Tag Archives: South Korea

Hideo Nakata, Takashi Shimizu, & the Golden Age of J-Horror


I might not have mentioned, but I was recently at FrightFest, which is always the highlight of the year for me. We’d been promised a mysterious new Adam Wingard picture entitled The Woods, which was set to be the very latest thing in scaring audiences’ pants off. Well, as it turned out, it wasn’t really The Woods at all, but rather a new sequel to The Blair Witch Project. At the same time, it turned out we weren’t really getting to see it at all, but THEN it turned out that instead we were getting Sadako vs. Kayako, i.e. The Ring vs. The Grudge. For me, that was a good result I’d been eagerly awaiting Sadako vs. Kayako since its announcement, & nothing could dampen that enthusiasm.

As it turned out, the picture was only OK, offering a few interesting ideas but undermining itself with tongue-in-cheek humour & never really reaching the nightmare pitch achieved in the best of its predecessors (Ringu, Ju-On: The Curse, Ju-On: The Grudge, The Ring). Perhaps this shouldn’t be too surprising. Those films all came out within a remarkably short period of time a Golden Age for what was called J-Horror.

J-Horror is not simply any horror that comes out of Japan, but in order to qualify it does have to be Japanese. The films from J-Horror’s Golden Age favoured vengeful spirits, usually girls in white dresses with stringy black hair. The approach to horror, while often incorporating a hefty dose of surrealism, was subtle too, usually avoiding gore, or even any specific depictions of harm, in favour of maddeningly relentless pursuits. They were also heavily reliant on intelligent use of the frame, hiding characters in background shadows or just out of shot. Naturally, this meant the films required talented directors making them work, which is exactly what they got: Hideo Nakata helmed Ringu, Ringu 2 & The Ring Two, leaving other, less talented directors to follow him on pictures such as Ringu‘s discredited sequel Rasen, the surprisingly effective prequel film Ringu 0: Birthday, & the tacky, CGI-filled later revivals Sadako 3D & Sadako 2 3D. Hideo Nakata’s relationship to Ju-On is similar; the series had its origins in the shorts “Katasumi” & “4444444444” released in the anthology Gakkô no kaidan G. Nakata expanded around them with Ju-On: The Curse & Ju-On: The Curse 2, before giving the series its first reboot with Ju-On: The Grudge, which earned its own sequel in Ju-On: The Grudge 2. Following the success of Ringu‘s even better US remake The Ring, lavishly staged by later Pirates of the Caribbean director Gore Verbinski, Ju-On: The Grudge received a similar US treatment, yet again directed by Shimizu, who would also stay on for The Grudge 2 before abandoning both the Japanese & American iterations of his franchise. The Grudge 3 went straight to home video, but the American series continues to hold out hope, with a reboot reportedly in the works. In Japan, the series never quite fell out of fashion, & the spin-off films Ju-On: White Ghost, which was pretty good, & Ju-On: Black Ghost, which was less so, marked the series’ tenth anniversary before yet another reboot in Ju-On: The Beginning of the End, whose sequel was Ju-On: The Final Curse. Sadako vs. Kayako, for those who are interested, reboots both series yet again in order to incorporate some minor changes to the mythos.

The US pictures coming out at this time that weren’t remakes of Japanese pictures ended up looking like they might as well be, while the cinemas of China & Korea both responded to the horror waves coming from Japan. A neighbouring, yet different, genre enjoying a little Golden Age of its own at the same time was Asian extreme, best represented by Korean Park Chan-Wook & Japanese Takashi Miike, while the tactics of J-horror fed into, & from, other media, such as the horror manga of Junji Ito, the novels of Kōji Suzuki, or the many survival horror videogames released in the same period.

Nakata & Shimizu made some other excellent horrors; Nakata delivered his masterpiece in Dark Water, which also had a US remake, while Nakata delivered the Junji Ito adaptation Tomie: Rebirth, the Lovecraftian Marebito, The Shock Labyrinth, & Tormented. But other directors were active, too; if you want to easily keep track of them, why not try the J-Horror Theater imprint? It gathered six of J-Horror’s leading talents to deliver one picture each; Nakata & Shimizu pitched in with Kaidan & Reincarnation respectively, while the other pictures were Infection (from Masayuki Ochiai of Parasite Eve, Saimin, Shutter, & Kotodama – Spiritual Curse before taking over for Shimizu on the Ju-On franchise); Premonition (from Tsuruta Norio of Ringu 0: Birthday & Kakashi, which was based on a Junji Ito manga); Retribution (from Kiyoshi Kurosawa, best-known for Pulse); & finally Kyōfu (from Ringu screenwriter Hiroshi Takahashi). The J-Horror Theater series had mostly died off by its later entries, however, as had the brief, incredibly terrifying success of the genre. Sometimes all it takes to create a Golden Age is one or two great talents. Or maybe there was just something in the water in the late-90s.

Marvel, DC, & 1.5-horse races

Solid & Liquid Snake

DID ANYONE SEE Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice? I’m just asking. Personally I didn’t bother; it wasn’t that I didn’t care, it just sort of passed me by. The figures suggest that’s probably the case for a lot of people out there, since the film did a passable, but disappointing, $850m & received damning reviews across the board. Given it was meant to launch a mega-expanded-universe-cinematic-juggernaut-crossover franchise (as was 2013’s uninspiring, but successful, Man of Steel), this is bad news for DC. Once upon a time, they could open massive comic-book movies like 1978’s Superman (plus four sequels), 1989’s Batman (plus three sequels), & 2005’s Batman Begins (plus two sequels & a pretty good animated spinoff), while in roughly the same timeframe, Marvel was producing unwatchable shit almost exclusively, which is funny since in terms of sales Marvel’s always had a competitive edge against the older, more conservative DC. In terms of popular iconography, DC’s always had the upper hand with their Superman/Batman/Wonder Woman trinity, though the depth & variety of Marvel characters is more impressive, & outside of that trinity DC’s never really managed to manage another household name, where Marvel has several (Spider-Man, The Incredible Hulk, Captain America, The Fantastic Four, Silver Surfer, The Mighty Thor, the X-Men & especially Wolverine plus, of late, Iron Man). Plus, in recent years Marvel have launched hugely successful films even when based on their obscurer characters. Similar attempts by DC have resulted in nothing but flops. Given all of this cinematic kerfuffle, plus DC’s flagging readership since the New 52 reboot, they’d be wise to watch out, lest they surrender the greater market share to Marvel after sixty-odd competitive years, making things less of a two-horse race & more of a 1.5-horse race.

1.5-horse races are surprisingly common; if anything, they may actually be more common than true two-horse races. It’s where one company has a clear lead, perhaps more than 50% of the market share, & their next competitor is almost as visible, almost as famous, almost as acclaimed, sells almost as well.

In fast food, there’s McDonald’s vs. Burger King. In traditional animation, there’s Disney vs. Warner Bros. (appropriate, given Disney owns Marvel & WB, DC); in CG animation there’s Disney Pixar vs. DreamWorks Animation. In cola, there’s Coca-Cola vs. Pepsi; in orange soda, there’s Fanta vs. Tango (Tango is sold in the UK by Britvic, who distribute fellow 2nd-bester Pepsi); in lemonade, there’s Sprite vs. 7Up (again, Sprite is Coca-Cola’s horse; 7Up, PepsiCo’s). In computers, there’s Microsoft vs. Apple. In trainers, there’s Nike vs. Reebok, & there’s Adidas vs. Puma. In girls’ dolls, there’s Barbie vs. Cindy. In American cars, there’s Ford vs. General Motors. In Italian sports cars, there’s Ferrari vs. Lamborghini. In music, there’s The Beatles vs. The Rolling Stones, The Sex Pistols vs. The Clash, Oasis vs. Blur, Madonna vs. Cyndi Lauper, Michael Jackson vs. Prince, & 2Pac vs. The Notorious B.I.G.. In American inventing, there used to be Thomas Edison vs. Nikola Tesla. Many football rivalries also work the same way: Manchester United vs. Manchester City, Arsenal vs. Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool vs. Everton, West Ham vs. Millwall,  Norwich vs. Ipswich, Cardiff vs. Swansea, & Crystal Palace vs. Brighton and Hove Albion. Celtic vs. Rangers has become this of late, after Rangers’ bankruptcy/buying-out saga. No doubt other sports have their own examples too. This can even extend to rivalries between cities, for which many of the football rivalries spill out into a larger rivalry. It can even happen with countries: look at Australia vs. New Zealand, Japan vs. South Korea, or for a less friendly example, South Korea vs. North Korea.

Even the Cold War, when you really think about it, resolves itself as another of these 1.5-horse races, with the Soviet Union stretching itself too thin in trying to remain competitive with the United States. But, as you can see from perusing the list above, it’s rare for one side to ever get enough of an upper hand to really drive its rivals into the ground, so both sides keep hanging on while an indifferent public tends just to go for the brand they prefer.

Tough Mudder, the avant-garde, & the popularity of rollercoasters

Basic RGB

IF YOU LIVE near where I live, then around about now’s the right time to register for Tough Mudder Scotland, a 10-mile obstacle course involving ice, icy water, fire, electric shocks, long falls, an outside possibility of death, & of course, much mud. I don’t know, maybe that appeals to you. Christ knows it doesn’t appeal to me, but then I’m a bookish, waifish intellectual. They sew me into my skinny jeans before I leave the house (for lectures only!) & I come straight back, draw the curtains, & stay at home thinking about life & adventure & the great outdoors & so forth, without ever actually experiencing it. I’m like Wordsworth in that respect.

But obviously Tough Mudder does appeal to some, because over one million people worldwide have participated, & the event continues to grow. Three of my friends have done it. I can sort of understand the appeal. It’s essentially an egotistical thing, proving to oneself that one is indeed the best, the toughest, the fittest. It’s like graduating the SAS’ notoriously difficult training, except without then being obliged to make oneself useful by fighting for the country. That’s why, whereas the SAS would pay you, you have to pay Tough Mudder for their services, because what they’re letting you do is play special forces, but in basically safe conditions. Sure, I mentioned further up that there’s been one death, but out of one million participants, that means Tough Mudder is 99.9999% safe, which makes it safer than ecstasy, horseriding, or safe sex. & in that sense, Tough Mudder strikes me as a weirdly privileged phenomenon, a notion possibly borne out by a look over the countries in which the company operates: the United States, Canada, the UK, Ireland, Germany, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, China, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, the Philippines, & Mexico. At this rate, we could just replace the Human Development Index with a measure of the presence or non-presence of Tough Mudder.

Nick Hornby wrote a typically sensible essay in his nonfiction collection 31 Songs, discussing Suicide’s 10-minute industrial nightmare, “Frankie Teardrop”. Unfortunately, I can only link to the first few pages of the essay here, but the gist of it is that Hornby considers the critical phenomenon of undue praise often going to experimental, unsettling, challenging works simply by virtue of their being experimental, unsettling or challenging, deciding that it is, by & large, the product of a complacency borne of peace & prosperity; that a returning WWI veteran probably wouldn’t have much of a wish to listen to “Frankie Teardrop”, a song which one reviewer compares to being shot in the head.

Nick Hornby makes a very good point. But it was also his description of “Frankie Teardrop” as his most disturbing sonic experience which gave me a desire to listen to it; in the same essay, Hornby expresses a preference for a Teenage Fanclub song on the basis that it’s catchy & likeable, which is fair enough, but to this day hasn’t been a strong enough recommendation for me to seek it out. I myself have recommended to friends Scott Walker’s dank, claustrophobic Tilt & his violent, ugly The Drift essentially on the basis of how unpleasant they are. Teenagers often try to outdo each other on who can stand the most violent films, the obscenest pornography, or the heaviest music. But I think there’s something more than that novelty value going on, because I still enjoy Suicide, Scott Walker & indeed noise music, which is as far as I can imagine the apotheosis of heavy, because it’s nothing but feedback. I’m not trying to boast there; & when I do listen to noise, it’s with something of an ironic distance, because I do recognise the absurdity of the sort of aural race to the bottom which produced it: the fuckit-ism of “Just how far can we push this? Beyond the point of pleasantness? Hopefully!”. & as teenaged as it seems, there’s a huge fascination with boundarypushing, even in mature, “serious” fields such as, say, the entirety of modernist literature. Or experimental film. Or most visual art since the Second World War.

It might be a touch too easy to chalk all this up to our pampered society. After all, times of war have produced plenty of war literature & art, & times of hardship or horror don’t always lead to fluffy escapism becoming more appealing. Cultural historians have often blamed the optimism of Tin Pan Alley on the harsh realities of the Depression; but then, the same critics would also argue that the aftermath of 9/11 put the kibosh, temporarily, on the popularity of films like Godzilla or Independence Day, in which the destruction of New York is just the coolest thing – that escapism was common before 9/11, & more complex, challenged moralities more popular afterwards*. Tough Mudder, difficult avant-garde art, &, indeed, horror films, might all be appealing to one unchanging part of the human psyche which just longs for “danger”, in flavours that vary from indivual to individual. & I don’t think wider sociopolitical considerations have ever made much of an impact on the popularity of rollercoasters, which are, I think, probably the most direct expression of this sort of fascination.

*As, for instance, with the proliferation of dark, tortured superheroes in films like The Dark Knight, though it must be pointed out that the cinematic trend began a little before 9/11, with Blade (1998), X-Men (2000), & Spider-Man (2002, but completed earlier. Posters & trailers for the film featured WTC prominently).