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Godzilla is Dead
The New Brand of Japanese Horror Film

by Scott Nehring

Troubling productions in modern cinema are known as torture porn. Films such as the Saw series, Hostel, Wolf Creek, and The Human Centipede are designed to display, even celebrate human torment. Today’s trend away from moral-based horror and toward amoral pain for pleasure is something that should concern everyone, but the devolution of horror isn’t just a trait of Western cinema.

Japan has an incredible cinematic history with a vibrant list of brilliant actors, writers, and directors that stands up to the American and European masters. In truth, though, directors like Akira Kurosawa (Rashomon), Hiroshi Inagaki (Miyamoto Musashi), and Masaki Kobayashi (Kaidan) may thrill pathetic, doughy-gutted film geeks, but most Americans wouldn’t know them from Adam. When most Westerners think of Japanese film, they think of Godzilla and, if they’re really astute, they may toss in Mothra for good measure, but the influx of Ishirô Honda’s Gojira (Godzilla) and other classic monster movies had definite impact on American culture and cinema.

The last decade, however, witnessed a seriously degenerating wave of Japanese influence. Now, instead of screeching giant lizards who knock down models of cities, a young girl climbs out of a television.

Today, Japanese horror is represented by two names: Hideo Nakata and Takashi Shimizu (film geeks may also include Takashi Miike). Nakata and Shimizu are probably most recognizable to American audiences not by their own work but by derivative American works. Nakata’s movies (Ringu and Honogurai mizu no soko kara) and Shimizu’s Ju-on and Ju-on 2 inspired a generation of Western horror-film makers. Haven’t heard of these films? Sure you have. The Ring (Ringu), Dark Water (Honogurai mizu no soko kara [you know, the one with Jennifer Connelly that you didn’t see because it looked stupid and was]), and The Grudge (Ju-on). These films in either their Japanese or American versions have something in common: nihilism.

Nihilism is, in essence, the logical by-product of existential thought. Watered down, it’s defined as “everything means nothing, therefore nothing has any worth—including you and the petty thoughts in your meaningless head.”

This is the stuff of loser, white, suburban kids with dyed-black hair who lurk in mall food courts.

Ringu, Ju-on, Honogurai mizu no soko kara, and their American derivatives offer the new look in horror film. These films follow the same predator concept of Friday the 13th or Halloween but with something new. In these films there is a complete—and I mean absolute and total lack of moral structure. These stories exhibit a world devoid of God, and that is the reason these films are so effective.

Heroines are threatened by the cursed ghost of a child. As with traditional aspects of Japanese ghost stories these movies bring the dead into life, but rather than follow standard Japanese ancestral beliefs that the dead protect the living, these ghosts do the opposite. Each of these films have characters who enter a world where they are infected by a curse and are unable to detach themselves from its grip. The curse supersedes God and, therefore, eliminates all hope. Once caught in the web, characters hopelessly fall to the brutal death awaiting them.

In Ringu, the simple act of watching a videotape condemns the viewer to a horrifying death. In Ju-on, mere entrance of any character into a cursed home insures their death. There is no way out, no escape—you are going to die, it is going to hurt, and there is nothing you can do about it. To be fair, in The Ring the heroine does escape that fate, but at a very high cost and only to encounter it again in the future.

Fun stuff, eh? Why is this important? American and European filmmakers busy themselves puking the bile of violence into mainstream culture and making torture palatable to the masses. These new Japanese originals and their remakes inject hopelessness into their young audiences.

In films like Nightmare on Elm Street, American Werewolf in London, or The Exorcist there is a strand of godliness in the narratives—no really, it’s there; it’s buried under gore and ugliness, but it is, indeed, present. Hope and structure exist and, although evil is having its day, good still offers shreds of hope and balance.

In The Ring and The Grudge, neither good nor evil exist. Only the dark pit of nothingness looms before the characters. At film’s end where the moral of the story resides, and it’s called the moral of the story for a reason, we find the film’s resolution does nothing to provide any moral structure to the universe of the film story. The characters discover they may have salvaged their lives but there was no triumph of good over evil (or vice-versa) because neither good nor evil exist. Ultimately, the lives saved did not deserve the effort; the proof provided by the narrative is that everything is worthless.

The projection of nihilism onto the human heart has the same coarsening results as the visual impact of extreme violence. Films are modern myths, stories that teach us about our lives and our universe. When our stories teach that our universe is without design, without purpose, that life itself is a meaningless effort, the lesson harms the audience.

Projecting a world without God presents the audience with the lowest of human inventions. Without God, without purpose, why should anyone not indulge in torture porn and all else that ignites their fancy? In a nihilistic universe there’s no capability for morality—and no logical reason for anyone to take offense.

The human mind that denies God
is the same mind that accepts
anything else in exchange.
Remove Almighty God
and you remove hope.

Horror movies are fun. I don’t deny that. And I argue that they have their place in society—they show the evil that resides in the human heart and our desperate need both for God and for a savior.

Since all films, all stories are, in effect, instructional manuals on how to live within this world, horror films must not operate by a different set of rules. When films give bad life-lessons, they should be called out for what they are: just plain wrong.

Have nothing to do with
godless myths and old wives’ tales;
rather, train yourself to be godly.
1 Timothy 4:7 (NIV)

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Originally published in Movies & Culture Report.  January 1, 2011. All rights reserved.