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THE HORROR

It keeps coming back to haunt us

by Donald Richie

JAPANESE HORROR CINEMA, edited by Jay McRoy, preface by Christopher Sharrett. Edinburgh University Press, 2005, Traditions in World Cinema Series, 220 pp., £16.99. (paper).

Latest among the packaged movie trends is the Japanese horror film. Every month more samples appear, all of them scrutinized for possible Hollywood remake, all of them examples of the continued importance of genre.

As Martin Scorsese has observed: “For better or worse, story as entertainment is saddled with conventions and stereotypes, formulas and cliches. All of these limitations are codified into specific genres.” Whether it be the Western, the film noir or the Japanese horror flick, genre is, whatever else, a market ploy.

In addition to that brand-name attractiveness, genre reassures with more of the same, a steady market profile and a relatively long shelf-life. At the same time, however, genre — like everything else — is subject to market fluctuations.

At present the formerly popular genre of the Western is not moving in its country of origin. In Japan that former staple, the samurai film, has (despite the efforts of Tom Cruise) fallen to the depths of TV drama. Such warlike entertainments seem, paradoxically, salable only in times of peace.

In times of war and other forms of fear, however, entertainment must mirror our disquiet and focus our dread. Here the horror genre is efficacious and has proved its attractiveness often before.

It will be recalled that Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula, the mummy and the wolf-man all emerged together in answer to the more real horrors of the Great Depression. Now, in a similar time, and one when the terror is not simply economic, we have another infestation. Threats flood the screen, new monsters come in all flavors.

A major purveyor of the new horror genre is Japan. Suggesting why this should be is the burden of this attractive bundle of scholarly papers. These suggestions and findings indicate some of the useful social duties of the horror film, some explanations for its present popularity, and some reasons for its present ubiquity.

For example, one of the vehicles for horror is the spectacle of the metamorphosing body, usually into some kind of “monster.” It is possible for a scholar to regard the changing years after Japan’s Meiji “modernization” as just such a transposition, and thus point the way to Shinya Tsukamoto’s “Tetsuo: The Iron Man” (1988) and many later films.

Or, it is equally possible to equate family dysfunction and economic instability and reach Takashi Miike’s “Audition” (1999) where the wife-mother figure cuts off her male victims’ feet, slices away their tongues, and feeds them only on her own vomit.

Again, Japan’s competitive social structure and its “regimented and robotic education system” can lead to the “dystopian bloodbath” — gaggles of high-school students forced to kill each other — displayed in both Kinji Fukasaku’s “Battle Royale” (2001) and its lucrative sequel.

Gadgets play almost as much a part in the Japanese horror film as they do in Japanese life. All of us now live in a Harry-Potter-like magic-land where none of us can understand the devices upon which we so rely. Consequently we can easily demonize these technological companions. Hence financially successful films such as “Ring” and “The Grudge,” and movies about TV cassettes that transmit curses, cell phones that announce certain demise, and computers that are just plain bad.

All of this excess is here treated to full scholarly endeavor. There is a brimming filmography and an extensive bibliography. There are also relatively few errors. For the sake of future editions I would mention that it is not Yajahiro Ozu but Yasujiro Ozu (page 51), and that it was not Tanaka Tokuzo but Masaki Kobayashi who directed “Kwaidan” (page 1).

There are, however, no illustrations, except for one from Hideo Nakata’s “Ring” on the cover. This may be owing to editorial decision but it also may be due to the difficulties Japanese companies now routinely make for such use of photos. Difficulties, it is true, that could be circumvented by the payment of an amount of money.

There is a new book on “Seven Samurai” where the publisher had to use line drawings because he could not afford the outrageous price asked by the film company concerned. Another book on Godzilla had not one image of the monster at all because the film company involved said it had rights to any likeness of the monster — even Godzilla figures and lighters .

To be deprived of stills in a movie book is in itself a horror.