Film

Female fears at the dead center of J-horror

by Kaori Shoji

Special To The Japan Times

Japan is a scary place. It has inspired masters of horror over three centuries, from Akinari Ueda in the 1700s (“Ugetsu Monogatari”) to Lafcadio Hearn (“Kwaidan”) in the late 1800s, all the way to the 1990s, when Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s “Cure” and Hideo Nakata’s “Ringu” were released, spawning a new homgreown genre that came to be known as “J-horror.”

An Oct. 28 event at this year’s Tokyo International Film Festival called “Masters of J-Horror” will show four landmark films from the genre at Piccadilly Theater in Shinjuku, including Nakata’s latest release, “Gekijo-rei” (“Ghost Theater”), and one of his earliest films, “Joyu-rei” (“Don’t Look Up”), which was released in 1996. Both stories are about actresses struggling against evil forces, invoked by long-festering grudges (“Don’t Look Up”) or a sinister doll come to life (“Ghost Theater”). Nakata fans will be gratified to see that “Don’t Look Up” features the director’s signature touches — long black hair covering the face of a young girl, a white dress that symbolizes innocence, weird sounds in the middle of the night, etc. — that later appeared in “Ringu,” the film that launched Nakata to international stardom.

The 20-year gap between “Don’t Look Up” and “Ghost Theater” shows, in many ways, that Nakata is a director who values his roots. Certainly he has remained a master at drawing out the underlying fears of a young woman, and deploying her terror to full effect.

“It seems that as a filmmaker, I’m more suited to portraying women,” Nakata tells The Japan Times. “A producer told me so before I started work on ‘Ringu’ and we decided to change the main characters from the original novel. The novel had been about two men tracking down the mysterious ghost of a little girl, but we altered that to a single mother and her estranged husband.”

What is it about women that works so well in J-horror?

“I know this sounds like such a cliche, but men are physically stronger and require much more force to frighten them,” Nakata says. “Cinematically speaking, of course, since we know how vulnerable men are in real life! But in the movies, men need much more than ghosts to knock them down. I think action movies bank on that theory, and that’s why they use so much weaponry and explosives and so on. But women are different. They’re fragile, and protective of the people around them, especially their children. On-screen, this makes them much more susceptible to ghosts and spirits, and they’re very sensitive to ambience. And as a filmmaker, I suppose it’s easier for me to identify with women characters.”

The other acknowledged giant of J-horror (though he probably hates the genre’s nickname), who is also showing at the all-night TIFF event, has a different story. Kiyoshi Kurosawa has been making horror films since his student days at Rikkyo University. He break came at age 42 when he wrote and directed “Cure,” released in 1997. Starring Koji Yakusho, the film charts the incidents surrounding a police detective as he tries to solve a series of gruesome murders while dealing with the mental instability of his wife at home.

To this day, overseas critics ask during interviews whether he is related to the other Kurosawa — the answer is no.

“The big difference is that all the critics abroad love the works of Akira Kurosawa,” says Kurosawa with a laugh, speaking in a Shibuya movie theater. “But with me, there’s usually a love-hate split.”

Surely not this time around. Kurosawa’s latest, “Kishibe no Tabi” (“Journey to the Shore”), earned the best director award in the Un Certain Regard section at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival. The film opened in Japan on Oct. 1.

“Not that I check the reviews and criticisms too often,” Kurosawa adds. “I especially don’t like getting outright praise because (if i did) then I’d start to feel good about it and would want to be complimented more — and that would influence my work.”

“Journey to the Shore” is not a horror story, though it is about ghosts and spirits. Kurosawa says he has never seen himself as a horror director per se, and has never had much interest in genre movie-making.

“On the other hand, I recognize the industry’s need to have genre movies,” he says. “I myself am more interested in how movies depict relationships, and how they play out in certain situations. Like, ‘Cure’ is a horror movie, yes, but it’s also a movie about a man and his mentally ill wife and how that affects his own heart and mind. To me, the crucial factors behind any successful movie are how it treats relationships.”

And, Kurosawa believes, this is the secret to making good J-horror, too.

“You look at a J-horror movie and you see that it’s all about how the characters have relationships to people dead and alive, to inanimate objects and folklore and their living spaces,” he says. “There is no clear definition to all this, but the Japanese often attach their darkest emotions — and fears — to seemingly trivial phenomena. This is the secret to making really scary movies on a very low budget.”

For more infromation, visit 2015.tiff-jp.net/en/.

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