electronic journal of contemporary japanese studies

Discussion Paper 4 in 2005
First published in ejcjs on 6 October 2005

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The Problem of Identity in Contemporary Japanese Horror Films


Timothy Iles

Assistant Professor
Department of Pacific and Asian Studies
University of Victoria

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Susan Napier has suggested that

... science fiction is a particularly appropriate vehicle for treating the complexities of the Japanese success story. The very vocabulary of the genre—that of technological, social, and cultural advancement—reflects the cultural instrumentalities that characterise modern capitalism. These instrumentalities include the rapidity of change, the ideology of progress toward some anticipated 'future', and the omnipresence of the machine.

Napier, p. 329

These points are well made, and reflect the aura of 'infallibility' which surrounds Japan's economic concentration on advancing technology. However, it is apparent to me that horror provides a more suitable metaphor for the issues facing the modern urban individual not only in Japan but in most post-industrial, consumer-capitalist countries. Horror represents the altercation between helpless characters and opponents endowed with incommensurably powerful abilities, the precise details of which, while unknown, are repulsive and terrifying. Horror represents the inchoate fears of an urban citizenry who daily encounter strangers—countless scores of unknown people, whose motives, desires, and potential capacity for harm remain immeasurable. These unknown people are all potential opponents. They are all potentially in competition for the very things each individual wants, yet whose true desires, because they remain unknown, are potentially far more threatening than they were in the 'traditional' pre-modern 'village' social model, wherein the majority of people one encountered on a daily basis were well known, or possibly even related, to one another.

The modern, urban social model presents a vast stream of potential opponents, who transcend the traditionally-held view of the social and of the natural. In effect, these strangers have the potential to become monsters. They 'are unnatural relative to a culture's conceptual scheme of nature. They do not fit the scheme; they violate it. Thus, monsters are not only physically threatening; they are cognitively threatening. They are threats to common knowledge' (Carroll, p. 56). While science fiction accepts the possibility of change, 'most horror films are oriented toward the restoration of the status quo' (Kawin, 470), are oriented towards purging what is unknown, what is terrifying, from the human community. 'In works of horror, the humans regard the monsters that they encounter as abnormal, as disturbances of the natural order' (Carroll, p. 52), and thus horror represents an attempt on the part of the characters, obviously, but equally on the part of the audience, to obtain reassurance and a sense of security in a world made threatening by forces beyond individual control. In this sense, horror may be seen as a desperate act, a last hope for redemption and the reclamation of a lost sanctuary of stability. In effect, horror becomes a quest for stable identity, concrete and unquestioned.

Postmodern Insecurity and Japanese Identity

Identity is something closely linked with 'the real,' with what is beyond doubt. A strong sense of self-identity, of individuated selfhood, is a hallmark of confidence and security: 'the way in which a man conceives of himself will influence both what he chooses to do and what he expects from life' (Gergen, p. 2). To a great extent, however, this has been called into question in the age of the postmodern, in the age of the 'simulacrum,' divested of a framework in which individuality can find nurturing support. As Lyotard has it, in the absence of a commonly held metanarrative,

... the narrative function is losing its functors, its great hero, its great dangers, its great voyages, its great goal. It is being dispersed in clouds of narrative language elements… Conveyed within each cloud are pragmatic valences specific to its kind. Each of us lives at the intersection of many of these. However, we do not necessarily establish stable language combinations, and the properties of the ones we do establish are not necessarily communicable… There are many different language games—a heterogenity of elements. They only give rise to institutions in patches—local determinism.

Lyotard, p. xxiv.

What emerges is a world of fragments, perhaps sufficient unto themselves, but more often simply disconnected from a substantiating frame; a world of indeterminates—a world in which the unknown threatens to become the norm, in which instability is the constant. Not since the years of the Cold War with their continuing threat of nuclear calamity has the world been so consistently in a condition of insecurity, so consistently stripped of the confidence which comes from a clear, definable identity.

In Japan, this feeling of insecurity comes about after a period of tremendous economic security. Critical work from the height of Japan's economic prosperity in the late 1980s suggests an essentialised view of a Japan emerging from a long period of psychological inferiority, into an era of unaccustomed—even bewildering—technological, industrial, and artistic confidence:

Indeed, the Japanese have been jolted, as it were, by their own success and are having a difficult time redefining their own position in relation to the rest of the world… From the perspective of the structure of the self and the other, therefore, this era is unprecedented for the Japanese, who feel for the first time in their history that they have 'mastered' the outside, the other, whose negative power devastated the country in 1945.

Ohnuki-Tierney, pp. 199-200.

This argument contains a perspective which seems appropriate. Japan during the 1980s was an unstoppable force in the world economy, a fact which brought wealth to a great percentage of the population and stability to the government (before the scrutiny of press and public caught up with various scandals associated with simply too much wealth). Seen in this light, then, the collapse of the 'bubble economy,' as Japan's consumer-export driven economy was dubbed, must exert a negative effect on the 'collective self,' especially on older members of the workforce who had defined themselves in relation to the success of their companies.

Japanese corporations of the 1970s and 1980s managed to operate within a shared illusion of a family-like corporate culture that in many senses provided employees with a corporate identity… Over the course of the 1990s [however] it seemed as if middle-aged and older Japanese men lost the feeling of being at home with themselves, both in the public eye and within the family space.

Iida, p. 433.

This lost feeling of 'being at home' is in fact a lost sense of self, a lost sense of identity operational within one particular generational group which had previously been highly motivated by a strong sense of devotion to a national agenda of growth and reclamation of economic stability.

It has become possible to suggest that in Japan, as in other late-capitalist, consumer societies, 'everyone lives to a degree in an artificial reality, such as the virtual family and the virtual society' (Iida, p. 428), a reality in which communication takes place more often via email, cell phone, or text-message than through face-to-face interaction, and in which identity becomes a purchasable, ultimately disposable commodity. In a world of artificial reality, identity itself becomes artificial, becomes doubtable, if not after all thoroughly suspicious. In such a world, what genre other than horror could best capture the prevalent mood? '(F)or horror appears to be one of the genres in which, ideally, the emotive responses of the audience run parallel to the emotions of the characters' (Carroll, p. 52), and conversely, in which the threat directed towards the characters mirrors closely that directed towards the audience itself. And what genre, other than horror, can so centrally address issues of the potential threat from within the unstable identities one encounters on a daily basis?

Watching a horror film may be a way of 'confronting a hidden evil in the culture' (Kawin, p. 468), but what the nature of this evil may be is a historically contingent issue. In the Japan of the postmodern era, the 'evil,' I would suggest, is—among other issues—a lack of critical social discourse on the function of consumerism and its consequent displacement of concrete, socially relevant identity in the lives of the individual participants in the 'children's game' (Iida, p. 430) of the sign-economy. Identity becomes a fluid thing during game play; when the game becomes indistinguishable from the framework 'reality' of which by rights it should be but one part. Thus, the concept of a fixed identity valid beyond the boundaries of play becomes meaningless. 'If cloaking oneself in the comforting worlds of high-tech fantasy characterises one feature of Japanese culture of the 1990s, active participation in the sign-economy and living a commercially created artificial identity is another trend of the times' (Iida, p. 430).

One must question, however, how comforting a world of fantasy can remain. How durable can an artificial identity be when faced with the unquestionable veracity of national instability, economic decline, and such social problems as homelessness and family violence (often perpetrated by children against parents, usually mothers), unseen in Japan—at least in the public imagination—since the end of the Allied Occupation in 1952? Together with this loss of self-identity, however, came other issues to erode the hitherto imagined security of the Japanese: extreme, public violence as characterised by two highly visible cases, those of Aum Shinrikyo and 'Shōnen A.' It is not appropriate here to analyse in detail these two events, but together, they amount to an assault on the sanctity, the sense of a close-knit family, of the Japanese and Japan's 'island mentality' which saw it as a safe country in some way immune to the social ills of the outside world.

Aum, of course, is the religious cult headed by Asahara Shoko, responsible for the release of sarin gas in the Tokyo subway system in March of 1995. 'Shōnen A,' on the other hand, was a young high school student who in 1997 murdered several younger students, beheading them and taunting the police with notes left in his victims' mouths. What was most disturbing about these events is the way in which they called into question the received notion of who was capable of committing such acts: no longer were horrible crimes the exclusive perview of 'criminals', of the insane, or the pathological. The members of Aum were for the most part young, intelligent, university educated people from stable, affluent families (Metraux, p. 1149). Many expressed deep concerns about the consequences of the materialistic lifestyle they saw around them (Metraux, p. 1145), and many sincerely felt the need to find a true sense of self-identity (Metraux, p. 1145) grounded in spirituality. 'Shōnen A,' conversely, was by all accounts a normal young boy, or 'futsū no ko,' from a 'regular family' (Arai, p. 843) whose actions transformed the concept of 'child' into 'the site of a newly intensified nexus of social anxiety,' just one part of a 'larger discourse of social crisis and collapse' (Arai, p. 841).

Thus during the 1990s Japan experienced on multiple fronts an assault on its self-image, its sense of security and social stability. These attacks translated into deeply-felt personal attacks, for a society after all is never collective, but rather is made up of shared personal experiences. For those Japanese who had known hardship, the shock must have been so much the greater, accompanied by fatalistic feelings of a return to a nightmare. How could horror not emerge in cinema as a reflection of this social condition?

Contemporary Japanese Horror and Identity

And emerge it did in the works of Nakata Hideo, Kurosawa Kiyoshi, Shimizu Takashi, and Sono Shion, among many others. These directors have created some of the most representative—and indeed, disturbing—examples of recent Japanese horror films. What is central to these directors' films is the question of identity, in a variety of aspects. I will consider how this issue functions in several examples, to propose that identity in the hyper-consumer, postmodern age remains a profoundly problematic concern.

Kurosawa Kiyoshi's Kyua (Cure, 1997), a haunting yet seemingly anticlimactic work which blends elements of the mystery, detective thriller, and horror genres, makes an appropriate starting point for this discussion, because its plot and 'monster' are most explicitly concerned with the problem of identity of both the victims and the source of the threat. The film follows two parallel stories which eventually meet. In brief, these are on the one hand that of a police officer who investigates a series of brutal killings which all share common features: the killers and victims are known to each other, often working or living together, and the killers have hitherto been perfectly law-abiding, mild-mannered citizens who, after committing their crimes, can remember nothing of what motivated them to do so. The second story is that of a young man found wandering along a beach, apparently suffering from total amnesia. This young man, however, has the uncanny ability to hypnotise the people whom he meets. As the film progresses, we come to realise that this young man, through the simple yet probing questions he asks, provides the impetus for the people whom he meets to commit seemingly random acts of murder. The film's conclusion is chillingly open-ended—as the police officer enjoys a cup of coffee at a cafe, in the background one waitress whispers briefly into another's ear. This second waitress then walks casually into the back, carrying a large knife.

It's useful here, in connection with the stranger in Kurosawa's Cure, to consider what Noël Carroll has suggested about the origins of monsters, that they often come from 'marginal, hidden, or abandoned sites… It is tempting to interpret the geography of horror as a figurative spatialisation of the notion that what horrifies is that which lies outside cultural categories, and is, perforce, unknown' (Carroll, p. 57). The young man able to hypnotise his victims is first encountered at the seaside, the liminal, boundary space between land and water, the solid and the fluid, and, of course, 'our' world and that part of the planet in which we cannot live. Without name or apparent knowledge of where he is, this man is an enigma, an identity-less form with neither goal nor background, yet with the ability to create within the people whom he meets a profound instability. He seems able, effortlessly, to hypnotise almost anyone, drawing from them their most hidden, violent desires. As one character in the film states explicitly, no one who is hypnotised can be made to do anything which s/he doesn't already want to do—the vicious murders which these random people commit are therefore part of their innermost potentialities. This is the true source of the terror in Kurosawa's Cure, the realisation that anyone—everyone—has the potential to become a killer, that everyone has the potential to become a monster. The identity of the nameless wanderer is, ultimately, completely irrelevant, as is the identity of the people whom he influences. Identity as such is neither defense nor excuse for the acts of violence which occur, themselves identity-less and random.

The film highlights the ability of the 'ordinary' to conceal within itself the horrible in the relationship between the police detective and his wife. She, in fact, is the first character we encounter, as she reads a book (a translation of Helmut Bartz's Blaubart), in what appears to be a medical or psychiatric clinic. Later we discover she has issues with her own memory and psychological condition—the strain of caring for her and hoping for her recovery has worn the detective down, to the point where he, too, expresses his frustrations in isolated, personal, violent outbursts. Unable to reach his wife through open communication, he gradually withdraws from her throughout the course of the film. Initially he had promised her a vacation together after concluding the case upon which he was working; however, the wife herself later tells him that there's no hope for a vacation, or for an improvement in their lives together. The ordinariness of their lives itself—the very quality of their work, their home, their reality—prevents their happiness. Coming to this realisation overwhelms the detective's sense of purpose, and in effect defeats him in his investigations of the random murders sparked by their perpetrators' encounters with the anonymous, wandering 'monster' who brings with him the key to society's inevitable power to alienate its members and cause them to destroy one another in the most 'natural' way imaginable.

It is in Kurosawa's films that a critique of the postmodern, or 'post-individual,' form of identity finds its most consistent expression, and where characters struggle most desperately against the overwhelming commodification of their selves. Kairo (The Pulse, 2001) offers another aspect of this issue, for its plot and characters are explicitly concerned with the preservation of individuality in the face of a subsuming nihilism. Kairo tells a simple—though surprisingly enigmatic—story, not without a certain irreverence toward logic and coherence, but one which has profound implications for the modern/postmodern age. The world of ghosts has become overcrowded, and through an appropriation of the computer technology which makes the Internet possible, they have become able to trap living human beings within their own personal eternities, forever isolated from one another—so doing, the ghosts are able to return from their dimension, to 'repopulate' the world as a 'ghost-colony.' People throughout the world resist vanishing as best they can, but eventually only a small handful of survivors remain aboard a ship headed out onto the open ocean. There is no resolution to this problem, no conclusion to this story, only a haunting, overhead shot of the ship, miniscule, against a grey, endless sea.

Quite ironically, and despite its promise to link people from around the globe, the Internet is presented as the medium of transmission of the problem—as the central male character, Kawashima, says, he had wanted to try the Internet because everyone was using it. He seemed to have hoped it would bring him closer to others. This aspect of the film deals with the issue of otaku, homebound people, usually male, usually young, who have withdrawn themselves from the pressures of the social world, often to avoid 'exam hell,' the time leading up to their university entrance examinations. The Internet is a way for these young people to maintain some minimum form of human contact; here, however, it becomes the mechanism whereby they are destroyed, trapped in isolation, and so making way for the return of the ghosts. What the Internet in effect seems to offer is an anonymous, safe existence in which identity is of absolutely no importance—but in which the only words these otaku exchange are 'Help me! Help me!'

The Pulse thus deals explicitly with the issue of identity and personal existence, particularly through the character Kawashima who expresses his confidence and his certainty of his own (ultimately un-established) individual identity. The film deals with these issues not only thematically through the characters' actions but semiotically, as well, again in a pivotal scene involving Kawashima as the representative of young Japanese men. The scene takes place near the end of the film, after Kawashima and Michi, one of the main female characters, have found Harue, the second main female character, and have been unable to prevent her from committing suicide. Kawashima unwittingly follows a rolling gas-tank cap into a 'red room' prepared to facilitate a ghost's return to the human world. He meets the materialising ghost, all the while resisting acknowledgement of the ghost's reality. This is in keeping with his attitude up to this point, and reaffirms his belief in the value of personal identity. As the ghost forms an ever clearer, emerging image, Kawashima berates it, denies its reality, and attempts to prove its illusory nature by trying to pass his hands through it—to his overwhelming shock, however, his hands land firmly on the ghost's solid shoulders. The film functions here quite differently from a work of traditional horror. At this scene, which reveals the ghost, it becomes clear that there is no possible solution to the problem: the ghost cannot be defeated. Traditionally, the revelation of the nature or origin of the threatening entity provides the 'hero' of the film with the means by which to destroy it and save him- or herself—here, however, as the ghost materialises into a tangible corporeality, its potential to destroy Kawashima intensifies, to the point where his earlier certainty and confidence in his own identity are fundamentally shaken. This scene presents a visual denial of the climax of traditional horror films, through the gradually sharpening focus of the ghost's features, from grainy indeterminacy, to clear, humanised, and surprisingly banal facial expression. But this is part of the ghost's threat, his apparent normalcy and lack of obviously vicious, demonic, or 'other worldly' appearance. This, too, is central to the issue of identity common to many works of Japanese horror. Horror is found in the everyday, in the banal, in the mundane.

Meaningless Identity, Unstoppable Horror

Similarly, this theme is present in the films of Nakata Hideo—most notably, Kaos (Chaos) from 1999, and of course his most well-known work, Ringu (The Ring) from 1998, but even his first film, Joyūrei (Ghost Actress) from 1997 hinges on a quest for the identity of the ghost character (even the title alludes to ambiguous identity in its conflation of two words, joyū, 'actress,' and yūrei, 'ghost,' thus implying the presence of the terrifying within the mundane, as does the work of Kurosawa Kiyoshi). It is in his films that we see clearly the 'endlessness' of the threat facing the main characters: in Ringu, even when the identity and history of Sadako, the originator of the video-taped curse that destroys its viewers unless they copy the tape and pass it on to someone else, are known to the protagonists, the threat is not eliminated. In a traditional horror story, as I've said, discovering the identity of the 'monster,' discovering its origins and its goal, is the first step in conquering it. Once the 'reality' of the threat is known, it is no longer part of the interstitial, boundary-crossing realm of terror that is so dangerous to the status quo. Once the identity of the thing is known, it joins the categories of the world, becoming analysable and 'treatable', its destabilising power neutralised.

However, in the works of Nakata Hideo we see most clearly a trend in contemporary Japanese horror, that of the continuing threat of the 'monster' even once the protagonists have discovered its identity. The process of discovering Sadako's story, and then her corpse, does not result in the end of the curse, and does not 'save' the protagonists from their fate. Identity here becomes, ultimately, unimportant. For knowing that identity is without benefit; Sadako's identity does not pull her out from the realm of the indeterminate, does not root her in the categorised reality which harbours the 'safe' status quo, but rather affirms her as in effect a commodity to be transferred from one person to the next, bringing with her the constant deferral of a concretised, unique individuality. Sadako's origins, intentions, and abilities remain a mystery even when her 'identity' is known, and so too remains a mystery the method whereby her threat can be overcome. Similarly, having a name, a brand identity, leaves the individual member of a consumer society still a mystery, still, as Erich Fromm phrased it fifty years ago, a commodity on the 'personality market' (Fromm, 1955).

Shimizu Takashi's series of films entitled Juon (variously given in English as The Curse or The Grudge; the first in this series was produced in 2000 for video and most recently, Shimizu has directed a version with American actors in 2004) builds on the theme of the anonymity and unstoppability of the threat, developed in Nakata's work, and develops the concept of the purely random nature of the danger facing the urban world. These films (five now, two versions each for Japanese television and cinema, and one using American actors) present disconnected chapters in which a victim unwittingly encounters a cursed place—a house where murder has been committed. The curse does not remain exclusively associated with the place, however, for as the film progresses, the vengeful spirit finds victims throughout the city. The victims are all merely accidental, people who for a variety of chance reasons encounter the cursed house or spirit. What this series brings to the horror genre is precisely this, the lack of a clear connection between the victims and the vengeful spirit. Whereas in Nakata's Ringu series, the victims through curiosity or simply bad luck viewed the cursed video tape, and so condemned themselves unless they pass on a copy to another victim, here, the victims are purely unrelated to the original source of the curse. Moreover, there is no 'way out', no mechanism whereby the curse can be transferred to another. The random quality of the curse, once it encounters its victim, stays with that person, creating the individuating mark of at least a personal death. The film highlights this structurally by presenting a series of chapters, each one named for the victim whose death it portrays. This is the only form of 'identity' in the series, Though the final chapter tells the story of the original victim and her murder at the hands of her husband, the motivation for that murder remains a mystery, an unimportant detail lost in the endless chain of chance, urban encounters that here initiate a process of destruction.

The final film I wish to consider is Jisatsu sākuru (Suicide Club, 2002) by Sono Shion. This work offers a developed though enigmatic view of the problem of fashion and individual identity, and a disturbingly believable presentation of the pressures for conformity which both sustain and accept the consumerist 'agenda.' The film is a horror/mystery which presents its social critique in the form of a sudden and inexplicable wave of suicides which sweeps over Japan. Its apocalyptic vision of modern life presents a complex imagining of group dynamics, fashion, and the commodification of the pop music industry, while destroying the notion that interpersonal care is enough to redeem the consumer-oriented, urban mode of existence.

The film opens with one of the most disturbing scenes in recent cinema: on the platform at Shinjuku Station in Tokyo, at the start of the evening rush hour, a group of fifty-four high school girls, perfectly normal in every respect, arrives, apparently awaiting their trains home. As the train approaches the station, the girls, as one, link hands, and form a line along the edge of the platform. Seemingly full of youthful energy, they swing their linked arms, counting down one, two, and three—at which they jump before the train, to be dragged and ground to their deaths. This scene, so normal in its presentation, the camera moving in cinema verité style through the various sub-groups of the girls as they talk, laugh, and wait, conveys with sterling clarity the impossibility of understanding the thoughts of the strangers whom one may encounter in the urban world.

The mass suicide, while shocking and indeed gruesome, sparks competition among other groups of students keen on beating the number, fifty-four, to achieve distinction through setting a 'record'—but the distinction, of course, is not on an individual, personal level: it is to be achieved by the group that consumes its separate members. Visually, this is apparent in the camera's treatment of the victims of the mass suicides, presenting their corpses as a jumbled assortment of body parts, the identity of one indistinguishable from that of any other in the pile. Further, a sub-plot involves clues found at the scene of each mass suicide, specifically, a gym bag containing, in a long, continuous roll, shavings of human skin stitched together into a patch-work strip, the contributions of each victim thus transformed into a whole the precise nature of which receives no resolution in the film.

Identity is thus meaningless here. Each separate member of the various 'suicide clubs' is average, unremarkable; but within that very banality possesses the ability to destroy the substance of urban society itself, as an inevitable outcome of the willingness of modern, urban consumers to follow trends and fads. The film highlights the complete meaningless of the various deaths in a long section that shows the spreading grip of the 'suicide mania' that captures urban Japan: two stand-up comic entertainers in the middle of their act stab themselves in the neck; a young wife, blissfully preparing her family's dinner, cutting off her fingers, while her young daughter stands at her side, upset only that her mother pays her no attention; and so on. These people, apparently on a whim, engage in extremely bloody, violent acts of self-destruction, all the while—almost appallingly—as if behaving in the most natural of mundane activities.

To confirm the film's focus on fashion and fadism as the seeds which lead to the random acts of suicide, the plot tracks the efforts of one young woman, Mitsuko, to decipher a 'code' seemingly transmitted by cell-phone, inspired by the current hit song of a pre-teen, female pop group—the lyrics urge 'you' to call 'me,' or else 'I'll surely die.' At the film's close, this group announces its disbandment, its lead singer telling their followers that it's time for everyone to lead their own lives, to 'live as you please.' A subplot leads Mitsuko to discover a group of children who ask her whether she has come to them to 'repair her connection with herself,' whether she has found a connection with herself, her boyfriend, and with the young children—the connection between 'victim and assailant.' Despite her insistence that she is herself, an insistence which draws applause from the group of children, and however tantalising these aspects are to the hope that the ending will justify interpretive optimism, the film shows us the woman, with a long line of other anonymous people, about to have a strip of skin shaved from her shoulder, to be stitched into another long roll. The final scene mirrors the opening mass suicide at Shinjuku Station, but here, while there is no repeat of that event, Mitsuko rejects the concern a police detective shows for her—rejects his desire to help and protect her. This is ambiguous; it presents Mitsuko as strong willed and independent, thus it is a positive resolution. However, it also breaks the human bond of care which is redemptive of the alienated, urban individual—this is the bond which the protagonist, Detective Kuroda, had symbolised in his devotion to his family, but which he witnesses broken in his own home when his family commits suicide, leading him to do the same.

Jisatsu sākuru thus presents no resolution to the urban problem, only a critique of its sources and analysis of its form. Its rejection of interpersonal communication and care is pessimistic, suggesting the impossibility of urban, consumerist society as something sustainable—and yet its suggestion that children hold an answer to overcome the alienation of the age is a welcome hint of hope.


The various films I have considered address the problem of personal and social identities in different ways, but with a consistent theme; identity as it functions in the globally-proposed, politically motivated consumerist agenda is a contradictory arrangement of fashion-consciousness and atomised alienation against which urban individuals have little ability to resist, and into which they have little option but to fall. The subsumption of the urban individual into a global whole emerges convincingly as a fitting subject of the modern horror film, but the air of desperation and resignation that hangs over these films presents the drive for an integrated identity able to fuse both traditional and postmodern elements as illusory. From Kurosawa Kiyoshi's destruction of his characters who speak most passionately of their own confidence in their identities to Nakata Hideo's wilful confusion of the audience's trust in a character's stable identity, these directors demonstrate the inevitability of a conflict in the reception of identity as a given, fixed and verifiable. What comes from this is a rejection of the struggle for concrete, atomised existence, in favour of a fluid acceptance of urban, postmodern anonymity, able to adapt itself to any situation, to any changing fashion.

This is a pessimistic vision, to be sure, for—unlike in classic works of horror—there is no reassurance at the close of a re-establishment in the film of the existing social order. Rather, what presents itself through Japanese horror is the certainty of a dystopic vision, the confidence of a destruction of hope. Identity remains a challenged, threatened thing, a commodity unable to resist the forces of the marketplace. The elegiac air of regret that hangs over the final frames of Kurosawa's Kairo create a yearning for a lost sense of stability, but this yearning is futile—even in the Japanese context, the traditional, relational self was never something capable of resisting the total abdication of its self-centred, social fluidity. Here, the self is truly at the mercy of global whim, and while Sono Shion's Jisatsu sākuru closes with children telling the audience to be 'who they are,' that exhortation cannot receive a reply, for as the film has made clear, even should the audience believe they have a will to answer who indeed they are, the response is already a deception. Identity is intangible, unknowable, and in contemporary Japanese horror, the most frightening threat to be encountered.


Arai, Andrea G., 'The "Wild Child" of 1990s Japan,' The South Atlantic Quarterly, 99: 4, Fall, 2000.

Carroll, Noël 'The Nature of Horror,' The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 46: 1, 1987.

Fromm, Erich The Sane Society, Greenwich: Fawcett Publications, 1955.

Gergen, Kenneth, The Concept of Self, New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, Inc., 1971.

Iida, Yumiko 'Between the Technique of Living an Endless Routine and the Madness of Absolute Degree Zero: Japanese Identity and the Crisis of Modernity in the 1990s,' in positions, 8:2, 2000.

Kawin, Bruce, 'The Mummy's Pool,' in Film Theory and Criticism, Cohen, Marshall, and Mast, Gerald, ed., New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Lyotard, Jean-Francois, The Postmodern Condition, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.

Metraux, Daniel A., 'Religious Terrorism in Japan: The Fatal Appeal of Aum Shinrikyo,' Asian Survey, 35: 12, December, 1995.

Napier, Susan J. 'Panic Sites,' Journal of Japanese Studies, 19: 2, 1993.

Ohnuki-Tierney, Emiko, 'The Ambivalent Self of the Contemporary Japanese,' Cultural Anthropology, 5: 2, May, 1990

About the author

Timothy Iles is Assistant Professor of Japanese Studies at the University of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, where he teaches Japanese culture, cinema, and language. He has an MA from the University of British Columbia in Modern Japanese Literature, and a PhD from the University of Toronto, also in Modern Japanese Literature. He has taught courses on Japanese literature, theatre, culture, and cinema in Canada and the United States, and has published articles on those subjects. He is also author of Abe Kobo: an Exploration of his Prose, Drama, and Theatre (Fuccecio: European Press Academic Publishers, 2000).

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