Godzilla is Dead: The New Brand of Japanese Horror Films

I have previous discussed some of the troubling aspects of Western “Torture Porn” which has infected our cinemas. The trend away from moral based horror and towards an amoral pain for pleasure experience is something that should concern anyone with half a brain. However, the descent of horror isn’t just a trait of Western cinema.

Japan has an incredible cinematic history with a vibrant list of brilliant actors, writers and directors that stands up to the American and European masters. The truth be told however, the names of directors like Akira Kurosawa (Rashomon), Hiroshi Inagaki (Miyamoto Musashi), and Masaki Kobayashi (Kaidan) may thrill pathetic, doughy-gutted film geeks but most Americans wouldn’t know them from Adam. When most Americans think of Japanese film they think of Godzilla (and if they’re really astute they may toss in Mothra for good measure).

The influx IshirĂ´ Honda’s Gojira "Godzilla" and other classic monster movies beginning in the 1950’s had an impact on American culture and cinema. We are currently in the middle of another wave of Japanese influence on our cinema – with the same amount of thought given to the pieces that are being thrown our way.

This time, instead of sitting through screeching giant lizards knocking down model cities we have a damp little girl climbing out of a television.

Today Japanese horror is really represented by two names: Hideo Nakata and Takashi Shimizu (some will argue I should include Takashi Miike). Nakata and Shimizu are probably most recognizable to American audiences, not by their own work but by the derivative American works from the past few years. Nakata’s movies Ringu and Honogurai mizu no soko kara and Shimizu’s Ju-on and Ju-on 2 have inspired a generation of Western horror filmmakers. Haven’t heard of these films? Sure you have, The Ring (Ringu), Dark Water (Honogurai mizu no soko kara – you know that one with Jennifer Connelly you didn’t see because it looked stupid (it was)) and The Grudge (Ju-on). These films whether in their Japanese or American versions all have something in common – nihilism.

Nihilism is essentially the logical byproduct of existential thought and can be watered down to this simple definition: everything means nothing and therefore everything has no worth – including you and all of the petty thoughts in your meaningless head. This is the stuff of those loser white suburban kids with died black hair lurking around the mall food court. Each of the films mentioned above offers a new look at horror. The films follow the same predator concept as Friday the 13th and Halloween but there’s something new. In these films there is an absolute – and I mean complete – lack of moral structure. They show a world completely devoid of God. This is really the reason why these films are so effective.

The Ring movie posterIn these films the heroines are threatened by the cursed ghost of a child. Following the traditional aspects of Japanese ghost stories these movies bring the dead into real life. Instead of following normal Japanese ancestral belief where the dead protect the living, these ghosts do quite the opposite. Each of the works has the characters entering into a world where they are infected by the curse at play and they are unable to detach themselves. The curse supersedes God and therefore hope. Once caught in the web, the characters hopelessly fall to the brutal death that awaits them. In Ringu the simple act of watching a videotape condemns its viewers to a horrifying death. In Ju-on, entering a cursed home also leads to death. There is no conceivable way out, there is no escape – you are going to die, its going to hurt and there’s nothing you can do about it. To be fair, in The Ring, for example, the heroine does escape from her fate but at a cost.

Fun stuff, eh? Why is this important?

American and European (and if you like Takashi Miike – some Japanese) films are busying themselves with puking violent bile into the mainstream of our culture and making torture just that more palatable to the masses. These Japanese originals and their remakes have been bringing hopelessness to their young audiences. In films like Nightmare on Elm Street, American Werewolf in London or The Exorcist there is a strand of Godliness than can be found in the narratives (no really, its there – its buried under gore and ugliness but it is indeed there.) There is hope, there is structure to existence and although evil is having its day, good still exists. In The Ring and The Grudge movies neither good nor evil exists. The dark pit of nothing is all that faces the characters. At the end of the film, where the moral of the story resides (and it’s called the MORAL of the story for a reason –hey look, I found another post topic) we find the resolution doesn’t provide any moral structure. The characters discover their trials have been resulted in getting their lives back but the triumph of good over evil (or vice-versa) hasn’t occurred. Ultimately, the lives saved aren’t deserving of the effort since the proof of the narrative is that everything is worthless. It is the Ying-Yang view of the world – when good and evil are equal they sum up to nothing.

In some ways the projection of nihilism is as coarse on the human heart as the visual impact of extreme violence. Films are modern myths, they are stories and they are used to teach us about our lives and our universe. When our stories teach that the universe is without design, without purpose and life itself is a meaningless effort it only serves to harm the audience. Projecting a world without God presents the lowest of human invention. The human mind that denies God is the same that accepts anything else in exchange. How can a person who denounces the worst of pornography also believe we live in a world uncontrolled by the Almighty? Remove God – you remove hope. Without God, why not indulge in torture porn or anything else that ignites your fancy? In a nihilistic universe there is no reason for morality and no logical reason for offense.

Horror movies are fun. I don’t deny that and I argue they have their place in society. Horror however doesn’t operate under different set of rules. All film, all stories are, in effect, instructional manuals on how to get by in this world. When films give bad direction they should be called out for what they are – just plain wrong.

1 Timothy 4:7 Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives' tales; rather, train yourself to be godly

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