more immediately the result of contemporary influences, such as the short running time of each vignette, or the urban myth-derived style of positing supernatural events in day-to-day settings. What’s more, they further reinforce the image of these ghost stories as reflections of social realities that the assumed schoolgirl audience can imagine themselves being part of, and therefore facilitate empathy with the protagonists.
acclaimed Japanese cinema is testament to their importance.139 When asked about his stylistic choices, Kurosawa has also stated that his style, so often framed in critical discourse as that of an auteur, evolved from and continues to be largely determined by budgetary constraints: his use of dialogue rather than action scenes, his contemporary urban settings, and his use of cheap practical effects rather than computer-generated imagery all exemplify how the new aesthetics of J-horror emerged from material limitations at least as much as they did from personal visions.
It is therefore worth stressing how techniques based on practicality were later replicated for their aesthetic impact, even when they were no longer necessary measures. For example, the conditions of the early 1990s required the absence of violence in order to market horror to young Japanese girls, but when discussing the making of Tomie (1998), director Oikawa Ataru described the choice to tone down violence from the original manga as an aesthetic choice, claiming he did not want to make “people scream with fear. I didn't imagine that kind of horror movie. I wanted this to be more like a drama for youth”.140 At the film’s climax, Tomie taunts the protagonist by mocking what she claims are her aspirations: “Getting married to a good-for-nothing man, having a stupid child, and shriveling into an old woman – that’s a woman’s happiness, right? But I’ll be cute forever – isn’t that sad?” Despite Tomie’s monstrousness, her articulation of womanhood into two spheres – being young and “cute”; and being an unfulfilled housewife – demonstrates the prominence of femininity and what are figured as
“female concerns” within the context of horror. Furthermore, Tomie’s position as both monstrous and “cute forever” subverts or even satirizes what Saitō Kumiko calls the shōjo’s “eternal deferral of growth” in order to remain “just cute and young”, an image which she says gained particular prominence in the 1990s.141
139 Mes, Tom (2018). “V-Cinema: How Home Video Revitalized Japanese Film and Mystified Film Historians”. Introducing Japanese Popular Culture. Alisa Freedman and Toby Slade, eds. Routledge. 225-226.
140 Kalat (2007), 71.
141 Saitō, Kumiko (2014). ‘Magic, Shōjo, and Metamorphosis: Magical Girl Anime and
the Challenges of Changing Gender Identities in Japanese Society’. The Journal of Asian Studies. 73:1.154-155.
In the same year, Nakata’s Ring replaced the male reporter protagonist of the book with a woman, and what had been the reporter’s old friend became the woman’s ex-partner, with her main motivation in stopping Sadako’s curse also being altered after her son (fathered by the ex) watches the malevolent video tape: unlike the book, Ring was a film about a mother’s love for her son, the difficulties of single motherhood, and the “horror” that can seep in to non-traditional family units. While Ring espouses quite conservative values about womanhood and the family, rather than reuniting the separated couple and restoring an imagined harmony, the film ends with the father-figure being killed by the curse and the woman realizing that the way to save her son and herself is to show the deadly tape to someone else – the final shot is of her driving to her parents’ house, implying that she is ready to risk her parents’ death by showing them the tape. In other words, the concept of “mother’s love” is presented as stronger than, and even destructive towards, the image of traditional extended family units.
Tomie and Ringu are notable not only for connecting the shōjo horror aesthetics of Kowai Hanashi with the image of the virus as discussed in the previous chapter, but also for being more woman-focussed and arguably less misogynistic than their literary origins. The manga version of Tomie, serialized from the late 1980s through the 1990s, presents the character as a cross between pitiless femme fatale and Lovecraftian monster, and perfectly embodies what Kinoshita calls the “long tradition of forging an affinity between woman and monster in terms of the allocated position as a spectacle-image-object within patriarchy”.142 Beyond this, the manga’s focus on “bewitched” and helpless men brutally attacking Tomie uncritically reflects patriarchal social attitudes regarding gendered violence and culpability (in which women are cast as instigators of blind male aggression), yet this focus is largely absent from the film.
While the book version of Sadako is sympathetic as a character, she is nonetheless the only significant female character and also a monster, and the theme of rape – both Sadako’s rape and an alleged rape by the journalist’s friend – is used rather tastelessly as a plot device and discussed in an alarmingly nonchalant and unconcerned manner by the two male protagonists. The second
142 Kinoshita (2009), 120.
book in the Ring series, Spiral, is far more explicit in its invitation to readers to participate in the misogynistic attitudes of its male protagonists towards women, but Nakata’s sequel Ring 2 departs from the literary franchise entirely, and once again builds its main subjectivity around a female rather than male character. In the Ring franchise, the Korean The Ring Virus (Ring, 1999) and Tsuruta’s Ring 0:
Birthday (Ringu Zero: Bāsudei, 2000)went even further in using drama tropes to depict Sadako in a sympathetic light. When translating popular texts into a filmic format, J-horror thus excised a considerable degree of misogyny as it allowed these texts to reproduce themselves for new, wider audiences. Far from being a feminist statement by the filmmakers (Ring 2 is also very conservative in its depiction of a woman’s role as mother), this transformation is more accurately figured as another effect of intensive contact within the multiplicity of different forces that J-horror was bringing together. An important ideological intervention of J-horror is therefore the way in which misogyny becomes literally “lost in translation” when narratives move from books and manga into the filmic medium.
All key films in J-horror depict female subjectivity in a variety of ways which encourage viewer empathy as well as fear. Furthermore, “J-horror films […] capitalize on women’s identification with space”.143 In Nakata’s Dark Water (Honogurai Mizu no Soko Kara, 2002), a single mother struggles through a divorce while trying to raise her child while living in a dilapidated, depressing apartment building – dealing with not only the ghost of an abandoned child but also her own insecurity over her ability to be a good mother, and her ex-husband’s attempts to gain custody over the child by bringing her mental health into question. In Shimizu’s Ju-on: The Grudge (Juon, 2002) the ghost Kayako forces victims to relive her experience of domestic violence. In Kurosawa’s Loft (Rofuto, 2005) the typical genre roles for women that depict them as either victimized ghost, terrifying monster, or heroic investigator are deconstructed and swapped between the film’s female characters.144 In Kurosawa’s Cure (Kyua, 1997), a detective thriller which makes use of and establishes a variety of J-horror imagery, a female doctor is psychically overpowered by the film’s
143 Kinoshita (2009), 107.
144 Kinoshita (2009), 120.
malevolent hypnotist, who first asks her to think of all the injustice she has faced from society just for being born a woman, before suggesting that “woman is beneath man” in general. This scene is instructive, for it suggests a terrible miasma of an accumulated and feminized burden of oppression, which is in a sense also one of the main images used for building atmosphere in J-horror.
Unlike the melancholic Japanese kaidan which tend to express women’s fates as dramatic tragedy, and unlike the horror films of the 1980s which tended to objectify male and female bodies in order to shock the audience with violence, J-horror created urban oppressive atmospheres marked by female subjectivity, inviting viewers to enter into the haunted and feminised mental spaces constructed within each film.