Saturday, August 12, 2006

Check that PULSE... "J-Horror" is dead.

Funny thing happened today: I sat down to watch the 2001 Japanese film KAIRO (Circuit, more commonly known as Pulse) the same day it's American remake hit theatres. I never stopped to buy it, I shrugged indifferently when the remake was announced, and not having a dime to my name I decided, hell, I'll stay home and watch those few dozen DVD's I've not had a chance ot watch yet.

The funny thing? I'm a big fan of Japanese films and Horror films by my nature. And frankly, I didn't think Kairo was very good.

Now don't misunderstand, it's not a bad film by any stretch. The cinematography is quite good, for one thing. The acting ranges from OK to quite good the board over, and it's got SHOU Aikawa (ZEBRAMAN) for crap's sake... on the other hand, TOMIE had none other than Tomorrow Taguchi (TETSUO: THE IRON MAN) and it sucked balls. The soundtrack was also lovable in a traditional "ghost story" sort of way with lots of theatrical wailing and the like... by all means, Kairo should be a good movie. The tale of vengeful ghosts using the untapped source of the internet to trap people between the realm of life and death is an intriguing idea, albiet one that seems just a bit simple in 2006 where every douchebag and his left nut - myself included - blogs about whatever irritates them so that the amazing people on the internet can listen. The effects work - mostly of the subtle sort - is mostly compitent (especially the ghostly figure at the arcade)... but the film just rubs me wrong on a few levels.

First and perhaps foremost is the simple genre convention that "shoujo horror" - a genre of horror films made for highschool girls that includes Ring, Ju-On, Uzumaki, Tomie, Kakashi and the like - were meant to be moody and based on slow boil shocks rather than explosions of gore and screaming. I'm fine with that: I think that both Ring and Ring 2 are very good films, and with their level of real world belivability beat out their over the top American remake (though the American version of RING was likable, which is odd, as I usually despise remakes from the very pit of my black soul). I've also watched the original Ju-On, the one with Kuriyama Chiaki, and more or less gave up after that. These films are based on making you want to shit your pants and scream at the cast to run like the idiots they truly are. A big part of what makes this idea work is investment in the characters, you have to actually like them and give a crap if they live or die. Ring accomplishes this well, and Jo-On was... eh, decent. There was little character development, but they were smart enough and - in the case of Chiaki-chan, cute enough that you didn't want them eaten by some kitty boy. The genre CAN work with a little bit of planning and skill... something I'm told that Kairo writer/director KUROSAWA Kyoshi has in spades, and has used in his understated psychological thriller CURE. I've never seen it, so I can't say for sure if it's true... but if it is, he must have been off when bringing this one to the big screen.

The characters in KAIRO are likable enough: we have a paranoid schoolgirl, a socially akward male student, a death obsessed computer teacher and a few other odds and ends that don't honestly ammount to very much (Shou plays little more than a shadowey cameo by the end of the film). Part of the trouble is in the interactions between the clueless kid and the freaky teacher. They're likable enough on their own, but they spend their time doing their "I'm not afraid of ghosts!" and "Humans can't exist alone..." schtick respectively. I can accept this in a surrealist film, or even an amalgam of opposing realities (like Evangelion or Fight Club, say), but Kairo is neither. It's a tightly structured thriller, and having characters play their theories so hard on one another seems a bit... akward. Maybe Japan is just a country where people discuss their lonliness about the world on a first date and I assumed that Anno was just making it up. Either way, the characters being mouth pieces for social anxiety before they're likable characters makes them more difficult to care about than they really should have been.

The film literally has no gore to offer up, so the tense scare scenes are where it has to really hit hard. Now I've always been a fan of gore for a multitude of reasons, but it's most needed in horror films for one simple reason: without it, the film feels like it's not playing for keeps. Like it's not taking itself seriously. Maybe I'm just jaded, but the lack of blood in the film really keeps it from reaching a level it might otherwise have reached. Uzumaki - which I nominate as queen of Shoujo Horror - had plenty, so it's not unheard of for shoujo horror to cross the line of good taste. (TOMIE even had a fleeting moment of boobies.) Most importantly are the scare sequences themselves in the "Forbidden Rooms": the first we get to see in which a girl is attacked by a long haired phantom would seem right at home in a Chinese hopping vampire film, or even a more conventional Edo period piece in which ghosts were basically white dead people with cool green lighting that cropped up out of nowhere... but compared to the sticky well dwelling deformed creepers and meowing naked kids Kairo has to directly compete with, this is kind of gay. I'll admit that the final - and in a sense only - face to face confrontation with a ghost is a beautiful sequence... one that defies pretty much every expectation, and plays itself with such a cool sense of reality that it's one of the film's finest moments (along with the impressively achieved graphic suicide around half way through; which didn't include a drop of blood). If the film were full of more sequences like that inevitable confrontation in the Forbidden Room, Kairo could have been a winner... as it stands, I still think the film is overrated.

And then we have the last reel... yes, after the stand-up ghost confrontation, we have the film's apocalyptic climax. Frankly, it's not doing much for me. Wither or not the sequence is meant to imply that the entire world has fallen victim to the Forbidden Room or if this is the remainder of reality, the world in which those who were trapped by the ghosts of the past are forced to inhabit - a world which is neither really life nor death - is never made particularly clear. Let us not forget that the black smoke raising from Tokyo may also be the ash remenants of those taken by the Forbidden Room - a concept which would have been very, very cool had writer/director KUROSAWA Kyoshi actually done something with them. As it stands the ending feels almost tacked on, like a way of raising the bar of what could be accomplished in shocking audiences with Shoujo Horror without actually being cruel or visceral in the process. The apocalyptic final reel I can forgive for having bad CG: it's the relation to the rest of the film that leaves me scratching my head and wondering what it was everyone else saw in 2001 that I'm just totally missing here.

Interesting little pondering: during the final reel there's a plane explosion, an event which is totally silent on the Hong Kong DVD. Rumors have spread that the exclusion was done to coincide with then recent 9/11 sympathies... but oddly enough, the sequence isn't cut. I don't see how not HEARING an explosion makes it OK, but then I rarely understand censorship. The Hong Kong DVD is also the only edition to include a 5.1 upmix. After the move I have everything hooked up to my cheesy TV anyway, and knowing the Japanese DVD was 2.0 makes me wonder if the original Japanese DVD - released 2 or 3 weeks before the events in New York - included the audiable explosion... and wither or not the US DVD features it as well. Either way, the R3 is interlaced and comes from a composite master, so the R1 is probably the one to go for if you have any love for the film. I wouldn't mind having the R1... though both the R1 and R3 have a misleadingly awesome cover image of a rotting ghost revealing her squishy, creepy face. Lying bastards... given a few squishy corpses crawling around on webcams maybe this film could have been forgiven. But that's just not the way it went down.

All this having been said, I should say that I generally like Shoujo Horror. Ring was a quiet and subtle masterpiece of horror, Ju-On was a likable if not amazing piece of V-Cinema, Tomie was a frustrating mess of ideas that just didn't gel with an awesome ending and a few great visuals, and Uzumaki... well, Uzumaki is just an amazing film. Starts out adorable and awful and just spins out of control until everything is freaky as all hell: still my favorite horror films from any country, in any sub-genre. I haven't seen a great many more Shoujo horror films - Kakashi (Scarecrow), Inugami (Dog Gods), Nagai Yumi (Long Dream), Shikoku (Land of the Dead) - that I'd probably enjoy more than not. And while TOMIE is a painful misstep, the sequels are supposedly all worlds better. Go figure. The problem with Shoujo Horror is, well, it is what it is; not violent and spooky stories for highschool girls. They're rarely all that shocking and base their existance on mood more than actual scares. This isn't a bad thing, and with films like SAW, HOSTEL and the like filling the screens with long graphic sequences of torture and dismemberment, it was nice to see a genre take the "high road" for a little while. But the trouble is, there are films that did that better than Kairo. You can do much, much worse... the trailer for JU-REI is a prime example of how you don't know how bad a genre can get 'till after you've seen it's cheapest, least creative immitators. *Shudder*

For the record, ONE MISSED CALL is Shoujo Horror... but it's really a satire thereof more than a straight up offering. Much like D.O.A - DEAD OR ALIVE, it plays istelf so over the top while never failing to take itself totally seriously that wither or not it's supposed to be the real deal isn't clear 'till the final scene. AUDITION is anything but Shoujo Horror, for the record... and I don't know what crack infused adrennaline drug that Eli Roth is snorting for saying that Audition was also what started the current trend of Hard-R horror films in the US. I want to know. That must be some good shit.

In closing, it should be noted that when I saw the US cover for Kairo (before I actually saw the film), I had to shake my head in sadness. It proudly proclaimed "The J-Horror Film that inspired the remake!" Much as the word J-Horror makes my penis go soft and my eyes boil... it shouldn't. Shoujo Horror is made for cheap to appeal to horror hungry schoolgirls with money to spend. KAIRO, for better or worse, is in much the same boat. In the same way that J-Pop is to refer to flavor of the month bands in Japan, why shouldn't J-Horror refer to these equal cash-in films that may or may not be worth a second look? The problem to me is that saying Audition, or Eat the Schoolgirl or Red Room or even Meatball Machine* is "J-Horror". Yes, these are Japanese Horror films. But they're also nasty, shocking, amazing horror films that kick you in the teeth and stomp on your nuts while you're down. Kairo... well, not so much. It's the perception that these titles give that bother me.

*I can't say for sure on Meatball Machine, as I've only seen a trailer. But it's a cute chick and hamburger filled remake of TETSUO. Explain to me how that can't kick ass.

This may well be the first time I'm looking forward to a remake. KAIRO had some amazing ideas in it, it just didn't know what to do with them. Meanwhile, the American film PULSE has armies of naked pasty screaming corpses. I like subtlety more than the average American, but if we can get less dialogue centered around on what it means to be dead and more wailing nekkid' people I'm all for this one.

That having been said, I'll still bitch and moan like an emo bastard if anything becomes of the BATTLE ROYAL remake. Ewww.

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