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Japanese Cult Cinema and Abjection

Mako Midori, left, and Eiji Funakoshi in <i>Blind Beast </i>© Daiei Studios
Mako Midori, left, and Eiji Funakoshi in Blind Beast © Daiei Studios

Cult cinema can be hard to define but easy to recognize. Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa, 1954), for example, lives in the pantheon of all time great films. Matango a.k.a. Attack of the Mushroom People (Ishiro Honda, 1963), however, does not grace any list of top movies of all time. With the advent of DVD and Internet streaming, once hard to find Japanese “B” films are easy to see, and many cult and serial films are being released, exposing new and different worlds to audiences years or even decades after their initial release. And there is much to be discovered.

Cult films touch upon worlds outside of the mainstream. Isabel Cristina Pinedo, in examining contemporary American horror film, writes:

“The universe of the contemporary horror film is an uncertain one in which good and evil, normality and abnormality, reality and illusion become virtually indistinguishable. This, together with the presentation of violence as a constituent feature of everyday life, the inefficacy of human action, and the refusal of narrative closure, produces an unstable, paranoid universe in which familiar categories collapse.”

Yumi Takigawa and the nuns of School of the Holy Beast. © Toei Tokyo
Yumi Takigawa and the nuns of School of the Holy Beast. © Toei Tokyo

Pinedo’s examination offers a lens through which to view certain Japanese cult films. Along with Pinedo’s, Julia Kristeva’s essay on abjection offers a psychoanaly- tical approach to understanding the content of cult films and how that content affects us.

Kristeva’s concepts of abjection relate to a state of being that produces a certain effect within oneself. Kristeva sees abjection as a primer or primers of culture. She further explains abjection as:

“Not lack of cleanliness or health...but that which disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite. The traitor, the liar, the criminal with a good conscience, the shameless rapist, the killer who claims he is a savior…Any crime, because it draws attention to the fragility of the law, is abject, but premeditated crime, cunning murder, hypocritical revenge are even more so because they heighten the display of such fragility.”

Abjection can be examined in the study of three Japanese cult films: Jigoku (Nobuo Nakagawa, 1960), School of the Holy Beast (Norifumi Suzuki, 1974) and Blind Beast (Yasuzo Masumura, 1969). Jigoku examines the Buddhist representation of hell. Nakagawa frames the story as a fable. Shiro is the main character; abjection dominates his life. He’s tormented by his participation in a hit and run accident, and the ensuing chain of events lead him further into abjection. Jigoku uses abjection as punishment but also to show that the self—pure identity—is destructive of itself. Jigoku offers a glimpse through a religious lens of the punishment that comes from abjection—Hell. Buddhism defines the moral order in Jigoku and finds all of the characters to be sinners. All are sinners as well in School of the Holy Beast.

School of the Holy Beast, set in a Catholic convent where young Japanese women give up their sinful lives, follows the girls as they devote themselves to serving God. What sounds like honorable devotion is exploited to demonstrate the hypocrisy and moral failing of any religious order (though it must be said that School features a weirdly rabid anti-clerical bent).

Julia Kristeva further says of abjection:

“The abject is related to perversion…The abject is perverse because it neither gives up nor assumes a prohibition, a rule, or a law; but turns them aside, misleads, corrupts; uses them, takes advantage of them, the better to deny them.”

Director Norifumi Suzuki sees religion as an oppressive device that denies the women within the convent their true desires. The nuns try to thwart their perverse impulses, but cannot. Their subsequent abject punishment masquerades as purification. The abjection portrayed in School of the Holy Beast derives from the characters’ perverse pleasure. In Jigoku, the characters are oblivious to the fact that they could hold abjection within themselves. That’s why they have to go to Hell; in Hell they are taught their moral failings.

Jigoku and School of the Holy Beast offer scenes of punishment and mutilation. The punishments and mutilations may be similar, but the characters who suffer are wholly different. The characters in Jigoku ignore the abjection within, while in School of the Holy Beast they take pleasure from it. Abjection, though, can also be discovered and then lead to startling realizations, as in Blind Beast.

In Blind Beast, Aki (Mako Midori), a model, attends an exhibit featuring images of her own form, bound and chained. A blind man, Michio, (Eiji Funakoshi) obsessively gropes a sculpture of Aki. As she watches him, Michio’s touch upon her image arouses Aki and terrifies her. Michio’s groping is abject to Aki and afterwards she seeks a massage to recover. The masseuse turns out to be Michio and not only does he get to feel the real thing but, with the help of his mother, drugs Aki and kidnaps her.

Michio explains to Aki that he needs to sculpt her body because she represents perfection. Aki fears her captor at first, but learns that Michio is nothing more than a grown child. Michio’s mother controls his life and Aki replaces her by inducing Michio to kill his mother. Instead of escaping after the murder, Aki stays with Michio and slowly becomes Michio’s lover. Their relationship quickly escalates into masochism and leads to their brutal deaths.

Director Yasuzo Masumura does not bring religious law into Blind Beast as an entry point for taboo or abjection. Instead he traps his characters in a contained world where morality stems from one figure—Michio’s mother. When the mother explains to her son why Aki is dangerous, she objectifies the abject. Unfortunately for the mother, Aki does the same and identifies the mother as abject. Kristeva writes that abjection “is a precondition of narcissism.” Michio and Aki’s relationship becomes narcissistic and the abjection that emerges proves the essence of their identity.

Aki and Michio’s relationship turns destructive because they constantly need to feel more and more. Aki goes blind from living in darkness and her other senses heighten. The abjection that comes out of Aki and Michio seems to have always resided within but was never identified or understood. Michio has lived a life of touching inanimate material, but he has been blind to the power of the desire to touch another human being. When Aki addresses her abjection, she embraces it so thoroughly that the only way to truly feel any sexual release is to mutilate herself. Michio joins her because he does not want to lose the only woman he has ever known. His devotion to Aki’s body fulfills him and without Aki there is no purpose to his life.

Jigoku, School of the Holy Beast, and Blind Beast all use abjection in ways that punish the characters while at the same time addressing taboo and moral law. These films blur the lines of normality and abnormality. Jigoku, School of the Holy Beast, and Blind Beast end with matters still undecided and ambiguous. Blind Beast’s characters may die, but their desires live on, as if their oblivion has left a wanting void.

Perhaps Kristeva says it best when she writes, “The abject from which he does not cease separating is for him, in short, a land of oblivion that is constantly remembered.” Jigoku leaves the audience with the hope of heaven but no glimpse of what else might lie beyond the final image. School of the Holy Beast allows its protagonist to assimilate back into the boring “real” world. But that assimilation offers no escape from what lurks within.

Abjection has a way of forcing to the light our innermost desires and fears. Cult films address abjection willingly or not. Kristeva says, “There is nothing like the abjection of self to show that all abjection is in fact recognition of the want on which any being, meaning, language, or desire is founded.” Jigoku, School of the Holy Beast, and Blind Beast show abjection and fulfill a possible unknown desire within us. We may be repulsed or possibly enjoy experiencing those desires. And we come to realize that what we gaze upon is not only someone else but also, possibly, ourselves.


Evan Walter

Evan looks within and without.


The Brooklyn Rail

MARCH 2009

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