Jay McRoy on Nightmare Japan: Contemporary Japanese Horror Cinema

2065601741As a student of intercultural studies I have found the discipline very helpful in my appreciation and analysis of the fantastic. Of course, this is particularly the case when considering the fantastic and horrific produced by other countries. One of the expressions of horror films that intrigues me is that coming out of Japan. In my research I was pleased to find a helpful book on this topic edited by Jay McRoy, Associate Professor of English and Cinema Studies at the University of Wisconsin – Parkside. He is the author of Nightmare Japan: Contemporary Japanese Horror Cinema (Rodopi, 2008), the editor of Japanese Horror Cinema (Edinburgh University Press, 2005), and the co-editor (with Richard Hand) of Monstrous Adaptations: Generic and Thematic Mutations in Horror Film (Manchester University Press, 2007).

TheoFantastique: Jay, thanks for giving me an opportunity to take a look at your book. Most of my reflection has been on American horror, but as your book makes clear, there is much to be learned from Japanese horror films. To begin, can you share how you came to be interested in “New Asian Horror” or “J-Horror”, and do you think it is starting to come to the attention of scholars in greater ways as has other cultural expressions of horror?
Jay McRoy: My initial introduction to Asian horror cinema occurred when I was in high school and saw Mizoguchi Kenji’s Ugetsu (1954) and Shindô Kaneto’s Onibaba (1965). Although the prints I viewed were worn and the subtitles difficult to read, I remember being struck by how radically the tone of these works differed from the “giant monster” films that a local television station played every Saturday afternoon.  Ugetsu and Onibaba were “creepy,” but they were also heart-breakingly poignant in ways that I registered emotionally but did not yet possess the vocabulary or critical savvy to articulate. 

When, in the late 1990s, I came into contact with works like Nakata Hideo’s Ringu (1998) and Dark Water (2002), I felt a similar emotional response, and this sparked my curiosity as both a fan of horror cinema and as a film scholar. Of course, the Internet, and the plethora of fan-based communities and retail sources that this technological innovation has abetted, was an essential tool in my quest, as I am sure is the case with many cinephiles who share a passion for the motion pictures or film genres of nations other than their own.

TheoFantastique: What are the theatrical and literary traditions, and cultural experiences that inform Japanese horror, and how are these expressed in its primary motifs?
Jay McRoy: The theatrical and literary traditions are many – entire books could be written on this component of Japanese horror cinema alone. For the purposes of this interview – and in the interest of providing potential scholars with some starting points for their own research projects – I will mention a few. Certain themes and motifs that emerge and re-emerge in Japanese horror film can be traced back to Japanese folklore, as well as the performative traditions of Noh and Kabuki theater. For example, the “avenging spirit” figure in Japanese cinema has its precursors in the Shura-mono (battling ghost plays) and the Kyojo-mono (mad woman plays) traditions in Noh theater; similarly, the highly-stylized trappings of well-known Kabuki plays, like Yotsuya Kaidan (The Yotsuya Ghost Story, 1824), still resonate in many works of Japanese horror cinema.

TheoFantastique: Most American viewers are probably most familiar with the female avenging spirit in Japanese horror. Why is this image found frequently in their cultural expression of horror, and what types of things does it symbolize? How have changing gender roles in Japanese society played themselves out in their expressions of horror?
Jay McRoy: To relate the tale of a “wronged,” primarily female spirit returning to avenge herself upon those who harmed her, films like Kwaidan (1964), Ringu (1998), and Ju-on (2000), to name only a scant few, draw on a multiplicity of religious traditions (e.g. Shintoism, Christianity, etc.), as well as plot devices from literature and theatre (e.g. Noh and Kabuki). Prominent features associated with the woman as “avenging spirit” include long black hair and wide staring eyes (or, in some instances, just a single staring eye), as long black hair is often linked with notions of feminine beauty and sensuality.  As was the case with the emergence of the figure of the femme fatale in U.S. film noir post World War II, shifts in gender roles over the last few decades have impacted this tradition in Japanese horror – but more so in terms of the depiction of males responding to the threat of the monstrous feminine.

TheoFantastique: Can you discuss some of the impact in the national psyche for the Japanese as the only culture to have been the focus of a nuclear attack and how this apocalyptic memory surfaces in their horror?
Jay McRoy: The devastating impact of the U.S. attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki – as well as the legacy U.S. cultural, military, and economic imperialism – certainly informs works of Japanese cinema across multiple genres. For example, works by Japanese New Wave directors like Imamura Shohei and Oshima Nagisa address these concerns in various ways, as do – albeit “more subtly” – films by Kurosawa Akira and Ozu Yasujirō. The theme of apocalypse (both on the larger social and on the more intimate biological level) remains a recurring component of Japanese horror cinema, but what I find especially intriguing about this trend, and the notion of apocalypse in general, is the promise of rebirth and the potentials for radical change and transmutation. This is probably why I felt so compelled by the cinema of Kurosawa Kiyoshi, particularly a film like Kaïro (2001), or why I was so enthralled by the Battle Royale films (2000 and 2003), helmed by Fukasaku Kinji and Fukasaku Kenta respectively.

TheoFantastique: In the U.S. we have filmmakers like David Cronenberg who incorporate postmodern concerns of the body in their work. How has Japanese horror dealt with the body related to gore and dismemberment?
Jay McRoy: Absolutely, and in ways that are every bit as philosophically compelling. Tsukamoto Shinya comes immediately to mind, particularly films like The Adventures of Electric Rod Boy (1986/87), Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1988), Tetsuo II: Body Hammer (1992), Tokyo Fist (1995), Bullet Ballet (1998), and Vital (2004). Like Cronenberg, Tsukamoto frequently uses corporeal transformation, radical fusions of the biological and the technological, and phenomenological concerns regarding the “mind-body” relation to explore changing notions of the “human” and what it means to exist in a rapidly shifting post-industrial landscape. His work is endlessly fascinating, and I recommend Tom Mes’s book, Iron Man: The Cinema of Shinya Tsukamoto, as an essential introduction/point of departure for anyone interested in learning more about one of the most consistently daring and intellectually demanding visual artist creating cinema today.

TheoFantastique: Fear is in many ways culturally-based. In the instances in which Japanese horror has been translated into American horror films what types of cross-cultural changes have had to be made for them to be intelligible and scary for a different culture?
Jay McRoy: I have always felt that if one way of learning about a society is to study its monsters, to see what figures or images are mobilized for the purposes of evoking fear and terror in audiences. Certainly, Japanese horror films are experienced differently by a Japanese audience than they are by a U.S. audience. Each viewer brings their own set of expectations, their own process of cognitive mapping. Consequently, if a U.S. producer creates a shot-by-shot and line-by-line adaptation of a Japanese horror film, the chances of its success are mitigated by culturally specific details that may be lost in the process of translation. Thus, a successful adaptation would have to take cultural differences into account. Once this takes place, the work’s success becomes an issue of style and execution. The very fact that U.S. audiences have found Japanese horror an enticing alternative to Hollywood and so-called Independent genre offerings is a point of fascination for me. It suggests that there is something uncanny that transcends culturally-based dynamics, something that elicits a “fear without frontiers,” to borrow from the title of Steven Jay Schneider’s terrific 2003 anthology of essays on horror cinemas from around the globe.

TheoFanastique: How has American horror influenced that of Japan, and how has their unique cultural perspective on horror influenced American horror?
Jay McRoy: In the late 19th century, Japan and the U.S. have participated in a profound and complex process of cultural cross-fertilization, of which horror cinema is a rather small, if – in some circles – highly visible contribution. That said, directors like Sono Shion, Kurosawa Kiyoshi, and Shimizu Takashi have been very open about the impact of U.S. horror films of the 1970s and 1980s upon their imaginations during their “formative years.” Likewise, a simple stroll through the New Release section of one’s local video rental store will reveal the extent to which film distributors have adopted (or perhaps a more accurate word might be “abducted”) the more pronounced visual iconography associated with Japanese horror cinema: long black hair revealing a single staring eye; the ghostly, ghastly faces of traumatized youth bathed in a deathly blue light; young girls in short skirts and knee socks smiling menacingly in long shot. Sometimes I have to pick up the boxes to see if I have inadvertently missed a recent import (which I guess means that said marketers have done their jobs well). It will be instructive to see how future directors, some of whom may very well be strolling down those video store aisles as I type this, incorporate the conventions of Japanese horror film into their personal cinematic visions.

TheoFantastique: What types of things might film critics and scholars consider in their further and deeper analysis of Japanese horror for the future?

Jay McRoy: This is a terrific question. Lots of analysis and research remains to be done, and with each new film, the potentials for further study from a plurality of critical perspectives only increases. I frequently receive emails from students around the globe who are embarking upon explorations of the horror genre in Japanese film, and this fills me with excitement and anticipation; I can’t wait to read the critical engagements that will undoubtedly emerge in the years to come. Personally, I look forward to reading more about the reception of, and reactions to, the “J-horror” phenomenon within Japan. I also think that as directors often linked with the perceived re-emergence of the horror genre in contemporary Japanese cinema continue to develop as artists with unique visions and styles – and here I am thinking of directors like Kurosawa Kiyoshi, whose output is by no means limited to the narrow confines of a specific genre like “horror” – we will begin to see detailed and insightful studies of their individual oeuvres.

TheoFantastique: For those looking to explore Japanese horror in greater depth, what are some of the best films that you can recommend?
Jay McRoy: Although I have had spirited debates with friends on this subject, I really enjoyed Shimizu Takashi’s Marebito (2004) and Tsukamoto Shinya’s Haze (2005). In the case of the former, I was attracted by the film’s extravagant merging of H. P. Lovecraft’s mythology, hollow earth theory, and the Frankenstein motif; with the latter film, I was captivated by the degree to which the work’s minimalist aesthetic evoked an uneasy combination of fear and dread that, rather than dissipating, actually increased with subsequent viewings.

TheoFantastique: Jay, thanks for sharing your thought on this. My own cross-cultural appreciation of horror has been stretched as a result of our conversation. I hope more people seek out Nightmare Japan.

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