘And things are definitely moving in that direction. We have loads of Korean films coming up, and there are a lot of really good Korean directors out there.’ Ever on the ball, Christine Iso has one already prepped for the remake treatment: The Phone, about a curse carried via… well, guess.

Whether The Phone can do a Ring, only time will tell.

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