Figure 1: Title, prefecture, and schoolgirl in Kowai Hanashi.
videotapes. For example, the new Kowai Hanashi series introduced a framing format in which child “club members” of both genders would discuss the vignettes amongst each other after they aired. The stories themselves retained a focus on schoolgirls and young women, sometimes taking on a didactic or moralistic tone and sometimes focusing on the absurd or humorous elements of a story. A gap was opened between domestic J-horror and its international brand: televised J-horror retained shōjo sensibilities, while international J-horror not only moved away from these concerns, but even became branded as particularly transgressive or “extreme” as discussed in the previous chapter. It is the televised form of J-horror, and how it operated within and against the gendered constraints of genre, that will be the focus of this section, explored through close readings of a few Kaidan Shin Mimibukuro vignettes all broadcast by TBS in March, 2005.
Despite the fact that Choi uses Korean horror films’ foregrounding of female adolescent sensibility as an impetus to move away from sexuality as a dominant framework for conceptualizing horror cinema, the role of sexuality remains important to her analysis.137 Similarly, a distinguishing example of J-horror’s shōjo sensibilities is the thematic presence of sexuality, largely absent from classic J-horror films like Ring, Dark Water, or Juon: The Grudge. The ways in which Kaidan Shin Mimibukuro embodies sexuality is also important in that it underlines the status of “cautionary tales for schoolgirls” that could be seen as a key component of the Kowai Hanashi videos in the early 1990s. Let us being with the vignette titled “The Blue Raincoat”: a girl, still in school uniform, is alone with a boy in his apartment to help him with his studies; when he tries to kiss her she rebuffs him but is shown to be privately delighted. The boy moves off-screen so that the camera can create a space in which to explore the girl’s emotional reaction: dramatic music plays and the camera cuts to a close-up of her smiling face, and then her finger as she uses condensation to privately trace a heart on the desk. Up to this point, there is nothing to distinguish this narrative from a standard shōjo drama, in terms of setting, scenario, characters, dialogue, pacing, theme, and so on. Especially of note is how a sexual or romantic event is the catalyst of a girl’s emotional reaction, and more time is spent portraying her
137 Choi (2009), 42-51.
personal reaction than the romantic action itself. The dramatic music stops as the doorbell rings, and she opens it to find an eerie male child in a dripping wet raincoat, despite the lack of rain. This event begins a structural pattern that is repeated throughout the vignette: the establishment of romantic drama tropes, interrupted by the jarring intrusion of horror tropes. “The Blue Raincoat” thus employs the clash of genres as a means to generate affect: the horror elements are made more frightening by the sense that they are “out of place” within the shōjo drama. At the same time, this affective manipulation reinforces the didactic narrative that punishes or warns the schoolgirl every time she begins to experience romantic feelings in response to the boy’s lustful advances.
At first, the girl interacts individually with the two characters in separate scenarios, switching back and forth between the boy in the apartment, and the ghostly child in the blue raincoat – emblematic of “horror” – who repeatedly says
“give it to me” and extends his palm as if demanding an object from the girl. As events progress, the two boys become conflated: when she yields to an embrace from the former, the child’s hand of the latter touches her hair. The intersection of “drama” and “horror” simultaneously repositions a desirable romantic partner as a dangerous child, prompting the girl to finally say, “I see what you are” to the lustful boy, and an assertive “good bye” as she rushes out of the apartment. The final image literally overlays the body of the ghost child and the boy watching her leave, with both voices saying “give it to me” in unison. The inventive hybridization of genres is therefore purposefully employed as a reinforcement of the normative framework of gender relations, with drama and horror tropes working in harmony to support a moral fable of how young girls should beware of misinterpreting male desire as romantic affection. At the same time, dramatic conventions are upended by finding their resolutions in horror, and horror conventions are repurposed to accentuate the dramatic. To put it another way, the experimental hybridization of genre is contained within a stabilizing matrix of gender.
The theme of adolescents navigating the new hazards of sexuality is also present in two other vignettes, “The Ghost of Ohatsutenjin” and “The Music Box”.
“The Ghost of Ohatsutenjin” is unusual in having a male protagonist: a pre-adolescent boy who is beginning to experience sexual feelings for the first time,
as the camera implies by shifting focus from a sensual close-up of his schoolgirl tutor’s mouth to his own enraptured gaze. Rather than lingering on suggestive scenes or female bodies, the camera spends more time on close-ups of the boy as he watches: in this case the male gaze is not an organizing framework of visuality (as in Mulvey’s famous formulation),138 but a visualized image, i.e. it does not determine the frame but is held within it. At night the boy is haunted by a traditional kimono-clad yuurei who appears to engage in sexual activity with him.
His tutor remarks the next morning that he looks pale, and, deducing that he is being haunted, she warns him that he is in terrible danger, and must avoid the ghost at all costs. Sinister music and fearful reaction shots align the schoolgirl’s warning with the narrative framework of both the folkloric female ghost that saps male vitality through intercourse, and the logic of shōjo horror – as seen in
“The Blue Raincoat” – which figures sexuality and the supernatural as sites of peril for young people. However, when the yuurei visits the boy once more, his father, hearing noises, rushes into the room. The horror story is thus upended by the intrusion of a trope from comedy and drama genres: the mutual embarrassment of a parent walking in on their child having sex. This disruption of the established horror narrative goes further, when the father tells his son not to worry, and to “continue”, revealing that he himself had been visited by the ghost “at that age”, and that once the boy was a little older she would disappear.
In a final comedic shock, the father pauses in the doorway to express his envy of his son’s youth. While the ending is apparently entirely different to that of “The Blue Raincoat” in both narrative and tone, the same structural formula is in fact employed here: a hybridization of horror and drama tropes (this time the tension of horror finding its resolution in drama), and the stabilizing effect of normative gender roles being reasserted in a didactic, moralizing manner.
Whereas the schoolgirls in these vignettes must learn to recognize and avoid the danger of sexuality in order to survive, the young boy is reassured that the terrifying and predatory appearance of sexuality is just part of growing up, and that to experience sexual contact is in fact something worthy of others’ envy.
138 Mulvey, Laura (1992). “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” The Sexual Subject: A Screen Reader on Sexuality. London: Routledge.
Sexuality in “The Music Box” is less explicit as a theme, but it exemplifies the same cautionary format of “The Blue Raincoat” as well as a similar use of drama and horror hybridization in the service of teaching the audience about gender and sexuality. The story begins with a first-person monologue explaining the scenario and aligning the audience’s subjectivity with that of the speaking schoolgirl as the camera shows her entering the house of a middle-aged man and having a cup of tea with him: “Mr. Hoshita taught me at junior high school. I bumped into him at my friend’s piano recital… and that’s why I visited him. We were meant to talk about the old days and to enjoy ourselves. But then he took it out.” As in “The Blue Raincoat”, the shōjo drama set-up avoids explicitly depicting predatory behaviour by displacing it onto horror conventions: rather than his penis, the object that Hoshita takes out is a mysterious music box he has acquired, with the strange property that when it is played, along with the tinkling, pleasant melody a low male moaning can indistinctly be heard. This scenario quite clearly lends itself to symbolic or psychoanalytic readings, as the music box seems to stand in for a dangerous male existing within an apparently pleasant scenario, such as visiting an old teacher to have tea in his home. As the story goes on the threatening male voice grows louder, and the schoolgirl makes several attempts to leave, but Hoshita, clearly as frightened of the ghost as she is, insists that she stays, until finally both are attacked by the malevolent presence and the story ends. As with “The Blue Raincoat”, the threatening ghost of “The Music Box” is figured as male rather than female, contrary to the J-horror norm.
However, unlike “The Blue Raincoat”, in which the schoolgirl asserts herself and escapes the dangerous situation with a boy, “The Music Box” depicts a schoolgirl who is unable to extract herself from a dangerous situation with a man – it is not revealed what happens when the ghost catches both her and Hoshita, but the implication that she becomes the victim of a terrible fate is generated strongly by the affect of horror. The fact that Hoshita is also a victim of the ghost is interesting in placing the monster of sexual predation outside of the man who invokes it, as though the danger is not one of an oppressor and an oppressed, but rather one that emerges from a social site and that negatively impacts both parties, predator and schoolgirl.
What these examples reveal is a coded depiction of serious issues that would be of interest to the target girl audience, but which are rarely present in children’s media due to their sexual nature. The televised formula established by Kowai Hanashi and continued in Kaidan Shin Mimibukuro is quite remarkable in many respects, and no doubt its wide viewership was a result of many factors, but a significant one is the way in which it engineers an accessible space in which considerations of sexuality from the perspective of young girls can be depicted in a dramatic and accessible format, thanks to the coded and non-explicit presentation of its content as trivial, fun, spooky stories. This new avenue for social issues in popular culture was the result of an intensive hybridization of genres: horror tropes were put to the service of shōjo thematic concerns, and in the same moment the introduction of these concerns transformed the possibilities of how one could make a horror film.
In addition, the limitations of a very low budget and not being able to depict violence allowed for new creative images that addressed a variety of social scenarios figured as relevant to girls. In “Animal Odour”, a man who killed animals for pleasure as a child is cursed to always have a strange animal smell about him – possibly the cheapest curse in screen history – and the schoolgirl protagonist is faced with the shōjo-esque dramatic scenario of whether or not she should tell her pregnant cousin what she knows of her new husband’s dark past. In “Visitor”, a schoolgirl is worried about her friend who has been missing school because of a cold, and when she visits finds her to be co-habiting with a female ghost that drips blood everywhere, while the sick girl scrubs her clothes and the blood that drips onto the floor. The girls’ reactions to the ghost are telling: the sick girl angrily says “Don’t!” when the ghost tries to emerge and it demurely obeys, and the friend, less in terror than in shock or embarrassment, says she needs to go and hurriedly leaves, enforcing the image of the “visitor” as a manifestation of a particularly severe period, or at least an undesirable condition that must be endured by schoolgirls rather than the life-threatening evil that ghosts often represent.
The magical realist endings of these stories, in which girls acknowledge the supernatural events as part of their social reality, can certainly be traced back to folkloric precedents, but their prevalence in televised J-horror is much
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.