Everything in this World is Artificial: Media Contagion, Theme Parks and the Ring Franchise – Jessica Balanzategui

The Ring Franchise

Figure 1. Publicity poster for Sadako 3D (2012)

Figure 1. Publicity poster for Sadako 3D (2012).

The circuits of transnational production sparked by Ringu (Hideo Nakata, 1998)[1] — which remains Japan’s most commercially successful domestic horror film ever released — are polyvalent and anfractuous, constituted of almost unprecedented levels of cross-cultural exchange, regeneration, and diversification across multiple mediums and platforms.  The Ring films[2] have become such a powerful cultural phenomenon that a varied range of insightful criticism about them exists[3], most of which concentrates on the first Japanese film and the equally influential American remake, The Ring (Gore Verbinski, 2002).[4] Yet considering that the Ring texts’ mythos of an uncontainable transmedia virus increasingly extends beyond the fictional diegesis to underpin the real life mechanics of the franchise, I suggest that their evocation of contagious transmediation has not yet been adequately examined. This is hardly surprising considering that the extent to which this contagion would creep into the real could barely be appreciated until recently: the newest film additions to the Ring franchise, Sadako 3D[5] and Sadako 3D 2[6] (Tsutomu Hanabusa, 2012 and 2013), have been surrounded by a swirl of visceral and engaging promotional texts which destabilise the traditional dichotomy between the films as ‘main events’ and the secondary media that promote them. Considered instead as a multiplicitous array of texts offering variegated modes of embodied participation and engagement, I suggest that in Japan the recent additions to the Ring franchise (subsequently referred to collectively as ‘Ring’) have augmented trans- and cross-media mechanics to such an extent that Ring is becoming less a film franchise and more like a disembodied theme park. Just as the thematic locus of the Ring series is a monstrous eruption through media boundaries, the film series that is Ring increasingly mutates and extends its tendrils beyond the cinematic frame.

Partly as a result of this intense media saturation in Japan, the basic narrative framework underlying the Ring franchise has reached the status of almost universally recognizable cultural fairy tale.[7]  The mythemic nucleus of Ring’s plot —which remains in some form across the vast web of Ring texts — is that a young girl with vague supernatural powers (called Sadako in the Japanese versions) is brutally murdered after being thrown down a well and left to die.  Her vengeance festers while her spirit remains trapped in the well, and she uses her psychic powers to implant her thoughts, a series of surreal images which eerily undermine any conception of narrative coherence, onto a videotape or another optical media apparatus. When her images are viewed, the spectator becomes ‘infected’ by them and is doomed to die within a week unless they copy and pass them on. The culmination of Sadako’s curse involves her eruption through the screen on which her image appears, killing the reluctant spectator. Ultimately, the anxieties projected by Ring constellate around the capacity of mediated images for uncontainable, contagious proliferation, and the resultant threat that media technologies may infect and overcome the human subject.

Figure 2. Sadako emerges from the television. Ringu (1998).

Figure 2. Sadako emerges from the television. Ringu (1998).

 

Tracing the movements of the Ring texts demonstrates that, in parallel to the thematic core of the Ring universe itself, the franchise has propagated like an infectious virus: constructing linear models of progress from originals to remakes and reboots is largely a fruitless task.  A brief outline of the emergence of the franchise at the turn of the millennium in Japan illustrates this condition. The first film Ringu was based on the bestselling novel Ring (1991) by Koji Suzuki, who is commonly known as the “Japanese Stephen King” (Suzuki has also suggested that he was inspired by Poltergeist (Tobe Hooper, 1982)[8]). While the movement from Suzuki’s book to Nakata’s wildly successful film has been much discussed, elided in current discourse on the Ring franchise is the fact that Nakata and his screenwriter Hiroshi Takahashi were also informed by a made-for-television movie version of Suzuki’s novel titled Ring: Kanzenban (Ring: The Complete Edition, Fuji Television, 1995).[9] A sequel to Ringu was produced concurrently with Nakata’s film featuring the same cast, but with a different crew: Rasen (Spiral, 1998), directed by Jôji Iida, who also wrote the screenplay for Kanzenban. This film, which closely followed the plot of Suzuki’s book sequel of the same name, performed poorly at the box office in comparison to smash hit Ringu, so the production company, Omega Project, rapidly developed a new sequel which deviated from the plot of Suzuki’s books, Ringu 2 (Nakata, 1999), which was a moderate success.

The same year, another television series was produced by Fuji, Ringu: Saishûshô (Ring: The Final Chapter – like the previous “Complete Edition”, a rather ironic title). The series consisted of twelve hour long episodes, and would be followed by a second, ‘sequel’ series (which in fact diverged greatly from the first), Rasen, constituted of thirteen hour long episodes. In 2000, a prequel to Nakata’s Ringu was released, Ringu 0: Bāsudei (Birthday, Norio Tsuruta, 2000), a year which also saw the release of two Ring videogames, The Ring: Terror’s Realm (Asmik Ace Entertainment) for the Sega Dreamcast and Ring: Infinity (Kadakowa Shorten) for the Bandai WonderSwan, a Japanese handheld gaming deviceIn parallel to this vast array of texts, multiple manga volumes have been produced (eleven to date), all of which both re-imagine and extend Ringu’s story to varying degrees. Suzuki also continues to add new additions to his Ring series, which currently is constituted of three novels and one collection of short stories. Suzuki’s subsequent books have been strongly influenced by the myriad of other texts ‘based’ on his original novel. There has also been a Korean remake of Ringu, The Ring Virus (Dong-bin Kim, 1999). In addition, the aforementioned American remake, The Ring, was successful both with critics and at the box office, and spawned a sequel directed by Ringu’s Nakata (The Ring Two, 2005). The focus of this essay, Sadako 3D[10], has been termed a reboot in English language media coverage, but it in fact stems from the story of the first three films, while building on the 1999 television series Ring: The Final Chapter and Suzuki’s Ring sequels Loop (1999) and S (2012, as yet unpublished in English).

Clearly, the Ring franchise is an unruly beast, extending into a multiplicity of rhizomatic mutations which distort the boundaries between specific mediums and narrative worlds. In fact, as both Chika Kinoshita and Thy Phu have pointed out, the term “J-horror”, used transnationally to denote “Japanese horror”, does not necessarily signify a nationalized film genre, but, to use Kinoshita’s term, more of a “movement.”[11] As Phu observes “the prefix [J] functions as a floating signifier aptly capturing the relative fluidity with which these films [and, I would add, non-filmic texts] circulate….The term anticipates and allows for its adaptability.”[12] While the Ring franchise undoubtedly represents a constellation of both trans- and cross-media texts in functional terms, it in turn unsettles clear delineations between these two categories, and in fact the chaotic transgression of media boundaries is central to both the aesthetics and uncanny affects of the franchise.

In fact, this disruption of the borders between texts, screens and mediums and the underpinning disturbance of the distinction between ‘real life’ and ‘mediated artificiality’ ultimately overpowers (or perhaps defies the possibility of) any hermetic notion of narrative coherence across the franchise. In this sense transmedia contagion — conceived as a mutation between platforms as opposed to a coherent cross-media retelling or extension of narrative — has become the ideo-aesthetic core of the franchise, and is not just an extra-diegetic condition of its delivery.  This contagion occurs because Sadako functions as a transmediated being who infects the real. Her viral curse reduces humanity and technology to the same function by using both as vessels for the proliferation of her image, which in turn works to fuse audiences into this monstrous incarnation of a transmedia universe. In so doing, Sadako also embodies a collapse in the boundaries between reality and its signification, exposing what Jean Baudrillard refers to as the “tactical hallucination”[13] involved in maintaining outmoded dichotomies between authenticity and artifice, signifier and signified in a simulacral, postmodern society.

While Ring extends beyond national boundaries as a result of both the transnational success of the original Japanese film and through subsequent remakes in the US and Korea, this article narrows its focus to the Japanese Ring tradition because it is within the context of its cultural homeland that the franchise has been the most enduring and influential. I suggest that this is largely because the franchise works through particular anxieties about the over-determined relationship between national progress, technology and cultural authenticity in Japan. In particular, this article explores the ways in which the Ring franchise increasingly expresses anxieties surrounding the theme park — an important symbol of troubled progress in Japan.

FIgure 3. On of the screen crawling shots of Sadako from Ringu (2012)

Figure 3. One of the screen crawling shots of Sadako from Ringu (1998).

The Ring Sensorium

The Ring texts have always implicated audiences in the horror of their fictional universes: they imply that as a result of being subjected to Sadako’s cursed video in the process of watching the film, the viewer, mirroring the on-screen victims, has become infected by Sadako’s curse. Thus, a central component of the mythos is a monstrous form of transmediation in which the human viewer becomes just another machinic conduit for Sadako’s image. As Anthony Enns states: “Ringu takes the logic of the mind-machine interface [to extremes] by suggesting that … processes of psychic transference can actually work in both directions: [Sadako’s] mind is certainly capable of transmitting and storing images directly onto optical media, but such stored images can also imprint themselves onto the perceiver’s psychic apparatus.”[14] That Sadako’s cursed images extra-diegetically infect the viewer’s mind is invoked with further potency by the conceit that Sadako has the ability to erupt through the screen which projects her image and enter the real space of the spectator. Such a mechanism impels the spectator to become a participant within the narrative, instead of an observer outside of the on-screen universe.

I suggest that this visceral mode of ‘spectatorship’[15] can be explicated through the lens of Angela Ndalianis’ “horror sensorium”, a concept which illuminates the “kind of experiences the senses mediate and give meaning to in our encounter with contemporary horror cinema.”[16] Ndalianis’ sensorium denotes the indissoluble fusion of cognition, emotion and sensation involved in audience engagement with horror films. Thus, the sensorium provides a model for the relations between film and audience which allows consideration of the deep entwining of the cognitive and the visceral that constitutes the Ring franchise’s mechanics. The texts under discussion foreground and revolve around the manner by which they interface with audiences, accentuating our conscious acknowledgement of the space where “the medium and the human body collide.”[17] This visceral collision of medium and body in turn enunciates the collapsing together of mediated images/corporeality and artificial signs/reality that underpins the increasingly theme park-esque dynamics of the franchise. In addition, as will be shown, the Ring franchise employs theme park aesthetics to express deep cultural anxieties associated with national progress in Japan. The analytical framework provided by the sensorium helps to uncover how the Ring franchise’s mediation on complicated cultural tensions is intertwined with the texts’ aesthetics and visceral affects, and not by any means separate from them.

In compliment to Ndalianis’ concept of the horror sensorium, I will draw on insights garnered from Scott Lukas’ astute analysis of the theme park and its increasingly ubiquitous position within contemporary culture — the effects of which I suggest are particularly prominent within the Japanese cultural consciousness. In parallel, I refer to the anxieties raised in particular by Baudrillard about the theme park as the apex of simulacral illusion, a space which fosters the misapprehension that in our contemporary hyperreal society there remains a clear distinction between signs and reality. The presence of the theme park is not only increasingly rendered in the Ring franchise through the visceral affects of the films (which are in themselves ever drawing closer to theme park attractions), but because the anxieties raised by Sadako and her media-proliferated virus echo those surrounding the sinister invasion of the theme park space into the very core of reality. As Lukas explains, critics from Alan Bryman to Baudrillard “are concerned that [the] movement of the theme park form [from an enclosed space to a cultural mode] will result in a loss of the authenticity of life. Like a virus, a terrorist or a moral panic, the theme park threatens everyday life itself.”[18] Anxieties constellating around the theme park thus parallel those central to the Ring: that media technologies have staged an insidious take-over of the real.

The Ring media enact this invasion by impelling audiences to interact with Sadako’s universe and the tensions it expresses in participatory and embodied ways. As Jackson observes of the first film, “the viewer’s feeling that she, too, may have been “infected” by the film’s images situates the horror of the experience in the body. This disallows the purging experience that the horror movie . . . could provide, and instead leaves an anxious trace behind it.”[19] In the last few years in particular, the Ring franchise has started to play with this distortion between mediated artificiality and reality by extending Sadako’s reach into the physical world via theme park-like spectacles, attractions and events which insist on the primacy of embodied participation rather than passive ‘viewing’.

For instance, to promote the release of Sadako 3D, a walk-through maze attraction was established at the indoor theme park Sega Joypolis in Tokyo — a tradition which has been in place since the release of Ringu, ensuring that Ring has had a near constant presence at Joypolis for over a decade. The maze reproduced the narrative of the film in micro-form, placing participants ‘inside’ Sadako’s world by echoing the media hybridity of theme park attractions, layering brief clips from the film with simple audio-visual effects and a real life ‘tour guide’, playing the part of a computer technician, who mediated the participants’ interface with the attraction. He led us through different rooms featuring computer and television screens which reacted to our presence in mysterious ways. Predictably, the final room contained a mossy well. Throughout the attraction, “Sadako” (a person in costume) would emerge from unexpected spaces in each room and stagger towards us, and the experience culminated with her chasing us out of the attraction.

Also in conjunction with Sadako 3D, on the main street in Tokyo’s Shibuya (in fact, at the world’s busiest intersection, Shibuya crossing) a “Sadako parade” was held, in which fifty “Sadakos” (people dressed as Sadako-emerging-through-the-screen) marched up and down the street, interacting with spectators. The parade culminated in a large float, akin to those featured in theme park character parades, featuring a giant Sadako dragging herself through a screen and reaching out towards onlookers. Sadako also became a part of the pre-game entertainment at a major baseball game at Tokyo Dome, throwing the first pitch, as seen in the video below.[20]


Sadako throws the first pitch, Tokyo Dome, 2012

Figure 1: Sadako 3D Parade at Shibuya Crossing, images from Japanator.com, 2012.

Figure 4. Sadako 3D Parade, japanator.com, 2012.

This trend of the theme park-like attraction or spectacle began early in the franchise with ‘pranks’ on Japanese television programs (such as the video below, which aptly went viral on youtube), in which “Sadako” physically emerges from some space ‘behind’ the television screen at the climactic moment in the film. This constitutes a fourfold layering of spectatorship — viewers of such pranks watch people watch Ringu, who are in turn watching fictional character Ryuji watch Sadako’s monstrous emergence from the television screen. Such mise-en-abyme mirrors the stacking up of media experiences and layers of engagement central to the theme park. Pranks like this one encourage a form of active, playful spectatorship, in which we enjoy the vicarious thrill involved in watching others in modes of extreme sensorial engagement.


Japanese Pop Group ‘Morning Musume’ fall prey to a Sadako prank.

The experience of watching others screaming out of terrified delight on rollercoasters and similar thrill rides is sewed into the spatial and experiential geography of the theme park. Thus like the Ring franchise, theme parks revolve around a temporally plural mode of spectatorship, fostering anticipation, and perhaps exhilarating dread, for our own future engagement with thrill rides, and also re-invoking our experience from the recent past. Such theme park-esque incitement of the sensorium deepens the implication in Ring that our fusion with optical media is disruptive to our own subjective wholeness, placing the human body frighteningly at the mercy of media technologies even as we willingly conflate and engage with them. At the core of many theme park rides is the thrilling realization that we are placing our comparatively fragile bodies under the control of formidable machines, which draw us to the extreme limits of sensorial engagement; we are rendered powerless when fused to such machines, before being thrust into a realm of exhilarating simulated danger.

The aesthetics that have come to dominate the Ring franchise in recent years thus allow a playful engagement with the hybridization and layering of different mediums, technologies and experiences that similarly constitute the theme park. Ndalianis explains that:

contemporary horror is marked by an excess of self-referentiality and remediation that is as multifarious as the conglomerate structure that produces it. It gives rise to a hybrid logic that has significant ramifications for genres and the critical models used to analyse them and, in the case of the theme park attractions, this is all the more so because of the excess media hybridity.[21]

As the Ring franchise develops beyond the first decade of the new millennium, the play on this media hybridity and transgression between boundaries of technologically-mediated artificial world and the ‘real’ has become central to its mechanics — exceeding any specific focus on character or narrative. The locus of Sadako’s monstrosity is in fact her inscrutable lack of a subjective core, leaving it impossible for audiences to discern where she is placed on the human-machine continuum. Yet as well as being central to her eerie affects, this lack of a coherent character paradoxically ensures  that Sadako can be a very adaptable media darling, as her image is rendered endlessly re-locatable across Japanese media. For instance, Sadako recently appeared as “Hello Kitty” in Sanrio’s Sadako 3D—Hello Kitty tie-in, which featured stickers, mugs, and notebooks available for purchase at film-screenings and at the Joypolis park. Evidently, Sadako’s inescapable hybridity and penchant for disseminating her cursed image across multiple mediums has far exceeded the confines of a unitary fictional narrative.

Figure 2: Sadako 3D and Hello Kitty tie-in, images from alafista.com, 2013.

Figure 5. Sadako 3D/Hello Kitty tie-in, alafista.com, 2013.

Lost Decades and Cursed VHS Tapes: Sadako and the Collapse of Technological Progress

Sadako’s indiscriminate incursion of Japanese media texts, and the comingling of fear and playfulness that underlies it, relates to her resonant embodiment of the collapse of secure narratives of technological progress in Japan.  Technology has been central to Japan’s hyper-accelerated transition to modernity since the Meiji Restoration of 1868 – 1912, a rapid socio-cultural shift undergirded by what Susan Napier refers to as “highly conscious ideology of national progress”[22]: in pursuit of global agency after opening to Western trade, Japan’s feudal structure was replaced with a market economy and the country underwent a rapid process of industrialization. From the Meiji period onwards, fixations on futurity became mediated through the sparkling horizons promised by technological advances. Following Japan’s traumatic defeat in World War II and the subsequent Allied Occupation (1945-1952), this fixation with progress was resurrected with deepened exigency and impetus, albeit set along new axes: the quest for progress became anxiously determined as the means by which Japan could overcome its victim status and reconfigure a sense of national identity.

Yet even before the War, beneath preoccupations with national progress lurked a series of tensions. The ambivalence is summed up in the saying wakon-yosai (Japanese spirit, Western technology), which became something of a mantra pre-war, but continues to characterise Japanese attitudes towards technology. From the time of the Meiji Restoration onwards the quest for modernity, while overtly successful, was underpinned by an unstable series of dichotomies. As Kevin Doak elucidates, “modernity was defined in a variety of ways (and therefore tended toward obscurity): at times it represented a foreign influence — the West; at other times it referred to the Meiji state and its ideology of ‘civilization and enlightenment.’”[23] Narratives of rapid technological progress attempted to reconcile this discordant constellation of principles, and in some ways served to uneasily suppress them.

Throughout the Meiji period strong emphasis was placed on ‘catching up’ with the West through technological and industrial development, and in some cases this process included the conscious disavowal of ancient Japanese traditions.  Both Gerald Figal[24] and Ramie Tateishi suggest that one of the most prominent reforms of the Meiji education system was Tetsujiro Inoue’s discourse on “monsterology”, which emerged in the late 1890s and attempted to eliminate any reference to supernatural folklore in favour of a more ‘rational’, Western-style ideology. As Tateishi explains, “coded as illogical and chaotic, and thus antithetical to the project of modernisation, such elements were targeted as the embodiments of those qualities that needed to be eliminated in the name of progress.”[25] ‘National progress’ became even more anxiously determined after the War: a condition of the Allied Occupation was that Japan must abandon important tenets of its traditional culture, such as the sacred power of the Emperor and state Shinto, enforcing the wholesale re-modelling of Japanese cultural identity. The resolute quest for rapid economic and technological progress once again became the way in which the Japanese negotiated this cultural upheaval.

Japan’s extremely rapid, and, under the circumstances, rather astonishing economic and technological progress following WWII has long been held up as an example to be emulated and respected, and promptly became central to the rebuilding of the nation’s sense of pride in overcoming traumatic defeat. In fact Napier suggests that “post-war Japan has become something of a myth if not a full-blown fantasy.”[26] Yet despite being  extremely successful, this was an investment in technological progress that was always to be somewhat fraught, especially considering the uneasy repression of Japan’s pre-modern past that became a necessary (and at the time of the Occupation, enforced) side-effect of this progress.

As galvanized by the postwar constitution imposed on Japan — which includes a provision that Japan must forever renounce war and global conflict — much of the emphasis of Japan’s post-war economic advancement was placed upon leisure technologies, which rapidly became central to the way in which the nation projected its image both domestically and globally.  At the pinnacle of Japan’s rapid economic progress from the 1970s to the late 1980s, one such technology was the VHS video tape — the eerie conduit for Sadako’s curse in Ringu — invented by the (at that time) independent Victor Company of Japan.  As Phu explains, the VHS tape sealed in “its victories with competing developments such as Betamax, the laserdisc and electronic disc, Japan’s much envied stature as a technological superpower” and became associated with the “dominance of a ‘national’ innovation.”[27] VHS was the unlikely success story of an independent Japanese company which won the hard fought battle for technological domination of the home entertainment sector at that time.

At the time of Ringu’s domestic release in late 1998, VHS was still ubiquitous, but the DVD had been introduced in America only a year before; subsequently, VHS was faced with a swift obsolescence. By the time Ringu and its sequels were marketed heavily overseas by DreamWorks and Universal Studios in the early to mid-2000s (particularly with the release of the box-set Ringu Anthology of Terror in 2005), the films were largely released on DVD. The aesthetics of Sadako’s curse amplify the temporal lag and liminality underlying the Ring franchise’s global emergence at the fold between analogue and digital video storage. Sadako’s VHS curse is presented entirely in grainy black and white, consisting of images constructed using frontal lighting which produces an extremely flat and thin spatial aesthetic, recalling the frontal lighting and resultant flattened aesthetics of very early Japanese film (which was in turn mimetic of Kabuki theatre).[28]  Sadako’s tattered long white gown and angular movements are evocative of even more distant pasts: emerging as she does from a well in a forest clearing, Sadako appears like one of the vengeful female ghosts of pre-modern Kabuki, Noh and ukiyo-e (woodblock prints) centred on kaidan, or ancient ghost folklore.  Thus at the brink of the millennial turn, Sadako, a monstrous remnant of both prior stages of technological development and Japan’s ‘chaotic’ spiritual past, infected a device which symbolized Japanese technological supremacy at the very moment when it was tipped to be overcome by the new, ‘purer’ digital technology.[29]

Enhancing this eerie sense of the past reinstating itself in a disturbance of technological progress, Ringu was released in the midst of the collapse of Japan’s bubble economy. This sudden breakdown in economic progress proved extremely hard to overcome, and the period of economic stagnation from the mid-1990s into the new millennium became known as the “lost decade.”[30] As indicated by the terminology, the lost decade figured a sweeping ideological rupture to narratives of unbridled national progress — a phenomenon that had not occurred on such a scale since WWII. As Fletcher and von Staden elucidate, “the experience of the lost decade has been traumatic for Japan ….Observers no longer claimed that Japan was ‘number one’…. [T]he effects of the economic stagnation linger as the nation has not found a way out of its economic purgatory of slow growth over the past two decades.”[31]  Emerging as it did in this milieu of collapsed progress, Ringu’s raising of a pre-modern spectre who possesses supposedly ‘current’ VHS technology just as it was faced with impending obsolescence — harnessing this technology to project images redolent of the earliest stages of Japanese film history — held a disruptively asynchronous power.

Despite the fact that VHS is now obsolete, the VHS tape curse of the original film remains deeply uncanny in its raising of a premature, but seemingly prescient, ‘analogue nostalgia’ for the fitful, grainy qualities of the VHS. In fact, even in 1998, Nakata consciously endeavoured to enhance the imperfection of the analogue image by passing it through a computer and applying a special effect to enhance the washed-out, snowy quality.  It is as if the unruly, repressed elements of Japan’s cultural history are rendered by the snowy aesthetic of Sadako’s cursed tape. In fact audio-visual static heralds Sadako’s imminent appearance in Ringu, while posing a threat to the protagonists by obscuring the already enigmatic images and audio contained on the tape — images that the characters are tasked with decoding in their attempts to ‘solve’ the mysteries of Sadako’s curse. These efforts to penetrate the static and decipher the cursed video are ultimately doomed, because Sadako’s curse is buttressed not by humanistic reason but by her mechanistic impulse to reproduce and disseminate the grainy images. Sadako’s curse, it seems, works to deconstruct linear models of progress, reducing coherent images of national identity into a meaningless swarm of seething pixels.

Sadako’s Cursed Video, Ringu, 1998

[Abandoned] Theme Parks

As the Ring franchise develops and the VHS tape becomes increasingly culturally extraneous, the franchise has gradually ungrounded its ties to any one particular technology by instead adopting the mechanics of the theme park: less a singular media technology than a technologically-mediated realm, in both a physical and immaterial sense. As Lukas suggests, “as architectural objects theme parks are solidified forms, but as imaginative objects they are ephemeral, gaseous, rhizomatic”[32], and Baudrillard, using Disneyland as a metonym, suggests that the theme park “is a perfect model of all entangled orders of simulation.”[33]  In this realm, as in the Ring universe, humans willingly become sutured into an asymmetrical relationship with a dizzying array of mediated images and machines. Unlike the VHS tape, the theme park remains culturally relevant not only through the wispy tendrils of nostalgia for something lost— although in many ways, as will be shown, the Japanese theme park is also steeped in a nostalgia for the past rendered unsettling — but as a prominent spatial and cultural presence in Japan. Like Sadako herself, the theme park is a domain which mutates in accordance with technological developments, yet at the same time draws attention to the constructed-ness of teleological, linear models of progress.

In his discussion of Disneyland, Umberto Eco contends that the theme park represents a space in which “absolute unreality is offered as real presence”[34] as the artificial sign unashamedly lays itself bare as the real thing. For this reason, Eco describes the theme park as the “Absolute Fake” borne “of the unhappy awareness of a present without depth.”[35] Contemporary Japan can be considered as such a depthless present, characterized by the falling away of the master-narrative of technological progress which had previously buttressed conceptions of cultural identity, a future-fixated model which also reconciled the concomitant displacement of traditional cultural modes inherent in Japan’s shift to modernity. In fact, anxieties about the loss of cultural authenticity had seethed beneath this model of progress from the earliest decades of the 20th century, yet are disconcertingly exposed in the wake of the lost decade. As Tetsuo Najita explains, writing soon before the collapse of the economy, since the Meiji Restoration “technology as a system of knowledge and production belonged to the Western Other, and had been directly imported into the native historical stream rendering much of that history artificial.”[36]  Especially when considered alongside the spectre of the abandoned theme park — a ubiquitous and eerie presence throughout Japan — the theme park can be seen as a receptacle for the anxieties surrounding technological progress and cultural authenticity which have come to haunt contemporary Japan.

The theme park amalgamates all of the ambivalence surrounding the wakon-yosai formulation writ large and in feverishly neo-baroque form.[37]  Spaces akin to early amusement parks, such as America’s Coney Island, began to emerge in Japan in direct coincidence with the opening of Japan for Western trade in the final years of the Edo period. The first, Hanayashiki Amusement park in Asakusa, Tokyo, was opened in 1853, soon after the arrival of Matthew Perry’s US Naval fleet. It was first designed as an attractive commodification of traditional Japanese customs and to showcase Japan’s natural beauty to the Western interlopers: Hanayashiki means “flower viewing place.” Yet during the Meiji period, it gradually transformed into something of an exhibition space for ever more advanced attractions and rides, extravagantly expanding on ideas borrowed from the West, such as the Ferris Wheel and the roller coaster. Hanayashiki is still in existence, and throughout its over 160 year life span increasingly advanced rides and attractions have been stacked into what is quite a tiny space. Baudrillard suggests that “when the real is no longer what it used to be, nostalgia assumes its full meaning,”[38] as the simulated reconstruction of the past — a tangible yet artificial (re)construction of “pastness” — comes to stand in for the past itself. He suggests that nostalgic images of “pastness” become anxiously over-determined in post-modern, simulacral societies because “our entire linear and accumulative culture would collapse if we could not stockpile the past in plain view.”[39] Evidently Hanayashiki plays such a cultural function, attempting to conceal the cultural hollowness of the present by frantically amassing remnants of a lost past even as it projects a narrative of continual progress.

Figure 3: Hanayashiki Amuseument Park in Asakusa, Tokyo. Image by Tallon4.com, 2013

Figure 6. Hanayashiki Amusement Park in Asakusa, Tokyo, Tallon4.com, 2013.

The maintenance of the past’s visibility is a particularly important yet precarious exercise in Japan, for, as the example of Hanayashiki demonstrates, narratives of Japanese cultural identity attempt to balance an ideology of rapid national progress — both an import of and reaction to Western cultural imperialism —with traditional Japanese customs. At Hanayashiki, the spectres of the park’s historical purpose as a flower viewing garden remain in simulated form: at the centre of the park is an artificial mountain which contains a flower viewing area, and there is also a man-made lake surrounded by kitschy incarnations of traditional Japanese shrines and artefacts. Even the entrance ticket visualises the park’s existence as thread to the past, depicting a faded, black-and-white image of the park as it was in the 1850s bordered by a technicoloured, neo-baroque frame which stands in for the frenetic Hanayashiki of the present. The park ultimately crumbles any distinction between ‘authentic’ cultural history and the artificial reconstruction of it in the present: the convoluted space presents a disorienting simulacral archaeology of national progress. Notably, Hanayashiki makes a brief appearance in failed Ringu sequel Rasen, reflected as an eerie space in which protagonist Ando engages in a moment of haunted nostalgia for his dead son, the memory of the dead child and the retro theme park united in their evocation of troubled progress.

While Hanayashiki has been active since 1853, many Japanese theme parks have in fact had a strangely transitory existence. Throughout the period of Japan’s immense economic strength from the late 1970s to the late 1980s, a great number of theme parks were built all over the country. Theodore Gilman explains that “theme parks were a popular economic development tool in the 1980s in Japan, and the spread of these facilities to the most rural regions is due entirely to policy diffusion supported by both local and national governments.”[40] These spaces have often been held up as peculiar incarnations of the wakon-yosai formulation due to their specific themes, many of which offer warped simulacra of Western cultural modes or spaces. Such parks have included Gulliver’s Kingdom (a space at the base of Mount Fuji which incarnated the world of Gulliver’s Travels), Western Village (a Wild West park in Tochigi, complete with animatronic cowboys and a miniature Mount Rushmore), and Nara Dreamland, a Nara park modelled on Disneyland (yet without the necessary copyright permissions), complete with a magic castle and spatially identical main street.  With the sudden bursting of the economic bubble and subsequent economic downturn of the late 1990s which continues to loom over contemporary Japan, many of these extravagant theme parks have been forced to close down.

Without the economic support to either sustain or completely remove them, there are now many abandoned theme parks dotted around Japan in various states of disrepair, including each of those listed above. While many of them have been vandalised or damaged extensively (which, in the case of Gulliver’s Kingdom did eventually lead to the removal of most of the larger structures), some sit largely intact on the edges of cities concealed beneath overgrowth and rust, or in the case of Nara Dreamland, locked up and patrolled by a single security guard. The decaying remnants of such parks, which were nostalgic for imaginary pasts even in their prime, are eerie incarnations of nostalgia at the interface between the personal and the cultural, representing times of joy and sanguinity both within the personal lives of many Japanese and as a cultural symbol of the boom period of the 1970s and 1980s. The utopian models of the theme park have thus broken down in these spaces; representative of a feverish optimism that is now overcome by melancholic silence, inertia and decay, these ex-parks linger as spectres of the period of rapid economic growth and technological development that has since been lost, while embodying the present economic stagnation.

Figure 4: Robotic John Wayne at the abandoned “Western Village” in Tochigi, and the derelict “Gulliver’s Kingdom”, which was demolished in 2007, at the base of Mount Fuji. ‘John Wayne’ image by Michael Grist, MichaelJohnGrist.com, and ‘Gulliver’ image by Old Creeper, https://www.flickr.com/photos/mutantmandias/334922922/sizes/o/

Figure 7. Robotic John Wayne at the abandoned “Western Village” in Tochigi, MichaelGrist.com, 2013. “Gulliver’s Kingdom” at the base of Mount Fuji, weburbanist.com, 2011.

While the abandoned theme park retains a haunting presence within Japan’s socio-cultural and physical landscape, the few major theme parks which have withstood the lost decade and attained some level of permanence are prominent components of contemporary Japanese culture. The Japanese version of Universal Studios is the most lucrative tourist attraction in Osaka, while Tokyo is home to a number of hugely popular theme parks: Tokyo Disneyland was the first Disney park to be built outside of the US and has long been the third most visited theme park in the world behind the Magic Kingdom in Florida and Disneyland in California, while the nearby Tokyo DisneySea is the fourth most visited.[41] Tokyo is also home to Fuji-Q Highland at the base of Mount Fuji, which recalls Hanayashiki in its harnessing of Japan’s environmental iconography to create a technologically mediated, tourist friendly fantasy space.

Figure 5: Abandoned Nara Dreamland.1st image by Ralph Mirebs, ralphmierbs.livejournal.com, 2nd by Bram Dauw, konbini.com

Figure 8. Abandoned Nara Dreamland, ralphmirebs.livejournal.com/konbini.com, 2013.

The dialogic relationship between the active and the abandoned theme park — the former representing the successful continuation of the national narrative while the latter signifies its dark underside and failure — invokes on a grand scale the aesthetic of distorted progress previously outlined as a condition of Sadako’s cursed videotape. This mechanism is particularly potent when considering the extent to which theme park aesthetics seep into the Japanese every day. Baudrillard suggests that in an American context:

Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, when in fact …America [is] no longer real, but of the order of the hyperreal and of simulation. It is no longer a question of a false representation of reality… but of concealing the fact that the real is no longer real, and thus of saving the reality principle.[42]

However in Japan, it seems that acknowledgement of the hyperreal register of society can barely be suppressed any longer, so ubiquitous are processes of imitation and simulation: as Donald Richie quips, “looking at Tokyo one …wonders why the Japanese went to all the trouble of franchising a Disneyland in the suburbs when the capital itself is so superior a version.”[43] Theme park aesthetics have found their way into the very core of everyday architecture and practices — from elaborate themed shopping malls (such as Odaiba’s “Venus Fort”, styled after 17th century Venice), restaurants (like the “Robot Restaurant” in Shinjuku) and Love Hotels (for instance the Jurassic Park themed “Hotel Jzauruss” in Beppu), down to the ubiquitous plastic food models which stand in for menus in the shopfronts of many Japanese restaurants. Even city main streets, such as Dotonbori in Osaka, adopt the conditions and aesthetics of a theme park: in addition to a giant Ferris Wheel, Dotonbori’s defining signifier is its huge animatronic crab, and it is a frenzy of lights, sounds, screens and hyperbolic performative architecture.  Thus in Japan, the borders between the overtly hyperreal zone of the theme park and ‘reality’ are by no means clear or fixed, suggesting that the ‘reality principle’ Baudrillard refers to has long been unstable in Japanese culture.

Figure 6: Dotonbori, Osaka – City Main Street as Theme Park. Images by JKT-c, cecilleephotography.com and dreamstime.com, 2013

Figure 9. Dotonbori, Osaka – Main Street as Theme Park, JKT-c/cecilleephotography.com/dreamstime.com, 2013.

Sadako 3D

Drawing on Baudrillard’s concern that the theme park space undermines the dichotomy between reality and hyperreality even as it seems to reinforce it, Lukas explains that “the performance of architecture … is based on a definitive crime against reality”[44] as imagined fantasy features indistinguishably intermingle with those imitating ‘real’ buildings or places, destabilizing attempts to locate a reference point based in reality.  This process is akin to what Baudrillard refers to as “the murderous capacity of images” [45], the ‘perfect crime’ in which the artificial murders the real without the perpetrators or the ‘corpse’ of the real ever being traced. Baudrillard characterises this condition as the third-order of simulation, as we exist in the realm of hyperreality while deluding ourselves of its solidity and reality.[46] The suggestion here is that the real has been replaced by simulations before we were even aware that it was missing: a mechanism which characterizes Sadako herself. In fact, the threat that reality has already long disappeared even as the characters strive to maintain a ‘real’ existence forms the underlying core of Sadako 3D: the film enacts the failure of the reality principle, as the characters come to the uncanny realization that they exist within an endless realm of artificial simulations which cannot be distinguished from ‘originals’.  A minor character in the film twice repeats the rhetorical suggestion, “Isn’t everything in this world artificial?”; long gone are the days when Sadako’s mediated realm was contained within the cavity of a videotape.

The film depicts in carnivalesque form the revelation that while Sadako may have once been limited to the TV screen in your living room, now that screens, signs and images have become ubiquitous in the contemporary theme park of Japan, nowhere is safe. Throughout the development of the franchise Sadako has displayed an adept litheness in response to technological change, shifting her curse from video tapes to cameras, floppy disks and computers, and in Sadako 3D she infects the internet, a pervasive presence in Japan. In so doing, Sadako crumbles illusions of progress, as each new technological development is reduced to the same function: to relentlessly proliferate Sadako’s image. Sadako 3D further collapses the distinction between Sadako’s mediated realm and the real by suggesting that victims no longer even have to watch her video to be subject to her curse, they merely need to stumble upon one of the internet webpages where the video was once embedded, rendering the simple “404: Page Removed” error life-threatening. Multiple characters are killed after Sadako bursts through their cell phone screens, and one man is killed via his tablet screen as he waits for a bus. Towards the end of the film, a central character runs out onto the street in an attempt to escape the screens that surround him in his home, and presses his body against a truck in relief, as this comfortably tangible, quotidian object seems to reinstate the primacy of the real. Yet, unbeknownst to him, it is an ‘advertruck’ which carries a huge video billboard, and Sadako drags him beyond it. This moment of course parallels the aforementioned ‘real life’ Sadako advertruck which was driven around the streets of Shibuya to promote the film’s release.

The implication in Sadako 3D that Sadako’s virus may have already insidiously taken over the real resonates strongly with the contagious proliferation of theme park aesthetics in Japan, an anxiety that is also expressed by Sadako’s eerie lack of a coherent subjective core. Like the ring imagery which is metonymic of the franchise and evokes Sadako’s endless cycle of contagion, the Ring increasingly side-steps the need for a discernible centre, freely proliferating without extending any particular or unitary narrative thread. The horrors of this lack of a narrative core are central to the first film, Ringu. The protagonists spend the duration of the film frantically trying to solve the mystery of Sadako’s videotape in order to appease her and lift her curse, as realized through a quest to uncover the secrets of her death and locate her corpse, and to subsequently provide her with proper burial rights. Yet in the final moments the protagonists learn that this quest has proved fruitless, as Sadako does not operate according to humanistic motivations. Despite the fact that Ryuji helped to exhume Sadako’s remains from the well, she erupts through his television screen and murders him in his living room, mechanistically enacting her curse — Ryuji may have attempted to honour her memory, but he did not copy her videotape and pass it on to another. Recalling Baudrilllard’s discussion of the “murderous capacity of images”, this twist entails the uncanny realization that the corpse of the ‘real’ girl can never be found and perhaps never really existed.

Sadako 3D further extends this centre-less device, offering not a horrifying glimpse of a Japan devoid of literal referents as in Ringu, but instead plunging audiences full-throttle into the abyss. The theme park aesthetics which dominate the film — and in fact overwhelm any coherent sense of character or plot — serve to enunciate this rejection of a discernible narrative nucleus. Like the dark rides featured in theme parks (indoor roller coasters/track-based rides which combine animatronics and audio-visual effects), Sadako 3D foregrounds the visceral 3D effects over the threadbare plot[47], which, like that of a dark ride, exists only to provide the movement from one spectacle to the next. The dark ride aesthetic is crystallized during the climactic scene, when a swarm of mutated Sadakos attack the central character. That there is now a multiplicity of Sadakos as opposed to a single character embellishes on a grand scale the suggestion that she is not grounded by a discernible core, and instead represents a heterogeneous process of viral reproduction— much like the franchise as a whole. This Sadako 2.0 is rendered through a combination of puppetry, stop-motion and computer graphics: she is a towering, rust-hued creature who bears down on her victims by pivoting back and forth on inverted frog-like legs (which also resemble metal A-frames) while emitting a repetitive metallic howl. The newly imagined Sadako thus fetishizes the jerky, recurrent movements of outdated theme park animatronics and their hydraulics. That this final showdown takes place in a huge abandoned building further evokes the aesthetics of spatial and technological decay epitomized by the abandoned theme park.

Figure 7: Sadako 2.0 as abandoned theme park attraction, Sadako 3D, 2013.

Figure 10. Sadako 2.0 as abandoned theme park attraction (Sadako 3D, 2012).

The film endeavours to employ its 3D effects to thrust viewers inside Sadako’s world through a theme park-esque overload of the sensorium. The opening scene positions the audience at the bottom of the well in which Sadako died as a man peers over the edge, a claustrophobic engagement of the senses which simultaneously entails a cognitive plunge into a web of associations with prior Ring texts, an effect enhanced by the lack of explanatory preamble.  As we watch from the bottom of the well, ‘Sadako’s’ corpse plummets down towards us — inciting the sensation of free-fall — before the camera angle shifts downwards to depict the body splashing into the well’s murky water amongst a floating pile of identical looking corpses (a shot which also signals to the audience that we have been positioned in amongst this pile of bodies). Angling upwards once more, the camera rapidly ascends towards the well’s opening, inciting a sense of vertigo enhanced by the 3D effects. Much of the film is constituted of rapidly edited sequences in which Sadako reaches out through screens ‘towards’ the viewer, either via her arms or her monstrously strong hair. The protagonist, Akane, is able to scream at a pitch and volume that breaks glass, a device which facilitates numerous scenes depicting shards of glass flying ominously towards the viewer, provoking sensory, instinctual processes of fear and avoidance. In addition, Akane’s ability to smash the screen through which Sadako emerges (with inconsistent results) also works to break down the illusion of ‘screen as border’: drawing back to the film’s suggestion that “everything is artificial”, it seems that the ‘artifice’ was that we ever used the screen to make a distinction.

The threat that this all-encompassing artificiality poses to our sensorium is entangled with Sadako’s deconstruction of linear temporal structures. A number of analyses of the Ring franchise assert that Sadako’s eerie power is constellated in her evocation of post-humanity[48], yet this suggests a progressive movement from one stage of human evolution to the next. I contend instead that Sadako is uncanny in powerfully subversive ways primarily because she is asynchronous: she is at once atavistic and futuristic — as exemplified by her appearance in Sadako 3D, formed using a mix of outmoded and ‘cutting-edge’ visual effects techniques— realigning temporal stages that are diametrically opposed on a linear continuum to become a heterogeneous simultaneity.  In some ways, Sadako represents in monstrous form the “Japanese Spirit” of the wakon-yosai formulation, ensuring that the technologies that signify Japan’s over-determined relationship with ‘Westernised’ ideologies of national progress become home to an irrepressible spectre redolent of Japan’s pre-modern past. In doing so Sadako makes circularity out of progress, as each new technology becomes the vessel for the same tensions between the archaic and the post-modern, rather than functioning as a sign of national advancement.

The uncanny affects of this temporal looping reverberate throughout Sadako 3D, in ways that mirror the spatial and sensorial geography of the theme park. Lukas explains that “in many contemporary theme parks the feeling of geographic disassociation is used to create thrill in the patron and generate profits in the company.”[49] Yet after visitors have traversed the theme park, propelled by the seemingly endless array of sensory delights, “in most cases this feeling is [revealed to be] illusionary since the patron soon discovers that she has been walking in a loop.”[50] This is ultimately the rather disorienting affect of Sadako 3D, which hints at an array of plot strands before ultimately diverting from almost all of them, leaving the audience spiralling aimlessly between a range of different characters as they approach their demise at the hands of Sadako. Instead of following a unitary linear narrative to its end point, the audience is caught in a visceral loop as each scene builds to an inevitable sensorial attack, usually enacted by Sadako’s image simultaneously puncturing both the diegetic screen on which it appears and the ‘real’ screen on which the audience watches the film, via the 3D protrusion of grasping arms and shattering glass. The film thus functions as Tom Gunning’s “cinema of attraction”, denoting “early cinema’s fascination with novelty and its foregrounding of the act of display”[51] over narrative and character development — a reinstatement of early cinematic techniques and priorities which evokes temporal looping on a grand scale, echoing the antiquated aesthetics of the cursed tape in Ringu. Yet in contrast to Ringu, in which Sadako’s tape is embedded within a relatively conventional horror narrative presented via coherent cinematic syntax, in Sadako 3D the audience is completely enfolded within this carnivalesque cinema of attraction (the attractions of which, paradoxically, are rendered through the film’s 3D effects, which constitute the most extensive use of current special effects technologies seen in the franchise to date).  Thus mirroring the mechanics of Sadako herself, the film folds both the diegetic narrative and broader trajectories of historical development back onto themselves, contorting linear time into a loop.

That Sadako 3D functions primarily as cinema of attraction is further reinforced by the novel marketing techniques accompanying the film’s release, ‘attractions’ which were just as central to the experience of Sadako 3D as the film itself. For the release of Sadako 3D, the cinema-space itself became akin to a theme park: for major screenings in large multiplexes, artificial wells were placed inside the cinema, fog effects were used throughout the film, certain cinema chairs would suddenly jolt or viewers would be ‘grabbed’ from beneath, and Velcro was placed on some armrests to give the effect that the viewers’ arms were being pulled by Sadako. In addition, at the climax when dozens of monstrous Sadako mutations attack the film’s protagonist onscreen, a horde of real-life “Sadakos” (people in costume) invaded the cinema.[52] Here, the audience’s participation and active performance of fear and pleasure becomes central to the experience, as in the theme park ride. The recently released Sadako 3D 2 endeavours to extend this theme park mode of embodied engagement for even those audiences who are not lucky enough to attend a special screening: the film is accompanied by a downloadable mobile phone application which viewers can activate during the film, which vibrates, shows clips and plays sound effects to coincide with certain moments in the film to invoke the affect that viewers are being ‘attacked’ by Sadako via their own cell phones. The promoters have even suggested that the mobile phone effects may not cease once the film has ended, implying that patrons will be subject to Sadako’s curse long after they ‘escape’ the theatre.[53]

Figure 8: Sadako Attacks! Promotional Image for Sadako 3D 2 and its companion mobile phone app, image from fear.net, 2013

Figure 11. Sadako Attacks! Promotional Image for Sadako 3D 2 and its companion mobile phone app.

Evidently, the ludic transgression of boundaries between ‘reality’ and ‘artificiality’ — and a concomitant collapse in linear models of temporal progress — has overtly become the theme of the Ring franchise, a preoccupation which is rendered with particular effectiveness because the viral proliferation of this fictional universe is ungrounded from any specific geographic space, to which the architectural theme park is bound. Lukas suggests that “to be able to deal with the contradictions of the artificial and the real … is an essence of understanding the nature of any theme park”,[54] and in their playful interfacing with the viewer’s sensorium, the latest additions to the Ring franchise draw forth and work through the deep cultural anxieties surrounding what has long been an unstable dichotomy in Japan. There is currently a new Sadako attraction at Sega Joypolis to accompany the release of Sadako 3D 2, in which participants walk through a haunted maze-like structure similar to that of 2012. Yet in this incarnation, participants take on an active role in the narrative, playing reporters who take photographs of certain events that occur within the attraction, constructing an ever more recursive droste effect through the layering of reality and artificiality.

Figure 9: Sadako’s ‘Hair-dog’ and ‘well juice’, images from Sony Joypolis, 2013

Figure 12. Sadako’s ‘Hair-dog’ and ‘well juice’, Sony Joypolis, 2013.

The theme park is also offering menu items to accompany the attraction, including the Sadako ‘hair-dog’ and Sadako’s ‘well-juice’, complete with a candy worm clinging to the straw. Now patrons can literally eat (artificial) components of Sadako’s (artificial) being, so that she can become incorporated within their own body. The gleeful approach to this collapse in boundaries between signification, artificiality and reality demonstrates the sense of pleasurable catharsis derived from this process. In the cultural theme park that is Sadako’s world, participants are offered the opportunity to fully acknowledge and play with the tensions which are usually submerged beneath conceptions of contemporary Japanese identity: to plunge into the deep well between authenticity and artifice with the eerie possibility that one may never again crawl back out for air.

Audio Visual Sources:

Poltergeist. DVD. Directed by Tobe Hooper. Atlanta: Turner Home Entertainment, 2000.

Rasen. DVD. Directed by Jôji Iida. California: DreamWorks Home Entertainment, 2007.

Rasen. Television Series. Directed by Yoshihiro Kitayama. Tokyo: Fuji TV, 1999.

The Ring. Blu-ray DVD. Directed by Gore Verbinski. California: Paramount, 2012.

Ring: Infinity. WonderSwan Videogame. Tokyo: Kadokawa Shoten, 2000.

Ring: Kanzenban. Television Series. Directed by Chisui Takigawa. Tokyo: Fuji Television, 1995.

The Ring: Terror’s Realm. Dreamcast Videogame. San Jose: Infogrames, 2000.

The Ring Two. DVD. Directed by Hideo Nakata. California: DreamWorks Home Entertainment, 2005.

The Ring Virus. DVD. Directed by Dong-bin Kim. San Francisco: Tai Seng, 2004.

Ringu. DVD. Directed by Hideo Nakata. Richmond, Victoria: Madman Entertainment, 2000.

Ringu 0: Bâsudei. DVD. Directed by Norio Tsuruta. California: DreamWorks Home Entertainment, 2007.

Ringu Anthology of Terror. DVD Box set. Directed by Hideo Nakata, Jôji Iida and Norio Tsuruta. California: DreamWorks/Universal Studios, 2005.

Ringu: Saishûshô. Television Series. Directed by Fukumoto Yoshito. Tokyo: Fuji TV, 1999.

Sadako 3D. Film. Directed by Tsutomu Hanabusa. Tokyo: Kadokawa Pictures, 2012.

Sadako 3D 2. Film. Directed by Tsutomu Hanabusa. Tokyo: Kadokawa Pictures, 2013.

References:

Balmain, Colette. Introduction to Japanese Horror Film. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008.

Baudrillard, Jean. “The Precession of Simulacra.” In The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (Volume One), edited by Vincent B. Leitch, William E. Cain, Laura A. Finke, Barbara E. Johnson, John McGowan and Jeffrey J. Williams, 1732-1740. New York City: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001.

Baudrillard, Jean. “The Orders of Simulacra.” In Simulations, translated by Paul Foss, Paul Patton and Phillip Beitchman, 81-159.  New York: Semiotext(e), 1983.

Choi, Jinhee and Wada-Marciano, Mitsuya. Horror to the Extreme: Changing Boundaries in Asian Cinema. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2009.

Doak, Kevin. Dreams of Difference: The Japan Romantic School and the Crisis of Modernity. California: University of California Press, 1994.

Eco, Umberto. Travels in Hyperreality. London: Pan Books, 1987.

Enns, Anthony. “The Horror of Media: Technology and Spirituality in the Ringu Films.” In The Scary Screen: Media Anxiety in the Ring, edited by Kristen Lacefield, 30-44. Surrey: Ashgate Publishing, 2010.

Figal, Gerald. Civilization and Monsters: Spirits of Modernity in Meiji Japan. North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2000.

Fletcher III, W. Miles and von Staden, Peter W. “Epilogue: retrospect and prospects: the significance of the ‘lost decades’ in Japan.” Asia Pacific Business Review. 18 (2): April 2012. 275-279.

Gilman, Theodore J. No Miracles Here: Fighting Urban Decline in Japan and the United States. New York: State University of New York Press, 2001.

Gunning, Tom. “‘Now you see it, now you don’t: the temporality of the cinema of attractions.” Velvet Light Trap Fall: 1993. 3-26.

Jackson, Kimberly. “Techno-Human Infancy in Gore Verbinski’s The Ring.” In The Scary Screen: Media Anxiety in the Ring, edited by Kristen Lacefield,  161-175. Surrey: Ashgate Publishing, 2010.

Jeffers, Gene. “Global Attractions Attendance Report”. Burbank, CA: Themed Entertainment Association, 2012.

Kinoshita, Chika. “The Mummy Complex: Kurosawa’s Loft and J-Horror.” In Horror to the Extreme: Changing Boundaries in Asian Cinema, edited by Jinhee Choi and Mitsuya Wada-Marciano, 103-123.  Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2009.

Lacefield, Kristen. The Scary Screen: Media Anxiety in the Ring. Surrey: Ashgate Publishing Ltd., 2010.

Lukas, Scott A. Theme Park. London: Reaktion Books, 2008.

McRoy, Jay. Nightmare Japan: Contemporary Japanese Horror Film. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2008.

Miyao, Daisuke. The Aesthetics of Shadow: Lighting and Japanese Film. North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2013.

Najita, Tetsuo. Visions of Virtue in Tokugawa Japan. Hawaii: University of Hawaii Press, 1987.

Napier, Susan. The Fantastic in Modern Japanese Literature. London: Routledge, 1996.

Ndalianis, Angela. The Horror Sensorium: Media and the Senses. North Carolina: McFarland, 2012.

Ndalianis, Angela. Neo-Baroque Aesthetics in Contemporary Entertainment. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2005.

Phu, Thy. “Horrifying adaptations: Ringu, The Ring, and the cultural contexts of copying.” Journal of Adaptation in Film and Performance 3, no 1 (2010): 43-58.

Richie, Donald. “The ‘Real’ Disneyland.” In The Donald Richie Reader: 50 Years of Writing On Japan, edited by Arturo Silva, 169-173.  Berkeley, CA: Stone Bridge Press, 2001.

Suzuki, Koji. Ring. Translated by Robert B. Rohmer and Glynne Walley. New York: Vertical Inc., 2004.

Suzuki, Koji. S. Tokyo: Kadokawa Corporation, 2012.

Suzuki, Koji. Loop. Translated by Glynne Walley. New York: Vertical Inc., 2006.

Tateishi, Ramie. “The Japanese Horror Film Series: Ring and Eko Eko Azarak.” In Fear without Frontiers: Horror Cinema Across the Globe, edited by Steven Jay Schneider, 295-305. Surrey: FAB Press, 2003.

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Wee, Valerie. Japanese Horror Films and their American Remakes. London: Routledge, 2013.

White, Eric. “Case Study: Nakata Hideo’s Ringu and Ringu 2.” In Japanese Horror Cinema, edited by Jay McRoy, 38-51. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006.

Yu, Eric K.W. “A Traditional Vengeful Ghost or the Machine in the Ghost? Narrative Dynamic, Horror Effects and the Posthuman in Ringu.” In Fear Itself: Reasoning the Unreasonable, edited by Stephen Hessel and Michele Huppert, 109-123. New York: Rodopi, 2009.

Notes:

[1] Ringu, DVD. Directed by Hideo Nakata (Japan: Omega Project, 1998).

[2] For the sake of clarity, I will refer to the original film throughout as ‘Ringu’, and the franchise as a whole as ‘Ring’. In fact the title ‘Ringu’ is somewhat problematic as it was not the original translation given to the film’s title (which was initially simply ‘Ring’). The literal Romanization ‘Ringu’ came in to use to differentiate Nakata’s film from the American remake.

[3] See for instance Colette Balmain, Introduction to Japanese Horror Film (Edinburgh: Edinburgh Univeristy Press, 2008), Kristen Lacefield, The Scary Screen: Media Anxiety in the Ring (Surrey: Ashgate Publishing 2010), Jinhee Choi and Mitsuya Wada-Marciano, Horror to the Extreme: Changing Boundaries in Asian Cinema, (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2009), Jay McRoy, Nightmare Japan: Contemporary Japanese Horror Cinema (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2008), Thy Phu “Horrifying Adaptations: Ringu, The Ring and the cultural contexts of copying” Journal of Adaptation in Film and Performance 3 (1) (2010) and Valerie Wee, Japanese Horror Films and their American Remakes (London: Routledge, 2013).

[4] The Ring, DVD. Directed by Gore Verbinski (USA: DreamWorks, 2001).

[5] Sadako 3D, Film. Directed by Tsutomu Hanabusa (Japan: Kadokawa Pictures, 2012).

[6] Sadako 3D 2, Film. Directed by Tsutomu Hanabusa (Japan: Kadokawa Pictures, 2013).

[7] Ring’s strong cultural currency in Japan can also be understood through Ringu’s reconfiguration of some of the most famous Japanese kaidan (or ghost folk tales) about the vengeful female ghost, most markedly Banchō Sarayashiki , in which a young woman, thrown into a well by her Samurai master and left to die, returns to haunt him from her watery sepulchre.

[8]  Anthony Enns, “The Horror of Media: Technology and Spirituality in the Ringu Films,” in The Scary Screen: Media Anxiety in the Ring, ed. Kristen Lacefield (Surrey: Ashgate Publishing, 2010), 32.

[9] In fact, unlike the Hollywood model, it is very common in Japan for film franchises to move between television and cinema. Attendance of domestic films at the cinema in Japan remains relatively low, especially when considering that Japanese movie theatres are among the worlds most expensive. The vastly reduced production costs and ability for rapid development ensure that made-for-television films are common and popular; successful ones often become feature films, either in the form of sequels or as remakes, before continuing their narratives on television once more. Sometimes, the franchise is simultaneously continued on both television and film, forming two parallel diegetic universes in the same franchise. This was the case with another popular J-horror franchise, Ju-on (Takashi Shimizu, 1998-2009).

[10] At the time of writing, Sadako 3D 2 has recently been released in Japan.

[11] Chika Kinoshita, “The Mummy Complex: Kurosawa’s Loft and J-Horror,” in Horror To the Extreme: Changing Boundaries in Asian Cinema, ed. Jinhee Choi and Mitsuya Wada-Marciano (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2009), 105.

[12] Phu, “Horrifying adaptations”, 55.

[13] Jean Baudrillard, “The Orders of Simulacra”, in Simulations (New York: Semiotext(e), 1983), 117.

[14] Anthony Enns, “The Horror of Media”, 40.

[15] Terms like ‘spectator’ expose the entrenched ocular bias in film studies — an imbalance which Ndalianis’ work seeks to overcome — but for the sake of simplicity I will use the common terms ‘spectator’ and ‘viewer’ in reference to audience members, as an interrogation of such terminology is beyond the scope and focus of this article.

[16] Angela Ndalianis, The Horror Sensorium: Media and the Senses (North Carolina: McFarland, 2012), 30.

[17] Ibid, 3.

[18] Scott A. Lukas, Theme Park (London: Reaktion Books, 2008), 217.

[19] Kimberly Jackson, “Techno-Human Infancy in Gore Verbinski’s The Ring” in The Scary Screen, 171.

[20] In what is becoming a tradition, Sadako has now thrown the first pitch at a number of baseball games in Japan. In fact, in this case four Sadako’s were involved in the first pitch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I7Jas2gEeb0

[21] Ndalianis, Horror Sensorium, 17.

[22] Susan Napier, The Fantastic in Modern Japanese Literature (London: Routledge, 1996), 144.

[23] Kevin Doak, Dreams of Difference: The Japan Romantic School and the Crisis of Modernity (California: University of California Press, 1994), 295.

[24] Gerald Figal, Civilization and Monsters: Spirits of Modernity in Meiji Japan (North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2000).

[25] Ramie Tateishi, “The Japanese Horror Film Series: Ring and Eko Eko Azarak” in Fear without Frontiers: Horror Cinema Across the Globe, ed. Steven Jay Schneider, (Surrey: FAB Press, 2003), 296.

[26] Napier, The Fantastic, 2.

[27] Phu, Horrifying Adaptations, 53.

[28] See Daisuke Miyao’s The Aesthetics of Shadow: Lighting and Japanese Cinema (North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2013), for a discussion of the development of Japanese film lighting techniques. Miyao points out that early film techniques were much indebted to the flat aesthetic of Kabuki theatre. In fact, as Miayo explains, there was much resistance in the early decades of the Japanese film industry to three point Hollywood lighting techniques, so integral was this ‘flat’ aesthetic to ideas of Japanese cultural authenticity.

[29] While the DVD was also technically ‘invented’ in Japan, its development was strictly managed by a number of international conglomerates such as Panasonic, Time Warner, and Phillips.

[30] In fact, this term is often revised to be “the two lost decades”, as Japan struggles to overcome this period of economic stagnation.

[31] Miles W. Fletcher III and Peter W. von Staden, “Epilogue: retrospect and prospects: the significance of the ‘lost decades’ in Japan” Asia Pacific Business Review 18, no 2 (2012).

[32] Lukas, Theme Park, 9.

[33] Jean Baudrillard, “The Precession of Simulacra” in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, ed. Vincent B. Leitch and William E. Cain, (New York City: W. W. Norton & Company, 2012), 1741.

[34] Umberto Eco, Travels in Hyperreality, (London: Pan Books, 1987), 7.

[35] Ibid, 7

[36] Tetsuo Najita, Visions of Virtue in Tokugawa Japan (Hawaii: University of Hawaii Press, 1987), 11.

[37] See Ndalianis’ Neo-Baroque Aesthetics in Contemporary Entertainment (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2005) for a discussion of the continuities between the ideo-aesthetics of Baroque art and contemporary mediascapes, in which Ndalianis argues that the current predilection for seriality and reflexivity and the ways in which such modes engender spectator immersion reflect the poly-centric forms of the Baroque period.

[38] Baudrillard, “The Precession of Simulacra”, 1736.

[39] Ibid, 1739.

[40] Theodore J. Gilman, No Miracles Here: Fighting Urban Decline in Japan and the United States (New York: State University of New York Press, 2001), 79.

[41] Gene Jeffers (Ed.) Global Attractions Attendance Report (Burbank, CA: Themed Entertainment Association, 2012), 16-17.

[42] Baudrillard, The Precession of Simulacra, 1741.

[43] Donald Richie, “The ‘Real’ Disneyland” in The Donald Richie Reader: 50 Years of Writing On Japan, ed. Arturo Silva (Berkeley, CA: Stone Bridge Press, 2001), 169.

[44] Ibid, 1739.

[45] Ibid, 1735.

[46] In the first order of simulation, representations function as place-markers for the real, having a clear and direct relationship with the reality that they depict and being inferior to the richness of the real. In the second order of simulation, signs and images do not point directly to the real that they signify (as there is a web of simulations and copies), but do signal the existence of an abstruse reality which is not quite encapsulated by the representation.

[47] The rather vague and convoluted plot tells of an artist’s attempt to ‘resurrect’ Sadako’s curse (what he refers to as the “resurrection of S”). He orchestrates his own cursed video and throws a number of long-haired women in white gowns into the well in which Sadako died: a process which raises a horde of mutated Sadakos. At the end of the film, an image of the ‘original’ Sadako emerges from one of the characters’ cell phone screens and enters the body of Akane, the central character. Yet, as the words “everything is artificial” once again overlay the final scene, it is suggested that this image of Sadako (which appears different both from the creature who emerges through optical media screens throughout the film and the ‘mutated’ Sadakos) is yet another version of the intangible creature that is “S”: in entering Akane’s body yet another ‘copy’ has been created of which there is no traceable original.

[48] See Enns, The Horror of Media; Eric White, “Case Study: Nakata Hideo’s Ringu and Ringu 2” in Japanese Horror Cinema, ed. Jay McRoy (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006) and Eric Yu, “A Traditonal Vengeful Ghost or the Machine in the Ghost? Narrative Dynamic, Horror Effects and the Posthuman in Ringu” in Fear Itself: Reasoning the Unreasonable, ed. Stephen Hessel and Michele Huppert (New York: Rodopi, 2009).

[49] Lukas, Theme Park, 104.

[50] Ibid, 104.

[51] Tom Gunning, “‘Now you see it, now you don’t’: the temporality of the cinema of attractions”” Velvet Light Trap Fall 1993, 3 (1993).

[52] Such techniques echo the playful gimmicks used by William Castle, such as ‘Emergo’ during House on Haunted Hill (1959) during which glowing, plastic skeletons floated above the audience, the “fright break” during Homicidal (1961) and ‘Percepto’, seats wired with vibration devices, in The Tingler (1959).

[53] The Tokyo Times, “Sadako 3D 2 will use smartphone app to scare audiences”, The Tokyo Times, http://www.tokyotimes.com/2013/sadako-3d-2-will-use-smartphone-app-to-scare-cinema-audience/ (accessed 30 October, 2013).

[54] Lukas, Theme Park, 22.

Bio: Jessica Balanzategui is a doctoral candidate at The University of Melbourne, Australia. She has taught film, literature and media studies at James Cook University and The University of Melbourne. Jessica’s doctoral thesis explores the construction of uncanny child characters in a recent assemblage of transnational horror films from America, Spain and Japan. She has published work on the uncanny child, madness and asylums in the horror film in refereed journals such as Etropic and Refractory: A Journal of Entertainment Media, as well as a number of soon to be released edited collections, and reviews for Media International Australia. She recently co-edited the special issue of Refractory: A Journal of Entertainment Media titled “Transmedia Horror”.

In the Eye of the Beholder: Bishounen as Fantasy and Reality – Christy Gibbs

Abstract: Since the international popularisation of anime and manga, the bishounen has been one of Japan’s best recognised archetypal figures. But where did this stereotypical look come from, and is it a purely fictional representation? This paper examines the bishounen not just as he appears on the page or screen, but also how he appears in the international fashion and music scenes, as well as the way in which he influences, and is influenced by, Western versions of himself.

Figure 1: The manga Princess Princess (Mikiyo Tsuda, 2006-7)

In the aesthetically distinct universe of Japanese animation, cultural constructs of gender and sexuality can be complex and challenging to navigate. However, perhaps no archetypal anime figure is as curious to the non-Japanese viewer as much as the bishounen. Best known for his physical attributes – a slender and willowy body shape, artfully arranged hair, narrow and angular features, and often pale, delicate-looking skin – the bishounen is, as the literal translation informs us, a beautiful young man, or ‘pretty boy’. His gender is often ambiguous, his sexual orientation even more so; even for those who watch anime or read manga on a regular basis, it can be difficult to discern whether his relationships with other characters lean towards romance or are merely affectionately platonic.

To those unfamiliar with a wider scope of Japanese popular culture, it is only within this fictive context that the bishounen would appear to exist. From an Anglo-American perspective particularly, it is difficult to take a cartoon character seriously, much less one that wears flamboyant clothing, makes over-the-top arm gestures, and who strikes seemingly casual poses with one hand placed on hip. Cross-dressing is also a common theme for the bishounen-centric manga or anime, for any number of reasons – most of them more on the ridiculous or humorous side, as in the likes of Princess Princess (in which an elite boarding school who elects students to take on the role of Princess in order to in order to break up the monotony of living in an all-male environment) and Gravitation (involving a male pop star who dons a sailor uniform in a ludicrous attempt to appeal to his aloof boyfriend), are nothing if not intentionally absurd. Anime such as Hourou Musuko (Wandering Son), which depict male cross-dressing in relation to any realistic statement of self-identity, are relatively rare.

Moreover, if those same characters were to appear in just about any mainstream American film or cartoon, most would associate their various mannerisms with gay, or at least extremely camp, stereotypes. Western mainstream media is used to viewing stereotypically effeminate male characters through a homosexual lens, and this is certainly sometimes the case in anime, even when a title is not a yaoi or boys love one.[i] Given that Japan is a country where one’s sexual practices are generally understood to be a personal and therefore private matter, it would be perfectly logical to assume that the bishounen is a figure with little, if any, basis in reality.

In fact, such an assumption, however rational, would be a false one. The genre of boys love aside chances of an anime bishounen actually being gay are fairly slim. Anglo-American sexual and cultural limitations would seem to be ‘more threatened by depiction of intense same-sex friendships than does Japanese culture’, commentator Patrick Drazen notes. ‘The reason is that American pop culture often limits its options to “sex” and “not sex.” Japanese culture makes room for a much wider range of relationships’ (Drazen, 2003, p. 103).

Perhaps a more accurate way of approaching the bishounen is to look not at what messages he is (or is not) attempting to convey in terms of sexual orientation within the narrative, but rather to discuss what type of role he fulfils as far as the audience is concerned. In doing so, it appears evident that the bishounen’s job is not to make any sort of explicit statement about his sexuality, but rather to exist as a specific form of eye candy for his largely female demographic; a physical representation of one of the Japanese woman’s ideals of the perfect guy. The bishounen is by his very nature androgynous, and therefore an iconic symbol that has the potential to encompass the strength of traditional masculinity, as well as the grace and beauty of the stereotypically feminine. Regardless of whether anime bishounen are based on real historic figures (Hakuouki Shinsengumi Kitan), re-imaginings of Western stories (Romeo x Juliet), or entirely original characters (The Vision of Escaflowne), they are all therefore given the same intense beautifying treatment.

In contrast, the conventional image of what constitutes an attractive male in much of the West has often been muscular and assertively powerful, evoking perceptions of physical dominance, authority and control, while the attribute of ‘prettiness’ is considered a feminine trait – the opposite of being masculine or ‘manly’. In Japan, however, being pretty does not necessarily mean sacrificing masculinity, and more recently, the West has also seen a growth in this new image of what constitutes male attractiveness. It could be argued that this new masculinity has been influenced since the mid-1990s by the increasing availability of popular and mainstream anime titles such as Sailor Moon, Dragon Ball Z, Pokemon, One Piece, Naruto, and Bleach.

In order to explore how modern conceptions of the bishounen character arose, it is first necessary to pinpoint when and how he came into being within the mainstream culture of his birthplace. The term itself is first found in the Meiji period (1868-1912), where it was used to describe especially beautiful pre-adolescent boys, who were often involved in homosexual relationships (Pflugfelder,  1999, pp. 221–234). Although the word was not in usage prior to this, we might also be reminded of the popularity of Japanese theatre over the previous two centuries, where gender reversal was commonplace.

After women were banned from the kabuki theatre stage in the mid-1600s due primarily to problems arising from prostitution, physically effeminate male performers took on the role of women in their place (Bullough, 1993, p. 242).[ii] Such actors often maintained their dress outside the theatre, compelled to experience first-hand the everyday life, customs, and etiquette of the women they played, many from early childhood. At its height of popularity, some kabuki actors became so sought-after that they became leaders of women’s fashion. While the actors who played women’s roles emulated the manners and dress of high-born ladies, the audience, largely made up of peasants and townspeople, created a space in which performers could potentially become trendsetters in bearing and clothing (Scott, 1999, p. 39).

The temptation to view men who cross-dressed as a part of their art outside the theatre as homosexual is a natural one for many in the West today, and that many of these performers were indeed engaging in male/male relationships is probable. However, Anglo-American culture lacks a common understanding of when and why labels of sexuality are applied in Japanese culture. Whilst alternative sexual practices in Japan today, including those with long historical traditions such as homosexuality, cross-dressing, and transvestism are not widely publicly accepted, there has consistently been a large gap between how one is expected to behave in the outside world, and how that same person may act while taking on the role of entertainer. In a country where standing out from the crowd in any way is usually thought of as socially undesirable, anything that occurs within a framework of fiction – from kabuki and opera to anime and mainstream television – is not considered to be an accurate reflection of either an individual or society as a whole. Consequently, a transvestite who appears in a film is seen as a performer rather than a demonstration of an individual’s real expression of sexuality, and a drag queen depicted on a show lives only in the land of television – a world from which most Japanese feel detached (Buckley, 2002, p. 94).

For example, whilst the televised portrayal of a character named Hard Gay, as played by comedian Masaki Sumitani, depicted a man dressed in a black PVC fetish outfit who ran around the streets of Japan performing acts of charity for unsuspecting bystanders, the show gained national attention and popularity, and was deemed suitable to air on a Saturday evening variety show. Of course, Hard Gay is an overt homosexual parody (in reality neither gay nor a fetishist), and not a bishounen by any stretch of the imagination; his television persona serves to illustrate the ambiguity between screen and reality. In contrast, Japanese stage and film actor Saotome Taichi is a modern example of a figure that embodies the bishounen aesthetic, yet is not spurned or ridiculed for how he dresses, speaks, or behaves during his performances. Well known for playing both beautiful young men and women, Saotome was trained from a young age in the field of female impersonation. An official fan club was established in 2006, and tickets to his kimono dance performance at the Taishokan theatre the following year sold out within a day.

Figure 2: Japanese stage and film actor Saotome Taichi

Nonetheless, the real-life depiction of the bishounen dates back much further than popular Japanese theatre, and can be traced to the tenth century where the Imperial Court of Heian-kyo (now the city of Kyoto) held sway. The Heian Court was the centre of aesthetic sensibilities of all varieties: Japanese music, poetry, calligraphy, and clothing fashions all found their deepest roots here, where aristocrats were obsessed with the pursuit of beauty. It was not simply that cultivating beauty meant a person was sophisticated or fashionable – it also implied a sense of morality. George Sansom, a pre-modern Japan historian, writes: ‘The most striking feature of the aristocratic society of the Heian capital was its aesthetic quality … even in its emptiest follies, it was moved by considerations of refinement and governed by a rule of taste’ (Sansom, 1958, p. 178).

Standards of aristocratic male beauty here were in many ways similar to those for female beauty. Both sexes whitened their skin with rice powder, blackened their teeth using a liquid made up of acetic acid and dissolved iron, and prized a rounded, plump figure in order to physically display the leisure and riches that the peasantry – those with leaner figures from less food intake and darker skin from labouring outdoors – could not afford to obtain. It was fashionable for men to have a thin moustache or tuft of beard at the chin, but large quantities of facial hair were considered especially unattractive (Topics in Japanese Cultural History).

Naturally, Heian beauty is interpreted in a more contemporary, bishounen-esque framework as far as anime and manga are concerned: The Tale of Genji, originally written by Murasaki Shikibu during the Heian period, has had several adaptations, the most recent of which was an 11-episode anime series in 2009. While most of the characters have the creamy white skin of the Heian-period principles of beauty, there is physically little else to tie the anime and Heian ideals of attractiveness together. Genji, with his slender silhouette and narrow features, has nothing that sets him visually apart from any other bishounen that might be seen in any other mainstream anime production, historically-themed or otherwise.

While the bishounen ideal may have been cemented in the Heian era, a quick survey of Japanese popular culture today, even disregarding the anime and manga industries, reveals that far from being a storytale figure, the bishounen also exists as a true world representation. Host club workers, although a far cry from what has been depicted in the extremely popular Ouran High School Host Club anime series, are perhaps the most obvious example to draw from, with many of these young men looking almost like a parody of anime bishounen caricatures. Similar to their hostess club counterparts, where male customers pay for the attentive company of beautiful young ladies, host clubs employ men who are paid to converse, pour drinks, light cigarettes, entertain by means of fun stage performances, and generally flirt with their female clientele. Upon a first visit to a host club, the customer is presented with a menu of each host on offer for her to decide which host she like to meet first. Once she has chosen the host she most prefers, she designates him her named host, with the employee then receiving a percentage of all future sales generated by that particular customer. Most clubs operate on a permanent nomination system, and a host cannot be changed once they have been nominated excepting under special circumstances. Regular payment is determined by a host’s commission on drink sales, and for this reason, the environment can be highly competitive, with tens of thousands of dollars sometimes offered to the host who can achieve the highest sales (pripix).

The typical host look, made up of an appropriately dishevelled dark suit and collared shirt, bleached hair, and expensive silver jewellery, is paired with a stage name often taken from a favourite film, manga, or historical figure that may describe their persona. The overall effect is usually one of an anime bishounen made flesh and blood. The Great Happiness Space: Tale of an Osaka Love Thief (Jake Clennell, 2006), a documentary-film interviewing several hosts and their customers in a popular club in Osaka, paints a very pragmatic picture of the host club industry – one which survives by seducing customers without having to depend on the more overt sexual appeal of strip clubs or brothels. ‘For girls, we are products’, states one such worker. ‘If she wants a humble, cool guy, I can be like that. If she wants a funny guy, I can be like that too.’ ‘Let’s say I do fuck her. That girl will probably never come back’, another points out. ‘At that point, there won’t be anything else I can give her … Knowing how to give them satisfaction without sex – that’s the point.’ While hosts can and sometimes do have sex with their clients, this is clearly not the purpose of this institution’s existence.

Tajima Yoko, a professor of women’s studies at Hosei University in Tokyo, explains the host club phenomenon by the conventional Japanese male and his lack of true listening to the everyday concerns of his partner. ‘Men, married or not, in our culture do not listen to their female partners’ problems carefully … They only tell women what they want them to hear. Men don’t consider women equal partners’ (New York Times). Although there is no official count of the number of individual clubs, the host club industry employed an estimated twenty thousand men in total as of 2005 (Japan – Facts and Details). Some of the larger and more commercial clubs, such as New Ai (New Love) in Shinjuku, Tokyo, employ approximately eighty workers whose sole job it is to fulfil the emotional needs of the women who frequent the club, in part by existing as beautiful objects of fantasy (New York Times).

Such a concept is alien to most of the rest of the world, suggesting that outside of Japan, the majority of countries do not have the numbers of the right type of customer – that is, one willing to spend several hundred or thousand dollars per visit purely to be kept company by a score of pretty men – to support such an industry. While the idea of paying for sex is universally understood, the thought of paying an equal amount or more for the pleasure of someone’s company is simply baffling to many people. In turn, although some host workers are foreigners, host clubs are generally not known about, or else poorly understood, by overseas visitors, and very few customers are non-Japanese. As with the Japanese sex industry, there is a very distinct preference for both the customer and the host to be Japanese, and it is not uncommon for many bars and clubs to have signs outside saying “No foreigners admitted.”

Tellingly, a great deal of the reactions by foreigners to the business of host clubs has tended to be negative. ‘Even if they had equivalent in the UK I don’t think I’d go’, reads one response to an online article. ‘British guys (sorry to say this) don’t really seem to maintain their looks or interest in a womans [sic] needs for long enough.’ ‘I don’t find them attractive in any way, and I don’t want to pay for the “companionship”’, states another (UK Fashion, Lifestyle & Beauty Blog). Keywords commonly associated with host fashion outside of Japan include “tacky”, “fake”, “creepy”, and “sleazy”.

However, in other entertainment industries, the cultural crossover in terms of what women find attractive in a male is more evident. The music business is one such industry, and in Japan, the most extreme form of the bishounen can be found here. Visual kei – literally visual style – is a uniquely Japanese aesthetic music movement inspired by Western glam metal bands such as Kiss and Twisted Sister (High Music XRD). What these bands inspired in visual kei was, as the name of the movement implies, the importance of appearance as an essential part of the musical style, sometimes even above the music itself in terms of importance.

Bands including The Gazette, Versailles, and Alice Nine are today known less for their music and more for their eye-catching make-up and wardrobe in some circles. The visual kei look is ethereally dark, glamorously androgynous, and elaborately punk, often all at once. Many artists are particularly effeminate in appearance, and it is not uncommon for some to pose explicitly as females, wearing dresses reminiscent of Regency, Rococo, and Victorian fashion. Their ‘maleness’ as we might understand it comes across strongly in their vocals, which are usually anything but gender ambiguous.

Figure 3: Visual kei band Versailles

First emerging in the late 1980s, the visual kei movement was pioneered by acts such as X Japan, Buck-Tick, and D’erlanger. By the mid-1990s, a boost in popularity throughout Japan meant that the most notable of these bands were achieving high commercial success, with the likes of X Japan, Luna Sea, Glay, and Malice Mizer receiving large amounts of media attention. This last group became especially famous for their live performances, which featured lavish historical costumes and stage sets. Mana, co-founder of Malice Mizer, would go on to create his own clothing label, Moi-même-Moitié, in 1999, coining the terms “Elegant Gothic Lolita” and “Elegant Gothic Aristocrat” (Steele and Park, 2008, p. 54). He is regularly featured modelling his own designs in the quarterly Gothic & Lolita Bible, the top publication of the Lolita fashion scene, yet retains his mysterious persona by rarely speaking in public. In most interviews past and present, Mana is known for whispering his answers into the ear of a band member or confidante, using Yes/No cards, or expressing himself in mime.

Gackt, who abruptly left Malice Mizer at the height of the band’s success in 1999, began pursuing a career as an actor and solo artist, and is currently one of Japan’s best known pop idols. Since his time apart from Malice Mizer, Gackt has been making regular alterations to his style: his hair has morphed from straight, long, and jet-black to blonde and spiky in the blink of an eye, and he has experimented with nearly every shade of red and brown in between. His naturally brown eyes frequently change colour thanks to habitual use of green or blue contact lenses. Yet whether he plays a gang leader (Moon Child), samurai warrior (Bunraku), or feudal warlord (Fūrin Kazan), the main trademarks of Gackt’s appearance has remained the same – pale, slender, and virtually ageless.

It is therefore no surprise that Gackt has styled himself on, and even provided a model for many bishounen of the manga, anime, and video game industries. Characters from The Rose of Versailles, Rurouni Kenshin, and Final Fantasy VII, among other titles, have all been incorporated into his look at one stage or another, to Gackt’s rising popularity. Sentiments like those referenced by anthropologist Laura Miller in Beauty Up towards stars such as Gackt (‘He has a body so beautiful it’s like an art object … I’m filled with fantasies of the excitement that would happen if we were in bed’) are far from unusual among fans (Miller, 2006, p. 156). Strictly speaking, the cut-off age for bishounen-hood is eighteen, at which point one becomes a biseinen instead – a beautiful man, usually described as more handsome than pretty. Now in his forties, Gackt, still flaunting the cool delicacy of his features, is living proof that age is not necessarily a barrier to adhering to the bishounen style.

Neither are Gackt’s charms restricted to a female fanbase. In 2010, Gackt announced that his live performance at Club Citta in Kawasaki, Kanagawa, would be for men only, reportedly in an attempt to reverse the recent trend among Japanese males of shunning traditional male stereotypes to get in touch with their feminine side, and instead celebrate ‘the way of the man’ (Japan Today: Japan News and Discussion). Over one thousand men attended the sold-out show, while sixty women listened from the lobby and countless others from outside, cheering the men on as they entered (Ningin).

Other Japanese musical stars have found their fame through group collaboration. While the boy band fad in the West has died down somewhat since the 1990s, pop boy bands in Japan are among the most successful of all genres of Japanese music. J-pop found its way into major mainstream success during the same decade, gaining a commercial peak with individual female artists such as Hamasaki Ayumi and Utada Hikaru as well as with idol units (popular singing and dancing groups), many of them all-male. In particular, the talent agency Johnny & Associates, which exists exclusively to train and promote male idol groups, produced several extremely high-profile groups during this period such as SMAP, Tokio, and Arashi. American boy bands such as The Backstreet Boys and ‘N Sync likewise debuted in the 1990s, only to peak and then either disband or sharply decline in popularity in the first years of the new millennium. In comparison, Japanese boy bands continued to grow in number and reputation, with huge acts like EXILE, NEWS, KAT-TUN, and Hey! Say! JUMP joining the idol unit craze.

Like the Western boy bands of the 1990s, aesthetic appeal continues to be a significant factor in the popularity and marketing of these all-boy Japanese groups, and it is easy to see the similarities between The Backstreets Boys and Hey! Say! JUMP, Westlife and KAT-TUN, or ‘N Sync and Arashi not only in terms of sound, but also in general style. Posters, album covers, and promotional photos depict these bands casually standing or lounging about dressed all in white, for example, as they gaze coolly at the camera. Other images show the band members in jeans and black leather jackets, long coats with scarves draped nonchalantly about their necks, or with the slightly ruffled suit-and-tie look.

Figure 4: Boy bands N Sync and Arashi

However, looking past some of these blinding similarities, there are also some significant differences. For instance, it is difficult to find members of any of these household-name Japanese boy bands with facial hair, while there usually seems to be at least one, and sometimes two or three Western boy band members sporting a well-groomed beard or goatee. The same contrast can be seen with regards to boy band members with piercings or tattoos; the resident ‘bad boy’ of the group is usually evident in a Western boy band, while that figure is conspicuous only by his absence in the Japanese version. Hair tends to be a little longer in Japanese male idol groups, with a particular emphasis on eye-covering fringes and painstakingly placed wisps, whereas only one or two boy band members out of any given group in America might be known for their longer locks.

Overall, Japan’s male groups are typically gentle in appearance, perhaps a little more friendly and accessible. Whilst not precisely androgynous, they are a less extreme version of the bishounen of the visual kei scene. Where The Backstreet Boys and ‘N Sync took pains to keep from appearing too pretty by balancing out the more delicate-looking members of the group with a couple of tougher, more traditionally masculine individuals (and presumably thereby avoiding any gay slurs), the members of KAT-TUN and Hey! Say! JUMP make their living off being beautiful.

Furthermore, groups like this earn their idol status not only by singing, but also by acting in television dramas, appearing on variety shows, hosting charity events, and endorsing products such as Coca-Cola, KDDI Corporation mobile phones, Wii video games, and the Japan Tourism Agency. They are a constant, inescapable presence in nearly all aspects of Japanese daily life, and they take pains to form an image based on their individual talents or personality traits as being a part of a cohesive unit. Predictably, their female fans are both numerous and extremely passionate. In 2010, a Tokyo-based freelance journalist wrote:

Then there is Arashi who celebrate each other’s birthdays and vacation together. It seems incredible that Arashi is popular worldwide for simply being good buddies but this kind of interaction is so rarely seen in celebrities. In Japan, the interaction is rehearsed and simulated. Overseas, variety shows specialize in people openly feuding. With these types of entertainment, it is no wonder that the good-natured humor of Arashi, along with their sappy sweet pop songs, is healing the world’ (The Asahi Shimbun Digital).

The young men of Arashi may be a little too conventional to indulge in cosplay or model their looks after specific anime characters, but their style cannot help but be at least indirectly influenced by the bishounen aesthetic. Very few anime bishounen have any trace of facial hair, and as has been previously discussed, these types of characters are well-known for their slender frames, unblemished skin, glossy hair that falls just so over the eyes, and a coolly tantalizing aura. The similarities are not hard to overlook.

It is apparent that there has been some crossover of the appeal of the bishounen in today’s Western entertainment industries with newer boy bands such as British group One Direction, although the most notable increase with regards to the popularity of pretty boys has been seen in the film industry thanks to the widespread popularity of franchises like Twilight. Although most non-Japanese teenage girls may not know the meaning of the word bishounen or have any understanding of what anime or manga is, the traditional sex appeal of the rough, tough, rugby-player style body currently competes against the slim, milky-white skinned young male as so obviously embodied in the character of Edward Cullen.

The film versions of the Twilight novels chose to amplify the tension already seen in book format, where two young men compete for one girl’s romantic interests and the heroine constantly bounces between the two, who are physically complete opposites. Edward is exceptionally slim, pale to the point of being sickly-looking, and has an aura of cold intensity about him even after becoming romantically involved with Bella. The very name Edward, which roughly translates to ‘wealthy guard’, conjures images of English nobility and old world romanticism. Conversely, Jacob Black is of Native American descent, and has dark hair and eyes and russet skin. A tribal tattoo on his right arm completes the slightly roguish look. Although he is originally described as tall and lanky in the first book, the films portray him as relatively muscular; a fact that is only accentuated by his usual style of clothing – or lack thereof. Where Edward is cool, Jacob is passionate and adventurous, and where Edward turns into a sparkly, ostensibly prettier version of himself, Jacob quite literally transforms into a wild animal.

As was no doubt the intention, the competition between Edward and Jacob transcended the screen and became embedded in popular culture. Did main protagonist Bella – and by extension, the audience – lust after the beautiful, sharp-edged Edward, or did she prefer the brawny, more earthy charms of Jacob? Did fans desire pretty, or lust over handsome? Posters, shirts, and an array of other types of merchandise proudly display an allegiance of either Team Jacob or Team Edward, and have been snapped up by teens and tweens in their thousands.

Ultimately, however, it was Team Pretty who won the race, winning not only the girl but also, in overwhelming numbers, the most fans. In a poll carried out in 2008 by Novel Novice Twilight, a website dedicated to exploring the relationship between the Twilight series and its fans, Team Edward won by nearly double the score, earning over five thousand votes (Twilight Novel Novice). In 2009, Robert Pattinson was chased into traffic on a New York City street by a mob of frenzied fans, and the following year, People magazine listed Pattinson in their “World’s Most Beautiful” issue because of his ‘pale, otherworldly complexion’ (New York Daily News, People).

Unsurprisingly, the amount of anime bishounen who also fit the unearthly beautiful vampire mould are numerous: Zero, Kaname, and just about every other male vampire from Vampire Knight, Solomon Goldsmith and Hagi from Blood+, Shido and Cain from Nightwalker: Midnight Detective, and Trinity’s Blood’s Abel and Cain Nightroad, to name just a few. This is not to suggest that Stephanie Meyer was directly influenced by anime or the figure of the Japanese bishounen, but rather that due to the current influence of anime in international popular culture, non-Japanese audiences are becoming more receptive to the pretty boy as one ideal of male beauty.

Figure 5: Trunks from popular male-orientated anime Dragonball Z

However, although the sheer popularity of characters such as Edward Cullen would appear to indicate that the West is becoming more open to pretty young men being an acceptable form of heterosexual attractiveness, it also illustrates that we are far from being able to think of prettiness as a form of real masculinity. The hate that has been directed towards Patterson/Edward Cullen suggests that traditional notions of masculinity have not been eclipsed, and there is a substantial reaction against bishounen-type characters in the West despite the undoubted popularity of the figure amongst teenage girls. While we usually insist on polarising prettiness and masculinity, in Japan this does not seem to be an issue. Japanese studies Professor Kenneth G. Henshall points out that ‘deliberately enhanced “effeminate”, flower-like, graceful beauty has rarely been considered the antithesis of manliness in Japan, either by women or men themselves’ (Henshall, 1999, p. 4). Mainstream notions in Anglo-American society that correlate being pretty and being homosexual are gradually changing, yet slurs such as “pretty boy”, “queen”, and “fairy” are still commonly applied to men who are perceived as being too feminine in appearance, or who are especially fastidious about their physical presentation – regardless of whether this has any kind of connection to sexual orientation. In contrast, Miller has written, ‘I do not see current male beauty practices [in Japan] as a type of “feminization” of men … but rather as a shift to beautification as a component of masculinity’ (Miller, 2006, p. 126).

Given that manga, while rising in awareness and popularity in America and elsewhere, is nowhere near approaching the types of sales figures in Japan, this should not come as a surprise. Manga makes up nearly forty percent of total book sales in Japan, and to a large extent is responsible for normalising the bishounen aesthetic (Craig, 2000, p. 110). The bishounen has been a central figure for much of manga and anime’s modern history and is not limited to genre or demographic, even appearing in titles aimed at a primarily male audience such as Trunks from Dragonball Z, Sesshomaru from InuYasha, and Sasuke and Itachi from Naruto, as well as the conventional female-orientated fare. However, the influence of the young female consumer in Japan cannot be underestimated, and much of the entertainment industry caters to her tastes and desires. Whilst the stories depicted in anime and manga may not be a direct reflection of Japanese society, the prevalence of the bishounen has undeniably gone a long way in giving society the okay to emulate the look without being frowned upon or ridiculed for it.

Perceptions are gradually shifting in the West as well, and in many cases it appears that pretty is becoming the new brand of sexy for men. However, without the same sort of normalisation that Japan enjoys, it is doubtful whether the gap between male beauty and stereotypes of weakness and femininity will be bridged to the same extent in the near future. The bishounen outside of Asia is beginning to gain some currency, but ‘safe’ Western notions of duality – masculine and feminine, heterosexual and homosexual – may be too ingrained to ever be disregarded completely.

Notes


i Both yaoi and boys love are popular terms used to describe fictional media (usually referring specifically to anime and manga), that focuses on homoerotic male relationships. The genre is largely created by and for a heterosexual female audience, and is distinguishable from what is commonly known as gei comi, bara, or mens love, which caters to a gay male audience and tends to be created primarily by homosexual male artists.

ii Eventually, still finding similar problems, all male actors became required by the authorities to shave their hair in the style of mature men so that they would be less attractive to their audience.

 

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Bio:

Christy Gibbs is a graduate from the University of Waikato in New Zealand, and has recently completed her doctoral thesis whose topic explores representations of sexuality in contemporary Japanese animation. She is currently working in rural Japan as an Assistant Language Teacher and is also a regular columnist for Forces of Geek, a blog focusing on a variety of pop and geek culture worldwide.