Sharing the terror

Sarah Appleton and Jasper Sharp discuss Japanese cinema and The J-Horror Virus

by Jennie Kermode

The J-Horror Virus
The J-Horror Virus

One thing which you can always guarantee about Frightfest is that it will have a good selection of documentary content, and this year’s Pigeon Shrine-sponsored event is no exception. Sarah Appleton has been there before, in 2021, to present The Found Footage Phenomenon, which she made with Phillip Escott. She’s now teamed up with Jasper Sharp to create The J-Horror Virus. As soon as I heard that it would be screening there, I dropped her a line, and we arranged to have a chat about it – Jasper included, of course. She told me that she has been a fan of J-horror for as long as she can remember.

“When I was growing up, I think I watched basically all of the J-horror films,” says Sarah. “When I was really young they scared the shit out of me. I've always watched horror films, so in contrast to other films that I was watching at the time, when I was about 10, they definitely were the most scary and impactful. Psychologically, rather than just gore and stuff. So when I met Jasper, and he is Japanese film expert, we felt like it would make sense to combine our knowledge together and make the documentary.”

Jasper remembers J-horror coming to his attention just before the turn of the millennium.

“At that time, The Ring had just been released,” he says. “I wasn't really drawn to Japanese cinema through horror movies, but once The Ring got released, and then stuff like Audition, all the eyes were on Japan back for horrors as well. I always looked at J-horror through the prism of where it sits in Japanese cinema in its entirety. At the time, there was lots of speculation, lots of articles, people writing about where J-horror came from. It's almost as if The Ring emerged fully formed. What we hope to do with this documentary is to go back and trace the lineage of the filmmakers working in it.”

I mention that I was pleased to see Kiyoshi Kurosawa interviewed in the documentary, but note that, for all its darkness, I have never really thought of his work as horror. Is he seen that way in Japan?

“He sort of is. Definitely as a critic and pundit, he's a massive fan of horror. And he obviously became known for Cure. Cure wasn't released outside of Japan for quite some time but it was his breakthrough film in Japan. Stuff like Kairo – Pulse – definitely fits into that lineage, but also a lot of the earlier stuff he was doing. The Guard From Underground is just coming out from Third Windows.”

Sarah nods. “Yeah, I think he is interested in the horror of the everyday, which is a big part of J-horror in itself, and how certain situations you can be in can be scary without there necessarily having to be a monster there. I think you can definitely still include Cure – I mean, it's obviously not really a J-horror, but it kind of is. It doesn't have any ghosts in it but it's got that same vibe. Every day, something is a bit amiss, you know? I think that's the scariest thing because ultimately most people don't believe in ghosts and monsters, but you can feel uneasy on your own at night.”

It’s interesting to see the differences between what's understood as horror in Japan and elsewhere. I say that it has always seemed to me that there is a focus on fear and anticipation, and also misery, in J-horror, which we don't really see in horror elsewhere. A lot of Western horror at the time when this started was about showing people something scary but giving them a good time, and Japanese horror seem to touch on something more existential.

“Yeah, definitely the existential,” says Jasper. “I mean, there was that sort of Nostradamus pessimism at the turn of the millennium. it came in the wake of the Aum terrorist attacks, the religious cult in the Tokyo subway in the late Nineties, and the collapse of the bubble economy, and the Kobe earthquake. The Eighties had seen rising economic prosperity for Japan and a lot of people suddenly realised that actually, there's something missing at the heart of this society. There's this gaping void. Kiyoshi Kurosawa touches on that a lot in Cure.

“I was also thinking that one of the things that's really interesting about Kiyoshi Kurosawa is that he talks about the idea that the form and content of a film are very much interlinked. So it's that that complete turning inside out of generic tropes, and really relying on how the technology gives rise to the subject matter. What a lot of the directors said at the time is that when they were shooting straight to video films in the late Eighties, early Nineties or on TV, the resolution of the screen was so low that you could see a weird detail in the background and you didn't know what it was. So you know, you’d think of ghosts there or whatever. And you only saw it when you zoomed in, so it’s that Heisenberg thing: the closer you look, the more the details evaporate.”

We talk about the importance of technology in the subgenre.

“For me personally, I grew up with the internet starting to take hold. In school, people would be like, ‘Oh, look at this video,’ or ‘Have you seen this video on online?’” Sarah recalls. “I remember vividly being on the bus and I was seven or something, and this boy coming on and sharing with everyone this video of this pig getting its head chopped off and running around without a head. We watched a lot of videos like that. It wasn't even necessarily the dark web then, you could just find these videos where really sick shit happens.

“Then there's also the element of a film like Feardotcom, for instance. Obviously it's not J-horror, but it's a very similar kind of theme as Pulse, with the internet where you can find these websites and see people dying or whatever. And when you're talking about the texture, it's like that idea of this pixelated video that you'd see with this horrible stuff and it makes it feel real.”

Was that something which helped her to relate to the idea of cursed videos and things which people wish they hadn’t seen?

“Yeah, for sure. I think that people in older generations probably have more of the videotape kind of thing from Ring, that maybe there was a videotape that someone goes ‘Oh, watch this because this is gross,’ more like video nasties, whereas I had the internet with videos like Two Men One Hammer. Really horrible stuff that you're just watching as a teenager, like Saddam Hussein getting hung, and you just grow up watching it and get desensitised. But also, there's this fear that sometimes you'll see something way worse than you imagined or something that really can be scary.

“I don't know whether the curses come through that, but that could also relate to chain mail. We used to get emails and MSM where someone was sending that. I remember having a specific nightmare about this one chain mail where someone was saying ‘Oh, if you don't send this on this girl with long black hair will come and be on your ceiling and come down on you at night and kill you.’ I remember having nightmares about that. So that whole thing is urban legend.”

That ties in neatly with the idea of virality, which is addressed in the documentary with regard to the way that J-horror has gone on to infect other countries and seed them with new fears.

She nods. “The Ring Virus obviously is a version of the Ring film, but if you read the original Kôji Suzuki book, they really talk about it as a virus a lot more than it comes over in the film, and they look at it from a more biological aspect like, ‘Oh, these people seem to be catching this virus that's killing them.’ It's kind of different from a curse being passed on, it being a virus. It's maybe something you can't get rid of.”

“Yeah,” says Jasper. “[Hideo] Nakata’s film of The Ring really dresses it up in supernatural terms and harks back to films like The Haunting, but Kôji Suzuki's novels have this strange mix of pseudoscience and a sort of Fortean phenomenon. And you see that more in Jôji Iida’s film Rasen, which was released at the same time as Ring and is based on the second book by Kôji Suzuki. When they're investigating the cause of the virus, you actually see it physically. There are elements within the videotape itself that affect your own genetic structure. So it put a lot more weight into that sort of speculative science fiction aspect than the actual official Ring films.”

Another interesting aspect of the documentary is the way in which it explores the roots of the films in old Japanese stories.

“I was always fascinated with where things come from originally,” says Sarah. “Girls with long black hair – why is that scary? Because to us, that's so random, but to the Japanese, they have this long history of it.”

“A lot of the classic Japanese horrors are basically period dramas based on Kabuki plays,” Jasper explains. “There's only a handful of source materials, just as we have lots of films based on Dracula and Frankenstein and that sort of thing. So you're looking at ghosts, Yotsuya, the Tale Of Peony Lanterns, or whatever, there's only about three or four standard texts which have passed down over the centuries, but there are recurrent themes. They're wronged women and people being thrown into wells. So these tropes definitely come from a cultural space which is very different from ours.”

I say that I'm interested in the way that in Japanese films, there is a focus on people who've been mistreated or disempowered, such as women and children, being the threat, whereas in Western horror, it's usually large men with weapons who are the threat.

“Yeah,” he says. “You look at a lot of the classic Japanese films again, and a lot of the guys who are victims of haunting are basically bastards who killed their wives or whatever. These supernatural manifestations might be psychological ones, part of their their guilt.”

“There's no doubting the obvious correlation between the oppression of women in Japanese society and the fact that women tend to be the ghosts that come back for vengeance,” adds Sarah. “The interesting thing about that is that women aren’t making the films. This is a fear that the men who are making films have, but also men in society have, thinking ‘Maybe the way we treat women will come back to bite us one day.’ I think that's quite interesting that you can see that coming out but they don't necessarily see it going in.”

“You see that a lot in many non Japanese horror films as well,” says Jasper. “They're often films which take very sympathetic view of women's role in society and how they've been subjugated. Think of the works of [Kenji] Mizoguchi, who did it in period dramas such as Life Of Oharu. These films are seldom directed by women, so that portrayal of women as victims, there's a bit of empathy but yeah, it's not changing anything.”

Most J-horror films have been made by a small group of men who studied together or know each other quite well.

“Throughout Japanese film history have always had these movements, which have been a close group of scriptwriters and directors and other creative personnel that all work together and socialise together in pubs,” says Jasper. “I noticed that when I was researching my book on pink cinema, Behind The Pink Curtain, this word bumi always turned up. It's like a sort of squad of people, so you have these collective movements where people would bounce ideas off of each other, and of course, they you have to remember that people like Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Hiroshi Takayashi, the screenwriter of The Ring, were also film critics as well, so they can be writing about each other's films in quite prestigious, high profile film journals at the same time.”

Horror doesn’t have significantly more esteem in Japan, he says.

“I would say it’s probably about the same there. Stuff like the Scary True Stories video series and The Ring were breakthrough successes because they appealed to this new demographic of the high school age. Sarah says one of the things that is important about J-horror is the way that it goes away from gore and sexual violence. In any event, there's nothing you wouldn't want to show a kid. So there was a mainstream success, but I think it burnt out fairly quickly after The Ring and the initial J-horror boom. But I do think within film critical circles there, there's a recognition that you can do interesting stuff in the horror.”

Jasper organised all of the interviews, says Sarah, and she asks him “Was it Norio Tsuruta who put you in touch with Teriyoshi Ishii?”

“Yes,” says Jasper, “He said ‘If you're going to interview me, you have to watch Jaganrei – Psychic Vision.’ Because this is where it all began, the film that not many people know about outside of Japan. It's never really cited in any sort of literature in Western writing.

“A lot of them were film students or at the beginning of their careers in the film industry in Japan, and in the very early Nineties, the Japanese film industry virtually collapsed. Nobody was going to see domestic films. They were watching Hollywood stuff. And so these these directors wanted to make films but they had to do it in whatever genre was available. And so it could be pink, it could be TV, it could be straight to video. Their whole philosophy was ‘We're making films, we might not be making Star Wars but we are actually telling stories in audio visual form.”

We discuss how the final version of the documentary came together.

“I did all of the editing, generally,” says Sarah. “I always say, like, you can't really plan documentaries too much, because it's all about what the interviewees say. It really depends on them telling the story together. The other thing is, you get about 30 hours of footage, so you do have to know where you're going with it, but it’s sort of intuitive.”

I tell her that I liked the montage with which the film opens. It’s a very effective way to establish the tone.

“Yeah, it's supposed to be like a curse video with all the J horror tropes,” she says. “Jasper’s co-director of The Creeping Garden [Tim Grabham] makes animation stuff, so he made that from a brief of J-horror tropes like wells and hair, TVs and VHS is and technology and CCTV and rain and all that sort of stuff, just to create something creepy. He actually used some AI to do it as well.”

“I was going to say, I made the film Creeping Garden, about slime moulds,” Jasper says. “I came up with the contents, but then handed it to Tim and he was able to get this marvellous captured mood of what we were trying to do, this otherworldliness. He's very talented animator, and he does a lot of experimental short film stuff now, a lot of which is playing with film textures and VHS. So it actually was a perfect fit for what we were trying to do.”

Sarah is a little concerned that some people won’t watch the film because it has subtitles, but she’s confident that it’s otherwise accessible to a general audience.

“It's not really academic or anything, we're not over-analysing everything. I think that's why you get the filmmakers to talk about their inspirations and why they did what they did rather than an academic. It leaves the audience able to make up their own mind about what happened with certain things and what they think about it. I'm really against the kind of documentary that tells you what to think about something.”

So if viewers have enjoyed the film but they’re fairly new to its subject, what should they go out and watch?

“I would definitely recommend going towards Jaganrei mainly because it's one of the first J-horror films that brings the tropes of like, a ghost in the background of footage,” she says. “It's also one of the first found footage films ever.”

“I would always say, Kiyoshi Kurosawa films,” says Jasper. “Cure in particular. Even though it’s not standard J-horror, it's a brilliant film in its own right. It took 10 or 15 years for Cure to get a DVD release in the UK. I guess when it first came out, a lot of distributors were going ‘What is this?’ You know, it's so elliptical and strange. And it's slow. And it's subtitled in Japanese. But it's a work of genius, I would say. I put it in my BFI top five favourite films. It’s an astonishing piece of work.”

Frightfest has, of course, a history of supporting films in that position.

“We're very happy to be at Frightfest,” says Sarah. “They also often champion documentaries, which a lot of places don't. I think lots of festivals are reducing their documentary output a bit, but Frightfest’s audience is always pretty open, like you say, to interesting subjects.”

“It's a great opportunity to catch up with what other people are doing,” says Jasper. “You can binge watch films and participate in the discussions around them. That's why I love film festivals, for just being a part of this whole circus. I think it’s great.”

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