One Sunday morning early in the new millennium in the English seaside town of Broadstairs, the film distributor Hamish McAlpine was on a scouting mission. As folk breezed past the window with their terriers, he was watching a beautiful Japanese girl delicately insert acupuncture needles into the eyeballs of a paralysed man. The guy convulsed. She whispered to him soothingly: “Kiri-kiri-kiri!”
Owner of the forward-thinking British film distributors Metro Tartan, McAlpine was getting started on his customary all-day Sunday viewing sessions at his weekend pied à terre, scouting for the latest in striking global cinema. He’d picked a random title out of his pile of videocassettes: Audition, by Miike Takashi. This wasn’t one you could settle down to, as McAlpine had already worked out by the time the girl manacled her victim’s ankles and held a length of metal filament over him: “This wire can cut easily through meat and bone.”
Sunday roasts were probably hitting the table in Broadstairs by the time the torture session was over, and McAlpine emerged shell-shocked and reached for the next VHS. It was another Japanese title he was unfamiliar with: Ring, by Nakata Hideo. Ninety very tense minutes later, he took stock. “I hadn’t consciously thought I wanted to watch Asian films — it just happened as a complete fluke,” says McAlpine. “But having seen two amazing horror films from Japan back-to-back, I realised something was up. So I sent my head of acquisitions to Tokyo the next Wednesday to suss out if these were the only two, or whether this was the start of some movement.”
One look at the Japanese box-office charts would have given him the answer. Ring 0, a prequel and the fourth film in the series in only two years, had just opened. The Tomie series, based on a manga about a psychotic, immortal high-school girl, kicked off in 1999. The Ju-On franchise — with a vengeful, black-haired female spectre very much like Ring’s — was about to make its first two appearances in Japan’s highly significant V-cinema (straight-to-video) market, and a theatrical outing wasn’t far off. The freaky Uzumaki (trans: Spiral, 2000), with its obsession with spirals, and Kairo (Pulse, 2001), about a website offering a portal to the spirit world, were also in development.
The goldrush, and the movement that would later be dubbed J-horror, had begun. You seemingly couldn’t enter a Japanese cinema without a malevolent presence lurking on screen; it was hard to call whether this was a genuine case of cultural consciousness manifesting everywhere simultaneously, or just shrewd producers watching each others’ moves carefully, or a bit of both.
Ring was still, serious, 96 minutes spent waiting for something unspeakable to emerge. Nakata spells out the new austerity: “Almost all of [J-horror] dealt with the fear and anxiety we feel in our daily lives — with the supernatural in a realistic context.” (ii) Sam Raimi, director of The Evil Dead and producer of the US remake of Ju-On, says watching the Japanese original was like being taken back to horror elementary school: “I was not aware of the manipulation, as I am in most American horror films. You don’t need the larger sledgehammer-type techniques that I often employ.” (iii) Evil was often paradoxically present in its absence in J-horror, not like the all-singing, all-dancing Freddy Kruegers and Michael Myers. Instead, it was the vacuum that grew to fill the gap: the eerie vibe of an attic, the grim portent of a dark ceiling stain, the dank reverb of a back alley. So how had Japan summoned something from nothing?
Nakata Hideo never had time to thank the ghost on soundstage 10 for his big breakthrough. He had just a week and half in 1995 to shoot his debut theatrical feature, and he had returned to Tokyo’s Nikkatsu studios to try and make the breakneck deadline. He had served a gruelling seven-year apprenticeship there in the 80s, working as assistant director on its infamous range of pinku softcore titles. The company pumped out films like Casio did watches, and expected its employees to put in industrial hours; Nakata had often found himself on the lot at 2 or 3am, wandering past the massive stacks of fake wooden houses back down to the soundstages. Number 10 was the one that was haunted, a spectre supposedly appearing in the gloom high up on the catwalk.