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Japanese Cinema Blogathon #3: What's in the bag? Asian Horror & the Great Divide

Note: this journal and regular posts are currently on hiatus through the end of June 2011. However, due to the devastation of the recent earthquake & tsunami, I am participating in Japan Cinema/CinemaFanatic's weeklong Japanese Cinema Blogathon. Donate here; or check after the entry for more places to donate.

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There was originally going to be a review of Audition here but then cthonical made a great post (warning: link contains graphic imagery and detailed textual & visual references to gore, violence, and disturbing horror film imagery) about the use of the abject in horror films, referencing mostly American & European horror.

So that got me thinking about the special quality of Asian horror films that made them all the rage at the turn of the century. And how Audition is the perfect encapsulation, as a film, of everything that was wonderful about that impulse, and also everything that went so horribly awry. In fact we don't even have to talk about Audition as a whole. (Esp. since JapanCinema just reviewed it as part of the blogathon today!)

We can just talk about The Bag.

For those of you who haven't seen Audition, the main thing to know is that it succeeds on its lack of pretense as a horror film. The first half appears to be a harmless, unassuming (if surreal) comedy of errors about a man's attempts to find a wife. You're thinking, oh, what a strange, odd, yet sweet little film about dysfunctional romances and age differences in modern urban life.

And then this shit happens.



The Bag is the iconic, defining image of this film. It's a symbol of both the horror of the body/soul divide and a symbol of the genre divisions of horror itself. You have no idea what's in The Bag. You don't want to know what's in The Bag.

But whatever's in The Bag, it ain't pretty, and it ain't good.

There were a handful of quintessential Japanese horror films at the end of the 90's that crossed over into the American mainstream and kick-started American interest in Japanese horror for most of the next decade, though that's waned thanks to lots and lots of crappy remakes, and Tartan's now-bankrupt "Asian Extreme" brand. But in the beginning, there were a handful: Ringu (1998), Audition (1999), Pulse (2001), and Ju-On (2000/2003). Arguably Battle Royale (2000) and Ichi the Killer (2001) were also forerunners of this movement, too; but I want to set them aside for a moment and talk about the other four, for the obvious reason that they sidestep the typical gore-splattered effects of the modern horror genre and opt for a more heavily suspense-driven suggestion-based approach to the creation of fear.

American studios, used to many decades of gore-splattered zombie, vampire, and teen slasher films, took away completely the wrong thing from American film-lovers' new interest in Asian horror. They decided it meant that it was time for a recontextualization of traditional Western horror elements. So they looked at the basic ingredients of Battle Royale and Ichi the Killer, and in synthesizing those elements with American horror, essentially wound up with a whole new genre, torture porn.

When they looked at the basic ingredients of The Ring, The Grudge, and Pulse, however, American studios floundered. As a genre, it must have been easy to build on the ravenous, violent social commentary of the first two films; but after they got done doing literal, shot-for-shot recreations of the other films, there wasn't much for American horror films left to synthesize. They failed to realize that films like Ringu and Ju-On, and the frustratingly ambiguous Pulse, had more in common with those other late films of the 90's, The Sixth Sense, The Blair Witch Project, and The Others. All of these American films (like their predecessors, The Haunting, The Birds, Rosemary's Baby, and countless other horror classics) opted for the Jamesian approach to supernatural horror, depicting it as a symptom rather than a cause of human psychological breakdown. This new wave of Japanese horror films took our imaginations a step further: they presented internal and external horror as permanently, inextricably conjoined. And they did that by de-emphasizing many of the tried-and-true horror techniques of American/European cinema. No one remembers how many bodies are dismembered in each of the Saw movies; but everyone remembers the horse jumping over the side of the boat.

And everyone remembers the Thing In the Bag.

Audition, to me, sits in the middle of these two impulses. It has elements of both the graphic horror genre and the implied horror genre. It has a set of protagonists who are all complicit in creating the horror that lives in the shadows of our heroine's apartmet. But it also has such a strong psychological component that it's easy to forget that nothing supernatural actually happens in the film. The Bag, as an image, is so powerful that it seems to be superhuman, mythological. (Is there some supernatural element involved in keeping the Thing In The Bag alive? We will never know, but aren't you tempted to wonder?)

In most modern American horror films, there's a defining point of origin for the evil: Freddy, Jason, the Devil, the Candyman, a coven of witches. In Asian horror, there's often an eternal grudge, a ghost caught in a permanent time loop, or a strange new form of evil creeping out of Pandora's Technogadget. These things aren't palpable, and often are immutable, uncontrollable. You can't hope to harness them anymore than you can hope to pinpoint their origins. Likewise, the Thing in the Bag, though it may have a definite origin, history, and backstory, resides in that loop of inhuman and uncontrollable terror. It has a direct correlation to that other longstanding horror trope of The Hatbox, something that carries an instant mythos of its own without you ever needing to see what's inside it; even as you know that, inevitably, you must see what's inside.

And this is where, to return to the concept of the abject, the Spirit/Body divide is also a reflection of the Supernatural/Psychological divide; the place where the body and spirit are horrifically severed is the same space in which supernatural & psychological evil are permanently conjoined. Uzumaki (Spiral) (2000), based on the manga of the same name by Ito Junji. Spiral is a lacklustre adaptation of a very clear idea: that evil elements occupy a life cycle as surely as any living thing.

Ito's horror manga is completely concerned with the delineation of that yin/yang push and pull: he depicts a kind of supernatural/personal nesting space, not only thematically, but quite literally, in one of his most famous short stories: The Enigma of Amigara Fault, which you can read online here (remember manga is read from right to left). DISCLAIMER: This manga has brief images of earthquake devastation and survivors. Please please do not read if you will be triggered or made uncomfortable in any way by these images. Alternately, you can read a plot synopsis here.

In the Enigma of Amigara Fault, Ito creates an iconic and terrifying image: hundreds of person-shaped holes have opened up on a mountainside. Each hole seems to correspond to fit an individual. So people delightedly flock to the mountain, determined to find their hole, their special, custom-tailored bit of inexlicable phenomena. So quite literally, the mangaka gives us this image of a unification of the body/spirit divide that also encompasses this joining of the external/supernatural and the internal/psychological. Not only is the origin source unknown, but there is no knowing what you will find when you find the hole that belongs to you. Just like the Thing in the Bag presents the concrete visual of the body, dehumanized and de-contextualized, Ito's person-shaped holes present the completely abstract extreme of the body/soul divide: the spirit, meeting the supernatural, calling out to the body to rejoin it like a child returning to the womb. We recognize the inherent drive to seek out our own tailored supernatural experience because we know that that supernatural phenomenon is already, in part, created by us, as we are created by it. (Which came first, the person or the hole/womb?)

In the same way, we are driven to recognize the inherent humanity of the Thing in the Bag, despite the accompanying horror of that discovery. And this is the great genius of Asian horror: it joins the personal to the external so fully that we have to recognize the extent to which all supernatural phenomena is self-created. Somewhere out there is a person-shaped crater for each of us, whether six-feet underground or just on the surface, waiting for us to crawl into it. And just as we recognize that we are all irresistibly drawn to that personalized darkness, we realize that being drawn to that darkness is paradoxically part of what makes us human. And that is the starkest juxtapostiion of all: the realization that to be alive is to be drawn always, inexorably, towards death--

--and the realization that the Thing in the Bag is us.

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