A disturbed individual kills, and the media searches for reasons why. Sometimes, the killer obligingly cites a pop culture phenomenon as inspiration. Mark David Chapman, the man who shot John Lennon, saw himself as the living embodiment of Holden Caulfield, the hero of J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye,” who loudly declares his hatred of “phonies.” Chapman, who considered the former Beatle a prime phony, took that hatred up one psychotic notch on Dec. 8, 1980, when he fatally shot Lennon at the entrance to his New York apartment building. Chapman perused Salinger’s novel while waiting for the police.
Sometimes, however, the inspirations are more veiled — or the media simply gets them wrong, as in 1999, when it incorrectly labeled the two teenage killers of 13 people at Columbine High School as devoted fans of heavy metal rocker Marilyn Manson. (The association nearly derailed Manson’s career, though he gamely agreed to be interviewed for Michael Moore’s 2002 documentary “Bowling for Columbine.”)
Today’s mass murderers often have an Internet presence that reveals such influences. Dylann Roof, the 21-year-old white supremacist who shot and killed nine worshippers at a historic African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina, on June 17, posted a racist manifesto on his website that cited Sion Sono’s 2011 drama “Himizu” as his “favorite” film. The manifesto also quoted that film’s troubled teenage hero, played by Shota Sometani: “Even if my life is worth less than a speck of dirt, I want to use it for the good of society.”
Beaten by his alcoholic father and abandoned by his slatternly mother, the hero decides to contribute to the social good by killing the unworthy, beginning with dad. Since this is mostly mono-racial northern Japan, the “unworthy” are fellow native Japanese, not Roof’s hated blacks, Jews and Hispanics. (In his manifesto Roof expressed admiration for “East Asians,” saying they were, “by nature very racist and could be great allies of the white race.”)
Instead of descending into a final bloodbath, however, “Himizu” ends on a note of hope as the hero, urged on by his similarly abused girlfriend (Fumi Nikaido), abandons his murderous quest and turns himself in to the police.
Roof also quoted “American History X,” Tony Kaye’s 1998 film about two Californian brothers who become involved with neo-Nazis. “I see all this stuff going on and I don’t see anyone doing anything about it. And it pisses me off,” says the older brother, played by Edward Norton, who later kills two black men and is sent to prison. By the end of the film, however, the brothers have reconsidered their racism. “Hate is baggage,” says the younger one. “Life’s too short to be pissed off all the time. It’s just not worth it.”
Roof obviously missed or ignored the final messages of both movies. But did their violence, which included attacks by the heroes on social or racial “inferiors,” move him to homicidal emulation?
The question of whether films and TV shows inspire violent acts, especially among the young and impressionable, has been studied and debated for decades. If stricter ratings restrictions on violent films in many countries, including Japan, are any indication, the “yes” side is gradually getting the better of the argument.
Meanwhile, the makers of this content commonly reject the assertion that it contributes to real-life mayhem. In a January 2013 interview with U.K. Channel 4 News presenter Krishnan Guru-Murthy about his slavery-era Western “Django Unchained,” Quentin Tarantino became incensed at a question about the effects of the film’s graphic violence on susceptible viewers. “I’m shutting your butt down,” the director snarled. But the question remains.
My view is that, if a mass killer quotes your film on his website, you’ve had an impact, intended or not. And rating your film so that a 12-year-old can’t see it will not save a single life once the killer decides to open fire.
But are you, by filling your film with violence, to blame for his deeds?
If “Himizu” and “American History X” had been as nonviolently and inoffensively bland as the Fuji TV network’s hit “Odoru Daisosasen” (“Bayside Shakedown”) cop thriller series, which had a body count of approximately zero, Roof might have forgotten them as soon as the credit crawl ended.
Films that powerfully portray modern social and moral pathologies, with violence adding to that power, are going to be seen by individuals who are pathological themselves. This interaction can be volatile, with effects that can’t be foreseen.
But if those films had never existed — or had been neutered to Fuji TV standards — Roof would have found other inspirations, just as the Columbine killers became obsessed with certain metal bands and violent video games — though their motivations for mass murder went deeper and wider.
Sono has yet to make a public statement on “Himizu” and the Charleston shooting, but it’s hard to imagine this bad-boy provocateur, who rejects limits and embraces extremes, expressing contrition. Still, I’d like to hear a frank admission that his artistic act had tragic real-life consequences.
But I’m not holding my breath.