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 Robo Geisha, 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 Metropolis. “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 webpage 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.”