Japanese cinema got its biggest international breakthrough in the 1990’s with a slew of visceral horror films. These are exemplary products of Japan’s economic-downturn era, and their archetypal figure is the teenage girl, preeminent icon’s Japan’s bubble economy. The films also cast teen pop idols to appeal to female teen audiences. The genre typically combines technology with supernatural.
Hideo Nakata’s “Ringu” (The Ring, 1998), which stands at the forefront of the genre, revolves around a superstition regarding a certain videotape: if you watch it, you receive a telephone call; seven days later, you die. A single mother seeking to protect her son traces the videotape to the cabin where recorded events took place, uncovering the story of Sadako, buried alive in a well by her father, and whose psychic powers cause the violent deaths. The film makes implicit connections between Sadako’s power of telepathy and telekinesis and the malign influences of the telephone and television – all are technologies of influencing or touching from afar.
The film’s terrifying climax brings together influences from David Cronenberg’s “Videodrome” and Japanese legends, with Sadako clambering out of the wall in the video image, then out of the television set itself. Since the Ringu's release, Sadako's name in Japan is said to become anonymous with technophobia. In the "Ring", the remedy for the curse is also the poison: to save oneself, one must play the tape to another, thereby ensuring the curse's perpetuation.
"Ringu 2" continues the first film's preoccupations with contaminating, possessed and possessive technology -- with a new focus on survivors who have witnessed Sadako's terrible glance, and, as video images morph and mutate, so the curse evolves through yet different manifestations. In addition to sequel and prequel ("Ringu 0"), the movies have spawned many spin-offs and remakes, including Kiyoshi Kurosawa's ghost film "Kairo" (Pulse, 2001). The wave spread to Hong Kong, Korea, Thailand and Hollywood. In East Asia, it established a commercially viable trend for high tension, low-budget horror films which worked with regional stars.
The company responsible for the "Ring", Omega Project, marketed the film through the internet, Mobile-phone dial up entertainment and video game licensing, creating marketing hype to rival Hollywood. In order to withstand the threat of Hollywood, the sequels and spin-offs have themselves morphed as they proliferate through interlocking media. In the Thai film, "999-9999" (2002), for example, the mobile phone is the threatening technology, linking The Ring's viral narrative motifs to stories circulating in the mid 1990s among Thai school teenagers about certain occult phone numbers.
"The Ringu" qualifies as visceral horror -- horror that proves itself on our pulses -- for its techniques of high suspense. "Audition" (2000), another notorious Japanese horror film, adds the dimension of the body being opened up to its visceral horror characteristics. "Audition" is the key to its director Takashi Miike's high international profile. It has solidified his maverick reputation -- its slow moving horror is quite unlike the string of yazuka films such as "Dead or Alive" (1999) for which he is otherwise known.
In "Audition", a middle-aged widower, Aoyama, seeks a spouse and interviews young women under the pretext of auditioning for a film. He instantly falls under spell of the demure, childlike Asami who, unknown to him, has a dreadfully abused past and plans to wreak revenge by sawing off his feat with piano wire. The film visualizes Asami wearing nurse's outfit with black leather apron and gloves, leaning over Aoyama's prone body with her sedative-oozing phallic syringe. The macabre sequence, initiated when Aoyama falls unconscious drugged with Asami's potion, is itself cut up into series of flashbacks.
Events which took place before are repeated, but subtly and disturbingly altered to accommodate Asami's different perspective, which Aoyama had previously elided, in his attempt to sustain his fantasy of her as 'the Woman', both beautiful and deferential, the two quality he prizes most, and on whom he had decided, even before her 'audition.' At one point, the film flashes back to the couple's first time in bed, allowing us to think the foot-sawing may have been a dream, only then to jolt back.
The image of the powerful, scary woman and castration anxiety is present in "The Ring", too, where victims are found with identically frozen, terrified facial expressions; Sadako's terrible gaze recalls that of the Greek mythological gorgon, Medusa, who has the power to turn men to stone. The fascination with female castrators is not new to Japanese cinema. It is evident in attitudes to the 1936 legal case of a woman called Sada who strangled her lover to death and cut off his penis as a memento. Sada gained public sympathy in her trial and was acquitted of murder. Her story is told in Nagisa Oshima's "In the Realm of the Senses" (1976) and retold in Nobuhiko Obayashi's "Sada" (1998).
The term "monstrous-feminine" is usually a misrepresentation of powerful female deities through centuries of patriarchal culture, but in Japanese modern horror films the 'monstrous-feminine' is rarely unequivocally monstrous. Japanese horror films mostly works on a dreamlike level than what is currently made on the Hollywood horror market or others. There is a significant undertone of graphic exploitation in this genre films as well, showcasing shocking violence and sexual depravity, but mostly, it gives the sense of being in control, creating maximum tension and fear which is vital for a good visceral horror movie.