electronic journal of contemporary japanese studies
Discussion Paper 3 in 2006
Inside the Well of Loneliness
Towards a Definition of the Japanese Horror Film
The tragic figure of Sadako, entombed within a well, for seven days before she dies in Nakata's Ringu (Ring, 1998), and somewhat paradoxically 30 years in Ringu 2 (Ring 2, Nakata, 1999), functions as a dominant trope of the centrality of isolation and alienation that constitutes the cinematic landscape of much contemporary Japanese horror cinema. Similar landscapes of isolation and alienation litter Japanese anime and computer games. Take for example the expansive post-modern architecture of Inosensu: Kōkaku kidōtai (Ghost in The Shell 2: Innocence, Oshii Mamoru, 2004); the desolate landscape of Wanda to kyozō (Shadow of the Colossus, Fumito Ueda, 2005); the deserted small town city which forms the backdrop to much of the Silent Hill series (Silent Hill, Keiichiro Toyama, 1999; Silent Hill 2, Keiichiro Toyama, 2001; Silent Hill 3, Nakazawa Kazuhide, 2003; and Silent Hill 4: The Room, Murakoshi Suguru, 2004); and the haunted houses and ghostly architectures of the Project Zero Series (Rei Zero [Project Zero], Makoto Shibata, 2001; Rei: Beni chou [Project Zero 2: Crimson Butterfly], Makota Shibata, 2003) and Zero: Shisei no koe [Project 3: The Tormented], Makota Shibata, 2005).
Irrespective of the cross-fertilisation between Japanese and American horror films – most evidently shown within the continuing American remakes of Japanese horror films including Kurosawa Kiyoshi's Kairo (Pulse, 2001) currently in production as Pulse (Jim Sonzero, 2006) – Japanese horror cinema continues to differ significantly from the mainstream productions of the Hollywood system. And although this can be partly ascribed to the mechanics of production, questions of financing, and directorial autonomy, Japanese horror cannot be simply conflated with its American counterpart as the series of recent remakes clearly demonstrates. The difference, I argue, is contained within the manner in which the formal characteristics of the cinematic-image in Japanese horror are constitutive of horror, rather than secondary to the horror as is the case in many American horror films. In this paper, I focus on the syntax of despair, emptiness and isolation that underpins the architectural environment and formal mise-en- scène, through which character is framed, through an analysis of the Ring Trilogy, or triptych as Newman (2004) terms them: Ringu (Ring, Nakata Hideo, 1998), Ringu 2 (Ring 2: Nakata Hideo, 1999) and Ringu 0: Bāsudei (Ring O: Birthday (Tsurata Norio, 2000).
Architecture and Aesthetics
Since the Edo period, Japan, or at least parts of it, has been in a more or less constant process of devastation and renewal: the Great Fire of Meireki in 1657 killed over 100,000 people and reduced 60% of Edo's buildings to rubble; in 1872 another fire wiped out Ginza and Tsukiji; in 1923 the Great Kanto Earthquake hit Tokyo, taking 140,000 lives with more than 50% of buildings being consumed by fire; besides the obvious atrocities caused at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, bombardment by B-29s left parts of Tokyo in ashes and 1.8 million people dead and 680,000 missing or wounded. The period of reconstruction after the War was not to last, and once more Japan found itself having to rebuild after the devastation of the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake in 1995, which killed 5,500 people and left an additional 26,000 injured. As Sacchi (2004: 76) points out, Japan is unique in that the constant process of devastation and renewal means that 'human vestiges do not date back further than a few decades'. In fact, most buildings in Japan, especially residential housing, are torn down and rebuilt every 30 years or so. The mixture of old and new, traditional and modern, high and low marks the diversity of Japan's architectural landscape. In his discussion of the impact of American architecture on the Japanese, Bognar writes:
Michael Franklin Ross terms the peculiar mixture of Western and traditional architecture within what Ruth Benedict in her book The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture (1946: 2) identifies as the Japanese ability to accept 'two contradictory positions as the norms', or, as Ross (1978: 8) calls it, 'The Both/And Culture' (Ross, 1978: 8). Further, Ross (1978: 93) argues that 'Many observers of Japan's architecture have concluded that Japanese revere form and ignore space.' This approach to aesthetics in terms of the relationship between space and perspective can be illuminated by reference to traditional Japanese art. In his comparison of Masaaccio's 1427 painting of 'The Holy Trinity' with 'The scroll of the four seasons', 'the epitome of Muromachi ink painting' (Ross, 1978: 93), Ross points out how the Renaissance understanding of perspective was determined by architecture as space, linked into the concept of the city centre as pivotal point determining perspective. However, there is no such thing as a piazza, or city centre, in Japan which means, as Ross (1989: 93) points out, there is little understanding of urban space in the Western sense. He writes 'Sesshu focussed on the implication of space through flattened planes and broken, unfinished lines'. Ross (1989: 94) continues, 'The concept of sequential spaces in architecture and of layering flattened planes in painting are by now familiar to most students of traditional Japanese culture': concepts borrowed from Korea and China, and then integrated within Japanese culture and aesthetics.
In these terms, it is easy to see how the lack of establishing shots; the often episodic nature of narrative which denies an organizing perspective from a position of power over the cinematic text; the use of low shots and odd-angled shots and the disruption of temporal-spatial continuity in Japanese horror film is linked into both Japanese aesthetics and architecture. Take for example, how in Shibuya kaidan 2 (The Locker 2, Horie Kei, 2004), frequent low angled shots are used not only to focalise the narrative from the point of view of the vengeful 'fetus', situating the child in a position of power over the older generation, but to break-up the traditional linear composition of cinematic space which privileges the high over the low. This denies the extra-diegetic spectator the narcissistic identification enabled by the use of the eye-line match and the processes of suture. In both Ju-on The Grudge (Shimizu Takashi, 2003) and Jui-Rei (Ju-Rei The Uncanny, Sharishi Koji, 2004) the narrative follows an episodic structure, disallowing the spectator any position of power or potency over the events on the cinematic screen. This disturbs western conceptualisations of the spectatorial position as one of power and activity (Mulvey et al), which rely on the traditional subject/object dualism. As in The Locker 2, the dialogic relationship is based upon one of non-reciprocity since in many points in the narrative the use of the low-shot subverts the hierarchical systems of binary opposition through which traditional narrative flows. In The Cinematic Body, Shaviro writes about Blanchot's concept of fascination through which the viewer is no longer to maintain an imaginary domination over the cinematic-image. Shaviro (1993: 46.7) writes, 'The release of the image takes place when we are no longer able to separate ourselves, no longer able to put things at a proper distance and turn them into objects. The distance between subject and object is at once abolished and rendered infinite.' This is similar to the experience that the Western tourist has on first view of Tokyo, a Tokyo that Barthes saw as unintelligible in his book The Empire of Signs. Purini (2004: 8) writes about this experience in terms of 'visual trauma'
This randomness, and overturning of rules and conventions, is at the heart of the syntax of despair, emptiness and isolation as expressed thematically and formally by Japanese horror cinema. It is an attack on systems of Representation based upon the Renaissance concept of perspective, which continues to predominate in mainstream American horror. This is also an attack on Cartesian dualisms, which mirrors that of the amoeba like architecture of post-modern Tokyo in which:
Environment and Character in Japanese Horror
Asked about the characteristics that distinguish Japanese film, not just from other Asian cinemas, but also from American and European cinemas, Donald Richie comments:
In Japanese horror film, this environment is constitutive of the syntax of despair, emptiness, and isolation through which character is constructed. Sometimes the horror emanates from empty and forgotten spaces – gaps 'between' the world of the living (kono-yo) and the world of the dead (ano-yo). It is significant that the linguistic etymology of the words for the worlds of the living and the worlds of the dead are constructed in spatial terms – 'ko' (as in kono-yo) means 'here' whilst 'a' (as in ano-yo) means 'behind' as well as 'there'.
The Japanese conceptualisation of space and spatiality is an aesthetic which is also found in architecture. In an interview with Christopher Knabe and Joerg Rainer Noennig, Suzuki Ryoji, a famous Japanese architect, defines space not just in terms of the completed, or finished work, but also in terms of the remnants or off-cuts of a building. In the interview Suzuki utilises the concepts of clearing, the gap, and hollow to challenge perceptions of space and language. These forgotten or eliminated spaces work outside traditional conceptions of space. Suzuki (1999: 51) says 'Many types of space have been denied inclusion under the space umbrella, and gaps between buildings are a good example of those that have been ignored or eliminated.' Further as Knade and Noennig (1999: 51) point out 'In Tokyo these forgotten gaps are an almost representative feature'.
In Japanese horror, dread is emanated through the collapse of the spatial distinctions between the kono-yo and ano-yo as spirits take on physical materiality as in Ju-On The Grudge 2 (Shimizu Takashi, 2003), Ring, Shibuya kaidan (The Locker, Horie Kei, 2004); the world of the dead into which the living disappear becomes overcrowded as in Pulse and restless ghosts slip through an unmasked gap in an apartment to take the living with them in the short 'Crevices' (Tsuruta Norio, 2004); suicide spirits refuse to leave the living alone in Jisatsu manyuaru (The Suicide Manual, Fukutani Osamu, 2003) and the vengeful dead refuse to die, returning throughout history to take revenge against the living, as in Tomie (Oikawa Ataru, 1999). Key to these films, and a characterising feature of Japanese horror, is loneliness, both in this world and the next. Even the dead are lonely; wanting either to return to the world of the living, or take the living back to the world of the dead. For example, in Nakata's Honogurai mizu no soko kara (Dark Water, 2004), the loneliness of the abandoned child of the past, Kawai Mitsuko (Oguchi Mirei), causes her to haunt a young woman, Matsubara Yoshimi (Kuroki Hitomi), and her daughter Ikuko (Kanno Rio), who live in the same apartment building where she died. Eventually, Yoshimi is forced to fulfil the duties of a mother by sacrificing herself for her daughter, and leaving the world of the living for that of the dead, with her substitute daughter, Mitsuko. The predominant sensation of horror in Japanese film is one predicated by the syntax of despair, isolation and loneliness.
This feeling of despair and isolation is mapped out within the architectural palate of Japanese horror. Take for example, Raigyo (The Woman in Black Underwear, Zeze Takahisa, 1993) in which the use of color – drained greens and blues broken by rare bursts of yellow and red – creates an environment of pollution and ever pervading corruption against which characters aimlessly wander, until chance encounters lead to senseless death and destruction. In another film, Tōkyō densetsu: ugomeku machi no kyōki (Tokyo Psycho, Oikawa Ataru, 2004) based upon the 'Otaku' murders in Tokyo between 1988 and 1989 (the murders of four young girls, aged between 4 and 7, by Miyazaki Tsutomu, a twenty-seven year old clerk, who the press dubbed 'The Collector', caught with a wide range of pornographic manga and slasher films as well as home-made molestation and murder films of his victims), the architectural ambiance is one of starkness and rarification. Most of the action takes place in the apartment complex where the object of desire for the cinematic Tokyo psycho, Komiya Osamu (Taniguchi Masashi), Ōsawa Yumiko (Kokubu Sachiko) lives. As in the early cycle of the American slasher film, Tokyo Psycho utilises the killer's point-of-view shot to generate tension and dread as the camera travels down isolated corridors past rows and rows of identical steel doors, tracking forwards, caught in the luminosity of daylight which is juxtaposed against the horrific events of the narrative. It is a sense of emptiness that dominates the mise-en-scène, with the exception of the few moments of surrealistic violence that rupture through. The only other people that we meet that live in the apartments are a young mother and her child. It is within this isolated, disconnected society that such acts as those of the real Tokyo psycho, and the cinematic Tokyo Psycho can take place. And the very premise of films such as Jisatsu sākuru (The Suicide Circle, Sono Shion, 2002) and Pulse, is the sense of disconnection and isolation felt by the younger generation in a society trapped between tradition and modernity.
In L'Empire des Signes (The Empire of Signs: 1970) Barthes described Tokyo as a city of the void that is marked by the absence rather than the presence of the subject. In the Japanese horror film, the absence of people and of an identifiable Tokyo, for the western viewer, creates a sense of both visual terror and fascination. Tokyo is the most densely populated city in the world in which there live an average of 500 people per square mile, and yet even films set there such as Ju-On The Grudge and Tokyo Psycho are identifiable in terms of emptiness rather than fullness. It is pertinent that the apocalyptic horror film seems to dominate contemporary Japanese horror. Films such as Pulse and Versus (Kitamura Ryuhei, 2000) imagine Japan as a wasteland entropied and emptied. And it is therefore no surprise that the main protagonists in Japanese horror are often constructed as 'exiles' and/or 'muenbotoke' (people who die without descendants).
The Archetype of the Exile in the Ring Trilogy
Of all Japanese horror films, the Ring cycle has probably been the subject of most discussion, especially in the West with numerous web sites dedicated to it. The central character of all three films, Sadako, has become an iconic symbol of Japanese otherness in the West. On August 10th 2002, Sadako's passage from East to West was symbolically enabled by giving her a traditional Buddhist funeral at the LaForet Museum in Harajuku, Tokyo, paving the way for her reincarnation as Samara in Gore Verbenski's The Ring.
The first two Ring films tell the story of a cursed videotape which brings about death to the spectator seven days after having been watched. The source of the curse is traced back to the brutal murder of a young girl, Sadako (Inou Rie), and attributed to her rage at her untimely demise. The ghostly Sadako is a revenant of traditional Japanese mythology and legends. She is what is known as a yūrei, ghosts of the recently departed unable to pass on because of the violent manner of their death. Not surprisingly given the restrictive nature of Japanese patriarchy, vengeful ghosts were more often than not conceptualised as women. Writer of the novel on which Ring was based, Suzuki Koji has cited 'The Tale of Oiwa' as inspiration for the character of Sadako. Dramatized in Kabuki form since 1825, The Tale of Oiwa has been the subject of numerous theatrical productions, stories and films. The most famous film is Misumi Kenji's 1959 version, Yotsuya kaidan (Yotsuya Ghost Story). In the folktale, a samurai, Iemon, unwittingly gives his wife poison, having been told by Osode (who lives next door and is in love with Iemon) that it is medicine for postnatal depression. Oiwa becomes hideously disfigured as a consequence of the poison, and subsequently dies. Iemon marries Osode, but when he lifts the veil that is covering Osode's face, he sees the disfigured and suffering face of his former wife. In fear, Iemon hacks of her head, only to discover that he has murdered his second wife.
'The Tale of Okiku' is also cited as an influence on Ring. In this tale, a maidservant, Okiku breaks a plate – a family heirloom – for which she is brutally killed by her master, Aoyama, and her body thrown down a well. The sound of her ghost wailing during the night, from the depths of the well, eventually sends Aoyama mad (Balmain, 2000: 74). Hiding the body out of sight does not prevent the vengeful spirit from getting revenge on the world of the living, especially down a well, which in Japanese folklore is seen as haunted, functioning as link to the underworld. In Ring, the still living body of Sadako is thrown down a well by her father, to hide from view the stigma of her difference from patriarchal society. Through the video virus, Sadako returns to wreck her dreadful revenge against the world of the living, and the restraints of patriarchal society that demanded the repression of her 'otherness' (as articulated in the three Ring films by her psychic powers). When her traumatized body is eventually recovered, signs of struggle are inscribed through her bloodied fingers, which signify her desperate attempts to climb out of the well and to return to the world of the living.
Whilst it is implied by the first film that it took Sadako seven days to die, in Ring 2, the time period and Sadako's suffering is extended to thirty years. The prequel, Ring 0: Birthday, takes us back to the beginning before Sadako's death. Set 30 years before the events in the second film, the film narrates Sadako's doomed attempts as a young woman to fit in with the conventional mores of Japan in the 1960s. Self-reflexively the narrative foregrounds the Kabuki-esque origins of Japanese horror film by locating the action within a drama troupe that Sadako joins on her doctor's advice, after the death of her mother. Sadako's difference from the other members of the troupe becomes obvious as members die in mysterious circumstances, and a female journalist reveals her real identity. As such the film implicitly raises Sadako's status as exile, which runs through all three films. Like the creature in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818), Sadako is seen in empathetic terms and as a result of the society that seeks to repress her because of her difference from the norm.
In Archetypes in Japanese Film, Gregory Barrett argues that 'The Wanderer' is one of the key archetypes in Japanese cinema. The archetype of 'The Wanderer', Barrett writes, 'symbolizes the human condition as an individual'. There are three categories of the Wanderer, according to Barrett: the exile: the vagabond and the pilgrim. Barrett goes on to point out that whilst there are western equivalents for the vagabond and pilgrim, there is no such equivalent for the exile. This is because of the particular nature of Japanese society and belief system in which so-called 'groupism' stresses the connectivity between members of the same social and/or familial group rather than the human connection as in western discourses of religion and humanism (Barrett, 1989: 77). Barrett draws a link between muenbotoke and the archetype of the exile:
In the Ring trilogy, the character of Sadako fits in with the archetypical characteristics of the exile. She is a muenbotoke. Thrown down the well, out of sight, Sadako is both physically and symbolically exiled from patriarchal society. She is denied the proper rites of passage, which, according to Buddhism, would allow her spirit to move on, and forced to wander the Earth as a restless spirit taking her revenge through the mechanism of the video virus that is created through her rage and suffering. Ring 2 begins with the identification of the corpse of Sadako, in a hospital morgue. We discover that not only has she been entombed for the past 30 years, but also there are no records of her existence and no one to identify her remains. The doctor comments that the nails from her hands had been torn off by her repeated attempts to escape from the well, highlighting the enormity of Sadako's suffering. This means that she has been exiled from both her family and from any sort of human bonds with the living. Like a muenbotoke, she is 'doomed to an existence of loneliness' (Barratt, 1989: 84).
The use of long takes, panning shots from the outside of identical uniform apartment blocks, and jarring music, video crackles and hissing, at key moments signifying Sadako's presence – what is called in Japan the 'aesthetics of subtraction' – and muted lighting throughout, create an atmosphere of unrelenting dread. When Project Zero's director, Makoto Shibata, talks about the third game, Project Zero: the tormented, he suggests something similar, when he comments that the game is about 'subtracting horror' i.e. giving the player minimal information and letting them imagine the terror (Stuart, 2006). In Ring 2, the use of long takes combined with corridor shots at pivotal points – in the hospital, at the Yamamura Inn, and at the police station – highlights the starkness of the surroundings as well as framing the character's insignificance and isolation.
Sadako takes on physical materiality through her possession of Reiko's (Matsushima Nanako) son, Asakawa Yoichi (Muramatsu Katsumi) which not only foregrounds the fluid nature of identity in the post-modern environment of contemporary Japan, but insists on Sadako's desire for rebirth into the familial unit and her undying desire not to be forgotten. As Sadako's personality overtakes that of Yoichi, the cinematic landscape undergoes a shift. Instead of black and white allowing the framing of the past as the past, the present becomes black and white and the past takes ontological materiality in full color as in the sequence of Reiko's death and that in the Inn towards the conclusion of the film. Sadako's exiled status in that forgotten past is highlighted in the sequences that are brought into the minds of those that have contact with either the video, or someone who has seen the video. In a newspaper photograph of the events that lead to Sadako's ostracism, or exile, from patriarchal society, she can be barely seen. She is a shadowy figure on the edge of the margins. In a later sequence at the Inn, Sadako appears behind Takano Mai (Nakatani Miki), as the past and present collapse into one another. As she steps forward to where her mother, Yamamura Shizuko (Masako) is brushing her hair in the mirror (the sequence that appears in the cursed video in black and white), the distance between mother and daughter signals as visual signifier of the emotional distance between the two. Ignored by her mother as she descends into madness, forced into hiding by patriarchal society because of her difference and perceived 'monstrosity', and finally her still living body discarded down a well by her father, Sadako is the very embodiment of the exile archetype.
However in Ring 0: Birthday, we see Sadako (Nakama Yukie) become an exile even before her death. Like Carrie in the Brian De Palma film of the same name, Sadako is a seemingly ordinary adolescent girl, whose 'normal' exterior hides a terrifying secret. A member of the drama troupe that she joins dies suddenly in strange circumstances, and Sadako is given the lead role in the production of 'The Mask' – the play within the film that functions as a gothic mirroring device. The rest of the cast ostracize her, with the exception of Tōyama Hiroshi (Tanabe Seiichi), a handsome sound engineer with whom Sadako falls in love. Their relationship is doomed as more unexplained accidents occur and suspicion turns to Sadako. This leads to a horrific confrontation during the premiere of the play in which the remaining cast members corner Sadako and like a baying mob beat her to 'death'. The cast members, along with Toyama, take her body to the home of her father, Dr Ikuma (Ban Daisuke), having realised that there is not one, but two Sadako's – pictures of Sadako show a shadowy child dressed in white standing behind her. This posits Sadako as literally a Jekyll and Hyde figure, but we never find out what happened (happens?) to her twin. Is the twin dead, and has Sadako internalised the evil traits of her sister? This is never explained by the film's narrative, offering a level of complexity and uncanniness that we rarely see in the American horror film. In terms of mise-en-scène, Sadako's duplicity and/or doubleness is signalled at the very beginning of the film. In the title sequences, Sadako is seen in close-up, but only the right side of her face is visible, the left concealed in shadow. Immediately after this sequence, we see Sadako sitting on the floor, light reflecting a shadow behind her on the wall, which somehow seems independent to her. This has precedence in Japanese aesthetics in which, as Sacchi (2004: 117) points out 'shadows are poetically perceived as the origin of "colors of darkness"'. Sadako's shadow, whether ontologically real or not, is an externalisation of her suffering and functions in terms of traditional Japanese aesthetics in which:
Just as in the other films discussed, the syntax of despair, isolation and emptiness is contained within the imagistic sign system which dominates the architectural composition of the cinematic image. This is achieved partly through the use of slow pans and high-angled shots, which creates a sense of menace and dread as well as framing Sadako's loneliness and difference. In the end sequences of Sadako's tragic death, it is almost as if color has been drained from the environment, mirroring Sadako's isolation and despair. The film ends with Sadako's body being thrown down the well, and so the trilogy comes full circle.
In this paper, I have argued that a defining feature of the Japanese horror film is the syntax of despair, isolation and emptiness that constitutes both the architectural composition and mise-en-scène of the cinematic image, and the positioning of character within the cinematic landscape. I have suggested that the very uniqueness of Japan's architecture, and the peculiarity of Tokyo as the 'city of the void', can account for the differences between Japanese horror and more mainstream American horror. And within this topological environment, the archetype of the wanderer is perhaps the most pertinent and perhaps most fully realised in the figure of Sadako within the Ring Trilogy. At the end of Ring 2, when Mai is climbing out of the well with Yochi, Sadako scales up the wall behind them. As her blind features turn towards Mai, she plaintively asks 'Why were you the only one that was saved?' Forever entombed within the well of loneliness, Sadako is a tragic figure and the embodiment of the themes of isolation, despair and emptiness that run throughout Japanese horror film.
Balmain, Colette (2004) 'Lost in Translation: Otherness and Orientalism in The Ring,' in Diagesis: Journal of the Association for Research into Popular Fictions. Special Horror Edition. No. 7. (ed Gina Wisker) Summer 2004-7-21, 69-77
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Shaviro, Steven (1993). The Cinematic Body. (University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis/London)
Stuart, Keith (2006) '"I call it, 'Subtracting horror.'" Project Zero creator speaks' Guardian Unlimited. February 6, 2007. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 30th April 2006]
Suzuki, Ryoji (1999) Interview In: Shaking the Foundations: Japanese Architects in Dialogue (Prestel, Munich, London, New York), 46 – 55
Dr Colette Balmain is Senior Lecturer in Film Studies at Buckinghamshire Chilterns University College, High Wycombe, United Kingdom. Colette's main research interest is in East Asian cinema and culture, and she is the co-founder of the ASRG, 'The Asian Studies Research Group', set up in January 2005. She is particularly interested in Japanese and Korean horror films. In addition to this, she maintains a continuing interest in European horror cinema. Currently she is writing a book on the Japanese horror film, due for publication later this year.
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