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Sadako as Virus: Repetition and Spread

different narrative that stresses the interaction between J-horror and hegemonic ideologies. Insofar as they diverge and overlap, these three narratives will cumulatively suggest an image of J-horror as a multiplicity of texts and forces – an assemblage – resistant to the usual boundaries of genre, nation, and movements in regional cinemas.

In addition to providing a detailed depiction of what J-horror was/is, the division of the assemblage into three parts aims to chart different ways in which the nascent processes of globalization connected with and made use of different kinds of ideology. J-horror’s dominant aesthetic image of “virus” has been evoked by various commentators to connect the boom with the concept of “global flows”; my aim is to not only provide an account of what constitutes these flows, but also the powers and ideological forces that shape them.

The first narrative will draw on Deleuze’s image of an extensive multiplicity, i.e. a set in which each new element does not fundamentally alter the nature of the set. It will focus on how the J-horror apparatus has been dominated by the sign or image of the virus, and how, under this image, it has firstly spread across emerging technologies and markets, and secondly intersected with and invigorated pre-existing culturalist and Orientalist discourses in various media.

The second narrative will draw on Deleuze’s image of an intensive multiplicity, i.e. a set in which each new element fundamentally alters the nature of the set. It will focus on how J-horror was shaped by existing discourses of power within the realm of filmic representation, especially those concerning genre and gender, and how it created and contained variations of these discourses. It will also consider how the newly established aesthetic sensibilities of J-horror remained unstable via their contact with these discourses, which led to the dissolution of the movement in the 2000s.

The third narrative will draw on Sakai’s concept of transpacific complicity between the U.S.A. and Japan in order to explore the complex relationship between Hollywood and J-horror. It will focus on understanding the distribution of power in this relationship, as well as its effect on the binaristic production of images of “Japan” and “America/the West”.

In her discussion of J-horror and new media, Mitsuyo Wada-Marciano posits 1989 as the starting point of Japanese cultural transformation in the wake of the collapsed bubble economy.76 As regards cinema, these changes can be divided into two major processes: the proliferation of new media formats such as VHS, DVD, cable television, and the internet; and the rise of a new wave of independent filmmakers. While these independent filmmakers (including Kitano Takeshi, Kawase Naomi, Koreeda Hirokazu, and Iwai Shunji) have brought fresh artistry and innovation to Japanese cinema, in many ways the label

“independent”, with its connotation of artistic freedom, obscures the constraining forces and structures within which these new films were produced.

I will briefly outline these institutional constraints before discussing the “virus”

as a structuring image of J-horror. The virus not only defined the J-horror aesthetic, but also its dissemination via new technologies and methods of transmission – but the status of the filmmakers behind these virus-films as

“independents” has the effect of promoting auteur discourse over attention to the workings and objectives of the Japanese film industry.

Wada-Marciano notes that “most directors have become paradoxically independent as filmmakers, and increasingly dependent on multimedia financing and distribution by the major film companies”.77 She describes the division of labour between “independent” production and the corporate roles of financing and distribution as the defining structure of the “post-studio period”.78 However, while studios no longer involve themselves in the practicalities of filmmaking, their influence on what content is produced cannot be overestimated. One key mode of production brought over from the studio era is the programme picture, or the serialization of films in order to inculcate brand loyalty in audiences, thereby bringing a measure of predictability and stability to box office and film sales. When the J-horror boom began, it followed this pattern of serialization, and so the aesthetic and thematic continuities and binding elements between J-horror films must be understood in the context of the post-studio system’s

76 Wada-Marciano (2009), 16.

77 Wada-Marciano (2009), 16, italics in original.

78 Wada-Marciano (2009), 17.

efforts to inculcate familiarity and brand loyalty via repetition. In other words, while the directors and auteurs associated with J-horror films are categorised as independent filmmakers, both budgetary constraints and the conditions imposed by contracts with financers have heavily influenced their films’ content and status as part of an aesthetic and cultural movement.

In 1998, the “ground zero” of J-horror,79 the conglomerate publishing company Kadokawa financed independent director Nakata Hideo to make the horror film Ring, and its domestic success sparked a boom in the production of a certain style of horror film in Japan. Accordingly, the image of the film’s malevolent ghost Yamamura Sadako has been the emblem and principal signifier of the international phenomenon that followed. Through Sadako’s success, the series of filmic repetitions encouraged by producers in Japan quickly took on a life of their own, so to speak. Her immense popularity in Japan led to a surge in transnational activity within East Asia, as horror films spilled across Japanese borders and into neighbouring countries, generating a demand for similar low-budget ghost stories that domestic producers were keen to fund: in South Korea Whispering Corridors (1998) was an influential hit, and its remake of Nakata’s hit, The Ring Virus (1999) – the first ever South Korea-Japan coproduction80 – re-territorialized Sadako as the ghost Eun-Ju. In Hong Kong, Applause Pictures was established with the aim of facilitating collaboration between East Asian countries in the production of international horror films, producing hits The Eye and Three in 2002. In the same year, the Hollywood remake of The Ring re-territorialized Sadako once again, this time as the American Samara, although once again her iconic image – long black face-obscuring hair and dishevelled white clothes – remained more or less intact, and has since become recognizable as a symbol of horror cinema in countries all over the world. 2002 is the second vital year for J-horror, as The Ring’s Hollywood success marked the beginning of a slew of remakes and subtitled DVDs of Japanese and East Asian films that would be distributed to consumers on a scale that had never been seen before.

79 Rucka, Nicholas (2005). “The Death of J-Horror?” Midnight Eye.

<http://www.midnighteye.com/features/the-death-of-j-horror/> [11/01/13].

80 Byrne, James (2014). “Wigs and rings: cross-cultural exchange in the South Korean and Japanese horror film”. Journal of Japanese and Korean Cinema. 6:2.


When asked why they think their work has had such wide reach, film critics and filmmakers often refer to either the specific qualities of Japanese (or East Asian) horror or the universality of interest in horror.81 However, as the image of shambling Sadako has moved across markets and cultures, it has clearly transformed itself in various ways as it crossed boundaries in order to secure hegemony. In Sadako we can see that an image reproduces in the same way that ideology does: negotiating with resistant forces like language barriers or cultural difference, compromising its own integrity in order to proliferate and entrench itself all the more easily. Unlike other fictional icons, however, the process of disseminating Sadako’s image that led to her international star status is intimately linked to the fictional narrative she inhabits. The story, almost as well-known as her image, tells of a cursed videotape that when played shows abstract and unsettling images – any person who views the images falls under the curse, and will die seven days later. It is eventually revealed that the only way to escape the curse is to make a copy of the videotape and have someone else watch it, thereby passing on the curse to a new victim. By this logic, Sadako can spread via her curse from viewer to viewer in an expanding chain of viral infection, with the potential of extending her influence over the whole world. Like a virus, too, when scrutinized its point of origin becomes unclear: despite instigating the horror boom, the 1998 Ring drew inspiration from a variety of previous sources, not least the television film Ring: Kanzenban (1995) and the original novel by Suzuki Koji published in 1991. A noteworthy part of the novel’s plot which was elided in the film is the revelation that Sadako’s curse is literally a type of virus: Sadako is infected with tuberculosis by her rapist, and it is implied that her vengeful and supernaturally powerful will combines with the last of this almost extinct virus in Japan to produce her curse: a hybrid of yuurei and plague using technology as a means to contaminate/haunt. The ghost is thus re-imagined as a virus working through the process of reproduction via visual media, with viewers posited as hosts and image consumption posited as the moment of infection.

81 E.g. Matthews, Paul (2005). “Kiyoshi Kurosawa”. Reverse Shot: Museum of the Moving Image. <http://reverseshot.org/interviews/entry/1503/kiyoshi-kurosawa> [04/07/2018].

To reinforce this image, actual consumers of the Ring text are filmically positioned as cursed/infected viewers through techniques such as aligning the frame of a television showing the cursed tape with the frame of the camera, thereby conflating the protagonist’s point of view with that of the audience.82 The cinematography of Ring therefore draws the raw material of the filmic text into the affective experience of watching it. Also harmonizing with this image of the virus is the way in which the Ring text has been reproduced across various media and countries, instigating an entanglement of narrative, aesthetic, industrial, and cultural concerns. As Julian Stringer puts it, Ring “comprises multiple texts – or more properly, a series of mutually penetrating inter-texts – that encompass a range of both print and electronic semiotic systems”,83 and therefore “the Ring virus itself resembles the very process of textual translation it so gleefully spawns”.84 The notion of “glee” is important here, as it outlines how, by uniting narrative-based desire for reproduction with material processes of reproduction, the Ring text instills textually-derived affect – whether read as Sadako’s glee, desire, or simply will – within the usually distinct processes of disseminating and establishing a franchise within popular culture. Carlos Rojas broadens the focus of this observation to evoke the momentum and orientation towards an outside – in the form of new texts, media, and consumers – that characterize the Ring phenomenon, by stating that “Ringu—together with the broader genre of J-horror within which it is positioned—both thematizes and exemplifies a phenomenon of cultural contagion”.85

Before considering the implications of identifying J-horror as a “genre” as Rojas and many other commentators do, I wish to explore the image of the ghost-as-virus as not limited to the Ring narrative, but as a permeating and dominant structure in J-horror as a whole. The year after Ring was released, Tomie (1999) became a domestic hit with cinema audiences, and spawned a long series of sequels. Like Ring, Tomie was based on a non-filmic popular text – the acclaimed

82 Wada-Marciano (2009), 20.

83 Stringer, Julian (2007). “The Original and the Copy: Nakata Hideo’s Ringu”.

Japanese Cinema: Texts and Contexts. Alastair Phillips and Julian Stringer, eds., London: Routledge. 168.

84 Stringer (2007), 170.

85Rojas, Carlos (2014). “Viral Contagion in the Ringu Intertext”. The Oxford Handbook of Japanese Cinema. Daisuke Miyao, ed. Oxford University Press. 416.

horror manga serialized throughout the 1990s by Ito Junji. However, unusually for a J-horror film, the titular antagonist was not a ghost but an immortal woman condemned to repeat a violent cycle of bewitching men with her beauty, being violently murdered by those men, and then gradually regenerating her body to begin the process again. This narrative is emblematic of J-horror in three ways:

firstly, it continues the trope, adapted from traditional ghost stories, of a sinister woman being victimized by men and then exacting her revenge via supernatural means. The twist that Tomie is immortal rather than a ghost was a fresh idea that nonetheless allows her to fulfill the ghost’s basic functions of repetition, suffering, and instilling fear. Secondly, Tomie’s curse entails an increasing group of people coming into contact with her malevolence over time – unlike traditional ghost stories (kaidan), the curse is not defined by its attachment to a territory (be it locale, family, or whatsoever), but rather its ability to spread and reproduce. The viral image is furthered when her regenerative abilities cause her to split and for multiple Tomies to appear in later additions to the series of Tomie films. This brings us to our third point: the narrative of Tomie lends itself to the manufacturing of sequels and remakes, as the antagonist must always survive so that the curse can spread, and the curse entails the repetition of its own narrative. In other words, narrative becomes an enabling force for industry.

Three years after the first Tomie, Ju-on: The Grudge (2002), remade as Hollywood’s second biggest J-horror hit, The Grudge (2004), rewrote the

“haunted house” story in such a way that it also adhered to those three principles that re-inscribe the traditional “woman’s curse” as viral infection. A haunted house is immobile by definition, a danger zone or fixed territory to be risked or avoided. In Ju-on: The Grudge, Saeki Kayako and her son Toshio (both victims of male domestic abuse) haunt and eventually murder anyone unfortunate enough to cross the threshold of their house’s doorway. Once a character enters they become marked, or infected, so that even after they leave and are in the comfort of their own home, death may strike at any moment. The dangerous territory of the haunted house is thus mobilized as protagonists become carriers of its curse, and the same story of Kayako’s vengeance can be retold in countless scenarios and across countless films and other media platforms. To date there are ten

Japanese films, three Hollywood films, and a videogame in the Ju-on series (a Hollywood reboot is scheduled for 2019).

While many other key J-horror films, such as Kairo (Pulse, 2001) or Jisatsu Saakuru (Suicide Circle, 2001) failed to generate such a vast number of reiterations through new products and sequels, they share the same re-imaging of the curse as virus that has facilitated the process of reproduction at the level of industry. The final scene of Kairo shows its surviving protagonists on a boat escaping Japan and heading to Latin America (figured as Arcadian or “primitive-and-pure” colonial imaginary) in the hope of finding a space untarnished by the ghosts that have spread across the world via the internet. This ending hearkens back to that of Fukkatsu no Hi (Virus, 1980), a Fukasaku Kinji-directed disaster film that sees humanity wiped out by a man-made virus, and concludes by having its survivors seek sanctuary in an uncontaminated Argentina. Similarly, all of the J-horror viruses are man-made: both in the kaidan-derived instigator of male violence against women, and the quotidian machines (video cassettes, mobile phones, television screens, etc.) which are conduits for their reproduction.

This emphasis on modern technology as the space of contamination and fear also mythologises the reproduction of Japanese horror films into new media as part of the films’ narratives. By introducing both mobility (i.e. the ability to transform in order to reach new territories) and technology (as a site of reproduction) into the ghost story, the virus becomes the sign under which aesthetics becomes conjoined to industry. Along with other key signifiers, such as the female ghost with long black hair, the image of the virus, and the process of reproduction and dissemination that it entails, is not only one of the defining tropes of J-horror – or one of its “generic” elements – but also, and unusually, a figure that organizes this body of cultural products at the levels of aesthetics and of industry.