Friday, October 29, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: J-Horror: The Definitive Guide to The Ring, The Grudge and Beyond

J-Horror: The Definitive Guide to The Ring, The Grudge and Beyond

Author: David Kalat

Publisher: Vertical

320 pages

ISBN: 1932234084

Published: 2007

Reviewed by Eric Evans

Charting the evolution of the Japanese horror film from the early ‘90s to the today of the 2007 publication date, David Kalat’s “J-Horror: The Definitive Guide to The Ring, The Grudge and Beyond” is valuable as both a film guide and history lesson. It introduces lesser-known names and films that predate the pivotal “Ring”, and Kalat (below left) is at times laugh-out-loud frank in his evaluation of their peculiar charms.

Hideo Nakata’s 1998 breakout film “Ring” receives the bulk of the book’s first 50 pages as the cultural standard-bearer and visual reference point for much of the J-Horror boom—it’s the fulcrum for the entire book. Kalat works to establish the literary and direct-to-video work that led up to its success, and the proliferation of similar films that flooded the marketplace after. It’s a valuable thing, having that contextual anchor, because as he explains there were multiple precedents to the film with each contributing something to its development, and certainly scads of similarly themed films after. Kalat takes his time establishing that neither of J-Horror’s “two daddies”, original novelist Koji Suzuki and “Ring” director Nakata, considered themselves horror buffs or enthusiasts. This point, Kalat argues, was the key to them expanding the scope of what a horror story could be. Without a love of and respect for the conventions of horror, they were able to craft a tale that was free of the tired tropes fans might have otherwise expected. For example, Suzuki wrote “Ring” in part to prove that fathers were as caring a parent as mothers (his novel had a male protagonist). Further chapters document other well-known J-Horror film series, such as the “Ju-On” and “Tomie” films. (Tomie isn’t a ghost and doesn’t quite work in the same way as, say, “Ju-On or “Dark Water”, but the multiple films chronicling her being dismembered and not dying happened in large part owing to the boom created by “Ring”.)

I approach books like this with a fairly specific set of expectations. I want to learn about the the hows and whys of each film and the people behind the scenes—essentially a long-form, literary DVD extra of sorts—and I want the context to either point me toward films I haven’t yet seen, or compel me to rewatch films I have, with a fresh eye informed by the author’s insight. Kalat wins on both counts, and his blunt dismissal of some films might have saved me several hours of misery. Though he may not have thought much of “Phantom of the Toilet” I am sufficiently intrigued by chapter 3 to seek it out (no easy task if you need English subs), and “Don’t Look Up” is high on my “to watch” list.

Stylistically Kalat’s writing falls somewhere between August Ragone’s knowledge of and passion for his subject, and any internet crank’s opinionated rant. I often read books of this sort wishing they hadn’t been written in quite so high-minded and scholarly a way so that pages can be turned with greater ease, but here and there Kalat slips into prose which, though not quite purple, distracts form the point at hand. The Japanese film industry in 1991 was “limping along like a dying donkey”? Too cute, sir. Even where I agree with him, Kalat manages to lose me a bit with writing meant to be funny but skewing juvenile: “Film critics and other pointy-heads hold sequels in low regard as a general rule. This is because film critics and other pointy-heads want to reward artistry and vision instead of crass commercialism, and sequels wear their brazen mercenary nature to ostentatiously on their sleeves. That, and so many of them suck.” Critics respond very well to well-crafted sequels (“Sanjuro”, “Dark Knight”, “Aliens”, “Godfather II”, “Ip Man 2”, etc.) and the pointy-headed bit was funny once. It’s also somewhat obnoxious that, despite all the potential confusion between books, TV shows, direct-to-video, and features similarly named, that Kalat chooses to frame his distaste for the Romajinization of “Ring” to “Ringu” by pretending that title doesn’t exist. He essentially says “I don’t like it so I won’t use it” despite the fact that that’s the name on the DVD sleeve. It’s incumbent on a writer of film books to use the published titles given those films, not the names he or she might prefer. But these are small complaints: the book is quite readable for just about anyone, no advanced theory degree required.

David Kalat’s “J-Horror: The Definitive Guide to The Ring, The Grudge and Beyond” was nearly called “Dead Wet Girls” and it’s a shame it wasn’t, given how prevalent that imagery is in many of the films discussed. It covers a great many titles in an entertaining and easily digested way. Though I’m sorry he didn’t get around to some of the most effective “Ring”-influenced films (“The Eye 10” but no “Shutter”?) the book casts a wide net, and places Korean and Hong Kong films of the same vein into canon. The J-Horror boom may be over, but there are still gems to be enjoyed, and Kalat makes it far easier to find them and watch them in the context of the movement.


Bob Turnbull said...

I've been wanting to catch "Don't Look Up" for quite a long time too Eric. However, do NOT fall into the trap and watch the Fruit Chan remake that's out on DVD (and produced by Nakata) - oh my goodness what a disaster...

I got about half way through the book about a year ago and put it aside for other priorities - not because I wasn't enjoying it, but simply because a few other things caught my attention. I'll go back to it now after reading your fine review though...

Bob Turnbull said...

Sorry, my mistake...Nakata did NOT produce the remake - I seem to remember seeing his name on the DVD and for some reason thought he was involved.