Thursday, October 20, 2016

Critic’s Crypt: J-Horror Genre Slugfest – Kairo & Hausu

The girls arrive at the titular House (Hausu, 1977).

I’m comfortable admitting that I felt a certain amount of trepidation about this particular Critic’s Crypt. Japanese horror films like Ring (1998) and Noroi: The Curse (2005) have always had a way of getting under my skin the way no Western horror movie can (in fact I still maintain that in addition to being far superior to its Hollywood remake, Ring is the scariest movie I’ve ever seen). I’ve been trying to put my finger on it for years, but I think it simply comes down to the difference in cultural sensibilities between Japan and the rest of the world, and how that manifests in terms of horror. What the Japanese find frightening is represented in a much more subtle and insidious way than our Hollywood-bred jump-scare fare, relying far more often on the audience’s imagination and playing on fears and doubts that – to me, as an uncultured gaijin, anyway – are just as scary in their probing truth as they are in their foreign incomprehensibility.

Often it’s about the way j-horror (as it’s affectionately known here) will take ordinary, innocuous things and – by connecting them to the strange, the supernatural, and the psychotic – make them terrifying. Whether it’s an unlabelled VHS tape, a flock of pigeons, a crumpled garbage bag, or a TV screen left on static, this genre excels at forcing you to re-examine the world around you with suspicious, fearful eyes. The potential freak-out factor extends beyond the threshold of the theatre doors, making your walk home in the sunshine as nerve-wracking as a night-time shortcut through a cemetery. In short, I can’t really articulate exactly why, but Japanese horror movies scare me good.

So, in a month that’s so far been pretty light on true horror, I had to steel myself for what I expected would be the most harrowing viewings of Halloween 2016. I chose an old and a new, neither of which I’d seen before: 2001’s Kairo (aka “Pulse”), about ghosts who invade our world through the internet, and 1977’s Hausu (aka “House”), about… well, we’ll get to that. To my immense surprise, neither really represented j-horror the way I had expected – but in their unique twists on the formula, they were exemplars of how broad and varied and surprising the genre can be. Plus, I made it through without mentally scarring myself! So, that’s a win.

Junko (Kurume Arisaka) embraces her loneliness, in a scene from Kairo (2001).

The description of Kairo alone was enough to make me groan; it sounded like the worst kind of topical turn-of-the-century cliché that I doubted could bring anything new to the table. It’s odd to consider, too, that a country like Japan would be susceptible to technophobia, especially in the early '00s – this movie came out pretty close on the heels of The Matrix, after all. Little did I know that Kairo was going to use its lame premise to make some genuinely interesting (and prescient) statements about human interaction and the way the internet can distance us from one another, even as it claims to bring us closer together. It even sort of predicts the creepypasta boom, in a weird way, which was genuinely shocking – even if little of the actual film was.

The film features two concurrent storylines: one about three employees of a flower shop who investigate their friend’s sudden suicide after he attempts to copy something to a disk, and the other about a technophobe who stumbles upon a ghostly presence online and seeks the help of a grad student in getting rid of it. It begins with characters studying a photograph in which they think they can see a strange face, hidden in the darkness – creepy, fucked-up photos being a staple of j-horror, which I suspect may be tied to ancient superstitions about cameras capturing people’s souls – and culminates in a scenario that I can comfortably describe as apocalyptic. I’ve never seen anything like it; it combines the intimate, cloistered, dread-filled character drama of usual j-horror fare with a bizarre mythology that spins out into a story much more massive in scope than this sort of film usually bothers with. It’s not very scary, but it’s surprisingly interesting.

It all has to do with ghosts, of course. Kairo posits, through a programming student who thinks that he’s figured out why ghostly figures are appearing all over his campus, that the souls of the dead have a finite space in which to live their afterlife, and it’s getting too crowded. Every time someone dies, spirits get squeezed out of their world, and begin to bleed into ours. And, uh-oh: turns out that this newfangled internet thing everyone’s raving about is a perfect way for them to pass through the veil! But as interesting as this idea is, Kairo sort of stumbles on its own internal logic: how and why these spirits harass the living is unclear, and what (if anything) the characters are supposed to be doing to stop it is totally unknown. In Hollywood horror, it’s typical for the audience to know exactly what needs to happen for a character to survive, but the character remains oblivious, and we’re left screaming at the screen for them to just pick up the axe already or what have you. In Kairo, neither the characters nor the audience have any clue what this is all about – and in a way, that’s almost more frightening. It can sure make for a frustrating movie, though. I have no idea what the film’s taped-up rooms, which the characters enter at their own peril, have to do with the internet, or who the man was that originally sequestered the room we’re shown in flashback. While it's fascinating that the ghosts in the movie don’t directly kill people – they instead prompt their victims to kill themselves (perhaps a grim commentary on Japan’s notoriously high suicide rates) – this seems to be at odds with the movie’s established mythology. The idea, as far as I understand, is that ghosts don't actually want to kill people – because that would just add to their overpopulation problem – so they want to, as one character puts it, "make people immortal" by "trapping them forever in their own loneliness". Which, in the film, just means they end up killing themselves. Which is... somehow different from dying? They do become weird splotches when they die, instead of remaining as corpses –  but that didn't clarify much for me.

But as confounding as these narrative details can be, they’re made up for by Kairo’s excellent technical elements. Typical j-horror makes use of audio to extremely creepy effect, stuff like that unmistakable “ghost groan” that you hear on the other end of the phone in Ring, and Kairo goes further by getting huge mileage out of high-gain whispering (usually a recently dead person saying "help me"), with the soundtrack sometimes cutting out entirely in a moment of high tension. The score, mostly comprised of a wavering female chorus that sounds like a living theremin, is also appropriately spine-chilling (and made more effective through its sparse presence). The filmmaking communicates a lot, too, whether it’s the washed-out colour palette (again, a cornerstone of modern j-horror), the scarcity of closeups except in disturbing moments (which makes you terrified to get close to the characters), and – but for some occasionally dodgy CGI – some really neat ghost effects (the best of which was the slow-mo ghost attack at the beginning, in which a female spectre advances on a character in jerky, twisted movements that reminded me of the backwards dancing from Twin Peaks).

Something that really threw me for a loop is that these characters get right up close to these ghosties. It's crazy! Usually physical proximity to the supernatural is, in itself, the scariest thing in j-horror (it takes the whole runtime of Ring for Sadako to come out of the TV into the physical space of the characters, and her just standing there in the same room with the guy is enough to kill him). Here they straight up grab them, shout at them, have conversations... it's weirdly refreshing. It’s helped by the way the film makes ghosts more complex entities than just malevolent spirits – even if the explanations of their motivation make little sense – and by the way Kairo eschews the typical gross corpse-face effects for its ghosts, making them appear more human than most j-horror films would. Kairo didn't scare me overmuch, but it did ignite the fire of my imagination, making me hungry for more of its bizarre lore and keeping me asking questions long after it was over.

Mac (Mieko Sato) gets ahead of herself in Hausu (1977).

But when it comes to movies that will have you shouting questions at the screen, nothing comes close to Hausu. I chose it because I thought it would represent a genesis point for the genre and hoo boy was I off-base on that. Nothing about Hausu, save for a few choice moments, resembles the j-horror genre I've come to love and dread. In fact, Hausu resembles more of a Japanese Halloween-themed episode of The Electric Company than an actual horror film: everything from the wacky 1970s Saturday morning tone, to the inclusion of songs and musical numbers (and the scratchy sound of the recordings), to the lo-fi special effects, is more like an instructional children’s TV show than a regional subgenre of horror cinema. (Except for the frequent nudity and dismemberment, of course.) It’s jarring if you don’t know what you’re in for – but even if it grates on you, Hausu hides nuggets of brilliance inside its ludicrous presentation, and actually does provide a few early reference points for the observant j-horror fan.

Using the term “story” to describe Hausu’s structure is a bit ennobling, but the basic idea – and bear with me on this – is that seven high school girls named Gorgeous, Fantasy, Sweet, Kung-Fu, Melody, Mac, and Prof travel to Gorgeous’ aunt’s mansion for a summer vacation. One by one they are attacked by the strange elements of Auntie’s house as it’s revealed that she is actually a spirit who consumes unmarried girls. Many bloody hijinks ensue as Mac is decapitated, Gorgeous is possessed, Melody is eaten by a piano, and the remaining girls try to survive and escape the house. It sounds a lot more serious in writing than it actually is onscreen, trust me.

Describing Hausu’s ridiculousness doesn’t even come close to doing it justice. It’s three kinds of absurd at the same time: in the way only Japanese films can be, in the way only films from the 70s can be, and in the way only an intersection of those things, mixed with a heightened comic tone, can be. Sweet is assaulted by animated mattresses and pillows, and her bra and panties are later found in the wreckage. Mac is named Mac because she’s “the fat one” and loves to eat, which of course results in her being the first to go, in true Augustus Gloop fashion. You can tell Prof is the smart one because she wears glasses and says things like “that’s not logical.” And Kung-Fu (far and away my favourite of the group) earns her nickname by responding to most situations with legitimately exciting martial arts expertise. She also wears bizarre diaper-like bow-tie panties for most of the film, but that’s beside the point. (Well, maybe not, considering how many excuses the film finds to pop a boob or two out of a shirt. I’m not complaining; it got so they became like sips of air to a drowning person.) It’s a complete fever dream of a film, as ingenious as it is irritating.

The ingenuity of the film really only shines through in its special effects, designed like attractions at a sideshow haunted house – everything from psychedelic screen effects (like the film’s really really shoddy compositing and colour grading) to practical in-camera stuff like puppets, stop-motion, and footage that’s been heavily slowed, sped up, or reversed. These effects are also where you begin to see how Hausu, in its own tiny, weird ways, actually influenced future Japanese horror filmmakers: the inky hair which creeps up out of the water onto Gorgeous’ back while she’s bathing, for example, or the prevalence of bridal imagery, which is now common in the genre. Even the concept of a spirit consumed by grief who torments the living out of spite is a subject that informs everything from Hausu all the way to Ju-On, with its roots in Japanese folklore. The trouble is, though, that the film doesn’t really use this stuff to any sort of scary effect – in fact, the effect is the opposite, something the cast and crew understood very well in their derision for the material (which they saw as “nonsense”), and which caused the film to bomb upon release in Japan. It’s only recently that Hausu has earned appreciation as a cult midnight movie, and that’s exactly the right way to think about it: if you look at it as a film, it falls flat on its face, but if you look at it as an experience – preferably shared with friends over some drinks – it’s entertaining as all hell.

Again, though, not very scary. I can see it already: Halloween 2017 rolls around and, confident that I can handle anything Japan throws at me, I select the scariest-sounding films I can find, and they just ruin me from the inside out. Kairo and Hausu have lulled me into a false sense of security. I’ve never been more vulnerable.

You know what? I don’t care. Come at me, Japan.

– Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid film buff, gamer, and industry commentator since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade. He is currently helping to make awesome games at Ubisoft Toronto, and continues to pursue a career in professional criticism.

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