Horribly Japanese

“Asakawa himself didn't much care if the company made money or lost it. All that mattered to him was whether or not the work was engaging. No matter how easy a job was physically, if it didn't involve imagination, it usually ended up exhausting you.”
-- Koji Suzuki

In this article I try to compare a random paranormal horror movie directed and produced by western society, more specifically from American origin, to another random movie created on Japanese soil from the same year. A movie comparison can be very complex and very broad in the sense that it is nothing like comparing the nutrients of a Japanese shimizu peach to its Chinese counterpart. It would be unfair to consider the Japanese movie I’ve chosen at random as a classic example of Japanese cinema when it comes to horror movies and likewise for its American counterpart. Obviously some elements used in these movies can be considered as a classic application of a certain technique used in respective movie business. But similarly, there might be some element in the movie that is not often used in other movies of that time and genre. I use the word ‘might’ here but since every movie is unique, there will certainly be elements that are unique to that movie alone. So please do take every comparison with a grain of salt. Some differences however are very obvious and did my best to portray them in this article. Without further ado, let me introduce our two movies. Both of them have been chosen for its subgenre but were chosen randomly from our selection of 2007 movies. For purpose of our investigation in this article The Attic will be representing the American horror cinema of that time in one corner and Kuchisake-onna or otherwise known as Carved: The Slit-Mouthed Woman will be sitting in the other corner representing Japan. Both movies are of the paranormal subgenre and therefore we thought they would be a good match for each other in the ring.

Before comparing contents I would like to point out the fact that, based on these movies, American cinema seems to love using special effects more than the Japanese. In fact I highly doubt that the producers of Kuchisake-onna used any CGI or computer added elements at all. Whenever something supernatural would happen, like a body swap for example, the camera wouldn’t be panned on the body itself but more so on the person reacting to the event itself. You don’t have to have studied cinema to realize that this is probably because of the fact that Americans have more money to invest in their movie than the Japanese. Why exactly that is, is a question for someone else to answer because that is not the aim of my research. Despite this fact I have to compliment Kuchisake-onna for its costumes, make-up and blood scenes which are very realistic.

Kuchisake-onna begins with rumors about a vengeful spirit or yurei (the slit-mouthed woman) coming back from the dead to do harm to children and teens. Stories spread throughout the town about this yurei to make the viewer understand the motives of and the threat that the slit-mouthed woman poses to the town. By doing this the producers introduce us to Japanese folklore and this is also a first big characteristic of Japanese horror movies. Japanese horror is deeply rooted in the folk tales from their culture, similar to how Grimm’s Brothers and other fairy tales are the inspiration for some American and European horror. It is however not nearly as present in western horror as it is in Japanese horror and therefore worth pointing out.

The difference of the setting of both movies is also a pointer and probably somewhat accurately represents the setting of a lot of horror movies of the same genre. In Kuchisake-onna the scene is an entire village and we quickly travel from one place to another; from a house to a school to a playing field back to a house etc… In The Attic however the scene is a single house and most of the shooting has been done on the same set. This is typical for American paranormal horror movies. Old houses are haunted or particular places bring out demons, ghost and spirits that mean to do harm: evil is concentrated. In Kuchisake-onna however, the evil spreads through an entire village and it doesn’t really matter where the characters are: everyone is vulnerable.

Speaking of characters, I’ve noticed that American horrors often involve young, good looking adolescents. This was certainly the case for The Attic. The cast of Kuchisake-onna, on the other hand, also consists of young children. This is probably due to the fact that rumors about an evil presence are best spread throughout a school for example, through the medium of young scholars. Young children are also more likely to believe these stories and to be frightened by them. If the story about the slit-mouthed woman would be spread throughout an American high school I strongly believe the story would have a different effect on the adolescents by striking less fear in the characters due to disbelief.

Another difference I noticed after watching these two movies is the difference in the amount of jump-scare tactics used. In The Attic this amount is present almost as many times as the evil twin sister ghost of the protagonist makes her appearance in the movie. These jump-scares are always accommodated with some sort of sound effect or music suspense in an attempt to scare the viewer even more. In Kuchisake-onna jump-scare tactics are used as well but not nearly as much as in The Attic. They also have a different feeling to them. The sounds used to accommodate the yurei that presents itself puts the focus more on the presence of the evil itself more so over the appearance of the yurei.

In this paragraph I’d like to briefly point out another difference I’ve found to distinguish both movies from each other. This is the on-screen-time of the yurei versus the evil twin sister. In The Attic you would often be introduced to the evil twin by means of a jump-scare followed by a scared victim confused by what she just saw only to realise the twin sister had disappeared when she finally dared to open her eyes a second time. The viewer would try to anticipate the next time the ghost appears and would be scared again in a similar fashion as the ghost’s last appearance. This goes on throughout the entire film until the final confrontation where the twin would get more screen time. In Kuchisake-onna however, the approach is slightly different. During the first half hour of the movie you don’t see the yurei on the screen at all but she would very much be present during the events of the film nonetheless. The viewer would know of her presence through rumors and witness reports and images of its victim right before they die or get captured but the viewer would not be witness of the act itself. In Japanese horror it is common to have fear manifested as a constant sense of dread that builds to an eventual climax. This is also exactly what the producers tried to do in Kuchisake-onna. The longer we are into the movie the more we see of the yurei and, like The Attic; there is a final confrontation with evil.

A last point I’d like to accentuate is the fact that in the American movie most of the events that are supposed to scare the viewer happen at nighttime. While watching the Japanese movie however, a lot of the appearances of the yurei happened in broad daylight; for all people to see. I even dare to say the yurei is meant to be seen in order to strike fear in the hearts of all the characters of the movie and not only the main ones. Fear manifests itself by a constant reminder that the threat is real and can present itself anywhere and at any time to anyone. This is because, as I pointed out before, Japanese horror movies are deeply rooted in the folk tales of their culture that began as oral tradition which are passed down from each generation to the next. In The Attic however, the evil ghost twin is only meant to be seen by her actual living counterpart, which is naturally also the protagonist of the story. Only the main character is afraid of this presence while everyone else in her vicinity thinks she’s losing her mind. Having watched other paranormal horror movies from western origin I can confirm that this is a returning element in the paranormal genre and it is meant to make the protagonist, but also the viewer, question their own sanity.

I’d like to conclude my research by stating that there is an obvious or less obvious difference in horror cinema depending on where on the globe the movie has been produced. Japanese horror often derives from folk tales while American producers have to be more creative in my opinion. These differences can be sorted and classified but in the end, it eventually all falls down to the fantasy of the screenwriter (or book author if the movie is based on a book, obviously). If I managed to convince you of this I have succeeded in my intention with this article.