Personally, Halloween is my favorite time of the year. Halloween specials on TV and the Internet always get me excited. Being a horror film geek myself, my usual way to celebrate Halloween is to watch 2-3 horror movies during the entire 31st of October.
No other prose genre requires a great amount of creativity other than horror. Even if the execution isn’t done well, horror gives its audience both anxiety and anticipation as they follow the story on screen. Will the hero make it out alive? Will the creature get to her first? When’s the next creepy scene? Am I ready for that next jump scare? If you’ve experienced being hesitant to ride a roller coaster before only to ride it and live to tell the tale, then you’ve already got an idea on how it feels to watch a horror movie.
For this Halloween, my theme is Japanese horror films. I’m studying basic Japanese in preparation for a future trip, so this one way to learn and relax at the same time. When one thinks of J-horror, Ringu (Ring, 1998), or Ju-On (The Grudge, 2002) comes to mind but I wanted to watch something I’ve never seen before so I decided to watch the lesser known films. This year’s selection includes Nihon no Kowai Yoru (Dark Tales of Japan, 2005), Noriko no shokutaku (Noriko’s Dinner Table, 2005), and Tetsuo (Tetsuo The Iron Man, 1989).
Dark Tales of Japan
Dark Tales is a made-for-TV anthology film consisting of 5 shorts from different Japanese directors. The five shorts are Yoshihiro Nakamura’s Kumo Onna (Spider Woman), Norio Tsurata’s Sukima (Crevices), Koji Shiraishi’s Onamakubi (The Sacrifice), Takashi Shimizu’s Kinpatsu Kaidan (Blonde Kwaidan), and Masayuki Ochiai’s Yokan (Presentiment). Spider and Sacrifice deals with spirit / folklore creatures while Crevices, Blonde, and Presentiment tackles the otherworldly spirits still within the daily realm. A mature, mysterious lady calmly introduces each short she narrates to her reluctant audience consisting of a bus driver and the passengers. Often times, she breaks the fourth wall to interact with the viewer–which in this case, was me.
Spider is your typical (short) creature feature: a bunch of journalists look for evidence to their top story, the Spider Woman. In Crevices, a young man checks up on his missing friend only to find the crevices in his apartment covered in red tape. Sacrifice is where the present troubles and past traumas of the short’s heroine follow her back home when she takes care of her ill mother. Blonde tells the story of a Hollywood-based Japanese producer with a blonde fetish that goes horribly wrong. The last short, Presentiment, is a suspense short feature where a businessman stuck in an elevator with three mysterious passengers who seem a little too intrusive when talking about his life and the crime he committed. Each story has the spirit of kwaidan (Japanese ghost story) with some modern touches and Western influences.
I have different reactions for each short. Crevices stood out because the suspense was at perfect pace and the writing was coherent from start to end. Presentiment followed after in terms of quality because the claustrophobic environment the businessman was stuck in increased the anticipation on whether action was going to occur or not. Although Blonde topped the editing / cinematography department with its vintage film quality, the story fell short as it left more questions unanswered. Sacrifice tried to fit in a lot of details in one short which could have been better in full feature length with the amount of backstories the film contained. Spider is my least preferred short in Dark Tales, for it was 95% predictable minus the ending that I honestly did not see coming at all.
Every now and then it would go back to the bus and to the mysterious old lady telling the stories. The old lady has a backstory of her own that further adds with each short she introduces. If you’ve watched enough horror films, you know the end to her story. Other than the choppy visual effects that distracted me, I still enjoyed watching Dark Tales myself, although it’s not as memorable as other horror anthologies I’ve seen before.
Noriko’s Dinner Table
Sion Sono, the director of Noriko, is known for the gore and transgression in his films. The situation in his films are typical situations in drama, yet what makes it a Shion Sono film is how far can the shock factor go. I previously watched three of his films: Cold Fish, Strange Circus, and Suicide Club. Cold Fish is the first film of his that I watched during Asian film class back in college. I was in for a total surprise that made me avoid these kind of films. Years later though, I found myself watching Strange Circus with an even worse reaction than the one I had for Cold Fish. Turns out, they were from the same director although Strange Circus did better in the artistic department. I eventually watched Suicide Club out of curiosity and it made me appreciate Sono’s macabre work.
It was only midway through Noriko when I noticed the connection to Suicide. Apparently Noriko is the prequel to Suicide. But the connection between Noriko and Suicide was pretty brief as former could stand on its own as a very different story. What it shares with its predecessor “sequel” is the distorted culture that lured teenagers like our two main characters, Noriko Shimabara and her younger sister Yuka.
In the film, Noriko is clearly bored of the small town life she lives with Yuka and their parents Tetsuzo and Taeko. She had big dreams of moving to the city, yet her father preferred she attend college in their town. In a desperate move, she runs away in the darkness of a blackout in December 2001. She then goes to Tokyo to meet Kumiko (aka Ueno54) whom Noriko met at an online forum for Japanese teenagers. From there, Noriko changes her name / identity to her forum name Mitsuko and becomes a part of Kumiko’s “family rental” organization where they have to act out the “roles” given to them by the clients. Yuka then follows suit and changes her name to Yoko, her online handle on the very same forum Noriko interacted with. With the disappearances of their daughters, Taeko then goes insane enough to drive herself into suicide which leads to Tetsuzo quitting his journalist job to get his daughters back even if it meant having to use the organization’s services.
For a Sono film, Noriko was rather mild. The psychological aspect of the drama is what makes it horrible; because this film brings the kind of horror adults feel when children run away to join the circus only to be trafficked into some shady modus operandi. The trademark Sono gore and action happens only around the climax, but that does not mean it’s no longer horror. The idea that two underage sisters run away from their home to join an escort-like business that involves role-playing with their mostly adult male clientele while leaving their identities and family–even their own relationship as sisters–is psychological horror. And the fact that Kumiko out-gambit Tetsuzo towards the end did not resolve the Shimabaras’ conflict towards the end. Noriko is no Suicide, but it still deserves merits on its own for a crazy fresh plot that leaves one thinking that not all horror is supernatural.
Tetsuo: The Iron Man
Tetsuo is one of those movies that got me saying that.
We all know how weird Japan can get. If you search for the “weirdest video you’ll ever see guaranteed” (NSFW), on YouTube, you’ll end up with a scene from Funky Forest: The First Contact (2005). Japan Is Weird is a website entirely dedicated to Japan’s eccentricity. You probably encountered 101 Unuseless Japanese Inventions by Kenji Kawakami which shows how creative and odd the Japanese can get. And Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo, well, is no exception to this.
Tetsuo is one of the results that often pop up when I Google “Japanese horror movies” and “Asian horror movies”. Any listicle that included the film would include two things: 1) do not confuse this Iron Man with Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark, and 2) the film is about a man who slowly transforms into metal. Involuntary inhuman transformation is often a theme in horror, but I don’t think anything in horror tops Tetsuo in terms of strangeness (so far).
Tetsuo is your typical revenge story. A salaryman runs over a man on the road. He and his girlfriend dump the body into a ravine and got intimate over the corpse to relive the tension. However, the dead man gets his revenge by psychologically torturing his killer. Add in the metal snuff detail, and you have Tetsuo. The dead man is not your average vengeful horror ghost. He’s Yatsu, the deranged Metal Fetishist in the film who went so far to dissect his own right thigh and place a metal bar inside it, only for him to scream at the moment maggots feasted on his leg–which made him run to the streets causing his demise that triggered a train wreck. His vengeance against the salaryman was a projection of his goal in his short life: to be made of metal.
Tetsuo‘s shock factor relies both on how far the viewer’s disgust can go and how odd the situation can get. First it was the random lady the salaryman encounters at the train station who experienced the same transformation he later on achieves, then this weird sexual dream with his girlfriend gone horribly wrong, and of course the phallic power drill transformation that I very much regret remembering. The surreal story and visuals of Tetsuo had each scene outdoing the one before it. If you’re curious to watch Tetsuo, do not think too much about what is really going on other than the basic revenge plot because thinking about the film in a typical chronological way would stress you out. But I would still recommend this because it is a work of art I will never truly understand.
Halloween Movie Marathon 2016 has been interesting. Being able to watch independent Asian horror movies was a chill, no-hassle way to spend the most interesting day of the year. Dark Tales, Noriko, and Tetsuo are just a few of the films that helped me in appreciating Asian horror cinema’s ability to outdo itself with every supernatural being (or lack of) that haunts the characters in the scenes. Until then, I’ll keep looking for more unconventional horror gems in foreign cinema.