Saturday, November 3, 2007

Japanese Screams - Volume 1

Though this post doesn’t deal in the living dead, it is of vital importance to anyone who considers themselves an aficionado of the horror film as an art. One of the tenets of horror appreciation is looking to the past to see what light it can shed on the present. For every Hostel or Captivity, there are 10 Twitch of the Death Nerves and Bird with the Crystal Plumages. Sound silly? Of course it is. You’ve been looking at the wrong country. Friends, the true genius of horror films doesn’t come from Italy, so stop looking. All too often is the contribution of one country’s horror output completely overlooked in favor of the naïve and stage charm of ‘Classic’ American Horror (Universal, RKO, AIP, etc.) and the grizzly professionalism of British Horror (Tigon, Hammer, etc.). That isn’t to say there’s nothing to find in either of the two (a casual glance will yield such gems as Cat People, Curse of the Demon, Scream of Fear, Peeping Tom & assorted other beauties), but to me, nobody has given Japan its due in the pre-70s horror genre. There are a number of reasons why Japans contributions have been passed over by the filthy snobs over here in Americatown. To name but three
1. Japan’s sci-fi/Kaiju films
2. Japan’s jazz culture
3. Japan’s cultural output in the last 20 years (pretty sick, no?)
Admittedly, these aren’t glowing recommendations (well, I like the Noise rock the Japanese make: Guitar Wolf, Boris, brilliant!), but back in the 60s, the Japanese knew a thing or two about scaring the bejesus out of you. I’ve spoken briefly of a few of these films, but today, they get special attention. In honor of Halloween (the only holiday that prompts nerds to watch The Ring, Pulse, Takashi Miike films and the like) we’re going to have a look at some films that work not just as fodder for screams, but the fodder of dreams, readers. These movies aren’t just terrifying, their fascinating, which is more than I can say for 30 Days Of Night. I’ve tried to stick to films that not many other B-horror sites have touched on. As far as I can tell, I must be the only one who’s tried Onibaba and the recent rerelease of The Face Of Another means I’m breaking something like new ground.

Jigoku
by Nabuo Nakagawa
At the dawn of the 60s, Japan kicked off the horror decade with Jigoku (literally Hell, already on the right foot), a film whose narrative logic wouldn’t be rivaled until Jacob’s Ladder some 30 years later. What begins as an angel/devil on the shoulder coming of age story about a boy, Shiro falling in love for the first time takes some kind of fucking turn when his friend (Tamura, the devil on his shoulder) runs a guy over. We first meet Tamura when Shiro is at his girlfriend Yukiko’s house eating dinner. We know this guy’s evil because he has dirt on the whole family, somehow. Well Tamura convinces Shiro to just forget about the hit and run, as the man they killed was just a drunk with no family, but he doesn’t forget so easy. Yukiko helps him muster the gumption to turn himself in, but in doing so gets into a car accident that kills Yukiko, who, it turns out was more than a few months pregnant with Shiro’s child. Well, if that that didn’t want to make him kill himself, a visit to his parent’s current residence surely will. Mom and Dad are both in a resting home for lecherous artists, waiting for Death’s cold embrace (Mom will actually depart within a few days of Shiro’s arrival) and Dad’s attempting to have an affair with a woman who looks shockingly like Yukiko, who Shiro has also taken a shine to (slow down there, didn’t your girlfriend die like three weeks ago?). Well, everything comes to a head in about the biggest way ever put on film. 1. The drifter Shiro and Tamura killed turns out to have a family (a wife and mother, both crooked, violent whores bent on avenging their chief bread winner) they come looking for a fight. 2. A big festival is being prepared at the nursing home (the introduction to which is like something from a Wes Anderson film), for which the planning committee caught a boat-load of poisoned fish. 3. Tamura shows up to point out everybody’s faults, and they’ve been drinking. 4. Shiro accidentally throws both Tamura and the dead drifter’s girlfriend off the same bridge. 5. Yukiko’s parents show up. One by one the elements begin stacking up until you couldn’t possibly accept another coincidence…and that’s about when everyone eats the poisoned fish and Tamura’s ghost shows up.

Wow, that’s a handful. Well, would you believe me if I said everything except the death of Yukiko was completely irrelevant? Of course not, that’s ridiculous. Well, everyone dies from the poison and we spend part III in Hell where Enma, King of Hell assigns everyone the punishment they deserve. The following nightmare world may have influenced everyone from Takashi Miike to Lucio Fulci to George A. Romero to the makers of Japanese cinema for the next 47 years to every graphic novelist born after 1980. I say maybe because I have no proof that Jigoku was seen by another living soul following its premiere. Its criterion release a few years ago marks the first time it became available to the English speaking world. Either way the images we see are enough to inspire a lifetime of horror. We see a river of blood, teeth forked out, eyes gouged out, heads pulled from bodies, legs from torsos, a sea of blind people, rows of heads buried in dirt, disembodied limbs grabbing at nothing, and all manner of spiny demons and giant hoary puppets doling out fiery torture. The blood and maiming depicted (In shocking supersaturated Eastmancolor) was as graphic as it had ever been in films up till then (and for a few years afterwards). This, as El Santo from 1000 Misspent Hours pointed out to me, beat Blood Feast to the punch in terms of sheer gore by about three years. The same year Herschell Gordon Lewis aimed for Drive-in audiences, Hitchcock released The Birds, which showed similarly gouged out eyes to a markedly larger audience. Jigoku observes the rich Japanese tradition of introducing many more plot threads than one can keep track of, something Nikkatsu maverick Seijun Suzuki would perfect in the coming years. The ending, which is what really makes you rethink your life, features Shiro trying to rescue his unborn/redead crying baby from a spinning fiery wheel. It’s jarring enough considering a lifetime in what the Japanese consider Hell, but worse when you realize the terrifying struggle Shiro had to put up with in the first acts doesn’t compare to the misery that awaits him afterwards. What makes this feel so positively evil is that Shiro doesn’t really do anything to incur an eternity of having his head gnawed on by goblins. He’s just a meak high school student with the worst luck in the history of film (or at least until Audition). And all this from the director of The Vampire Moth. Jigoku was remade officially 3 times and ripped off more times than one can count. Someone had to break the barrier.
The highest compliment I think I can pay to Jigoku is that I used to have recurring nightmares as a child that look like this movie. No joke; river of blood, big monster that resembles Enma pretty closely, scary infinity complex. Maybe that's why this got to me the way that it did...and why I don't think I'll be seeking it out for a second viewing anytime soon.

1 comment:

shelley said...

What I saw of Jigoku is beautiful. I'd borrow it from you if I was ever motivated to watch movies; though this is not the case.