Saturday, August 7, 2010

Hair Featured in Japanese Horror, From Ancient Times to Modern

Today's theme?

Evil hair.

I'd like to talk about exactly why hair is such a staple in Japanese horror movies, stories, games, everything really, and to be honest, it deserves its own entry to shine as the paradigms of great traditional horror that it is.  Let's take a look on why the subject of "hair" is so important in Japanese folklore, culture and horror, as well as some excellent usage of it in modern-day media.

You read that right, I'm going to be talking about really good, actually scary traditional Japanese horror!

Hair is one of the most basic and recognizable elements of traditional Japanese horror. But the reason that a woman's long black hair has become so ingrained into folktales and scary stories that it has become frightening on its own dates back a long, long time, so that we must understand how it came to be before we figure out why.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Modern Japanese Horror Film, "Shikoku" (1999)

So, here in the Northern Hemisphere, it's summer now.  I can tell, because I have no AC and I occasionally just slump over like a wilted plant every once in a while when I forget to turn on all eight of my oscillating fans.  It's nearly unbearable.  What makes it OK, however, is this, a horror movie review for the summertime!

In Japan, summer is the time for horror movie releases.  Here in America, it seems to be all about Halloween, because people want to go get scared then.  We Japanese prefer to get frightened in summer.  One would think crowding around a bunch of people in a theatre to stare ahead at a screen for a few hours might leave you packed in like sardines, what with all the body heat generated by everybody, but movie theatres are notorious for being ice-cold when you visit them, right?  On the contrary, we flock to the summer horror releases because it's thought that becoming afraid at the movies will send chills up your spine, and chills naturally cool the body.  Regardless, summer has been thought of  as horror movie season in Japan for over half a century, and telling scary stories in summer time has been going on for over a thousand years.

But you know me, what do I get out of reviewing horror movies?  I know if I desecrate a shrine I'm cursed until my inevitable horrific death, I know that if I fall in love with a woman who smiles a little too wide and stares at me hatefully when I turn my back that I'm cursed until my inevitable horrific death, and I know that if I watch a terrible movie and take it lightly, I'll be cursed into my inevitable horrific death.  But that won't stop me from trying!  My point is, I get it, horror movies, and you're popular enough that everybody has reviewed you by now, so I can't just be like everybody else and go "I wasn't really scared at this part but I find the nuances of Megan Fox's performance in Jennifer's Body just absolutely delightful".  That's not me.

So I've selected this trashy, stupid, unintentionally comedic, low-budget, not-even-scary-to-easily-frightened-children movies to review.  Sure it was meant to be scary, but somewhere along the way (often at every stop along the way) the ball was dropped, destroyed, and forgotten entirely.  They're frightening, but not "Sadako coming through your screen in order to enact the Ju-On curse and drive insane that super hot girl from Audition who will torture you until you're nothing more than a pile of mangled body parts floating around in Dark Water" scary.  No, this is scary for much different, much more hilarious reasons.  Reasons such as:

Who in the hell thought this was a good idea and wanted to be attached to this project?
Why in the world would that ever happen?
Why didn't the editor attempt to fix that?  At all?
Did they seriously think that this would scare anybody?

Today's movie is a traditional Japanese horror film.  Traditional in the manner of, "churned out at little to no expense in a thinly-veiled attempt to cash in on the earlier success of Ring".  However, you can also take it as that other meaning of traditional, a story based on a horrific and "possibly real and factual" curse from Shinto rituals that have gone horribly awry, in the manner of many popular folktales, video games and novels from Japan's storied and frightening past.  But then churned out at little to no expense in a thinly-veiled attempt to cash in on the earlier success of Ring.

Of course, I didn't know this at the time.  In fact, I didn't know anything, because I didn't buy it.  Let me take you back to a simpler time, a time before Netflix, a time before One Missed Call and The Grudge both had five sequels and prequels that I wasn't even vaguely aware of, a time when there was still a movie rental store near my house by the name of Hollywood Video.  I would go there often to rent something or other, since the game store was conveniently attached to it, and my friends and I could get cheap-o horrible made-for-TV-movies and junk to watch without having to be stuck with the stigma of actually purchasing them.  Also, they had the best brand of microwave popcorn.  I miss it.

But I'm getting off track.  My point is that I and sometimes my friends and or mother would all come in to get a quick rental.  They had a huge selection, and I cannot recall them ever being "out" of something I wanted to rent.  So eventually Blockbuster monopolized everything and Hollywood Video had to close.  They had shipped back all of the films that they could, but those that remained were being given away at prices slashed more than the wrists of a Twilight fan.  I immediately began scanning the shelves for some DVD I might have sort of enjoyed that I could now purchase for two dollars, and my mother milled the aisles in search of some old movie she'd rented once in hopes they still had it to save on those pesky jacked-up import fees.  It turns out that they'd had to send this movie back, but what they did still have was one movie she had commented on Every.  Single.  Time. she had ever visited the video store.  That movie?


It looks scary, right?  That sort of imagery is created to strike at the very core of your being and warn you that here be pretty girls in pretty kimono following ugly tradition and wreaking havoc on your life, your village, and your eternity.  It looks like all of those other scary things that keep you awake at night.  It just seemed to be of a better class than most of those other "JHorror" DVDs who couldn't even afford a slipcover in colour.  Also, my mother had managed to locate the presence of some paper decorations used exclusively in Shinto, which must mean that this film had a better understanding of what we would find frightening, and was certainly worth the five dollars they were asking for in exchange.

It wasn't.

OK, it was, but not for the high and well-intentioned hopes she had placed upon it.

I remember having a passing thought that perhaps if this movie was so scary and associated with Shinto like the many other forms of media she collected and obsessed over and perhaps should have mentioned at one point, why hadn't she heard of it?  Why hadn't anyone heard of it?  (This will become a recurring pattern in my selection of these "horror" films.)  But the level of excitement on her face and the whiteness of her knuckles as she gripped the case and held it protectively to her chest sent the thought fleeing straight out of my mind as quickly as it had come.  She was buying me a lot of stuff, who was I to judge?

Anyway, I'm going to judge it now.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Yōkai Featured in Kagrra,'s 10th Anniversary Tour, ~Hyakkiyakou~

So it's been over a year since my last ~OFFICIAL~ Kagrra, update, but the themes of many of my recent entries basically makes up for it.  I'd been planning to do something along the lines of this entry since before I reviewed Yoshitoshi's art in Kotodama way back when, but then new circumstances arose and beat me into submission, culminating in this.  But more on that later.

Kagrra,'s new single, the extremely long-winded and traditional "Tsuki ni Murakumo Hana ni Ame" (with bonus "silent" kanji!) is due out the 16th.  The single itself is a much quicker pace than their last single, with a light beat befitting of its summer release.  The B-side I've heard on the main version is startlingly similar to old-school, "Matsuri"-era Kagrra,, as is the PV for "Tsuki ni Murakumo Hana ni Ame" itself, which bears resemblance to their most Visual of PVs, "Yume Izuru Chi", and one of their more popular photoshoots, as Isshi goes and gets his xxxHoLic on in the video with a kiseru, calligraphy, and onmyoji markings on his hands.  Kagrra, really went all-out with the costumes for this one, with a very modern style mixed in with even more vibrant traditional couture.  It's really refreshing for a Visual band to become more Visual, or consistently remain as flamboyantly earnest as they have been since they began, and the PV has many cool elements that you really have to see, rather than just me describing them.  Keeping consistent on this theme, the single to be released after this one has also been announced, and it promises to be just as confusing and abusive to me when it comes to the characters used for the title and, most likely, the lyrics as well.  Obsolete character count so far:  many.  Maybe I'll do an entry on it when it comes out, we'll see.  But anyway, this release seems like it's going to be a great one, so I highly recommend that you check it out and, if possible, please support the band by purchasing it!

But enough shameless promotion.  Let's delve into another new thing Kagrra, is pursuing, and get a bit more insight on the band, the members, and traditional (obscure) old cultural facts about Japan.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Mens' Fashion in Traditional Japan

In my last post, I shared some photos of my vintage yakuza Aloha shirt, which I like to wear.  It's by no means the only article of Japanese clothing that has been passed down to me.  In today's blog, I'd like to share some pictures of an antique juban and obi I received for my birthday last month.  I also wanted to talk for a little bit about the history and culture of such clothing back in traditional Japan.  I want to go into this in much greater length and detail sometime, but for now, please enjoy the photos!

Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Traditional Arts, Crafts, and Culture of Okinawa

Have you ever wanted to visit Okinawa?

Perhaps you said "no", or you don't know what Okinawa is, but after seeing that, I'm sure that you, like me, are now filled with an overpowering compulsion to go there as soon as possible.

Now that it's approaching summer time, and it's getting warm without being scorching, I want to get outside and go to the beach, and Okinawa is the best place to go.  The breezes are cool, the sea is calm, and, well... did you SEE that commercial?!

Okinawa is to Japan like Hawaii is to the United States.  Okinawa and Hawaii have a lot in common, culturally, but my meaning is that Okinawa has always had a very rich and unique culture all its own, and now that it is a part of Japan, it strives to continually be aware of the history and influence its people have always had, and classifies itself as an entirely different place from the mainland.  Stepping onto Okinawan soil, everything just looks and feels different.  Most people speak the Okinawan dialect, but still present is the Okinawan language itself, which is entirely different from Japanese.  There are also distinctive religious differences, and they even have their own brand of yōkai, which I'll touch on later.

The birthplace of karate, most likely derived from Okinawan and Chinese martial arts, the Ryukyu islands themselves, as well as several other key phrases and words are derived from the Chinese language, since the two are considerably close to one another.  Okinawa's climate is subtropical, filled with interesting fruits and plant life, as well as fish and reefs and some of the best scuba-diving, fishing and surfing that you can ever experience.  But I'm not going to sit here and give you a history lesson.  Much information can be found via a quick google or wikipedia search.  But I would like to share some key cultural factors that I find interesting.

Okinawan food is delicious.  Pork is a common meat used in dishes (and my favorite besides seafood), and they are famous for a wide variety of very distinctive types of ramen.  Also known for their brand of soba soups (though the noodles are udon-style with a different broth) many ingredients are imported into the cuisine and make for interesting and unique flavour.  At times even overpowering, being a fan of spicy food, Okinawan cuisine introduced me to the Mexican and Thai brand of dishes.  Another famous ingredient is called goya, or bitter melon, the most bizarre fruit I've ever tasted, and that's saying something.  The name is accurate, to say the least.  There's even bitter melon-flavoured drinks, noodles and candy.  Along with that, a type of doughnut, called sata andagi, is another culturally significant dish.  The sugary fried buns are often recommended as a sweet treat to those who are visiting or would like to try Okinawan cuisine.

But to really get a good idea on the history, culture and interesting places in Okinawa, you'll honestly just have to visit.  I'll just take you through some notable places as if you were having a holiday there, but to do so, I'll need my assistants who help me explain all the most traditional and exciting aspects of Japan.  I speak, of course, of Kagrra,.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Classic Japanese Horror Film, "Jigoku" (1960)

Most of us are probably familiar with (or have been forced to read in high school) the 14th century epic poem The Divine Comedy, and more specifically, that first part, Inferno, by Dante, here I will approach an interpretation of Hell from the other side of the world, from another time, and influenced, not by the Bible, but by Western gore and slasher flicks.  While the central theme of the film deals with Hell, karma and morality from a Buddhist standpoint, the religious aspects are not as sacred as in Dante's poem (in fact, the director had quite a bit of fun with the entire film), so I'll just go into the explanation of it as far as to clarify it for those who may not be as familiar with Buddhism or the Japanese version of things.  What I do want to point out, however, is that, despite the completely differing worlds in which the works were created, many of the themes, imagery and presentation of the depths of Hell do actually have a lot in common.  Like Dante's Medieval Catholic Inferno, Buddhist Hell in Japan is also made up of a series of areas of varying torment designated to specific types of sinners nestled deep below the Earth's crust.

But at the heart of it all, this is a Japanese horror film.  Made in 1960, most horror films at the time played directly to the Japanese psyche:  slow, suspenseful, where you know there's something terrifying juuuust beyond the shoji screen, but not knowing what it is makes it all the more frightening.  These films, precursors to modern international hits like Ringu, Ju-On, Dark Water and the like, are still remembered and often viewed today by fans of the Asian horror genre; films like Onibaba, Kwaidan and Ugetsu Monogatari can still be found on movie channels and DVD racks the world over.

This film, Jigoku, is not so well remembered.  While the director, Nakagawa Nobuo, became very popular at the time of his career, his movies were not the subtly scary yōkai-tinged thrillers of most of his contemporaries.  Even though only a few of his many films were in the horror or ghost story genre, the ones he did make are remembered to this day for their excellent visuals and direction.  Like all good directors, Nakagawa was very eccentric, and his remembered well for his bizarre behaviour and penchant for wearing geta at all times, even on set.  Despite often being referred to as "the Alfred Hitchcock of Japan" (and this film itself drawing inspiration from a murder case also depicted on the screen by Hitchcock), the suspense he masterfully built up in many of his earlier mystery films did not get the recognition that they may have gotten under different circumstances.

The circumstances?  Shintoho, the film studio he worked for.  After World War II, members of the Toho Production Company unveiled Shintoho (New Toho) Studios, and audiences were made aware very quickly of just the sort of films they were interested in making.  You can't deny that Nakagawa's films had a certain cool quality about them...

Nazo no Hissatsu-ken (The Mysterious Blade)

Onna Kyuketsuki (The Vampire Lady)

Kenpei to Yuurei (The Military Policeman and the Ghost)

Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan (Yotsuya Ghost Story), another of his phenomenal works, based off of the popular tale.

While the movies may appear slightly cheesy, Nakagawa really did an amazing job with the work he was given, which was pretty impressive since the majority of Shintoho's movies looked more like this...

Nikutai Joyu Goroshi - Gonin no Hanzaisha (Nude Actress Murder - Five Criminals)

Ama no Bakemono Yashiki (Girl Divers In A Haunted House)

Kuroi Chibusa (Dark Breasts)

And who could forget the Sexy Line? (Sexy Chitai)

Needless to say, when Jigoku (and even Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan before it) came out, many people dismissed it as just another one of those low-budget Shintoho films, which all seemed to be soft-core exploitation or really cheap and gory horror films churned out for summer in attempt to cash on on horror film season.

It didn't help matters that Jigoku came out in 1961, touting a film heavily influenced by Western visuals, something nobody had really seen before in a horror film and therefore should be wary of, and that it had almost zero budget, ending up as the very last film eked out of Shintoho before they declared bankruptcy and folded.

Jigoku was really far ahead of its time, and it deserves recognition for the absolutely stunning visuals and message presented in it, not to mention basically founding the ero-guro genre that is so popular today (even at Shintoho, blood on film was generally kept to a minimum, if at all).  It is also gaining further notoriety for being one of, if not the first film to capitalize on Western plot devices, sensibilities, and the manner in which horrific imagery is approached, and to actually depict Buddhist Hell.  It has since been remade several times, but finally Nakagawa Nobuo is getting the recognition that he deserves as one of the iconic directors of Japan (especially in this groundbreaking film that he still managed with no budget and the company against the amount of blood and gore).  This movie is amazing and still must be seen to be believed.  Please check it out if you can, and enjoy the review!

Movie Review - 地獄 - Jigoku

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Valentine's Day and White Day in Japan

While I'm on a culture jag, I thought I'd tell you about a holiday we have in Japan called White Day.

Much like the hanakotoba, in Japan around Valentine's Day, we have a special language for chocolate gifts given.  On Valentine's Day, only girls give out chocolates to their friends or generally to men that they know/work with/like.  Dark chocolate is the most popular.  There are specific instructions for the type/amount and whom you should give chocolates to among adults, but for people my age, the general rule is to give chocolates to all of your male friends and acquaintances.  If a really expensive or hand-made chocolate gift is given, this is the signal that a girl likes you and is asking you to be her boyfriend.  Valentine's Day is seen as an excuse to be a bit bolder than normal and hint to a boy that he should ask you out, if you usually wouldn't do this sort of thing.  Then she has to wait the long month for White Day.

White Day takes place on March 14, exactly one month after Valentine's Day.  The thinking is that all gifts given out must be returned at least three times better/more valuable by the boys who received chocolate, so usually girls give out chocolates to everybody to make sure they get a big haul.  White Day is called as such originally since white is a symbol of purity and a "blank slate", signifying new beginnings, for example, staring a new relationship.  Generally, chocolate or gifts are white too, but not everybody does this.  If no gift is returned, this means that the man considers himself to be in too high a position to take note of the girl, and is generally quite rude.  A gift of equal value signifies that the guy is doing the bare-bones requirement out of politeness only, and means that he's not interested or no longer wants to go out with you.  The general three-fold rule gift is the most common, and depending on the value of the original gift, signifies that everything is A-OK and/or you wish to accept the offer and begin a relationship.  Obviously, it's all very romantic and girls love it.  What girls do not love, however, is when the white gift is not something like white chocolate or white flowers.  A popular prank among guys my age is to give white panties to the girl, something "romantic" among adults, but hilarious among high-schoolers, who get to watch her open up the gift and unwrap panties in front of everybody when there is no actual relationship to warrant that.  It's funny, I don't care what anybody says.  It's better than receiving nothing at all right?

Anyway, among my close friends and people from Japan I know, we observe this tradition here, and maybe you'd find it interesting and want to start it among your own group of friends!

Friday, January 29, 2010

Popular Yōkai Throughout History and In Modern Media

As you'll recall in the last entry, I started to talk about yōkai and explain a bit about them to you. This entry will go a bit more in depth into that, as well as the next one, which will explain more about certain types of yōkai. There will be quite a few entries in this series, but I won't do them all at once, because obviously there are a lot to talk about.  Of course, that's not even a full list, but my point basically is that I have a lot I can go into if I get bored or you want to hear about a specific one I haven't covered yet.  But I'll try not to be completely overpowering with massive amounts of yōkai information.  The main thing I want to do in the "Yōkai Info" series is

- To better explain exactly what and why these creatures are,
- Provide lots of pictures of the different types depicted from the Heian Period to modern-day anime, and everything in between,
- Share the stories and images behind many yōkai and cultural instances that are hard or impossible to find online in English, and
- To answer questions about yōkai as best I can.

First off I'll give you a basic dictionary paragraph about yōkai.

A yōkai can refer to a number of things, from a supernatural creature, being, ghost, demon, spirit, happening, monster, or even a human, animal, object or any worldly thing that exhibits or acquires supernatural power or appearance.  For the sake of clarity, I generally view supernatural Japanese things in three major categories: ghosts, gods/demons, and yōkai.  The 'ghost' category (yūrei) covers spirits, spectres, visions, dreams, or any sort of supernatural apparition involving a human.  Gods and demons refer to legends in Shinto, Buddhism, or any other religious belief or figure adapted into a moderately well-known cultural phenomenon.  These two categories I will go into with greater detail in the next Kagrra, installment.

The yōkai I am referring to are 'supernatural creatures'.  They will be vengeful, monstrous in appearance, or even just harmless animal-type-things playing tricks.  They also can include certain forms of ghosts or demonic presences, but this would involve the ghost or demon being formed by a human who had undergone such a legendary tale that it caused them to mutate into a very specific form of monster, instead of simply becoming a ghost or demon.

Yōkai are hard to explain in Western terms, if there is an equivalent, I'm afraid I don't know about it.  We view ghosts, demons and monsters differently in Japan, and I don't know any cultural significance in the West or America that would be a direct descendant or cousin of yōkai.  I could compare them to some sort of cryptozoology, like Bigfoot, Nessie, vampires, werewolves, or Robert Pattinson: something you know about, but never really see, despite having a vague idea of what it looks like, but you'd know basically where and how to find it if pressed.  Or you might compare it to supernatural or fairy tale creatures, like elves, fairies, goblins, talking animals, or any sort of distinctive imaginary creature found in local legend or lore, with their own distinct species and mannerisms between them.  I don't claim to know everything about this sort of comparison, but to me, yōkai seem to have their own little category, because I can't think of a real Western equivalent to the specific significance of yōkai in Japan.  If you can think of one after reading this, I'd be very appreciative to hear it.

Yōkai mainly revolve around cultural learnings and tales instilled in us, superstitions and rituals and fears about specific creatures that will come up in daily life, in a great number of movies, books, video games or popular media, even going so far as to be a mascot of a company selling anything you can think of, having food items named after it, or just to represent something about a specific person's store, personality, house, or interests.

You probably know about several yōkai without even having heard the term before.  These popular examples that are a bit more familiar to Western eyes include, but are not limited to: the kappa, the tanuki or kitsune, tengu, the chochinōbake or karakasa, and and the kodama, just to name a few.

I won't go into these specific yōkai because they are so well-known and there is much English-language information about them to be found online.  My next entry will focus on some of my favourite or hard-to-find yōkai, but this one will take the in-between road.  It's all about semi-popular yōkai you may have seen before but not known about, or will learn about and soon see often, as well as lots of photos of their most popular instances in the past and modern-day popular media.

If you're just starting to learn about yōkai, and would like to learn more, the best places I can recommend are as follows:

Search for "hyakkiyakou" or 百鬼夜行.  This being a Kagrra, song, I'll explain all the meanings of it in that next entry, but basically it refers to the Demon's Night Parade, a march of all types of demons throughout the streets of the Capital, or the entire country, depending on who you're listening to, which I mentioned in my last yōkai entry.  The origin of many yōkai are in these famous ukiyo-e, a vast amount of which was drawn by many different artists of varying popularity.  It was basically the "Madonna and Child" of the Edo Period; everybody was drawing it to get some sort of recognition or put their own imprint on the artwork.

Watch anime.  Kids love spooky or clever little creatures, and films by Studio Ghibli and Miyazaki Hayao are as good a place to start as any.  Spirited Away and Pon Poko are my favourites for this.

Read manga.  It's the same as above, but if you remember from my entry on Yoshitoshi, manga goes way, way back, even back before Urusei Yatsura, if you can believe that.  Lots of prints and drawings and stories about yōkai were extremely popular in the Edo period, which you'll see below.  Another great manga (and anime) is GeGeGe no Kitaro, by Mizuki Shigeru.  If Toriyama Sekien is the best-known artist, writer and creator of the past, Mizuki Shigeru is certainly his modern-day equivalent.  In addition to Kitaro, Mizuki writes many in-depth books on yōkai, and his home-town has a museum and road dedicated to him, with many statues of all of his yōkai lining the street.

Watch the movies that started "it all".  Back in the late 1960s, the film company Daiei made a trilogy of movies about yōkai for children, but it really started the interest in yōkai back up again, and they are in the process of being remade by Miike Takashi.  I haven't seen the new movies, but obviously the originals are a favourite of my yōkai-obsessed mother, whose constant screening of them for me as well as lectures have probably made these yōkai entries of mine make me sound like a little yōkai encyclopedia.  I place the blame on my mother entirely.  Regardless, the movies are classics in a classically bad way, and are a must-see for anybody who wants to learn about yōkai, watch a Neverending Story-style children's fantasy movie, or just watch really corny badly-costumed Japanese cinema.  They're available on Amazon for American/Canadian audiences with English subtitles as a three-film set or separately (the three films are titled Yokai Monsters and individually are Spook Warfare, One Hundred Monsters, and Along With Ghosts).

There are many different artists, media, films and products that feature yōkai, but my favourites are these, in addition to the ones I'll describe below, so let's get to it!

Yōkai In Legend, Ukiyo-e, and Modern Art