J-horror Inquirer article

Jim Harper jimharper666 at yahoo.co.uk
Fri Jun 9 05:43:22 EDT 2006

Japanese horror since the mid-eighties has certainly been increasingly influenced by Western horror, but that covers a multitude of cultural backgrounds with no single identity. But in the best cases this isn't simply a grafting of foreign ideas onto domestic ones, it's considerably more complex than that. You end up with a product that deserves consideration as something new, rather than just playing spot-the-influence.
  As for the first American horror boom, the Universal years, look at the central figures: actors like Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Lionel Atwill, George Zucco, Claude Rains, Basil Rathbone, directors like Tod Browning, Roy Neill, and James Whale, scriptwriter Curt Siodmak and his director brother Robert Siodmak, even Universal head man Carl Laemle Sr- all the big names, and every one of them European. Only Lon Chaney and the Carradines were American, so even the first great boom was heavily dependant upon European talent.
"J.sharp" <j.sharp at hpo.net> wrote:
  I think it is a mistake to analyse this in terms of a basic dichotomy
between East and West as represented by the two extremes of Japan and
Hollywood. Horror as a global cinematic genre has over its history received
inspiration from all sorts of diverse sources, and had a long and
interesting history long before Hollywood belatedly discovered how
profitable it could be with its coffee-table horros like Rosemary's Baby and
The Omen.

Firstly, horror is most certainly not an exclusively all-American genre. In
its most simple model, its literary origins, the writings of Stoker,
Shelley, Conan Doyle, Le Fanu et al are British or Irish (with the exception
of Poe). Its cinematic origins, the expressive use of light and shadow and
camera movement was brought by the Germans in films like Caligari, Faust and
Nosferatu. These elements were first combined and applied in a commercial
formula in the Universal films from the 1931 adaptations of Dracula,
Frankenstein and the Invisible Man onwards. But the first American horror
boom from Universal was pretty short, barely lasting into the 40s where it
came to an ignoble end with all those ridiculous House of Frankenstein type
mad monster conventions, where they'd throw in Dracula, the mummy, the
wolfman, Frankenstein and the rest of them into one 70-minute film. For the
50s, Hollywood was more concerned with paranoid "reds under the bed"
fantasies, with the Russians represented by flying saucers or giant
radioactive insects crawling around Arizona. Horror was effectively replaced
by science fiction in America after the war.

But this I think makes the synchronous arrival of the groundbreaking genre
films of Terence Fisher at Hammer studios and Nobuo Nakagawa at Shintoho
all the more interesting.
Why did two countries at opposite sides of the world begin work in a genre
they had never really touched before (ok, there were British horrors in the
30s, but it was never a hugely successful market) but which was to become so
lucrative to their industries (albeit at different points in history). Part
of the answer is probably due to a relaxation in censorship after the war -
weren't horror films banned in the UK during the war?

One thing that I have always been unclear on is the question of where Nobuo
Nakagawa's increasingly bloody Kaidan films like Ghost of Yotsuya were in
anyway influenced by Hammers films, or in other words, were Hammer films
ever released in Japan during the late 50s. I don't think they could have
been, because most of these works were being made at exactly the same time.
Its just a coincidence.

Anyway, during the 60s horror was pretty much dominated by the Europeans -
mainly the Italians, Germans and British. America had a few notable
additions later on in the decade, namely Rosemary's Baby and Night of the
Living Dead, but for the most part its contributions were either forgotton
z-grade exploitation films for the drive-in market or in the case of Roger
Corman's Poe adaptations, emulations of European films.

The Japanese horror film in the 60s boasts one interesting sounding title I
have never seen, entitled Ghost of the Hunchback / Kaidan Semushi Otoko
(1965), directed by Hajime Sato for Toei . The Aurum Encyclopedia of Horror
describes this as belonging to a gothic tradition then very prevalent in
Italy "with lighting and costumes and modelled on the gothic films of Mario
Bava and Antonio Margeriti". Could this really be true? Were Bava's films
released in Japan in the early 60s?

So in other words, rather than looking at J-horror vis-a-vis American horror
traditions, its necessary to look at the whole picture and ask questions
like why did Italy start making horror films the same time as Britain and
Japan. Did these countries continue making horrorf films perhaps because
they were easy to sell to the American market? Which American, British,
Italian German or whatever horror films were actually screened in Japan
around the same time they were released?

Regarding the second point, Nakata has never denied his influence from
Hollywood films, both in Videodrone, The Haunting, Poltergeist for the first
Ring, and Exorcist 2 in the second - he always in interviews cites these as
explicit influences. As the genre's strongest proponent in Japan, Kiyoshi
Kurosawa has very eclectic viewing habits for example, and I know that he is
as big a fan of Italian gothic films by the likes of Mario Bava as he is of
the work of Jean-Luc Godard, and he certainly watches a lot of American
horror too.

This is just my view of the complex picture to counter all these articles
about J-horror and threads I keep seeing on film websites to the effect of
"Japan is a new source of inspiration for Hollywood but thats ok because
they have been stealing ideas from Hollywood for decades".

Any thoughts on this, anyone?


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