The dread from the East

Aditya Srinivasan | Updated on October 30, 2020

Search for clues: The Japanese film ‘Cure’ uses horror to delve into some of the deeper philosophical questions on grief   -  THE HINDU ARCHIVES

A peek into the dark and twisted world of Japanese horror is guaranteed to bring you face-to-face with your own nameless fears

A strange gloom seems to envelop Detective Takabe, the anti-hero of the Japanese classic horror film Cure (1997). He is desperately lonely, tending to his depressed, suicidal wife at home and hitting wall after wall as he investigates a series of bizarre, inexplicable murders. Why is there an ‘X’ painted on the wall? Why can the beat cop not recollect killing his colleague? Where is the mysterious, soporific presence everyone has sensed but nobody can recall? Takabe, like his peers, works hard. He comes home late every day, faithfully investigating fantastical leads. His dogged determination is a dreary reflection of the infamous Japanese workaholic culture.

Yet he seems to get nowhere. His wife is increasingly distant. The clues point to outlandish conclusions. Is he hallucinating? Is he a pawn in his suspect’s complex game? Cure uses horror to delve into some of the deeper philosophical questions on grief, meditating on the tug-of-war between Takabe’s commitment and his exhaustion. As he begins to spiral, a message seems to take shape: Not everything can be out-worked or out-managed. Some of the demons we carry with us must be addressed head-on, no matter how hard they try to evade our grasp.

Cut to the gruesome final scene of Audition (1999). Ryu Murakami’s drily sardonic horror flick is not for the faint-hearted, even if only for its last 15 minutes. A single father, lonely and rich, attempts to find a new wife by setting up an ‘audition’ with help from his slick TV producer buddy. As several women show off their odd and diverse talents, our man is transfixed by one of the candidates. His swayamvar is complete. He pursues her, finding her potentially wifely reservation strangely alluring. Their loneliness intertwines. Strange cutscenes and ominous flashbacks are enormous red flags. Yet he persists. His loneliness is only matched by his sense of entitlement. Audition barely seems like a horror film for the most part, yet it is undeniably creepy. Its explosive ending is unforgettable. It is also distinctly Japanese.

In an indescribably enigmatic way, Japanese horror movies, like so many popular Japanese art forms and pastimes (anime, manga, karaoke and J-pop) seem to hold a version of Japanese culture — ethos, even — up to the outside world. Within the rich world of Japanese cinema, horror films represent a distinct form of artistic communication. There is a palpable undercurrent to most of these films — one which goes far beyond compartmental representations of the physical or social landscape of Japan. Their cult status seems to come from their unique aesthetic. The Japanese seem to view fear itself differently. For horror enthusiasts, it makes for captivating viewing.

Much of our understanding of Japan is strangely polarised. On one hand, we think of the Japanese as a reserved, peace-loving, hardworking people. Bowing respectfully to strangers, they seem to exude an air of calm poise and maturity. Perhaps the scars of world wars and a roiling, fractious political history have traumatised their collective conscience, nurturing this demureness. On the other hand, anime shows, manga comics and karaoke — the most universally recognisable and consumed Japanese cultural artefacts — are exactly the opposite. They are riotously loud, colourful and expansive modes of artistic expression, cathartic in their energetic abandon. Karaoke, in particular, seems like a necessary outlet for our angst and emotions after a hard workday. Reserved, everyday professionalism and the gleeful freedom of karaoke are complementary, albeit in an extreme sort of way. They are necessary opposites. Yet Japan is so much more if we choose to read between these disparate lines. To me, it is almost a necessary Eastern counter to our cultural conditioning, informed by the seductive, aspirational privilege of the West.

Japanese horror movies appear similarly polarised, though on close viewing they are finely nuanced, belying their cultish overtones. In Cure and Onibaba (1964), among other classics of the genre, a painful loneliness prevails. Although there is an element of the supernatural, the main affliction of the characters in these films seems to be grief. They are desperately alone and sad. The world seems to be moving past them as they desolately clutch at familiar points of comfort: Home, hard work and family. In Cure, for example, depictions of violence are graphic but not gratuitous. The mood of the film is contemplative and grey. The violence seems to be nudging us towards the burgeoning cracks underlying the surface of a ‘normal’ life.

The 2001 film Pulse is about various people who attempt to tackle malevolent spirits that inhabit the internet.

Audition, on the other hand, is positively tongue-in-cheek in its shallow objectification of Asami, the female protagonist. Its infamously violent final scene seems to be at odds with the image of the reserved, peace-loving and quiet companion she first projects. Like anime shows or karaoke, her sudden, intense expression of emotion appears almost violent in its chaos, yet it is liberating. Expressed via darker motifs alluding to revenge, anger and frustration, the contradiction is obvious. Nonetheless, it is essential. A feminist movie like you have never seen before.

And thus a small peek into the wonderful, dark and twisted world of Japanese horror. This Halloween, consider meeting your fears a few thousand miles eastwards. You may learn something new about one of the world’s great, historic cultures, and more than a little about the fears you never knew you had.

Aditya Srinivasan is a horror movie enthusiast

Published on October 30, 2020

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