Osore in Context: How Shifting Anxieties Shaped Japan’s Most Iconic Horror
Throughout the history of film, there have been numerous analyses of their context within culture and history. More than a few of those analyses have been strictly about the influences that have created some of the most terrifying and impactful horror films of all time. While most of these writings have been either widened to a worldwide lens or focused in on particularly Western cultures (i.e. the United States or the United Kingdom), my focus is to look at Japan.
I will not be strictly analyzing horror filmography, though. My intention is to look at some of the most impactful pieces of horror media that the country has created post-war and discuss the ties that each piece may have with the anxieties faced by the Japanese people and culture. Overall, I will be looking at pieces from film, literature, manga, anime, and video games of Japanese origin for this discussion.
The Influence of World War II
Though Japan had been producing horror media for centuries before the Showā era, the atrocities of World War II inspired filmmaker and war veteran Ishirō Honda to create Japan’s — and arguably the world’s — most iconic monster. Godzilla, or Gojira, was released in 1954, only twelve years after he had returned from fighting in the war. (2)
It is not a difficult argument to make that this big green monster was a metaphor for nuclear warfare: he was created by nuclear testing and breathes “atomic breath”. Even still, the use of an almost gaudy movie monster to comment on the devastation that nuclear bombs can do is quite brilliant. Godzilla and the other kaiju are an examination of mankind’s ability to cause harm to not only humans but the earth itself. Nancy Ainsfeld described it well in her analysis of this topic:
“Like the materials used in nuclear bombs, these monsters slept in the earth or evolved from it. They are unleashed by military scientists’ research, becoming dangerous. Misused, misdirected, the earth’s elements are foul and ultimately fatal.” (2)
It is important to note that the atomic bombs were not just theoretically horrific. The Japanese people experienced one of the most horrendous, unimaginable things and have lived to tell of it for generations. This, I believe, has inspired the use of body horror, particularly of zombie-like, mutated, or rotting humanoids, in Japanese horror media.
The first piece of media that comes to mind is the 1996 Capcom video game hit, Resident Evil (originally Biohazard). The plot of the game surrounds the survivors of the T-Virus, which is a virus released to the public accidentally by the Umbrella Corporation. The virus was originally made as a bio-weapon that appears to mutate humans into disfigured zombies.
The video game was a massive hit that continues to produce sequels and has a slew of American-made film adaptations. What interests me, though, is some of the similarities in character design to the real-life “zombies” that roamed the streets those few days after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The retellings of the aftermath of those bombs described its victims as having skin falling off of their bones and maggots crawling out of their faces. (11) This kind of visceral body horror is not only used in games like Resident Evil, but in other forms of J-horror media. One of the most influential J-horror manga artists of the 21st century, Junji Ito, has banked off of this kind of unsettling body horror as well.
The bombs were not the only terror that came from the end of WWII for the Japanese people. They were also going to need to face the occupation of their country by the United States. From the Japanese perspective, America had become an unknowable, unbeatable force. They were powerful enough to destroy a significant amount of Japan’s land and people in one fell swoop, and they were on their way to invade the Japanese daily life.
The fear of the unstoppable invader is also viewable in some of Japan’s most popular horror. Bringing Godzilla back into the conversation, it is interesting to look at how this monster has taken on different roles. If looked at in a certain light, Godzilla is both American and Japanese. (2) He is the bomb and the victim. For this argument, though, he is an invader (a metaphor for the occupiers), and a seemingly unstoppable one.
In much more recent media, manga Attack on Titan reflects on similar fears of invasion by a seemingly unstoppable force. The manga is set in a small ambiguously European town, where people have to hide — and periodically fight — against uncanny humanoid giants, nicknamed “titans”. These titans are not only incredibly difficult to kill but do not seem to have a purpose for their killing. They do not eat any of the other animals around them. They only eat humans, as if almost to mock them.
This, I believe, can be seen as a representation of the anxiety that the Japanese people felt as the Americans prepared to and continued to occupy Japan. They consumed Japanese culture while simultaneously destroying it, paving the way for the ultimate Americanization of Japanese traditions. Unstoppable, incomprehensively big, strange, and confusing; this was the American occupation of Japan.
While the outcomes of World War II have been used to create iconic horror, alternate “What if?” outcomes have as well. In Kousun Takami’s debut novel, Battle Royale, we are faced with a victorious post-war Japan. Set in 1997, the book follows a junior high school class as they are taken to an island and told that they must fight to the death. This setting is given under the premise that Japan was successful during World War II and the authoritarian regime has prevailed into the current day of the book.
Battle Royaleis one of the few stories made post-war that are not only a look at a possible victorious Japan but a gruesome one. The book and later film adaptation have been lauded as some of the most violent and graphic pieces of Japanese media since their release. The graphic nature of Battle Royale, in congruence with its anti-authoritarian message, is not only great horror but great political and social commentary. Which is, of course, where the best horror comes from.
Fighting Mother Nature
When looking at Japan’s historical anxieties, it is important to look at its overwhelming plights. While man-made disasters have been a problem for the country, it has a particularly difficult enemy to face: earth itself. As a grouping of islands in the Pacific, Japan is constantly fighting against nature. The country has suffered through countless tsunamis and earthquakes, with one even contributing to the meltdown of a nuclear power plant.
Interestingly enough, the kaiju that are most prominently shown as enemies to Godzilla on the big screen are an excellent representation of Japan’s endless battle with nature. While most of the kaiju are earth after being negatively affected by man, one stands out.
Mothra, a kaiju introduced in the 1961 film of the same name, is what she sounds like: a giant moth. While the monster seems simple enough, her character is actually quite developed.
She has not been created by any kind of man-made destructive substance (nuclear radiation, toxic waste, pollution, etc.) Instead, she has existed, in the way that she is now, since the beginning of time. Mothra is the only distinctly female of the original kaiju as well, serving as a primary metaphor for mother nature. Her wing flaps can change the sea tides and shake the earth. She is a force, but not an unnatural one. Ainsfield said it perfectly: “Mothra is nature.” (2)
Patriarchy and Weaponized Femininity
Before the war, as Japan was starting to become a more “modern” society, its long-held patriarchy was beginning to fear what may come of the newly-blossoming female autonomy. Men of power and prestige were writing about the massively feared and loathed “modern girl” (mogu) that imaginarily walked the streets.
Post-war, these ideas continued, singling out sex workers and women who “fraternized” with American occupiers. Men were quoted, saying that they were concerned about the “chastity of young women” in Japan, due to their new-found sexual confidence.
These anxieties, held by men but primarily affecting the lives of women, have been an ever-present theme within J-horror. One of the most prominent clichés that has arisen out of this fear is the siren (also sometimes referred to as a succubus).
A very real inspiration for this trope can be found in the interesting murderer, Abe Sada. (4) Abe Sada was a sex worker who murdered one of her clients in the 1930s. Famously, she strangled him and then removed his genitals, of which she carried around with her until she was found and imprisoned a few days later.
The story of Abe Sada is one that is original in its fear propriety. Not only was she a killer, but she was a killer prostitute, who mutilated her victim and decided to keep his manhood. Though true, the story is a very interesting metaphor for the patriarchal male’s loss of “masculinity” at the hands of the autonomous female.
While Abe is a real-life example of the idea of a siren, I am really interested in those that are fictional. We can use Robert King’s definition of the siren: “…sexually active — or at least sexually awakened — and may steal mates away.” (11)
The siren does not have to be sexually driven, though. Her drive is primarily the attention or adoration of men. This can be seen most clearly in the 1999 film, Audition. The main character is a single filmmaker, Aoyoma, that uses a casting call as his own personal dating service. He falls in love with one of the women, Asami, and becomes obsessed with her. His attempts at making her fall in love with him continue throughout the film, as it is revealed to the viewer that Asami is not who she says she is. The climax of the film is realized with Asami brutally mutilating Aoyoma, as revenge for loving someone who is not her — his son.
This representation of femininity as brutal, exaggerated, and needy is not solely on display in Audition. It is the cornerstone of “feminism” in Japanese horror media and personifies patriarchal fears of the brutal, autonomous woman.
Similarly, Tomie, Junji Ito’s first published work as a manga artist, is a perfect representation of a siren. She is beautiful, and she kills by driving her suitors insane. Maria Mie, in her discussion of Tomie, describes what makes the character truly terrifying:
“The idea that such a beautiful, perfect woman could be a monster in disguise is what is really frightening about Tomie, especially to her adult male victims.” (6)
This fear of the beautiful, or the sexually desirable, is pervasive in all patriarchal countries, but Japan is unique in an interesting quality. Unlike Audition’s basically reasonless terror, Tomie has somewhat of a reason for her wrath.
Her backstory involves falling off of a cliff and then later being sawed apart limb from limb by her classmates and teacher in an attempt for them to hide the body. To their surprise, Tomie walks into the classroom the next day, untouched, and students begin to be murdered one by one.
The revenge story is a staple within Japanese horror media and has been for centuries. Grudge ghosts like Oiwa (an inspiration for popular film Ringu) were the vessels for stories of wronged women getting their revenge on their abusers long before Tomie.
This story of female revenge has been updated, to also include the fear of female sexuality. Not only is Tomie a killer, seeking revenge for her original mutilation, she is also a sexually liberated woman. She flirts openly, and she feels no discomfort in telling men when she is not attracted to them. Tomie holds the power, and that in itself is terrifying to a patriarchal man.
The revenge story can be seen in a different way in Battle Royale. Mitsuko Souma is an antagonist that uses her sexuality to kill her fellow classmates. It is revealed throughout the story, though, that her brutality is due to her being a victim of sexual assault.
While this may be a way to humanize Mitsuko, it does not completely translate. Instead, we are made to choose: pity her for her victimhood or root against her for her brutality. In the end, most of us choose the latter.
This is what I believe is a form of useless brutalization. In a story where you are overwhelmingly asked to root for the main characters in their escape from this island, forcing the viewer to consider the humanity of an antagonist by giving her a horrific past is almost cruel. But, storylines like this can be traced back to misogynist’s guilt: watch this woman suffer, know that she is brutal for a reason, but inevitably find her suffering worthless as you celebrate her death. This is the basis for the patriarchal anxiety about autonomous women: when wronged, they have the ability to avenge themselves.
The Disintegration of the Traditional Family
Inexplicably linked to the fear of women’s liberation, is that of the ruining of the traditional family. As Japanese women — and people in general — became more individualistic, Japanese families began splitting apart. Divorce rates went up and marriage rates went down, causing a distinct shift in the daily lives of Japanese people.
Many, actually a majority, of the most popular 21st Century horror is set within a broken family. In his analysis of Japanese horror games, Chris Pruett describes this phenomenon quite well:
“Many of the Silent Hill games also portray non-standard family structures. The family of Harry and Cheryl is that of a single father and an adopted child, while the antagonist in the series’ fourth iteration is an orphan. […] The works of Koji Suzuki, including Ring and Honogurai Mizu no Sokokara (“Dark Water”), focus on single mothers, single fathers, and other deviations from the traditional nuclear family.” (11)
In Ringu, and its source material Ring, the main character is a divorced father trying to take care of his son. Audition’s protagonist, Aoyoma, is also a single father. The plot of Dark Water (Honogurai Mizu no Sokokara) is almost entirely focused on the struggles of a single mother who is trying to get through a divorce while dealing with the trauma that her parents’ divorce had instilled in her. (5)
These horror films are representative of a loss of tradition. With modernization and individualization came the disintegration of the standard family unit, which in turn puts the feeling of Japanese identity into question.
Horror media has always been a tell for what anxieties a culture is and was facing in history. The pieces that I chose to focus on were ones that were not only popular in Japan but were so vastly popular that they have become staples of horror media throughout the world. There are plenty of other pieces of horror media that one could argue reflect a number of other cultural and social fears that the Japanese people have faced.
It is interesting to consider what the future of J-horror could contain when looking at its current social and political struggles. Maybe a film surrounding a same-sex couple, or a video game alluding to the threat of China and North Korea, or an anime about the fear of negative population growth will be created within the next few years. Whatever is made, I am interested to look back on it in context.
1. Acuta, Katarzyna. “Ringuand the Vortex of Horror: Contemporary Japanese Horror and the Technology of Chaos.” Asian Journal of Literature, Culture and Society(2007), Vol. 1.
2. Anisfield, Nancy. “Godzilla/Gojiro: Evolution of the Nuclear Metaphor.” The Journal of Popular Culture (1995), Vol. 29.
3. Hickling, Frederick W. “The European-American Psychosis: A Psychohistoriographic Perspective of Contemporary Western Civilization.” The Journal of Psychohistory (2009), Vol. 37. Pages 33–43.
4. King, Robert. “A Regiment of Monstrous Women: Female Horror Archetypes and Life History Theory.” Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences(2015).
5. Marran, Christine L. Poison Woman: Figuring Female Transgression in Modern Japanese Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007.
6. Mie, Maria I. “Dead and Deadly Females: Junji Ito’s Tomie and the Legacy of the Female Vengeance Ghost.” Academia.edu (accessed February 18, 2019).
7. Ken’ichi,Nakaya.“What We Have Gained from America, and What We Have Lost.” Symposium, 1952.
8. Noriega, Chon. “Godzilla and the Japanese Nightmare: When “Them!” is US.” Cinema Journal (1987): 63–77.
9. Pruett, Chris. “The Anthropology of Fear: Learning About Japan Through Horror Games.” The Journal of Education, Community and Values (2010), Vol. 10.
10. Ryfle, Steve; Godziszewski, Ed (2017). Ishiro Honda: A Life in Film, from Godzilla to Kurosawa. Wesleyan University Press.
11. Tomoyasu, Kinue. “Testimony of Kinue Tomoyasu.” Interviewer Unknown. Hiroshima Witness, 1986.