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J-Horror (David Kalat 2007) - Book Review


Categories:

J-Horror: The definitive guide to The Ring, The Grudge and beyond

Genre: J-Horror Filmography
Author: David Kalat (2007)

review in one breath

This recently published book by US author David Kalat delves deeply into the major films in the international J-Horror craze. Through a purely Western perspective, Kalat offers a very rich and thorough treatment of the history, details, trends and people behind exemplar films of this genre. I found this to be a very informative and entertaining exploration into the J-Horror phenomenon.


intro

Whether you are a SaruDama regular or have simply stumbled, this very moment, upon this review, chances are you hold some interest in "J-Horror". J-Horror, of course, is the now ubiquitous label for the often unique and certainly Japan-centric depiction of Japanese horror, superstition and the supernatural. The level of superstition in Japan is simply off the charts, something I can attest to personally (to my therapist) and is evident in the exceptional number of mainstream TV and film productions dedicated to the topic. Western audiences love horror, but widespread recognition of Japan's horror-infatuation came about only after the underground buzz about an remarkably creepy film, Hideo Nakata's Ring. When all was said and done, Nakata's film rocked the globe's understanding of horror, making J-Horror an internationally recognized/respected entity, and spawning a new tidal wave of wannabe, derivative films.

J-Horror: The definitive guide to The Ring, The Grudge and beyond dives headlong into international explosion, providing background on how it came about, who it involved, and the various offshoots it created. Author David Kalat, president of All Day Entertainment, a long standing independent DVD label specializing in forgotten and overlooked films, was handed a copy of Nakata's Ringu and things in the Kalat household apparently haven't been the same since. The film had quite an impact on him, motivating him to delve deeply into the film's history, roots and trajectories. By the time this fascination took its toll, Kalat had traversed the J-Horror evolutionary corridor and had enough interesting insight to comprise this book.

His primary sources of information are admittedly the writings of other published texts and J-film related websites such as this one. These diverse gleanings are then compiled into an easily read, in-depth discussion of the major and not-so-major films and figures involved in the J-Horror boom. Included are interviews and inter-relations amongst the key players and a keen eye for detail regarding the genre's chronological evolution.

Kalat admits in the opening chapter that he does not speak or read Japanese and is approaching this through a purely Western (and translated) perspective. I appreciated this honesty and initially expected it to be a deficiency of the book. But after reading only the second chapter it became very evident that his prior personal/professional experience with other non-Japanese films had honed an impressive curiosity for detail and chronological dependencies. In other words, there is very little, if any sign of language barrier here in terms of his ability to traverse even the far lesser known limbs of the J-Horror family tree.

outline

The book J-Horror contains eleven chapters. The first chapter, "Dead Wet Girls", is an autobiographical account of Kalat's prior fascination with old-school Western horror, his introduction to Ring, and the ensuing conceptual conundrum/categorization it required.

Three of the remaining ten chapters (2,4 & 5) deal with details and chronologies of films related to key figures in the original J-Horror explosion; namely author Koji Suzuki and director Nakata Hideo (chapter 2), manga author Ito Junji (chapter 4) and director Kiyoshi Kurosawa (chapter 5). In addition to biographical sketches and interview snippets, Kalat provides a very detailed treatment of their various mainstream and not-quite-mainstream films.

Another three chapters (3,6 & 7) cover a myriad of tertiary films spawned by (or in some cases preceding) the exemplars of J-Horror. Films covered here in full detail include the Gakkou no Kaidan (Haunted School) series, the Ju-On (Grudge) series and (bless his soul!) the Ju-Rei series. An excellent primer results for those unfamiliar with the many less-than-Ring and FAR-less-than-Ring films which belong to this species.

And then there are the final three chapters...

The full title of this book is J-Horror: The definitive guide to The Ring, The Grudge and beyond. The chapters I have already mentioned indeed adequately cover "The Ring" and "The Grudge". So I guess we'll now discuss the book's definition of "beyond".

Perhaps it was my personally skewed interpretation or a less than precise choice of title, but I was anticipating some discussion of what might lie "beyond" Ring and Grudge in terms of "J-Horror". Unfortunately this is apparently NOT what the title implies. Perhaps the following title is more representative:

J-Horror: The definitive guide to The Ring, The Grudge [and **beyond J-Horror**]

This approaches a major pet-peeve of mine and so I will strive to tread lightly here, particularly in light of Kalat's outstanding work in the chapters actually dealing with (ahem) J-Horror... :p

The remaining three chapters (8-10; chapter 11 is only a very brief summary of content) apparently constitute the "beyond" aspect of Kalat's discussion. As I confessed above, I was expecting something in terms of a "beyond" within J-Horror, but the focus here is clearly "beyond J-Horror", dealing with various attempts by non-Japanese industries to capitalize on the J-Horror craze. Chapter 8 deals with Korean films, chapter 9 with Chinese films and chapter 10 with US remakes.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but shouldn't US remakes of "Ring" or "Grudge" be obviously excluded from an informed discussion of "J-Horror"? To anyone who has seen the US remakes, I would dare say that it is nigh impossible to confuse US mainstream horror remakes with J-Horror. And i dare say the same about Korean and Chinese derivative films.

And so here I find the sole yet gaping weakness of Kalat's otherwise wholly recommendable text.

Not to sound overly harsh, but this may be an inevitable shortcoming due to the language barrier. Kalat admits that he has gleaned his information from previously published content both in print and online. By relying solely on English sources, it should come as no surprise that he has limited access to only those films and biographies which have already filtered their way in Western purview and created some significant buzz in English-speaking circles. This perimeter of language apparently forces Kalat, despite his obvious diligence and curiosity, to follow the only avenues of expansion available; namely well-known, US-released, non-Japanese films which merely mimic (for revenue sake?) the J-Horror purity his book title seemingly assures us of.

SaruDama Note to David Kalat: Simply put, by *definition*, Korean, Chinese and US films are not "J-Horror".

verdict

Okay. I voiced my specific complaint alongside an otherwise highly positive review. I can in fact wholly recommend this book to anyone even slightly interested in J-Horror chronology and filmography. And even if your pet-peeve happens to be the same as mine, I suggest you read it with the understanding that the only "beyond" here is geographical.

Post Note: In the acknowledgment of the book is recognized long-time SaruDama friend Mandi Apple/Snowblood as a primary resource. If you have any interest in J-Horror, I suggest you visit them as well.

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