animefringe august 2003 / feature
Animefringe Coverage:
The New Faces in Japanese Horror - Horror At Its Most Gruesome

It is hard to believe that it's been five years since the release of Ringu in Japan. Since then, filmmakers have rushed to release films capitalizing on the success of the horror/thriller film. Indeed, Ringu has seen a sequel and a prequel, Ringu 2 and Ringu Zero, plus, of course, the American The Ring. However, other filmmakers have rushed to join the trends of Neo-Horror as well.

One such film is Takashi Shimizu's Juon. Originally released as a TV movie, Juon saw a number of sequels and remakes. The TV movie starts by describing "juon" as a haunting or curse tied to a specific place because the people who lived or died there held such bitterness (hence the American title of the film, The Grudge).

It opens on Shunsuke Kobayashi, a schoolteacher, who is talking to his pregnant wife about Toshio, a student in his class who has not shown up for several weeks. The couple knows Toshio because his mother, Kayako, was a classmate of theirs. Kobayashi goes to Toshio's house, to find out why the kid hasn't been to school. There he finds Toshio, by himself, with the house a mess and the boy covered in cuts and bruises.

The film then, rather abruptly, cuts to a shot of Toshio's house, this time with new occupants, including two schoolgirls and a younger brother. During this segment (indeed, Shimizu says Juon is an amalgamation of short film ideas he had) one of the schoolgirls complains of hearing a sound. The sound gets louder and louder and then out of nowhere, a black cat scares the girl into the closet. When she goes to investigate on her own in the closet and attic she comes face to face with a ghost-white Toshio...

The film's third part cuts to the school, where the second schoolgirl and her brother's girlfriend are alone in the school. Or are they? The segment centers on the girlfriend, who too hears unusual sounds in an empty classroom. The segment then continues at a coroner's office, where two detectives are quizzing the doctor on the girlfriend's death. Evidently, she was completely dismembered and the coroner was forced to try and put her back together. However, when the body was remade, there was an extra human jaw. Like the fate of the girl in the second segment, we never see a body in this segment. Still, the film's most gruesome scene comes when the audience finds out to whom the jaw belonged.

The film then cuts back to Toshio and Kobayashi, who have been at the house for a while. Toshio runs upstairs and begins talking as if he was speaking to his mother. Kobayashi runs upstairs and sees no one, but a sound directs his attention to a computer room where finds Kayako's diary. To his surprise, the diary is all about him. Kayako loved Kobayashi in high school and the diary is comprised mainly of accounts of her meetings with and sightings of Kobayashi and her drawings of him. The diary becomes angrier as Kayako begins to see the relationship between him and the "tramp," Kobayashi's wife. A sudden sound attracts Kobayashi's attention to the closet where he finds the pale white corpse of Kayako.

Kobayashi runs downstairs and grabs Toshi, telling him it would be better for them to leave the house. However, before he can get out of the door, he receives a call on his mobile phone. The voice identifies himself as Toshio's father. He asks Kobayashi if he's seen Kayako and tells him that it's his turn to look after Toshio. He also tells him that his baby has been born and it's a girl. The film cuts to the father, showing him covered in blood in a phone booth, holding, presumably, Kobayashi's daughter (here again the film shies away from showing the most gruesome scenes). Kobayashi falls to the floor. The segment cuts to Toshio's father, who is throwing around a sack, slamming it into the ground and walls. Shimizu again allows the viewer's mind to imagine what it is - rather than overtly state what is in the bag, the only clue is the squishy sound it makes when it hits the ground. The final scene in this segment shows Kobayashi in a stupor inside the house. A noise startles him as he sees Kayako, ghost pale and with dried blood on her body, coming down the stairs, slithering almost like a snake. He attempts to escape through the door with Toshio, but he stopped by a similarly ghostlike apparition of his wife.

The final segment shows a realtor attempting to sell the haunted house. People have heard rumors about the house and are unwilling to purchase it. The realtor calls in his sister, who evidently has the ability to feel spirits. She drinks some of the house's sake, which attracts evil spirits. She warns her brother not to sell the house to anyone who can't drink the sake. Several days later she passes by the house, after her brother said he sold the house. The new occupant she sees is the mother from segment two.

There are a number of striking features about Juon. One is, of course, the young boy Toshio, who seems to recall, in a lot of respects, the young boy in Ringu. The other is the lack of a main character. Shimizu has mentioned that the TV film version is a collection of film ideas. Unlike Ringu, however, this leaves Juon with no main protagonist to root for. It seems for a while that Kobayashi will become the lead, but he never does, and when we find out that his daughter and wife are dead it's tougher to empathize with him. In sections, it's easy to think that the schoolgirls, the detective, or the sister in the last segment are going to be main characters (I thought for sure the sister would be, until I noticed how late in the film her segment started). Indeed, Shimizu has said that the main character of the TV version of Juon is the house itself. However, this kind of story telling would not work in a film and the story was changed to have a protagonist in the 2003 film remake.

One glaring point in the film is that all the victims in the film are female. It is unclear whether this is a plot point further explained in Juon 2, a simple case of misogynist filmmaking-, or a commentary on the state of women in Japan. Toshio's father's presumable anger at Kayako and Kobayashi seems to be a major impetus in the chronologically earlier murders.

Another major aspect of Juon is Shimizu's style of not showing the money shot. While many films withhold the gruesome deaths of its characters early on, to facilitate suspense, Juon does this throughout the film. It's up to the viewer to imagine what is in Toshio's father's bag, what happened to the girl in the attic, and what the dismembered corpse in the morgue look like. The only gruesome shots, really, are the final scene of the third segment, which follows the second schoolgirl and when the ghosts of Kayako and Kobayashi's wife come into the house.

The entire film is made up of those suspenseful moments, which leaves us, the viewers, in an interesting position. If this was how Juon was intended to be, it's brilliant. Instead of concentrating on visceral, jumpy thrills, it aims to create a pervasive mood of unease that leaves the viewer shaky and uncomfortable. However, it seems more likely that the film simply couldn't incorporate many gruesome scenes (it was made on a tiny budget, as can be seen in the film's relatively simple sets). Taken in that light, the film seems like it's building to some huge orgy of violence, but never reaches it. Even the film's final ten minutes seem like the opening of any other horror film. In either case, the movie is patently unfinished; dozens of questions are left unanswered and the bulk of the story is left up in the air. That this had to be remedied is apparent in Juon 2, the 70-minute sequel to the TV movie, which had 40 minutes of footage from the first TV movie! Fans of the Ringu might want to check out Juon or its film remake, but most people will probably enjoy Ringu more.

Takashi Miike's Audition (also known as The Audition or Oodishon) is another Japanese horror film that has made a major splash in the world cinema scene. Indeed, Miike is well known for creating some of the most gruesome imagery ever put to legitimate film.

Audition starts with Aoyama at the deathbed of his wife, Ryoko. The woman is fading away and before the couple's seven-year-old son walks into the room to deliver flowers to his mother, the woman has passed away. From there, the film moves forward seven years, when Aoyama's son mentions to his father that he is getting old and that it's time for him to remarry. The father considers this and mentions it to his friend, Yoshikawa, a TV executive. After lamenting the sorry state of Japanese women, Yoshikawa comes up with a scheme to find Aoyama a bride: they would hold on audition for a new TV drama. Aoyama could interview the candidates and choose their files without anyone being the wiser.

As Aoyama browses through photographs and essays for women, one girl, Asami Yamazaki, catches his eye. She's beautiful, in a fragile kind of way, and he is immediately attracted to her beauty and her essay, in which she describes the hardships in her life. At the audition, Aoyama is even more attracted to her and he contacts her privately. Yamazaki, however, is wary - the contact she gave at a record label has been missing for a year, but Aoyama pays him no mind.

Asami and Aoyama date go on several dates, before Aoyama decides to take the girl to a bed and breakfast hotel and propose to her. However, at the hotel, Asami seduces Aoyama. Afterwards, Aoyama is awakened by calls to his room; the hotel staff informs him that Asami has already left. Aoyama, unsure of where Asami lives, begins to search for her. He begins at her stepfather's house, where the old crippled father warns Aoyama from looking further. He then tries the "Stone Fish," the bar where Asami told him she worked. A postal worked passing by informs Aoyama that the "Stone Fish" has been closed for a year, ever since the proprietress was murdered and dismembered.

Broken and without and further leads, Aoyama goes home. However, he is in for a surprise at there, since Asami is ready to pay him back, in spades, for the years of abuse she suffered at the hands of men. What takes place is probably one of the most gruesome scenes ever put to film.

Unlike Ringu and Juon there is nothing supernatural about Audition. While there is the same kind of suspense or unease prior to Aoyama beginning his search, it doesn't have the unearthly quality of the other films. However, the search marks a turning point in the film, as more and more gruesome imagery is thrown at the viewer until the film climaxes in a an orgy of violence. Indeed, the analogy is apt, since the violence is tied to sexuality in a number of respects; it is obvious that Asami is sadist. Indeed, actress Eihi Shiina's entire countenance seems to change. Her fragile beauty becomes a rapturous lust during the final violent scenes.

It is obvious that central to the film is the idea of a woman's place in Japan. Though Aoyama is a good guy and we're meant to empathize with him, what he is doing, using the audition as a meat market, is obviously wrong. Early in the film, Aoyama describes to Yamazaki the kind of women he wants; beautiful, a singer or dancer, upper class. It sounds almost like Aoyama is looking for a car, not a wife. Asami says as much, when she confronts him towards the end of the film; she accuses him of using the audition to find sexual partners. She tells him "You make women show their tits and then pick your sexual partners!" Tellingly, Asami yells that men are all the same. In another important scene, Asami performs a sexual act on Aoyama (nothing is shown), but the woman in the act goes from Asami, to Aoyama's wife Ryoko, to his son's school age girlfriend. There is an obvious message here in Miike's perception of how Japanese women are treated.

For those that loved Ringu, there is an outpouring of Japanese movies capitalizing on the film's success. Fans of Ringu will greatly enjoy Juon and Audition, but be forewarned that they're not for everyone, and many will be put off by the graphic violence.