Asian Extreme, Tokyo Gore, and Sushi Typhoon: Selling Eastern Violence to Western Audiences – Jessica Hughes

Machine Girl, 2008.

Machine Girl, 2008.

This article considers a recent group of Japanese films and filmmakers that use Asian Extreme style to signal an awareness of international audiences, and it will argue for a set of central features typifying this category of film, which is referred to as ‘Tokyo Gore.’ Though not widely used, this label was first implemented by Michael Bonedigger on horrornews.net,[1] and references an early film of this style, Tokyo Gore Police (Yoshihiro Nishimura, 2008); it has also been applied retroactively to films released prior to 2008 using the same style. Central features defining this category include targeting Western audiences with exaggerations that address

Western perceptions of Asianness and Japaneseness, and deliberately exploiting conventions of female representation, particularly through schoolgirl fetishisation. These features contribute to Tokyo Gore’s undermining of dominant ideologies and assert exotic otherness and extreme violence as major contributors to their reputation in the stream of Tokyo Gore. Asian and, more specifically, Japanese Extreme is becoming a more commonly recognised style of filmmaking, having emerged in the late 1980s with the Japanese body horror, Tetsuo: The Iron Man (Shin’ya Tsukamoto, 1989), and been exemplified by Takashi Miike’s Audition (1999) with its portrayals of graphic violence and moral extremes. However, Tokyo Gore offers an alternative approach to the representations of excess made familiar in these influential films. These films, with the most popular examples including Machine Girl (Noboru Iguchi, 2008) and Tokyo Gore Police, typically focus on the highly sexualised, heroic fighting skills of troubled teenage schoolgirls. Between 2008 and 2013 alone, over a dozen of these horror-action-comedies were brought to the screens of both mainstream and niche (fantastic, Asian) film festivals around the world, and this article argues that the cult appeal of these films and their filmmakers is characterised by audiences drawn to the extreme content, predominantly involving social taboos such as bodily harm and mutilation. Focusing on two Tokyo Gore exemplars, Noboru Iguchi and Yoshihiro Nishimura, I will consider the international reputation of their films and how content and style reflects their ability to attract predominantly Western audiences.

The release of schoolgirl fetish parody Sukeban Boy in 2006 marked the beginning of Iguchi’s international recognition as a Tokyo Gore filmmaker. The film had limited theatrical release through King Records in Japan in February 2006 and an international premiere at Montreal’s Fantasia International Fantastic Film Festival in July 2006. DVD release followed in Germany and Hong Kong in 2007 and the US (through Discotek’s Eastern Star label) in 2008. Although Noboru Iguchi had already worked on more than two dozen other films, his prior work was mostly part of an extensive career in the Japanese adult video (JAV) industry, directing films including The Neighbour’s Sister Has F-Cup (1999) and HyperTrophy Genitals Girl (2009). Japan’s pinku eiga (a range of films featuring adult content, mainly in the form of soft-core pornography) have been popular since the 1960s, hailing Japanese and foreign viewers alike, and have been made available on adult cinema screens, video and DVD around the world.[2] Despite rumours that the pink industry is on the decline since internet availability, Jasper Sharp’s Behind the Pink Curtain suggests otherwise: in 2003, “89 out of the 287 domestically-produced films that screens in Japanese cinemas fell into this category.”[3] In many ways appealing to both pinku eiga and Tokyo Gore fans, due to its explicit sexuality and violence, Sukeban Boy marked a successful shift for Iguchi from JAV to Tokyo Gore, especially with adult video star Asami starring in Sukeban Boy. Asami is also featured in subsequent Iguchi films Machine Girl (2008), RoboGeisha (2009), Karate-Robo Zaborgar (2010), Zombie Ass (2011), and Dead Sushi (2011).

Sukeban Boy, 2006.

Sukeban Boy, 2006.

Based on the manga serial Oira Sukeban (Go Nagai, 1974-1976), Sukeban Boy follows Asami’s character Sukeban, a teenaged boy who looks like a girl and, after endless bullying, is forced by his father to transfer to an all-girls high school. Through Sukeban’s complicated attempts to fit in, due to the endless foreign cliques involved with being a high school girl (in this case including: the Pantyhose League, the No-Bra League, and the Full-Strip League), the film introduces the recurring Tokyo Gore theme of schoolgirl fetishisation.

A common character within both manga and adult videos, the Japanese schoolgirl is an adolescent girl in middle school or high school, commonly expressing naivety and anxiety, which are qualities that have proved to be notoriously appealing to Japanese men.  The schoolgirl is a titillating double signifier of innocence and licentiousness, with ‘image clubs’ in Tokyo offering Japanese men the opportunity to “live out their fantasies about schoolgirls… [Choosing] from 11 rooms, including classrooms, a school gym changing room, and a couple of imitation railroad cars where to the recorded roar of a commuter train, men can molest straphangers [standing passengers] in school uniforms.”[4] In his New York Times article on the schoolgirl uniform functioning as an aphrodisiac, Kristof examines this major issue, which he describes as: “a disturbing national obsession with schoolgirls as sexual objects.”[5] This has led teenaged girls to become involved in a practice called enjo kosai, which is explained by Michael Fitzpatrick of The Guardian as a “transaction between clients and women who barter sexual favours for financial support in the shape of rent, dinner, and presents.”[6] While young schoolgirls are rarely responsible for paying for rent or meals, Japanese society has become increasingly obsessed with possessing imported name-brand goods and, in order to support this passion, getting paid between $300 and $800 to have sex with older men is seen as a small sacrifice for teenaged girls to fit in.[7]

Not only has this Japanese schoolgirl fetish been publicised through major American and British newspapers, but the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) has also capitalised on the innocence of the schoolgirl image by incorporating it into their “Ambassadors of Cute” tourism campaign.[8] [9] Selected in February 2009, the Ambassadors (who, in addition to the schoolgirl, included girls representing Lolita and Harajuku fashions) are mostly 20-somethings playing the role of teenagers, thus highlighting a blurring of the line between reality and fiction that encompasses the entire notion of the Japanese schoolgirl. But with schoolgirl fetishism dating back to wartime, and having been marketed to foreigners as a part of Japan’s ‘cute’ culture for much longer than the MOFA campaign, there is little wonder why Iguchi chose to parody this in a film intended to attract Western audiences. In fact, in 1992, Japanese women’s lifestyle magazine, CREA, considered kawaii (cute) to be “the most widely used, widely loved, habitual word in modern living Japanese.”[10] While Sukeban Boy mostly uses cuteness in contrast to the sex and violence portrayed by the majority of the girls in the film (for example, when Sukeban joins the girls’ school and is trying to cover up his masculine characteristics), the sexuality of teenaged schoolgirls never fails to be the focus of the action, with great emphasis on both breasts and blood in nearly every scene.

Two years after Sukeban Boy’s release, Western audiences were drawn to another portrayal of the fetishised Japanese schoolgirl in Iguchi’s 2008 feature Machine Girl. With her skirt rolled high and socks extra-baggy (a technique believed to make their legs look longer and more slender, apparently to match the appearance of Western models), schoolgirl protagonist Ami (Minase Yashiro) looks much like the girls of Iguchi’s prior film, except for the machine gun attached to her arm. Seeking to avenge the murder of her brother Yu, as well as the loss of her left arm, Ami hunts down various members of a yakuza clan who she traces back to Yu’s death through scribbles about bullying in his diary. Ami’s new friends and partners in crime, the parents of Yu’s friend who was also murdered, design a machine gun to replace Ami’s arm, which is cut off during a graphic yakuza torture scene. Wearing a schoolgirl uniform throughout all of her violent acts of revenge, Ami’s white top is constantly saturated in blood, contrasting noticeably with the prim and proper, innocent expectations of girls typically wearing this outfit. Unlike Sukeban Boy, however, Ami is one of only two schoolgirls in the film, and they are set up in contrast to each other, with Ami being more of a tomboy, often in sports clothes and playing basketball, foreshadowing the strength she will display later in the film. Ami’s friend, Miki (Asami), on the other hand, is a perfect example of kawaii, with her high-pitched, childish voice, and a constantly dreamy look on her face.

Princess Mononoke, 1997.

Princess Mononoke, 1997.

This characterisation of Ami is not dissimilar to that of the shōjo, a pre-teen or teenaged girl character, typically between the ages of 8 and 18, often portrayed in manga and anime, who is on the cusp of adulthood and finds a proactive sense of agency throughout the course of the story, whether through deploying her femininity, gaining knowledge or power, or discovering other ways to make choices and act independently in the world. This character has been set up by Susan Napier as having one of two expressions: the classic shōjo, representing “ultrafeminity that is often passive or dreamy”; and the shōjo typically depicted by Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki (Princess Mononoke [1997]; Spirited Away [2001]), who is notably more “independent and active, courageously confronting the variety of obstacles before them in a manner that might be described as stereotypically masculine.”[11] Alternatively, Tokyo Gore films portray what I will call the ‘mutant shōjo’: a teenage schoolgirl who tends to be very feminine in appearance but not action, offering distinctly different values than Miyazaki’s heroines. While Miyazaki’s films downplay violence in favour of representations of a powerful heroine who avoids killing, Machine Girl and other Tokyo Gore films exaggerate the killing by depicting mutilated forms of the human body through elements of body horror (which will be discussed in more detail later in this essay). In all three senses of the term, the shōjo is a liminal figure that seems to have a strong appeal to Western audiences through the grrrl power discourse of postfeminist empowerment, however it is the mutant shōjo in particular that plays an important role for Tokyo Gore filmmakers. Acting as a strategic device for simultaneously critiquing Japanese culture and Western perceptions of it, the mutant shōjo character combines stereotypes of internationally recognised Japanese female figures (schoolgirl, geisha) and personality traits (naïve but sexy; sensitive but bold). It is not surprising, then, that Machine Girl was co-produced by New York-based production company Fever Dreams. After its initial release to the European film market in February 2008, Machine Girl toured fantastic film festivals and other genre festivals around the world, beginning at Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival in Japan for its theatrical premiere in March 2008 and finishing at the Munich Asia Filmfest in November 2008, with screenings throughout Europe, North America and South America in between.

Fever Dreams also asked Machine Girl’s special effects and make-up artist, Yoshihiro Nishimura, to make another film for them: Tokyo Gore Police was Nishimura’s first commercial film as a director, having previously worked predominantly in special effects and makeup. No doubt finding it suited the mutant shōjo theme that had attracted Western producers to Machine Girl, he remade his earlier film Anatomia Extinction (1995), which had won the Special Jury Award at the Yubari International Film Festival, but had received little attention otherwise, particularly outside Japan. Much like Machine Girl, Tokyo Gore Police is about a young girl avenging the death of her loved one – in this case, her father. While, unlike most Tokyo Gore protagonists, Ruka is not a schoolgirl, she is still very much a mutant shōjo in her role as a young police officer seeking revenge. Despite her lack of physical mutations, Ruka’s emotional state (seeking revenge; wrist-cutting) provokes her battle for change, much like her other Tokyo Gore counterparts. Furthermore, Ruka’s challenging of the Tokyo Police Corporation for which she works is ultimately a fight to defeat practices like enjo kosai and fetish sex clubs, which are portrayed explicitly within the film, with both women and young girls being depicted as tremendously mistreated.

Ruka’s role as a mutant shōjo is also exemplified by her contrast with various portrayals of kawaii throughout the film. In spite of her drastic forms of crime prevention (typically in the form of explicitly violent methods of exterminating criminals), Ruka is depicted as quiet and down-to-earth. On the other hand, the only other woman seen in a police uniform is portrayed as excessively kawaii: rather than ever showing her in action, Tokyo Gore Police presents this character as some sort of dispatcher, giving the male officers and Ruka excessively cheerful support and encouragement in assigning their next tasks. Donald Richie describes Japanese cuteness as being, often manically, happy, particularly within the family setting.[12] He uses an example from a noodle advertisement to illustrate this, with a family sitting around the dinner table, mum “triumphantly pour[ing] hot water into the Styrofoam cup,” and dad “smacking his lips and beaming.”[13] Much like Ritchie’s description of the kawaii noodle ad, flashbacks of Ruka’s now-deceased family portray an initially happy and peaceful setting, but also hint at Ruka’s distinct role as a powerful female officer. Not long after the film opens, we see schoolgirl Ruka ready to blow the candles on her birthday cake, while dad is watching proudly and mum is preparing dinner behind them. However, when she turns away from the kitchen counter, we see she has actually been crying and, rather than slicing the vegetables, we see it was actually her arm, which is now covered in cuts and blood. With this sudden change of atmosphere, Ruka’s position as an aggressive and disturbed police officer becomes clearer, as does her contrasting role with the kawaii officer.

In some ways offering the potential for a postfeminist reading, Tokyo Gore Police fits with Lisa Coulthard’s list of recent films that have “foregrounded the presence of violent women in genres usually associated with male characters, actors, and audiences.”[14] Coulthard uses Kill Bill (Quentin Tarantino, 2003) as a particularly violent example, highlighting its use of young female characters as both victims and perpetrators of violence.[15] Similarly, Tokyo Gore Police presents Ruka as both a victim and a perpetrator as we are often reminded of her brutal childhood while at the same time watching her violently attack the film’s destructive, and often perverted, criminals. The decision to use Eihi Shiina in this role was that of the American production company, Fever Dreams, no doubt in an attempt to appeal to Western audiences already familiar with Shiina from her previous Japanese Extreme role in Audition.   

Tokyo Gore Police, 2008.

Tokyo Gore Police, 2008.

Following the success of Tokyo Gore Police at various niche film festivals around the globe, including an award for Best Asian Film at Montreal’s Fantasia, Nishimura collaborated with Naoyuki Tomomatsu to create Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl (2009). Yet another gorefest surrounding the conflict of two schoolgirls (one already a vampire and the other turned into a Frankenstein monster) fighting for the same boy, Vampire Girl maintains the appeal to Western audiences with its adoption of two popular supernatural figures. It is also significant to note that the film is the third part in what is referred to as the Gaijinsploitation (foreigner exploitation) series.

In his 2011 IMDb post on “New Japanese Gore films,” Mighty_Emperor points out: “there are no foreigners in the films being exploited, so are the films themselves exploiting us, the foreigner viewer, giving us what we think we want to see in a crazy Japanese film?”[16] Traditionally, however, an exploitation film is considered to be one that exploits the success of other films, and we might alternatively question whether these films (the other three in the series are: Geisha vs. Ninjas [Go Ohara, 2008], Samurai Princess [Kengo Kaji, 2009], and RoboGeisha [Noboru Iguchi, 2009]) could be classified as such due to foreign viewers exploiting what they perceive to be ‘crazy’ Japanese culture. In this sense, the awareness of such Japanese practices as schoolgirl fetishism and enjo kosai leads to their exploitation in films like Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl and RoboGeisha.

Furthermore, Pam Cook points out: exploitation films “are made with specific markets in mind, hence the development of ‘sexploitation’ and ‘blaxploitation’ categories referring to the capture of the soft-core pornography film audience and black youth audience respectively.”[17] Similarly, gaijinsploitation is designed to capture gaijin audiences. Playing with what Leon Hunt refers to as ‘Asiaphilia’ in various essays,[18] [19] which works as an alternative to the term ‘Orientalism,’ these films target audiences who are known or thought to fetishise Asian culture. Though both ‘Orientalism’ and ‘Asiaphilia’ refer to the East’s exotic appeal to the West, Orientalism focuses predominantly on Western depictions of Eastern culture, while Asiaphilia more commonly relates to the Western fetishisation of it. In their discussion of Asian films and cult cinema, Mathijs and Sexton point out: “Often, the qualities that Western audiences find so attractive in Asian cinema are a result of Western viewers’ curiosity for and confrontation with systems of representation they have difficulty understanding (and that therefore violate practices, routines, habits).”[20] As a result, ‘exotic’ aspects like Japanese schoolgirls, all things kawaii, and women dressed as geisha tend to be even more appealing to Western audiences than domestic ones.

RoboGeisha, 2009.

RoboGeisha, 2009.

Iguchi and Nishimura’s inclusion of these stereotypically Japanese characteristics in their films is likely related to their classification of them as ‘gaijinsploitation.’ In an interview with Twitch, Iguchi suggests why they have a bigger international following than domestic: “Things like ninja and geisha are actually not that popular in Japan. It’s mostly foreigners who really go for that.”[21] In Vampire Girl vs Frankenstein Girl, the Japanese traditions of Valentine’s Day and White Day are explained with an English subtitle in the opening of the film – the first indication of many that the film has been made with a Western audience in mind. Similarly, one of the ‘monsters’ of RoboGeisha introduces herself at the beginning of the film: “Don’t you know what a Tengu is? Tengu are traditional Japanese goblins whom are a phallic symbol.” While it is likely that Japanese audiences would already be familiar with the Tengu folklore, the anticipation of foreign spectators requires this explanation to be incorporated into the dialogue.

This portrayal of the Tengu figures, with their phallic noses and nipples, as well as Yoshie, and the other geisha-turned-robots, allows for an explicit connection between these women’s mutations and violence. While Yoshie, the protagonist, is focused on defeating the egotistical, perverted businessmen who intend to destroy all of Japan, most of the battles involve the Tengu warriors attempting to prevent Yoshie from taking control. Between the hell-milk the Tengu shoot from their breasts (which look like goblin faces with elongated noses) and the implied sexuality associated with geishas, RoboGeisha has no shortage of sexual references, all corresponding to the girls’ differences or mutations. This style of horror, based on the destruction of the body and reminiscent of the films of David Cronenberg (Videodrome, 1983; The Fly, 1986) and Shinya Tsukamoto (Tetsuo 1&2, 1989, 1992), exploits the mutations of all Tokyo Gore characters (from Sukeban Boy to Yoshie in RoboGeisha), to offer maximum violence and gore in every scene.

In The Horror Sensorium, Angela Ndalianis relays the different ways body horror can trigger our senses. Noting how, in what she calls ‘New Horror,’ spectators are “ruthlessly confronted by violence, intense gore and, often, a social critique that refuses to hold back the punches,”[22] she later adds that this would have little impact without the “sensory and emotional experiences that are at the core of these films.”[23] Ndalianis lists several ways we might be ‘touched’ by these films, from “laughing at or recoiling from the over-the-top displays of gore and body desecration” to “recognizing the social critique embedded in the narrative.”[24] While she uses specific examples of this ‘ping pong’ effect from The Hills Have Eyes (Wes Craven, 1997; Alexandre Aja, 2006), much of this also holds true in Tokyo Gore films. Following RoboGeisha, Iguchi’s next feature film was a collaboration with Nishimura and Tokyo Gore actor-turned-director, Tak Sakaguchi. Much like Ndalianis’ description of The Hills Have Eyes, Mutant Girls Squad offers a constant sensory overload as the focus shifts back and forth between the gory action sequences and the implicit social commentary.

The film depicts a war between two distinct groups of Japanese: the ‘new race,’ defended by the Japanese army, and the Hiruku clan, a ‘mutant race.’ While the mutants, or rather a select group of teenaged mutant girls (with Rin, the protagonist, discovering early on that she is a half-breed), are the focus of the film, the climactic battle sequence is a cry for peace, for both races to live as one, rather than a championing of the underdog. Instead, the film is more interested in going over the top to play with stereotypes of women as benign or submissive (such as juxtaposed shots of the opening credits on flowers and teenaged girls slaughtering the Japanese military); it is not necessarily about the mutants winning, but the girls taking control of a dire situation. Rin is set up as the ‘other’ from the beginning of the film due to the loss of control of her right hand, but one particular early scene emphasizes this with the juxtaposition between a television news reporter’s kawaii characteristics and Rin’s mutant shōjo characteristics. While both kawaii and shōjo figures are common across Japanese media, Mutant Girls Squad depicts Rin as the ‘other’ to emphasize the prevalent ‘normal vs. outcast’ binary within Japanese society.

Mutant Girls Squad was the first release from Sushi Typhoon, a subsidiary of Japan’s oldest film studio, Nikkatsu Corporation. With Nikkatsu’s reputation for the extreme, having a history of producing violent gangster films and Japan’s 1970s ‘Roman Porno’ line, it is no surprise that producer Yoshinori Chiba teamed up with them to create Sushi Typhoon, which sought to “satisfy audiences who crave the good taste of bad taste, and for whom too much is never enough” (Chiba).[25] Chiba has an equally extreme history as a producer, working with influential Asian Extreme filmmaker Takashi Miike on Fudoh: The New Generation (1996), and Iguchi and Nishimura on Machine Girl and Tokyo Gore Police. Chiba’s main goal in creating Sushi Typhoon was to be able to continue creating a platform for this type of film by making and distributing them “on a level for the fans abroad,” even if they have a limited audience in Japan.[26] While these films rarely get multiplex screenings, they have proven popular at festivals, selling out at Montreal’s Fantasia and San Francisco’s Comic-Con. As one online Fantasia reviewer notes: “Mutant Girls Squad is exactly the movie you’d expect three ‘extreme cinema’ guys from Japan to make after seeing Americans eat the likes of Tokyo Gore Police, Be a Man! Samurai School and Vampire Girl Versus Frankenstein Girl up.”[27]

Just missing the Summer 2010 New York Asian Film Festival and Fantasia run, Nishimura’s next project, Helldriver, premiered at Austin’s FantasticFest and then made its international genre festival rounds in Europe, North America, and Asia through most of 2011 before DVD release in September of that year. The third of eight Sushi Typhoon releases in 2010 and 2011, Helldriver was already being recognised as part of a cult series. WeLoveCult.com refers to the film as “ultra-violent” and “ultra-cheesy,” and claims: “ if [the synopsis] doesn’t make you add the film to your queue, then I don’t know what will.”[28] Furthermore, the DVD Verdict review for Helldriver notes: “With Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl, Mutant Girls Squad, and the unforgettable Tokyo Gore Police already under his belt, Nishimura has built up a cult following, with his effects work gaining him a reputation as the Japanese answer to Tom Savini (Dawn of the Dead).”[29]

Citing Freaks (Tod Browning, 1932) as an example of cult films offering “extreme spectacles of … difference,” Bruce Kawin argues that films that glory in such otherness (additional types of ‘otherness’ in his list include rebellion, “wacko power,” and “wacko banality”) present “unifying visions for an alienated audience, uncompromised celebrations of another integrity.”[30] Thus, the glorified difference of the mutant shōjos presented in Nishimura and Iguchi’s Tokyo Gore films is a starting point for defining it as a cult text. Equally important to the film’s content in determining cult status, however, is the audience’s relationship with the text.

Matt Hills’ discussion of horror and the “monstrous fascination” in The Pleasures of Horror uses, and frequently contradicts, Noel Carroll’s philosophy on ‘art-horror’ audiences (as opposed to ‘natural horror,’ which refers to real-life events).[31] While Carroll suggests that our attraction to horror has much to do with the curiosity of non-human and almost-human characters, Hills argues that this is a weak connection because we have come to expect monster characters in horror films, so there must be something stronger drawing our attention.[32] Hills suggests that rather than a curiosity of the monstrous, it is the omnipotence of these characters that attracts horror fans. In films like Mutant Girls Squad and The Machine Girl, the intent seems to be to attract viewers to the spectacle of the human body metamorphosing into something more powerful. Also, emphasizing the importance of audience interaction in defining cult, Hills adds that pleasure taken from a horror film may not always be about the content, but rather appreciation of a star’s performance.[33] With Tokyo Gore, there is no doubt that most fans are drawn to the over-the-top extremities presented on-screen but, for some fans, there is surely an appeal to seeing Audition led Eihi Shiina to perform another extreme role in Tokyo Gore Police, for example. Furthermore, by using the label Sushi Typhoon, audiences are more likely to be drawn to Tokyo Gore films and, more specifically, those directed by Iguchi and Nishimura, because they know they can expect a certain type of horror.

Zombie Ass, 2012.

Zombie Ass, 2012.

It is no surprise, then, that Iguchi released four more feature films that were officially selected for Fantasia festival and that subsequently made the rounds on the international festival circuit in 2011 and 2012. While only two of the four films, Karate-Robo Zaborgor (2011) and Zombie Ass (2012), were made under the Sushi Typhoon label, all four were collaborations with Nishimura who, as usual, was responsible for the special effects. Sushi Typhoon’s film festival success is not surprising due to the niche nature of festivals like Fantasia, and the Canadian premieres of Tokyo Gore Police and Zombie Ass as midnight movies is not insignificant. In her Cult Film Experience contribution, “Midnight S/Excess,” Gaylyn Studlar begins: “Excess defines the midnight movie, a cult phenomenon that seems to catalogue perverse acts with the same enthusiasm as nineteenth-century sexologists.”[34] Fetishism and transvestitism are amongst Studlar’s list of sexual ‘abnormalities’ sexologist Richard von Krafft-Ebing cited in his Psychopathia Sexualis, which, not coincidentally, have a recurring presence in Tokyo Gore films. While Tokyo Gore Police’s representation of this is explicit in its portrayal of a fetish club with grotesquely mutilated female bodies, films such as Sukeban Boy and Machine Girl include a more implicit reflection of the Japanese schoolgirl fetish, as outlined above. Studlar goes on to discuss how midnight movies “crystallize… the s/excess of perversity in a feminine though not always female figure,” citing such examples as Pink Flamingos (John Waters, 1972) and Rocky Horror Picture Show (Jim Sharman, 1975).[35] However, while there’s no doubt about Tokyo Gore’s ‘s/excess’ (Sukeban Boy and Kisaragi in Mutant Girls Squad are both examples of the feminine characters outlined above), a more explicit form of excess is found within the films’ violence and gore.

Both Iguchi and Nishimura’s involvement with the American anthology film The ABCs of Death (2012) further solidifies their reputation for portrayals of excess, with their contributions including “F is for Fart” (Iguchi) and “Z is for Zetsumetsu” (Nishimura) (zetsumetsu is the Japanese word for ‘extinction’). The silliness of Iguchi’s narrative comes as no surprise, considering the title, as well as his reputation and history with JAV. The short film portrays a teenaged schoolgirl faced with two potential problems: she’s too embarrassed to fart in public, and she’s in love with her teacher, Yumi sensei. However, the arrival of a grey cloud of smoke that appears to be taking over Tokyo, allows her to overcome both of these dilemmas as she is faced with the life-or-death situation of seeking refuge. In a dream sequence that spans the remainder of the short film, the young girl winds up alone with her teacher in an empty corridor of their school, where Yumi sensei agrees to fart on her as protection from the other gases threatening to kill them. The fart scene climaxes as we see images of the teacher and student sharing the sensual experience of passing and inhaling Yumi sensei’s gas (further sexualised with moaning and, later on, kissing), juxtaposed with students in other parts of the school inhaling the black cloud and crumbling to ash. Similarly, Nishimura’s film offers another connection between death and sexuality with the different characters in his film representing destruction (extinction?), including a swastika hat, a tattoo of the twin towers and an airplane, several bombs labelled ‘Little Boy,’ and an outline of Japan with ‘3/11’ written above it. The film ends with all of these characters exploding as the madman, who is assumed to be at the root of all this evil, points to his erection and shouts: “It is standing!”

The anthology premiered as part of the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival’s Midnight Madness series and, with later releases through iTunes and Video On Demand (VOD), as well as a short US theatrical release following the festival rounds, was set up to be more mainstream than Iguchi and Nishimura’s prior projects. Furthermore, aligning their names with 24 other genre filmmakers from around the world, including Nacho Vigalondo (Timecrimes [2007]) and Ben Wheatley (Kill List [2011]), The ABCs of Death brought positive attention to Iguchi and Nishimura and showed that they were not exclusive to Sushi Typhoon productions. Despite some negative response from viewers who were there to see the more serious pieces from Vigalando (“A is for Apocalypse”), and thought “F” and “Z” were too silly, other reviewers offered fan appreciation, such as Jason Gorber from Twitch, who found the Japanese contributions to be exactly what he had expected, referring to “F is for Fart” as “one of the more charming of the lot, silly and stupid in a way that these J-pop, school girls-in-uniform fetish pieces often are, but without any pretense of seriousness.”[36] When asked, in an interview with MovieWeb.com, about the connotations of farting in Japanese culture, Iguchi explained:

[In Japan] farts are perceived as one of the origins of humor… For Japanese people, that’s the number one basis for humor, I think. Japan has a lot of particular fetishes, and there’s a huge amount of eroticism that doesn’t involve anything sexual. For instance, scatology has a firm popularity among some people, and there’s even a sub-genre in AV (Japanese pornography) that specializes in farts.[37]

Further questioned about his awareness of the current “Fart renaissance” happening in America, Iguchi responded: “I’m always interested in the subject!”[38]

The Japanese attraction to silliness that Iguchi describes is not unlike that in America, which is discussed by Michelle Ann Abate in her essay “Taking Silliness Seriously: Jim Henson’s The Muppet Show, the Anglo-American Tradition of Nonsense, and Cultural Critique.” Much like the silliness that Abate outlines, which appeals to American viewers of The Muppet Show, Tokyo Gore films can also be “seen as containing innocuous comedic content [as well as encoding] sharp cultural critiques and, at times, even subversive social commentary.”[39] For example, in both cases, the “general chaos, mayhem, and disorder” portrayed invokes questioning of notions of power and control.[40] This holds true in the teaser for Iguchi’s upcoming film, Gothic Lolita Battle Bear (2014), which suggests a similar mixture of nonsense and social commentary, with the return of the kawaii character, this time simultaneously representing the shōjo character, rather than working in contradiction to it. Such representations of cuteness is a reflection of Kinsella’s suggestion that cute is a form of anti-social behaviour: “By immersion in the pre-social world, otherwise known as childhood, cute fashion blithely ignores or outrightly contradicts values central to the organization of Japanese society and the maintenance of the work ethic.”[41] With this in mind, it is no surprise that Iguchi has combined his two prevailing female characters to offer yet another portrayal of a Japanese society that is too hung up on feigning normality.

Similarly, the trailer for Nishimura’s latest, Zombie TV (2013), co-directed with Naoya Tashino and Maelie Makuno, suggests the film offers a typical questioning of societal norms through the zombie metaphor by returning to the recurring Tokyo Gore theme of ‘normal vs. outcast.’ However, in a unique twist, the trailer’s subheadings such as ‘Pink Zombies,’ (the quintessential kawaii characters), and ‘Zombie God,’ imply a new sort of zombie hierarchy without necessarily placing the ‘uninfected’ at the top. Tokyo Gore consistently offers this binary between at least two opposing groups, in most cases it is ‘authority vs. other,’ but in other films, like Sukeban Boy or Zombie TV, it tends to be ‘other vs. other,’ where two (or more) outcast or ‘abnormal’ groups battle against each other. Ryan Turek from ShockTillYouDrop.com describes Zombie TV as: “A Monty Python-esque collection of shorts, animation, sketch comedy, instructional videos and more,” explaining that the film “showcases the natural evolution of zombies in the 21st century.”[42] The Monty Python comparison here is an apt one, particularly considering the way both types of films approach comedy through the grotesque. In Janis Udris’ PhD dissertation “Grotesque and Excremental Humour: Monty Python’s Meaning of Life,” she quotes Terry Gilliam on his use of shocking material: “We’ve got to maintain a certain level of offense; otherwise we’re just entertainers. It’s one way of proving to ourselves that we’re not just in it for the money.”[43] Similarly, both Iguchi[44] and Nishimura[45] have commented on the importance of working on a low budget to maintain the freedom to make unique films with the goal of turning shocking images that would normally only been seen in manga and anime into live action (examples of this include geisha shooting bullets from their breasts, schoolgirls farting yellow gas, and mutant girls with ‘butt saws’).

Fantasia’s 2013 festival program markets Bushido Man (Takanori Tsujimoto, 2013) to those with a taste for “out-there Asian action film,” referring to the “Sushi Typhoon wave” to attract viewers looking for a type of film containing “over-the-top absurdities.”[46] While Bushido Man was not actually released under the Sushi Typhoon label (with the last update on their blog being over two years ago, it can be assumed the label is currently inactive[47]), it is significant that the name is now being used to define a specific ‘wave’ of films, rather than simply as a production and marketing label. This is reflective of the evolution of Tartan’s ‘Asia Extreme’ label, which is now distinctive as a style of Asian filmmaking, and suggests the future of Sushi Typhoon, as no longer a production label, but instead a recognizable type of film offering over-the-top violence and nonsensical humour. This recognition allows for the cult fandom that is becoming a part of Tokyo Gore’s reputation through screenings at festivals like Fantasia, where audiences are more likely to interact with the absurdities of these films.

In closing, if we are to define Tokyo Gore films like Machine Girl and Tokyo Gore Police as cult texts, it is necessary to consider the different implications of the term, as these films are in the process of building a cult-like fan base, rather than having verifiably established a cult following. While, compared to established Asian Extreme cult filmmakers Takashi Miike and Park Chan-wook, Iguchi and Nishimura are still emerging as such, there is no denying the implications of the types of audiences they are attracting to niche film festivals around the world. A Fantasia review of Dead Sushi (2012), observes that it: “serves up a particular brand of silliness that [is] hard to resist, especially when sitting among the sold-out enthusiastic throng that is the Fantasia audience as they chanted ‘SUSHI’ again and again.”[48] With Iguchi and Nishimura’s names now so closely associated with Tokyo Gore and Sushi Typhoon, they signify a very distinct style of over-the-top, gruesomely violent filmmaking, setting up audience expectations before they go into their films, and ultimately drawing a particular kind of (predominantly Western) audience to their screenings.

 

References:

Abate, Michelle Ann. “Taking Silliness Seriously: Jim Henson’s The Muppet Show, the Anglo-American Tradition of Nonsense, and Cultural Critique.” The Journal of Popular Culture, 42, no. 4 (2009): 589-613.

Bottenberg, Rupert. “Bushido Man” Fantasia Festival, http://www.fantasiafestival.com/2013/en/films-schedule/10/bushido-man

Brown, Todd. “Yoshihiro Nishimura Talks TOKYO GORE POLICE!” Twitch Film,  http://twitchfilm.com/2008/06/yoshihiro-nishimura-talks-tokyo-gore-police.html

Cook, Pam. “Film Culture: ‘Exploitation’ Films and Feminism.” Screen 17, no. 2 (1976):122-127.

Coulthard, Lisa. “Killing Bill: Rethinking Feminism and Film Violence.” In Interrogating Postfeminism: Gender and the Politics of Popular Culture, edited by Yvonne Tasker and Diane Negra, 153-75. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007.

DiGiovanna, Alex. “Fantasia 2012: Interview with ‘Dead Sushi’ Director Noboru Iguchi and Star Rina Takeda.” Movie Buzzers, http://moviebuzzers.com/film-festival-coverage/fantasia-2012-interview-dead-sushi-director-noboru-iguchi-star-rina-takeda

Fitzpatrick, Michael. “From Schoolgirl to Sex Object: White Socks and Prim Navy Suits Unleash Male Libidos in Japan.” The Guardian, July 8, 1999.

Gay, Elliot. “Interview: Sushi Typhoon Founder Yoshinori Chiba.” SciFi Japan, http://www.scifijapan.com/articles/2010/11/18/interview-sushi-typhoon-founder-yoshinori-chiba/

Gorber, Jason. “Review: THE ABCS OF DEATH Encourages Letter Skipping.” Twitch, http://twitchfilm.com/2013/03/review-the-abcs-of-death.html

Hamm, Sarah. “The Japanese Schoolgirl Figure: Renegotiation of Power Through Societal Construction, Masking a Crisis of Masculinity.” Diss. University of Washington, 2012.

Hills, Matt. The Pleasures of Horror. London: Continuum, 2005.

Hunt, Leon. “Asiaphilia, Asianisation and the Gatekeeper Auteur: Quentin Tarantino and Luc Besson”. In East Asian Cinemas: Exploring Transnational Connections on Film, edited by Leon Hunt and Leung Wing-Fai, 220-36. London: I.B. Tauris, 2008.

Kung Fu Cult Masters. London: Wallflower, 2003.

Kawin, Bruce. “After Midnight.” In The Cult Film Experience, edited by JP Telotte, 18-25. Austin: UTP, 1991.

Kinsella, Sharon. “Cuties in Japan.” In Women, Media and Consumption in Japan, edited by Lise Skov and Brian Moeran, 220-254. Surrey: Curzon Press, 1995.

Kristof, Nicholas D. “A Plain School Uniform as the Latest Aphrodisiac.” New York Times April 2, 1997.

Lammle, Rob. “What to Watch – 12/23/2011.” We Love Cult, http://www.welovecult.com/2011/review/watch-12232011/

Mathijs, Ernest and Jamie Sexton. Cult Cinema. Chichester, West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons Ltd., 2011.

Mighty_Emperor. “New Japanese Gore Films.” IMDb. October 5, 2011. http://www.imdb.com/list/IRI4DX5uI2o/

Miller, Laura. “Cute Masquerade and the Pimping of Japan.” International Journal of Japanese Sociology 20 (2011): 18-29.

Napier, Susan J. Anime: From Akira to Howl’s Moving Castle. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005.

Ndalianis, Angela. The Horror Sensorium: Media and the Senses. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2012.

Orange, B. Alan. “F is for Fart: Exclusive The ABCs of Death Interview with Noboru Iguchi.” Movie Web, http://www.movieweb.com/news/f-is-for-fart-exclusive-the-abcs-of-death-interview-with-noboru-iguchi

Peter K., “Fantasia 2012 Review: DEAD SUSHI.” Twitch Film, http://twitchfilm.com/2012/07/fantasia-2012-dead-sushi.html

Pritchard, Judge Paul. “DVD Verdict Review – Helldriver.” DVD Verdict, http://www.dvdverdict.com/reviews/helldriverr2.php

Richie, Donald. The Image Factor: Fads & Fashions in Japan. London: Reaktion Books Ltd., 2003

Seaver, Jay. “Mutant Girls Squad.” eFilm Critic, http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=20849&reviewer=371

Sharp, Jasper. Behind the Pink Curtain: The Complete History of Japanese Sex Cinema. Surrey: FAB Press, Ltd., 2008.

Studlar, Gaylyn. “Midnight S/Excess: Cult Configurations of ‘Femininity’ and the Perverse.” In The Cult Film Experience, edited by JP Telotte, 138-55. Austin: UTP, 1991.

Turek, Ryan. “Tune in to Yoshihiro Nishimura’s Zombie TV.” Shock Till You Drop, http://www.shocktillyoudrop.com/news/340665-tune-in-to-yoshihiro-nushimuras-zombie-tv/

Udris, Janis. “Grotesque and Excremental Humour: Monty Python’s Meaning of Life.” Diss. University of Warwick, 1988.

Vijn, Ard. “IFFR 2011: An Interview with NOBORU IGUCHI.” Twitch Film, http://twitchfilm.com/2011/02/iffr-2011-an-interview-with-noboru-iguchi.html

Walkow, Marc. “The Sushi Typhoon.” http://sushityphoon.blogspot.com.au/

 

Notes:


[1]Michael Bonedigger, “Tokyo Gore Style: A Retrospective on the Films and Trends,” Horrornews.net, posted July 19, 2011, http://horrornews.net/37084/tokyo-gore-style-a-retrospective-on-the-films-and-trends-tokyo-extreme/ (accessed November 13, 2013).

[2]Jasper Sharp, Behind the Pink Curtain: The Complete History of Japanese Sex Cinema, (Surrey: FAB Press, Ltd., 2008), 9.

[3] Ibid.

[4]Nicholas D. Kristof, “A Plain School Uniform as the Latest Aphrodisiac,” New York Times April 2, 1997, http://www.nytimes.com/1997/04/02/world/a-plain-school-uniform-as-the-latest-aphrodisiac.html (accessed Nov 11, 2013).

[5] Ibid.

[6] Michael Fitzpatrick, “From Schoolgirl to Sex Object: White Socks and Prim Navy Suits Unleash Male Libidos in Japan,” The Guardian July 8, 1999, http://www.theguardian.com/world/1999/jul/08/gender.uk (accessed Nov 11, 2013).

[7] Ibid.

[8]Laura Miller, “Cute Masquerade and the Pimping of Japan,” International Journal of Japanese Sociology  20 (2011): 18-29.

[9]Sarah Hamm, “The Japanese Schoolgirl Figure: Renegotiation of Power Through Societal Construction, Masking a Crisis of Masculinity,” (PhD diss., University of Washington, 2012).

[10] Sharon Kinsella, “Cuties in Japan,” in Women, Media and Consumption in Japan, ed. Lise Skov and Brian Moeran (Surrey: Curzon Press, 1995), 221.

[11]Susan J. Napier, Anime: From Akira to Howl’s Moving Castle, (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005), 154.

[12]Donald Richie, The Image Factor: Fads & Fashions in Japan (London: Reaktion Books Ltd., 2003), 58.

[13] Ibid.

[14]Lisa Coulthard, “Killing Bill: Rethinking Feminism and Film Violence,” in Interrogating Postfeminism: Gender and the Politics of Popular Culture, ed. Yvonne Tasker and Diane Negra (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2007), 163.

[15] Ibid.

[16]Mighty_Emperor, “New Japanese Gore Films,” IMDb.com, created on October 5, 2011, http://www.imdb.com/list/IRI4DX5uI2o/ (accessed Nov 15, 2013).

[17]Pam Cook, “Film Culture: ‘Exploitation’ Films and Feminism,” Screen 17, no. 2 (1976): 122.

[18]Leon Hunt, “Asiaphilia, Asianisation and the Gatekeeper Auteur: Quentin Tarantino and Luc Besson,” in East Asian Cinemas: Exploring Transnational Connections on Film, ed. Leon Hunt and Leung Wing-Fai (London: I.B. Tauris, 2008), 220-36.

[19]Leon Hunt, Kung Fu Cult Masters (London: Wallflower, 2003). 

[20]Ernest Mathijs and Jamie Sexton, Cult Cinema (Chichester, West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons Ltd., 2011), 121.

[21]Ard Vijn, “IFFR 2011: An Interview with NOBORU IGUCHI,” Twitchfilm.com, posted February 7, 2011. http://twitchfilm.com/2011/02/iffr-2011-an-interview-with-noboru-iguchi.html (accessed November 26, 2013).

[22]Angela Ndalianis, The Horror Sensorium: Media and the Senses (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2012), 15.

[23]Ibid., 28-9

[24] Ibid., 30.

[25]Elliot Gay, “Interview: Sushi Typhoon Founder Yoshinori Chiba,” Scifijapan.com, posted November 18, 2010, http://www.scifijapan.com/articles/2010/11/18/interview-sushi-typhoon-founder-yoshinori-chiba/(accessed September 30, 2013).

[26] Ibid.

[27]Jay Seaver, “Mutant Girls Squad,” Efilmcritic.com, originally posted August 21, 2010, http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=20849&reviewer=371 (accessed October 1, 2013).

[28]Rob Lammle, “What to Watch – 12/23/2011,” WeLoveCult.com, posted December 23, 2011, http://www.welovecult.com/2011/review/watch-12232011/ (accessed November 26, 2013).

[29]Judge Paul Pritchard, “DVD Verdict Review – Helldriver,” DVDVerdict.com, posted November 22, 2011, http://www.dvdverdict.com/reviews/helldriverr2.php (accessed November 26, 2013).

[30]Bruce Kawin, “After Midnight,” in The Cult Film Experience, ed. JP Telotte (Austin: UTP, 1991), 19.

[31]Matt Hills, The Pleasures of Horror, (London: Continuum, 2005), 14.

[32] Ibid., 16.

[33] Ibid., 17.

[34]Gaylyn Studlar, “Midnight S/Excess: Cult Configurations of ‘Femininity’ and the Perverse,” in The Cult Film Experience, ed. JP Telotte (Austin: UTP, 1991), 139.

[35] Ibid.

[36]Jason Gorber, “Review: THE ABCS OF DEATH Encourages Letter Skipping,” Twitch.com, posted March 13, 2013, http://twitchfilm.com/2013/03/review-the-abcs-of-death.html (accessed November 26, 2013).

[37]B. Alan Orange, “F is for Fart: Exclusive The ABCs of Death Interview with Noboru Iguchi,” MovieWeb.com, posted January 13, 2013, http://www.movieweb.com/news/f-is-for-fart-exclusive-the-abcs-of-death-interview-with-noboru-iguchi (accessed November 22, 2013).

[38] Ibid.

[39]Michelle Ann Abate, “Taking Silliness Seriously: Jim Henson’s The Muppet Show, the Anglo-American Tradition of Nonsense, and Cultural Critique,” The Journal of Popular Culture, 42, no. 4 (2009): 601-2.

[40] Ibid., 602.

[41]Kinsella, 251.

[42]Ryan Turek, “Tune in to Yoshihiro Nishimura’s Zombie TV,” ShockTillYouDrop.com, posted November 25, 2013. http://www.shocktillyoudrop.com/news/340665-tune-in-to-yoshihiro-nushimuras-zombie-tv/ (accessed November 27, 2013).

[43]Janis Udris, “Grotesque and Excremental Humour: Monty Python’s Meaning of Life,” (PhD diss., University of Warwick, 1988), 168.

[44]Alex DiGiovanna, “Fantasia 2012: Interview with ‘Dead Sushi’ Director Noboru Iguchi and Star Rina Takeda,” MovieBuzzers.com, posted on July 31, 2012, http://moviebuzzers.com/film-festival-coverage/fantasia-2012-interview-dead-sushi-director-noboru-iguchi-star-rina-takeda (accessed November 22, 2013).

[45]Todd Brown, “Yoshihiro Nishimura Talks TOKYO GORE POLICE!,” Twitchfilm.com, posted June 25, 2008, http://twitchfilm.com/2008/06/yoshihiro-nishimura-talks-tokyo-gore-police.html (accessed November 22, 2013).

[46]Rupert Bottenberg, “Bushido Man,” Fantasiafestival.com, http://www.fantasiafestival.com/2013/en/films-schedule/10/bushido-man (accessed October 1, 2013).

[47]Walkow, Marc. “The Sushi Typhoon.” http://sushityphoon.blogspot.com.au/ (accessed January 14, 2014).

[48]Peter K., “Fantasia 2012 Review: DEAD SUSHI,” Twitchfilm.com, posted July 24, 2012, http://twitchfilm.com/2012/07/fantasia-2012-dead-sushi.html (accessed October 10, 2013).

 

Bio: Jessica Hughes is a PhD candidate at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia. Her dissertation focuses on Western perceptions of graphic violence and otherness in Asian Extreme cinema. She received her MA in Film Studies from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. Her article “In the Bathhouse” was published in The University of British Columbia’s Cinephile (“The Scene,” 5.2) and articles on the ‘postmodern vampire’ have appeared in Image & Text and Cross-Cultural Studies journal. She was also editor-in-chief for Cinephile (“Sound on Screen,” 6.1) in 2010.

The Single Female Intruder – David Surman

Abstract: This essay examines a contemporary cultural icon that operates across distinct media boundaries, as a kind of transmedia archetype. Of interest is the visuality of what I call the ‘single female intruder’, which emerges as the intersection of a variety of low cultural forms, and has its origins in the Japanese visual and literary culture of the nineteenth century. What are the characteristics of the single female intruder? She wears closely fitted clothing, which describe the shape of her body, though she is tall, willowy and androgynous. She comes equipped with a variety of powerful weapons and technologies, that she keeps secreted away on her person, and combines this armoury with expert knowledge of a variety of relevant disciplines. She is always proficient in martial arts, though her willingness to fight is measured against the dramas of her past, tempering the speed of her sword-hand. Her movement is characterised by an impossible elegance, and she seems preternaturally adapted to exploit any space that she comes to occupy. The technologies she deploys are an extension of the physical body, and never encumber her.

Figure 1: Vanessa Z. Schneider in the videogame P.N.03 (2003)

Introduction

Within the generic realities of film, animation, games and comic books, there are many varied female archetypes. Indeed, the representation of women in the media inevitably segues into the active discussion of typologies. The distribution of such types fall within the predefined boundaries of high and low, popular and peripheral, men’s and women’s culture. The effect and ideology of certain types has been actively debated in the humanities, and in particular in feminist criticism. Tanya Krzywinska has outlined the way in which cultural analyses of action heroines has orientated toward the critique of such icons as role models, within the frame of identity politics (Krzywinska, 2005, p. 3). In her critique of action heroines within videogames, she suggests that the critique of representation is limited insofar as it fails to describe the dimensions of play and control that underpin the videogame experience.

This essay examines a contemporary cultural icon that operates across distinct media boundaries, as a kind of transmedia archetype. Of interest is the visuality of what I call the ‘single female intruder’, which emerges as the intersection of a variety of low cultural forms, and has its origins in the Japanese visual and literary culture of the nineteenth century. With the ‘recentering’ of globalised media from its traditional North American power-base toward new Asian counterparts (that has come as a consequence of sustained growth in Japan’s media and cultural industries), such icons have been disseminated to receptive western audiences. The characteristics of the single female intruder are defined as a consequence of the media that converge to form the transmedia space of contemporary popular culture. Their positioning as low cultural forms unifies the constituent fields that converge in the figure of the ‘single female intruder’.

What are the characteristics of the single female intruder? She wears closely fitted clothing, which describe the shape of her body, though she is tall, willowy and androgynous. She comes equipped with a variety of powerful weapons and technologies, that she keeps secreted away on her person, and combines this armoury with expert knowledge of a variety of relevant disciplines. These will usually include computer programming, reconnaissance, research and investigation. She is always proficient in martial arts, though her willingness to fight is measured against the dramas of her past, tempering the speed of her sword-hand. Her movement is characterised by an impossible elegance, and she seems preternaturally adapted to exploit any space that she comes to occupy. The technologies she deploys are an extension of the physical body, and never encumber her.

She is an amalgam of high trash clichés and narrative conceits; often orphaned, wracked by bereavement, seeking vengeance, driven by the urgency of an incurable illness. Such melodramatic tropes are buried beneath the sobriety and perfection of grey-white skin, expressionless and captivating. She is two people in one body; the face of an angel, the heart of a demon; but never duplicitous, her expressions of emotion are sincere and forthright, often taking place in secluded confessionals away from the song of carnage. She is never the homemaker, though the riddle of such happiness might emerge in moments of reprieve. She is a nomad, constantly on the move, often moving out of the frying pan and into the fire. She is more a heroine of generic reality than everyday life, a celebration of the seductive tropes of contemporary fiction and the intermingling of technology, imagination and desire.

The single female intruder is so ubiquitous in contemporary popular culture that an examination of her sophisticated rhetoric is necessary. In the course of this article, I want to show how such an internationalised, post-modern archetype, which seemingly operates outside of any clearly defined cultural boundaries, has origins in pre-modern Japanese culture. I shall argue that the history of this archetype can be seen as metonymic of the changing post-war relationship between American hegemony and the rise of Japanese popular culture as a new global centre. The proliferation of this archetype follows a very particular path, and its movement can be traced from aesthetic reforms in Japanese antiquity, subsequently retrieved in the 1970s by filmmakers and mangaka eager to revisit the culture of the Edo period. Hiroki Azuma has described how this internal appropriation of Edo period aesthetic and cultural values comes as a consequence of the cultural anxieties arising as a response to wartime defeat and American occupation. He writes,

Their preference toward the association between the 80s postmodern society and the premodern Edo can be easily explained once you recognize the abovementioned process of “domestication” of the postwar American culture. In the mid 80s, many Japanese were fascinated with their economical success and tried to erase or forget their traumatic memory of the defeat in World War Two. The re-evaluation of Edo culture is socially required in such an atmosphere (Azuma, 2001, np).

As I will explain, the tropes of ‘rikyu grey aesthetics’ and ‘the poison woman’ are retrieved and then celebrated within the generic reality of Japanese popular culture from the 1970s onwards. The ambiguous, seductive and controversial qualities of this historical figure consequently circulate within the growing international fandom for Japanese popular culture. From there, contemporary influences imbibe this peculiarly Japanese anti-heroine with a new agency, to embody principles of control and beauty in an age of technological anonymity and information terrorism. Influences that immediately spring to mind include videogames, action cinema, exploitation cinema, science fiction literature, in particular cyberpunk, fetish clothing and the goth, techno and electronic music scenes. Contemporary single female intruders reveal the traces of their Japanese antecedents in their sober demeanour, snow-white skin and mobile technologies. Like the massively successful franchises Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh! The single female intruder is an ambassador for an alternative set of generic parameters in popular culture that assert the Japanese aesthetic, and is resolved in the interaction of multiple cultural centres.

In the first section of this paper, I will explore the Japanese antecedents to the single female intruder, with an emphasis on the relationship between simultaneous reforms in attitude to both colour and femininity. From there, I examine how Japanese film and literature of the mid-to-late twentieth century transformed this figure into a modern heroine first through exploitation, and then science fiction. I then want to examine briefly the transformation of this figure in the science fiction film and literature of 1980s America and Europe. The representations and descriptions generated by the likes of Ridley Scott and William Gibson play a central role in Japan’s imagining of itself and its iconography. To conclude, I examine how digital culture and convergence have effected the transformation of the single female intruder, and how her sophisticated rhetoric has been transformed to speak to our contemporary environment.

Poison Woman Dressed in Rikyu Grey

Figure 2: Hishikawa Moronobu “A Standing Woman”, c.1690.

The prehistory of the single female intruder archetype is much more culturally specific than it might first seem, since such characters nowadays enjoy an international audience. The archetype emerges from the changes in the construction of cultural attitudes to beauty and femininity around the time of the Meiji reformation of Japan. Single female intruders are invariably rebels, whether they are escaping societal reforms, in the case of Trinity in The Matrix trilogy (1999; 2003; 2003) or the eponymous Aeon Flux (2005), complex mercenaries like Vanessa Z. Schneider (fig.1) in the videogame P.N.03 (2003), or living technologies driven by existential angst like Major Makoto Kusanagi of Ghost in the Shell (1995).

Christine L. Marran has described the origins of what she has coined the ‘Poison Woman’, in stories made popular during the Meiji reformation (1868–1912) of the nineteenth century. They profile the lives of sensational women who had caused some sort of scandal, more often than not though the murder of her spouse, perhaps guilty of involvement in other high profile vices. She writes,

The long and changing tradition of writing about female criminals began with the rise of the newspaper serial. With such colourful nicknames as Demon Oden, Night Storm Okinu, Viper Omasa, and Lightning Oshin, to name only a few, the first poison women appeared as anti-heroes in Japan’s earliest serialized newspaper stories. These serials were based on the lives and crimes of real women. (Marran, 2007, p. xv)

The media furor around the activities of female criminals far exceeded the number and frequency of their activities, such was the public appetite for this new sensational fiction. Fiction and reality intermingled from the outset. As Marran asks ‘What national obsessions are articulated through this interest in the female convicts?’ (Ibid.). The rise of the poison woman archetype in Meiji period culture coincides with substantial changes in the representation of women in the woodblock prints of ukiyo-e artists. These changes would complicate the rhetoric surrounding such controversial women. In the Genroku era (1688–1704) the artist Hishikawa Moronobu,(1618–1694) was one of the pioneers of the ukiyo-e printmaking craft, and was known for his portraits of women and lifestyle scenes. In his imagery the women are voluptuous and feminine, shown in brightly coloured, voluminous robes (fig.2). In the later An’ei-Tenmei era (1772–1781; 1781–1789) the work of artist Suzuki Harunobu (1724–1770) departs from this archetypal, highly feminised aesthetic, and instead portrays women with long, slender bodies, demure faces and a spiritual intensity (fig.3). Kisho Kurokawa writes that,

This trend is of particular interest because it suggests the progressive denial of the generous voluptuousness that symbolized the prosperity and material abundance of pre-modern Japan up until Genroku. The An’ei/Tenmei aesthetic, on the other hand, was characterised by a nonsensual, eccentric, and non-physical beauty, expressing the spirit of an age of more refined ambiguity and a sophisticated rhetoric. (Kurokawa, 1997, p. 161)

Figure 3: Suzuki Harunobu “Crow and Heron, or Young Lovers Walking Together under an Umbrella in a Snowstorm”, c. 1769

 

This new aesthetic of ambiguity, which pervades Harunobu’s prints, becomes the face of the poison woman. Her crimes and misdemeanours are complicated and intensified by the aesthetic coding of this new feminine rhetoric. Marius B. Jensen writes of these ukiyo-e prints that, ‘The ladies they portray are not full faced, something the carver could not provide, but minimalist sketches; they return our stares unblinking and uninvolved. We admire them but do not relate to them, somewhat the way Saikaku’s readers regarded his characters’ (Jensen, 2002, 180). Earlier trends in popular aesthetics inform the recurrent representation of the poison woman in ukiyo-e printworks and in newspaper stories of the period. In the period preceding the Genroku era, a sudden fashion for the colour grey emerged in Japanese society, as a result of the cultural reforms to the tea ceremony introduced by Sen no Rikyu (1522–1591). Jensen writes, ‘Sen no Rikyu, who served as chief tea master to both Nobunaga and Hideyoshi […] was a figure who combined considerable personal wealth with a cult of simplicity and modesty that he codified in the tea ceremony of his day’ (Jensen, 2002, 117). Part of this revision of the ceremony was the advocation of the colour grey in clothing and décor. Kurokawa confirms the connection between tea ceremony reforms and the emerging taste for minimalism and grey,

Whereas until this time grey had been considered a vile colour conjuring up the image of rats and ashes, upon becoming known as Rikyu grey it was better appreciated. In the mid-Edo era it gained tremendous popularity—along with brown and indigo—as the embodiment of the aesthetic ideal of iki. Iki in this period is a complex concept but may be conveniently described as “richness in sobriety.” As the cult of tea spread beyond the upper classes to be practiced in the homes of ordinary people, so did the taste for grey. (Kurokawa, 1997, p. 160)

In his rehabilitation of Rikyu grey as an aesthetic category in its own right, Kurokawa emphasises the colour’s essential ambiguity, at times sinister, charming and charismatic. He describes how, ‘In contrast to the grey in the West, which is a combination of black and white, Rikyu grey was a combination of four opposing colours: red, blue, yellow and white’ (Kurokawa, 1991, p. 70). And so, the construction of the ‘poison woman’ in Meiji period mass culture intersects with two crucial aesthetic reforms, the adoption of Harunobu’s slender, ambiguous figure in the representation of women, and the rise of the widespread fashion for Rikyu grey, which emerged from reforms to the tea ceremony which emphasised simplicity, austerity and sobriety.

The Blizzard from the Netherworld

Figure 4: Yuki in Lady Snowblood (Shurayukihime, Toshiya Fujita, 1973)

I want to make a leap now to postwar Japan, where the domestic influence of American occupation was having an effect on popular culture. Tensions arising from wartime defeat, aggressive industrialisation and urbanisation and a sense of cultural dissipation motivated media producers to rehabilitate narratives and character archetypes from the Edo period, as a means of cultural recovery and national reflection. The three tropes of the poison woman archetype, Harunobu’s willowy bodies, and the aesthetic sobriety of Rikyu grey are consolidated in Yuki Kashima (fig.4), heroine of the Japanese exploitation film Lady Snowblood (Shurayukihime, Toshiya Fujita, 1973). Fujita’s film, based on the manga by Kazuo Koike, follows the journey of Yuki, played by Meiko Kaji, who seeks bloody vengeance for the rape and murder of her mother and father at the hand of a gang of bandits. She is the quintessential poison woman, and her exploits are publicised in the course of the film by newspaper reporter Ashio Ryuhei. The sophisticated and ambivalent quality of Yuki, and also the actress Meiko Kaji, is captured by Rikke Schubart, who writes,

The star persona of Meiko Kaji is located between the extraordinary powers of a castrating gaze and the existential malaise of a female killer. Kaji’s characters are haunted, if not by the past, but by a sense of not belonging, of being out of place and out of time. In this, they resemble the mythic hero. They are exceptionally beautiful, yet out of reach emotionally. Their weapon skills are at the expense of inner balance. They move faster than any opponent but lose track of life. (Schubert, 2007, p. 119)

The cult appeal of Asian exploitation heroines such as Yuki had the effect of reenergizing the antiquated archetype of the poison woman, along with the sensibility of Rikyu and the aesthetics of Harunobu. Poison women exist in every age, but the sword wielding she- demon of the Edo period had a romantic appeal all of its own. The unsettling and arresting beauty of her skin, and the ghostly perfection of Yuki’s ‘whitewashed-wall weave’ kabe shijira kimono, dominate the mise-en-scène. Suddenly, she breaks her repose to flip into action and attack; fountains of blood arc across the frame, her kimono drips wet, marking her as victorious in auspicious red and white.

Lady Snowblood marks the overlap between the icon of poison woman and what I call the ‘single female intruder’. Concealed within her umbrella, her secret sword is idiosyncratic, and operates within a sophisticated rhetoric that emphasises not only martial power, but also skills in deception, persuasion and elegance. The attraction of the character arises from repeated emphases on sharp contrasts, and this is continuous with the expanded principle of Rikyu offered by Kurokawa. Her subordinate shuffle is broken by sudden and supernatural agility; her sword strikes are unwavering, and land with the spirit of hissho (absolute victory). The vacillation between opposites characterise the single female intruder; she has brutality and elegance, bloodlust and sobriety, movement and stillness in equal measure. Kurokawa connects this principle to the baroque, he writes, ‘In his book on the baroque, Eugenio D’ors states that when conflicting intentions are bound together in a single motion, the resulting style is by definition baroque’ (Kurokawa, 1997, p. 170). Later he adds that, ‘The “baroque” essence to which I refer is represented by the mutual resistance and harmony of weight and drift, stillness and movement, straight and curves lines’ (p. 175).

American Idols

Post-war industrialisation and the rise of commodity culture have placed technology at the centre of the Japanese popular imagination. At the same time as filmmakers like Fujita withdrew into the images of Edo Japan to draw sustenance, others, like manga and anime artist Osamu Tezuka, were thinking forward into imaginary futures, populated by the dream of robot, cyborg and alien life. The ‘single female intruder’ is the recombination of these two sensibilities, at once strongly reminiscent of her Edo counterparts, and also situated within film or gameworlds that are nonetheless ostensibly works of science fiction. She emerges as a coherent iconic figure in the 1980s. The transformation of the poison woman in to the single female intruder takes place in the figure of Molly Millions in William Gibson’s short story Johnny Mnemonic (1981), and in the character of Pris in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982). Gibson’s lifelong obsession with Japanese culture is evident throughout his literature to date, and traces of the influences of the multifaceted concept of the poison woman are evident. Taken for granted, moreover, is the place of Rikyu grey, both literally as a colour sense, and as a philosophy of ambiguity and contrasts, and the idealism of Harunobu’s slender courtesans. The entrance of Molly Millions echoes that of Yuki in Lady Snowblood. The same emphasis on concealed technology, and a lethal capability, shroud the character in a mist of ambiguity and tightly wound sexuality.

‘Hey,’ said a low voice, feminine, from somewhere behind my right shoulder, ‘you cowboys sure aren’t having too lively a time.’

‘Pack it, bitch,’ Lewis said, his tanned face very still.

Ralfi looked blank.

‘Lighten up. You want to buy some good free base?’

She pulled up a chair and quickly sat before either of them could stop her. She was barely inside my fixed field of vision, a thin girl with mirrored glasses, her dark hair cut in a rough shag. She wore black leather, open over a T-shirt slashed diagonally with stripes of red and black.

‘Eight thou a gram weight.’

Lewis snorted his exasperation and tried to slap her out of the chair. Somehow he didn’t quite connect, and her hand came up and seemed to brush his wrist as it passed. Bright blood sprayed the table. He was clutching his wrist white-knuckle tight, blood trickling from between his fingers.

But hadn’t her hand been empty? (Gibson, 1981, p. 18)

The description of Molly emphasises her stature and costume, and the scene is characterised by an anxious stillness, which breaks into sudden action. Like Yuki’s hidden sword, Molly’s ‘weapons’ aren’t disclosed, but their effect enjoys a glorious description, again reminiscent of the exploitation film aesthetic of bloody carnage found in Lady Snowblood. Later, the secrets of Molly’s fatal frame are laid bare:

‘Chiba. Yeah. See, Molly’s been Chiba, too.’ And she showed me her hands, fingers slightly spread. Her fingers were slender, tapered, very white against the polished burgundy nails. Ten blades snicked straight out from their recesses beneath her nails, each one a narrow, double-edged scalpel in pale blue steel. (p. 21)

Molly’s finger blades are like Yuki’s concealed sword, in that they form a highly personalised accessory crucial to their survival in a world that is largely hostile to them. Through them their bodies become ‘trick machines’ designed to entrap, confuse, and terrorise their opponents. The complex rhetoric of hidden capability runs through the single female intruder, and is most apparent in the gynoid half-machine characters that have appeared since Molly first took to the streets of Chiba.

Transnational Assassins

Figure 5: Beatrix in Kill Bill (Quentin Tarantino, 2003)

Within the generic reality of convergent media culture, the tropes of the single female intruder have folded in on themselves, and, while the poison woman was penned in direct relation to the changes in society, the single female intruder of recent film and game texts is not so motivated to comment on changes in culture. She operates, like Beatrix in Tarantino’s Kill Bill films, within the “movie-world”, that is, within the circular distribution of generic styles, codes and conventions.

While the single female intruder certainly develops, in contemporary digital culture, the aesthetic, form and rhetoric of the femme fatale and other types of female killer (see Schubert, 2007), my interest lies with the long history that underpins her making, and the politics of globalisation she traverses. Her seductive deadly methods evoke fear outside of the textual worlds she inhabits, since she, like the ninja kids of Naruto, is an iconic player in the global media game, and is metonymic of the massive changes taking place in the landscape of media power. Koichi Iwabuchi writes that,

Japan’s hitherto odourless cultural presence in the world has become more recognizably ”Japanese” as computer games and animation from Japan have grabbed large shares of overseas markets. Japan’s success in exporting cultural products that are unmistakably perceived as “Japanese” have evoked a sense of yearning and threat overseas, including fear of cultural invasion (Iwabuchi, 2004, p. 59).

The single female intruder has emerged as the most prominent action heroine type in recent years, with films released that seek to comment on our technologically driven, information culture. Her independent agency, computer expertise and athletic finesse position the single female intruder as a dominant fantasy of control for our time. Connecting body politics, privacy issues, technology and gender relations in the actions of this subtly orientalized superhero, contemporary media producers have created a figure as pertinent to our time as the muscle-bound action hero was to the 1980s. While the ‘high trash’ of summer blockbusters, videogames and exploitation films might suggest that the single female intruder is nothing more and techno-fetish and titillation, I hope to have shown, through an emphasis on her origins in Japanese aesthetics, that such characters are playing an instrumental role in the reorganisation of gendered heroism within transmedial representation.

 

Games

Bullet Witch (Cavia, Inc./Atari, AQ Interactive, 2007)

Final Fantasy 12 (SquareEnix, 2006)

Ghost in the Shell (Exact/THQ, 1998)

Gun Valkyrie (Smilebit/BigBen Interactive, 2002)

Ico (Team Ico/SCE, 2002)

Oni (Bungie Studios/Rockstar Games, 2001)

P.N.03 [Product Number Three] (Capcom Production Studio 4/Capcom, 2003)

Panzer Dragoon Orta (Smilebit/Sega, 2003)

Panzer Dragoon Saga (Team Andromeda/Sega, 1998)

Perfect Dark (Rare/Rare, 2000)

Perfect Dark Zero (Rare/Rare, 2005)

Rez (United Game Artists/Sega, 2001)

Space Channel 5 (United Game Artists/Sega, 2000)

Space Channel 5: Part 2 (United Game Artists/Sega, 2003)

Tenchu: Fatal Shadows [Tenchu: Kurenai] (K2 LLC/Sega, 2005)

Tomb Raider (Core Design/EIDOS, 1996)

Films and Anime

Aeon Flux (Karyn Kusama, 2005)

Aeon Flux [Animated Series] (Peter Chung, 1995)

Bladerunner (Ridley Scott, 1982)

Ghost in the Shell (Mamoru Oshii, 1995)

Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (Mamoru Oshii, 2004)

Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex (Kenji Kamiyama, 2002-2003)

Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex 2nd Gig (Kenji Kamiyama, 2004-2005)

Shurayukihime [Lady Snowblood: Blizzard from the Netherworld] (Toshiya Fujita, 1973)

Shurayukihime: Urami Renga [Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of Vengeance] (Toshiya Fujita, 1974)

Sympathy for Lady Vengance [Chinjeolhan Geumjassi] (Chan-wook Park, 2005)

The Matrix (The Wachowski Brothers, 1999)

The Matrix: Reloaded (The Wachowski Brothers, 2003)

The Matrix: Revolutions (The Wachowski Brothers, 2003)

Manga

Kurata, H. Yamada, S. (2000 – present) Read or Die. Tokyo: Shueisha.

Shirow, M. (1989 – 1991) Ghost in the Shell. Tokyo: Kodansha.

References

Azuma, H. (2001). Superflat Japanese modernity, Retrieved [August, 01, 2007] from<http://www.hirokiazuma.com/en/texts/superflat_en1.html>

Gibson, W. (1981) Burning Chrome. London: Voyager.

Iwabuchi, K. (2002). Recentring globalisation: Popular culture and Japanese transnationalism. London: Duke University Press.

Iwabuchi, K. (2004). How Japanese is Pokémon?. In J. Tobin (Ed.), Pikachu’s global adventure: The rise and fall of Pokemon. London: Duke University Press. pp. 53-79.

Jensen, M. B. (2000) The Making of Modern Japan. London: Harvard.

Krzywinska, T. (2005) ‘Demon Girl Power: Regimes of Form and Force in videogames Primal and Buffy the Vampire Slayer’, New Femininities Seminar Series, London, 9th

December.

Kurokawa, K. (1991) Intercultural Architecture: The Philosophy of Symbiosis. Aia Press.

Kurokawa, K. (1997) Each One A Hero: The Philosophy of Symbiosis. London: Kodansha International.

Schubart, R. (2007) Super Bitches and Action Babes. London: MacFarland & Company, Inc.

 

Bio:

David Surman is an artist and designer, based in Melbourne, Australia after migrating from the UK. Over the past 10 years he has worked in many different creative environments, and he is currently creative director and co-founder of Pachinko Pictures, an award-winning boutique design studio based in Melbourne. David has also pursued a career as a scholar and teacher, which has given him many more opportunities and challenges. He developed a pioneering degree programme in games design at Newport School of Art (University of Wales), which focused on the principles and processes of art and design for games; and was Lecturer in Multimedia Design at Swinburne University of Technology. David is currently completing a PhD in videogame aesthetics at Brunel University, and holds a Masters in Film and Television from Warwick University and a Bachelors in Animation from the Newport School of Art, Media and Design.