Thursday, April 15, 2010

A "Western" horror hallmark in Japanese cinema

The most recent issue of Bitch magazine included an article (not available on the web, sorry!) entitled "Hell is Older People—Aging as the ultimate cinematic horror" about the way in which Western horror films repeatedly utilize a scary, decrepit, manipulative old women character to strike ultimate fear in the minds of the youthful audience, the usual demographic for the horror genre. What author Alana Prochuk argues is that unlike the sick, devastating blow of an axe to the neck, aging is something that we as mortals can never escape - besides, how many of the individuals sitting in the audience have actually been threatened by a chainsaw-wielding maniac? Both the characters in the filmic world and the audience members in the seats of the theater face the imminent threat of our own mortality and death, and what better way to depict this fear than by placing it in large scale on the screen in front of us: a close-up of Mrs. Ganush's cataract-clouded eye and decaying teeth in Drag Me to Hell, the fossil-like state of Vera in the wonderfully graphic Dead Alive.

Even the titles are blatantly indicative of what is to be feared most about these the films: the thin, delicate line between between life and death, and the struggle to emerge from death's imminent, dragging pull toward a hellish (both literal and figurative) afterlife.

Prochuk goes on to cite other examples from Western cinema dating all the way back to 1974's Homebodies, a tale of "a sweet-seeming band of dispossessed senior citizens" who go to lengths to regain ownership of the home from which they have been evicted. In deciding to dedicate this article to Western cinema, Prochuk unfortunately missed out other opportunities for exploration found in horror films from filmmakers outside of the US and Western Europe, and I don't blame her - the majority of the films in her article focus on mainstream, major theatrical releases from the last twenty years or so, probably films that an American woman could have easily accessed in her local theater or found on the shelves of Blockbuster or the search engines on Netflix.

Japanese filmmaker Nobuhiko Obayashi's 1977 film Hausu (House), on the other hand, would not have been showing around the corner at the local theater, and is not even available on Region 1 DVD (after some initial research, I could find several Region 2 (UK) copies of the DVD on Ebay and Amazon, and although it is listed on Netflix one's only option is to "Save" the DVD for later) - the only way that I hear about the film was through a friend inviting me to a late-night screening at IFC Center in the West Village. This is, arguably, just around the corner for a few people, but as House was only screening for a single night and there were about twenty other people in the theater besides the five in our group I doubt many people have heard of or even know of this beautifully strange, self-aware psychedelic horror film about a group of seven high school girls who go to visit one of their elderly auntie's on break from school.

The seven girls who appropriately embody their names - Prof wears glasses and reads books, Kung-Fu kicks ass (with minimal clothing!), Sweet likes to clean, Fantasy has an overactive imagination, Gorgeous is real purdy, Melody plays the guitar and piano, and Mac probably likes McDonald's a little too much - are killed off one by one by either the paraplegic (or is she?) auntie or by her house itself. Although Gorgeous's auntie does not embody the Western horror trope of the decaying elderly character, there is certainly something a little creepy, a little off, and a little ephemeral about her presence.

While physically she is not unpleasant to look at, she still exists in the film as a reminder of what will happen to a girl who never gets married and rides out life through old age alone in her secluded, slightly dilapidated house. She is the ultimate "cat lady," with her cat Blanche doing her bidding and ceramic and painted representations of Auntie's faithful feline staring back at every turn. Auntie is positioned as a woman who wanted nothing more than to be married as a young girl, a figure in stark contrast to the seven youthful, cheerful and independent girls who come to visit her who each have their own unique (if stereotypically depicted) talent. Interestingly, the girls are all eventually killed by whatever thing it is they love the most: Melody is dismembered by the piano, Mac is decapitated while trying to fetch a watermelon from the well, and Sweet is crushed by falling linens and mattresses. Kung-Fu, physically the strongest of the group, is electrocuted by a ceiling lamp, a harnessed force that is impervious to human strength and could be the only thing to defeat a bodily force such as martial arts.

While the Western films mentioned in Prochuk's piece tend to physically portray the indications that old age is something to be feared through the withered faces of the elderly, Hausu does something slightly different by suggesting that resigning to the life of an old maid will drive one insane, distract them from youthful passions and desires, and trap one in a life of void of fulfillment. Prochuk suggests that "it's hardly surprising that many such films feature a female baddie" especially since the "problems" that come with aging - wrinkles, bad smells, loss of sexual drive and possibility for sexually attracting a mate - are treated in Western culture as much more dire for women than they are for men. I wonder if this trope only crops up subtly in Japanese film because, as filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky once wrote, "The Japanese[...]see a particular charm in the evidence of old age." While Tarkovsky was discussing the Japanese affinity for Saba in their art, it can be said that almost any culture outside of the United States tends to hold much higher regard and respect for their elderly. This could be why the elderly woman found in Western horror films doesn't crop up quite the same way in Japanese horror; however, I still find Prochuk's argument applicable to the themes in Hausu.

All critical analysis aside, the screening of this film was one of the best experiences I've had at the cinema in quite some time. If the print travels to a theater near you, don't miss it.

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