Bathed in blood

By Sarah Cortina

The camera pans across a dank, dark, warehouse-like space where a young couple is being held captive. Filthy, gagged and chained to steel tables, they exchange looks of utter fear and despair. A menacing figure clad in a green surgeon’s uniform enters the room. He walks over to the bound man and says, “Would you die for her?” A beat goes by, and he repeats his challenge. “Would you?” The victim slowly nods, his gaze traveling to the young woman. The surgeon’s eyes gleam as he reaches for a pair of pliers.

What follows is 50 minutes of torture, sadism and brutality that comprises the bulk of director Koji Shiraishi’s horror flick "Grotesque." The film debuted to relatively little fanfare in a few Japanese theaters earlier this year, and even though a DVD release followed, it would have likely faded into obscurity were it not for one headline-making decision.

Last month, the British Board of Film Classification — the agency responsible for assessing and rating movies — declined to give the work an “18” rating, a move which effectively banned its sale and distribution within the UK.

“'Grotesque' features minimal narrative or character development and presents the audience with little more than an unrelenting and escalating scenario of humiliation, brutality and sadism,” said BBFC director David Cooke, in a statement. “The chief pleasure on offer seems to be in the spectacle of sadism (including sexual sadism) for its own sake.” The film thus was determined to present a significant “risk of harm” to viewers that was unmitigated by any redeeming artistic merit.

Banning made headlines

Such a ruling is not only rare, it’s almost unprecedented. Out of the roughly 10,000 movies reviewed by the board annually, the only other film to receive the ban in the last three years was "Murder Set Pieces," an American production about a photographer who rapes and kills prostitutes. Shortly after the BBFC’s announcement, the ban of "Grotesque" made headlines all over the world, and thrust into the spotlight an obscure 36-year-old Japanese director who is at the forefront of his country’s thriving splatter-film movement.

Born and raised in Fukuoka, Shiraishi grew up watching movies like "Jaws," "Ghostbusters" and "The Terminator," developing a passion for the supernatural and occult elements he saw in these spectacles. Yet instead of dreaming to become a director, he says his first interest was special effects and makeup.

“It was only later, when I began to recognize that a movie with great special effects can still be a bad movie, that I started thinking about creating a whole film myself,” the director says.

Shiraishi began making his own independent films while still in college, but his first big break came in 1994, when he joined the crew of renowned director Sogo Ishii’s "Mizu no Naka no Hachigatsu" (August in the Water). Moving to Tokyo in 1997, he honed his skills and eventually was awarded the runner-up prize at the 1999 Pia Film Festival for "Kaze wa Fuku Darou" (The Wind Will Blow). The movie, a screwball comedy about a luckless young man trying to figure out where his last relationship went wrong, showcased the faux-documentary style that was to become Shiraishi’s signature technique.

The young director supported himself with various part-time jobs, including a stint making “shinrei videos,” in which filmmakers go through haunted houses and abandoned buildings in the hopes of catching spiritual phenomena on film. Unglamorous as that job may have been, it proved useful in bringing Shiraishi to the notice of producers. Industry folk at the time were already regarding him as a specialist in occult films, and he was hired on for projects like "Ju-Rei" (The Uncanny) and "Shinin Shojo" (Dead Girl Walking).

Shiraishi’s first feature to gain wide attention was 2005’s "Noroi" (The Curse), which toed the line between fiction and reality so cleverly that many hailed it as the “Japanese Blair Witch Project.” His next work, "Kuchisake Onna" (Carved) in 2007, was based on a popular urban legend about the ghost of a vengeful woman who gets her kicks slicing open faces. Shiraishi drew on his early interest in special-effects makeup to design a buzz-creating “split-faced” look for star Miki Mizuno.

Though his early films all fall firmly within the horror genre, most possess a subtle creepiness that is far removed from the overt brutality displayed in "Grotesque." So what drove Shiraishi to make a movie that is in many ways a great departure from his previous works?

“With most of my feature films, a producer will approach me with a specific request,” he explains. “For 'Grotesque,' I was asked to make something so graphic it couldn’t be shown in theaters. And so I went all out.”

'Splatter' community divided

"Grotesque" is situated at the extreme end of the spectrum of “splatter” films, a subgenre that most people associate with horror. Yet within the splatter community, there is debate about the role these films play within the broader context of Japanese cinema.

“I actually consider splatter and horror to be completely different things,” says Yoshihiro Nishimura, director of such graphically violent movies as "Tokyo Gore Police." “The films I try to create are so over-the-top and unrealistic, they really become comedy.”

Akira Yamaguchi, producer of similarly themed works like "RoboGeisha," believes that there is a place for both types of films. “Comedies and dramas are very reflective of the culture, so it’s difficult to make something that will resonate across the world. With horror and splatter, the visual component plays a very important role, so it’s a form of entertainment that’s easy to understand.”

Yet for UK film critic Jasper Sharp, the increasing popularity of splatter films is a significant roadblock in the efforts to promote “quality” Japanese cinema abroad.

“Horror is a global community, with hundreds of dedicated fans, magazines, websites, video outlets, film festivals, etc.,” he says in an email. “To take one example, London FrightFest screened the kitsch Japanese splatter comedy 'Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl' recently. Like all the films at the festival, from all countries, it would have packed out the venue, and therefore been seen by about 1,200 people in a single sitting… I’d be amazed if even Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s 'Tokyo Sonata,' one of the most highly regarded titles of last year, sold this many tickets in total during its entire UK run.”

As the "Grotesque" controversy shows, notoriety is easy to come by for splatter films. Whether that’s a good thing for Japanese cinema as a whole is a different matter.

“It wasn’t a very large-scale movie, so this incident was very effective publicity,” says Yamaguchi. “But I don’t think making snuff-style films like that will actually attract any new fans.”

“The horror fanboy community is always looking for the next big thing, the film that goes that one step further, and the Japanese have a reputation for this after the 'Guinea Pig' films,” says Sharp, referring to a controversial series of fake ’80s “snuff” films that were so realistic that actor Charlie Sheen reported one to the FBI, believing it to be footage of an actual murder. The series gained even more notoriety when the movies were found among the collection of “otaku” serial killer Tsutomu Miyazaki, who murdered four young girls in Saitama in the late-’80s.

The reference is apt, especially in the case of "Grotesque." “I was really trying to make a movie that would be a modern-day 'Guinea Pig,'” Shiraishi explains. “When 'Grotesque' was released in Japan, I was kind of disappointed there wasn’t a more violent response. So when the film got such a reaction in Britain, I was actually happy about it.”

The weeks since news of the ban broke have seen a flurry of media attention both at home and abroad—including a decision by Amazon Japan to remove the DVD from its site. The official "Grotesque" web page triumphantly proclaims both bits of news, and provides a link to an alternative online seller of the unrated DVD.

Although he’s appreciative of the notoriety gained by the controversy, Shiraishi says he is firmly against censorship.

“I don’t think it’s necessary,” he says. “I didn’t make a movie telling people to go out and commit murder. If somebody decides to kill another person, it is their responsibility.”

The director also disagrees with critics who decry the lack of morality in "Grotesque"—especially the ending, which leaves the victims dead and the killer stalking his next target.

“Japan is such a peaceful society. I think people take their lives for granted, and this causes feelings of boredom and ennui. The criminal in 'Grotesque' was just searching for some emotion to break out of that stasis, and there’s value in that. I didn’t punish him because in a movie, there’s no need to; there’s no need to try and conform to the values of society.”

Director Nishimura also feels that the media’s reaction was out of line. “Ever since [the Miyazaki case], every time there’s a bizarre murder in Japan, everyone makes a big deal about what DVDs and movies were found in the killer’s room,” he says. “In Japan, there’s still a very poor understanding of horror and splatter. They refuse to see it as simple entertainment.”

Sharp agrees, although he adds that he has no intention of ever watching "Grotesque." “The main point here is, it is not for the BBFC to judge a film on artistic merits… The examiners here have tried to second-guess the motives of the filmmakers, rather than really looking at what’s on screen, and if films like 'Hostel' or the 'Saw' series are acceptable, then I don’t see why 'Grotesque' shouldn’t be.”

Even as controversy swirls around this blood-stained work, Shiraishi is moving in a new direction. “I want to make comedies,” he says with a laugh. “I don’t see much of a future in horror.”

The director’s most recent film, "Occult," is a coming-of-age story that mixes horror, faux documentary, black comedy and crime. Shiraishi himself appears in the movie—as a director researching a mass murder. He describes it as his most personal work, and says this was the first time since his independent days that he’s truly been given free rein.

“In a way, 'Occult' was also a message to producers that I can make this kind of film, too,” Shiraishi explains. “Or rather, to say, ‘This is the kind of film I want to make.’”

The effort has paid off, as Shiraishi recently received backing to direct a feature-length remake of one of his early works, "Bachiatari Boryoku Ningen" (Cursed violent people). Shiraishi describes the picture, due out early next year, as “a violent movie about two violent guys—and me, the director, who gets caught up in it.”

Koji Shiraishi blogs at http://ameblo.jp/occult-shiraishi. For more information about "Grotesque," see www.grotesque-movie.jp. "Noroi" and "Occult" are available from Amazon Japan.

This story originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).

© Japan Today

©2022 GPlusMedia Inc.

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Banned in Britain, I'm thinking I wouldn't be able to sit through this little gore fest.

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I'm not going to watch this.

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Hard to look at. Hard to see the artistic merit. There certainly are things that people should not have to look at or think about. It is no exaggeration to say that these films are unhealthy.

The less said about them, the better.

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I agree with Klein2. Maybe this is me being just being squeamish, but what kind of person do you have to be to get entertainment out of this sort of thing? A little horror film, sure, that can be fun. It's fun to get scared sometimes. But watching people get brutally tortured and murdered for 50 minutes?

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this is entertainment? i think not. just for sickos, pervs and the like.

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Torture porn has had it's day and I am glad to see the back of it.

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This genre actually sells well in the dvd business. You would be surprised how many people would buy these movies. And in a way its more surprising to hear how "disgusted" people are about these movies. The cinema and literature have for decades/centuries been exploring the borderland of human nature. Hollywood and non-hollywood movies have for decades churned out movies that were shocking for their time, and there is absolutely nothing new about "Grotesque". If people have seen "Hostel" or "Saw", or many of the groundbreaking movies from the 60ties/70ties then there is nothing new here, people.

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this is entertainment? i think not. just for sickos, pervs and the like.

the Saw movies, whilst utter crap, have made nearly $700million in cinema box office alone. several people you know have paid to see them. know many sickos pervs?

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Anything along that angle-----must be sick mentally. Normal humans do not think like that.

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I think movies like Saw are the same exact thing really, though some might say they're "tamer". The whole genre is just absolutely disturbing to me. Any film where the idea is just to gross you out as much as possible with blood and gore just seems like such a waste of time. And if you can sit through it and want more, even WORSE content, then yeah, something's off there. I don't think I've seen a quality horror film in a long time-- one where the intent is actually to scare you/make you think, rather than just be disgusting.

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I doubt it reaches the crassness of the Guinea Pig series. That one even I couldn't stand to watch through fully!

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I'd challenge anyone to watch the Grotesque from beginning to end without falling to sleep.

Zero story = most boring movie ever.

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These movies are just crap and are only reaching for the shock factor. What I don't understand is how can they allow this (sexual sadism) yet censor porn in Japan.

The BBFC did the right thing, these movies clearly have an effect on the audience since so many murders involve dismembership in Japan these days.

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these movies clearly have an effect on the audience since so many murders involve dismembership in Japan these days.

read much history when not making ridiculous statements like this? believe it or not dismemberment started before VCRs in the 1980s.

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Can't wait till they find this little number in the next psycho's collection, and we all debate this issue again.

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movies like these are part of the balance of the film world - the positive and negative, the black and the white...

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DenDon: While the murder rate is quite low in Japan, read recent murders taken place in Japan and you'll notice there is a large trend towards dismembering the body.

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'Grotesque’ features minimal narrative or character development and presents the audience with little more than an unrelenting and escalating scenario of humiliation, brutality and sadism

Sounds like my kind of movie. Seriously, while all in favor of artistic license, I don't think I could watch such movies because they are just so pointless. On the other hand, having seen a lot worse things in real life, I might just nod off due to pure boredom.

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timorborder: errr what line of work are you in to have seen that?

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"having seen a lot worse things in real life"

You've seen a lot worse things than a guy cutting off fingers and making a necklace out of them, stuffing severed fingers into nostrils, cutting off genitals...? I haven't seen this movie, but I saw a couple of reviews. This is a real sick puppy.

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there is a large trend towards dismembering the body.

no, there isn't. even if there were to suggest it is due to watching horror films is ludicrous.

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Unrelenting sadism and humiliation is not art. Pushing the envelope of the splatter genre is not art. Trying to re-create the same or greater negative reactions as the "Guinea Pig" series is not art. It's sensationalism. Art would involve actual story and character development, not non-stop, incredibly brutal violence. There's a reason snuff films are illegal, and these "torture porn" movies are just another kind of snuff film. I don't like censorship, but my God, there's such a thing as TASTE.

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and these "torture porn" movies are just another kind of snuff film. I don't like censorship, but my God, there's such a thing as TASTE.

I don't like these kinds of film either but another kind of snuff film? I thought there was only one kind of snuff film and you fortunately won't see it in Tsutaya or at the cinema. as for this film you are right there is such a thing as 'taste' and you or I can't tell anyone else their taste is wrong, that might be veering a bit towards censorship which you dislike innit.

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Art would involve actual story and character development

your idea of art would...thankfully there are many types of art. I thought it was utter crap but Derek Jarman's 'Blue' for example was a much lauded film which contained neither story or characters. each to their own.

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i saw this movie and it just plain was bad. there was nothing special, unique, or even remotely notable about the entire thing. the director shows two people get tortured with no plot, piss poor dailogue, and the actors fail epically as well. its obvious his only thought was to shock his audience and i can see where some would be, but even as an extreme horror movie lover and a massive fan of asian horror (which i usally place above the level of western horror) i would have to say this movie was just absolute trash with zero redeeming value.

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unrested has confirmed my suspicions.

I wonder if the director, the actors and other people involved in making this cruel gore-fest have nightmares...

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i saw this movie and it just plain was bad.

I wonder what kind of people would pay to see this movie. Even if it was free, it is still unfathomable to believe that somebody will spend the time to watch it.

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DenDon: seriously there is, I can't examples or my post will be removed.

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Art imitates life, not the other way around; grotesque films are only reflections of reality, which is often worse.

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A sick, depraved movies directed by a sick, depraved man. I am glad it has been banned in some countries already and I hope it is also banned in Japan. This guy isd a fruitcake. There are wiser locked up in mental hospitals.

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If the intention is to engage and pull people out of their routine, it seems that a film that's lacking in plot, characterization and acting won't accomplish anything at all, other than desensitizing the audience to gore entirely lacking from context.

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I'm not personally interested in ever seeing "Grotesque" (its just not my cup of tea), but I recently saw Shiraishi's 2009 film, "Occult," and it was AMAZING! Its perhaps the best H.P. Lovecraft-inspired movie of all time, and was otherwise an extremely powerful & dark movie that I basically haven't been able to stop thinking about since I saw it. The final scene is one of the most disturbing creations in the history of human cultural output! It may well haunt me for the rest of my days. If you enjoyed his "Noroi: The Curse," the you must see this one as well.

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