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