This is my second piece for the Japanese Cinema Blogathon for Tsunami and Earthquake relief. If you can, I would ask that you donate a little bit of scratch for them. They’ve given us an incredible amount of culture to enjoy. Let’s help them recover from this, ey?
So, if you’re feeling generous…Here’s the link. Just click on Totoro! He will love you forever for it. PROMISE.
***warning: there are some small spoilers within this article, however, considering these films- there is really no such thing as a spoiler. However, I feel it important to say this…just in case.***
What do zombies, vampires, cannibalism, reincarnation, motorcycles and alternative sexuality have in common?
Modern Japanese cinema and pulp fiction.
It may seem strange that a literary tradition that has defined itself as being so very singularly American could have influenced a strain of Japanese cinema that is so singularly Japanese, but it has indeed done just that. While perhaps not as quantitatively traditional as Akira Kurosawa’s samurai pictures or Yasujiru Ozu’s look at Japanese familial and marital daily life, films like Wild Zero (Tetsuro Takeuchi, 2000) and Versus (Ryuhei Kitamura, 2000) reflect the history of Japan and Japanese culture in a manner that has now become part and parcel of Japanese cinematic tradition.
Released in the same year, Wild Zero and Versus not only represent a modern, industrialized Japan, but they are also multi-layered cinematic pieces. They are perfect examples of the axiom “without your past, you cannot know your future, because your future will be a child of your past.” Quite literally, these films display the future while making constant reference to the past. While not a new feat in the world of Japanese cinema, the methodology that these films have chosen to complete this task is quite original, not to mention more than a little strange. By utilizing the tenets of pulp fiction, these films manage to convey a Japanese”ness” that, while present, does not make itself known in shouting declarations. It lets the pulp do all the shouting for them. While most people would not consider either of these films subtle by any stretch of the imagination, I contend that the revelatory facet of these films is how well they manage to deftly slip a defined Japanese national pride within the context of genre pieces. It is an admirable achievement.
The term “pulp” is used to describe a very particular media during a very specific time period. They came up during the very last dying breaths of the 19th century, and faded out in the 1950s.
Named after the paper that they were printed on (these were the cheapie mags, and thus were all printed on wood pulp), the majority of the content was based upon things that later made their way to the American screen in the form of film noir/detective films, monster movies, and science fiction. Opening up a pulp magazine guaranteed you entrance to an entirely different universe; one where many of the things that we now know as generic conventions were just being birthed.
Aside from the stories, these magazines were all about the covers. While they were generally only on the magazines that were a little pricier than the “pulps,” the visuals were what sold that journal, and the “pulpier” the better. While pulp started out referring to the paper, due to the exploitative components of the entire genre of magazine, inside and out, pulp came to mean something more akin to the fleshy part of an orange- juicy, colorful, and unfettered by a protective skin. One look at most of the cover artistry, and this would be obvious.
The topics covered ranged from romance/love stories, detective fiction and gangster drama to science fiction elements and horror stories. Whatever the most “hot ticket” item of the day was would be the cover of the latest pulp fiction magazine. More often than not, these magazine covers depicted a beautiful girl in some kind of trouble- gangster kidnapping, alien capture, or just your run-of-the-mill terrorizing monster attack. Since with pulp fiction they were actively attempting to shove the “tell a book by its cover” principle at you, the sheer sexiness of the scantily clad, terrified female was definitely supposed to sell the book- and it did. They sold like hotcakes. By combining sex, action, violence and fear on practically every cover, these low-quality magazines became a huge piece of modern day culture. The influence of these books can be seen everywhere from comic books to the exploitation films of the 1950s and all the way to Quentin Tarantino’s film entitled pulp fiction, which had a poster that looked as though it actually were a magazine from back in the day.
Pulp magazines were highly representative of America and American politics. Whether they visually expressed the strength of the military, police and/or other authority figures through the covers or told gripping tales of suspense and terror that were lightly veiled allegories to WWII or the burgeoning Cold War, there was something within both the substance and the aesthetics that made it an All-American format. While there was certainly descension and governmental criticism in many of these tales (writers like Ray Bradbury and Philip K. Dick are not well-known for blind patriotic spirit), they are as American as apple pie. Aside from comic books (a very close sibling to the pulps), if you want to signify a kid as an “all-American youngster” in a film, just shove a copy of “The Shadow” or “Amazing Stories” in his grubby paw. That’ll be your signifier, without fail.
Versus: Prisoner KSC2-303 and the Journey Through the Forrest of Resurrection
If there were a pulp cover to Ryuhei Kitamara’s Versus, it would be too cluttered to even see the title. This film is so packed from start to finish with generic elements and caricatures that it almost seems like it is too much. However, that is part of the film’s inherent charm: its utter chaos.
The first time I saw this film, I think I actually understood it better than subsequent times. When I say that this is a piece of cinematic madness that makes Tom Waits’ Renfield look like a normal upstanding guy! The short list for this film would tell you that Versus contains the following: zombies, Yakuza, intergalactic travel, reincarnation, and a cyclic conflict between two warriors that repeats itself every time the individuals involved are back in human form. The longer list would give you cannibalism, vampirism, homosexuality, murder, revenge, and escaped convicts, all interacting within a Forest of Resurrection. According to Versus logic, this forest is in Japan, and is therefore the 444th out of 666 portals that connect this world with the next. And I haven’t even told you what the film is about!
Here’s the plot: prisoner KSC2-303 has escaped and has met up with some yakuza who are supposedly going to get him out of the forest area that he is in that even the gangsters note is “weird feeling.”
But they have to wait for The Man.
During this, KSC2-303 frees the girl who these men have kidnapped (“here’s the thing- I’m a feminist,” he growls at them before engaging in a nasty battle), and then total chaos ensues. It doesn’t stop for the rest of the picture. Not even a little bit.
They all discover that the dead come back to life in this area, and the prisoner takes off with the girl. The yakuza chase after him only to realize the stakes are totally against them: they’ve been using this area to bury their kills for years. Not a great thing to do in what we find out is the Forest of Resurrection! Long story short, many battles and insane action sequences later, we are informed that KSC2-303 is part of a cycle that happens every time his soul is reincarnated into a different body- he must fight for the girl and prevent The Man (a character who is basically redefining how far evil can go) from his purpose- going through the portal.
Ramie Tateishi writes of Japanese horror films that “the notion of horror implied in this buried/forgotten past is that the remnants of yesterday may turn vengeful as a consequence of being denied, ignored, or otherwise erased.” (1) Kitamura’s use of zombies and reincarnation only serves as an anchor for this statement. The fact that the yakuza cannot get away from the men that they have murdered and that The Girl and KSC2-303 keep coming back to repeat the same act every hundred or so years, just makes it more relevant. Part of what makes this film unarguably Japanese is its reliance on the past.
Tateishi discusses the state of what he calls “cultural nostalgia” in Japan. He writes that while there is a certain sense of wanting to reclaim the past, remember it and re-experience it, there is also a certain desire to destroy it. He notes, “this response entails a type of active destruction, insofar as it involves a wiping away of the previous foundation in order to create a new one. What is most interesting about this process is the way in which the elements that characterized the past are (re-) defined as chaotic and/or monstrous, embodying the spirit of primal irrationality that is supposed to have threatened and worked against the new, modern way of thinking.”(2) Kitamura’s involvement of monsters on every front in addition to the severely chaotic pace of the film tends to support this statement.
It must be noted, however, that Kitamura refuses to just let it stay with Tateishi’s destruction theory. With his involvement of reincarnation, Versus seems to be a film that not only pits two warriors of the ages against each other, but the past and the future. Even the introduction and the coda of the film seem to correlate to this theory, as it begins with images of a samurai warrior and is completed with the aesthetics of a futuristic setting. In a sense, Versus is a film about the conflict that exists within Japanese culture in regards to dealing with the past and moving towards the future. While the film seems to simply give heated and meth-fueled ruminations upon how this is playing out in this “alternate Japan,” the very fact that it is like a gore-addled music video that moves lightning-fast through everything says that perhaps this is part of what is so problematic. This conflict between the two warriors seems to continue, indefinitely, which seems to indicate that until the past is properly dealt with, then this fast-moving, forward-thinking culture will never fully be able to have solid unification.
Kitamura relies on the monstrous and generic iconography to help express his concepts. This tactic is not unfamiliar to the world of pulp fiction. Most science fiction stories and monster stories weren’t really about actual aliens coming from another planet, nor were they about the monster-of-the-week. These characters served as stand-ins for other, more controversial matters. In order to express political distress or in order to profer ideas that criticized the culture at large, the writers of pulp used the “monstrous” as a narrative tool. Subsequently, these stories may be seen as purely horror/sci-fi/adventure, and yet they are active political discourse.
Kitamura’s methodology is largely the same: serious action, lots of blood, guts and monsters, science-fictional environment, all leading to a subtle deconstruction of Japan’s conflicted feelings about how to navigate through the past/present/future.
Remember the Past: Wild Zero and Interpolated Nostalgia
While Versus concentrates on the Fantastic and ideas of conflict and battle, Wild Zero is more of a reflection on pop culture and nostalgia intermingled with zombies, yakuza, flying saucers and alternative sexuality. Using the band Guitar Wolf as a jumping off point, this film takes ideas of the past and modern fears and creates a sort of cartoon out of the entire thing. In a way, where Versus (silly as it gets sometimes) is serious, Wild Zero is almost parodic. Yet, just like every joke has a bit of truth, every “goofy” thing in this film also has a side that compliments it by being romantic or victorious. To be sure, where Versus runs dark, Wild Zero runs exuberantly light.
The pulp magazine business had a heady variety of romance magazines-Rangeland Romance, Romance Round-up, Romantic Detective and many, many more. Romance was a huge component of their business.
Considering that they ran throughout WWII, when all the ladies were at home working for the “good of the country,” there needed to be something for teenage girls and women to read while their men were away! (3) These magazines served a function within the US. Not only did they indulge a kind of romantic world that had been going strong in Hollywood films for a long time, but they also created a kind of Cult of Feminine Desire. The sighing-at-the-drop-of-a-hat kind. However, these books gave lonely women hope for a future in a wartime society that was pretty low in the hope department and also depicted women in some fairly active roles at times (cowgirls or ranchhands, primarily). While I’m not sure if the somewhat powerful roles on the covers of the Westerns were a good trade-off for the consistent depictions of helpless women needing to be saved on the covers of the rest of the pulps, there you have it. In any case, the romance pulps served a very effective function in keeping hope and positive thinking alive.
Wild Zero has taken the pulp aesthetic, and put an entirely new spin on it. While pulp magazines (and indeed, most cultural objects at the time) were heavily heterosexist, Wild Zero takes romance and love to an entirely different place.
Japanese theater and film history has a very unusual gender history. Kabuki, one of the most famous and highly-regarded forms of theater, has used men to play female parts since practically the beginning. While it started out with both men and women in the plays, women were banned from Kabuki in 1629, due to the suggestiveness of many of the plays being performed in tandem with the fact that most of the actresses were also available for “special services.” On the other hand, when they started to put young men in the roles originally designated for women, that didn’t seem to change the situation much. those young men (Wakashu, as they were known at the time) were also available for prostitution. And their customers? Well, let’s just say that the wakashu were equal-opportunity providers! While the wakashu were eventually banned as well, both the ban on women and the one on young adolescent men playing women were later rescinded.Women, however, did not re-enter the theater in an acting context until much, much later.
Men continued to play both the male and female roles in all the major types of theater in Japan: Kabuki, Kyogen, and Noh. This was such a basic part of Japanese culture, that it continued into the cinema for a good amount of time. Movies began being made in Japan in 1897. The first time that they put a female actress before the camera was in 1911. Considering that the Japanese film industry worked fast and hard, this was a fairly long time to wait to have a female play a female role.
Wild Zero plays on this theme with brutal honesty. Our hero, Ace, finds a young girl at the gas station that he is at. He is on his way to see his favorite band, Guitar Wolf (who he has, incidentally, just become blood brothers with after helping them out of a jam back at the previous show) again, when he stops to fill up on gas. As he steps off his name-emblazoned motorcycle, his eyes meet hers. Her eyes meet his.
It is indeed love at first sight. Tetsuro Takeuchi uses this particular moment to not only emphasize the film’s ultra-sensational pop-culture aesthetic, but also to accentuate the pulpiness of the film’s general narrative. While the nostalgia that Wild Zero seeks to re-create is most definitely a strange amalgamation of 1950s Rebel Without a Cause-ness meets hyperbolic punk-rock superhero of the Repo Man variety, this particular scene is, in effect, created to inspire all the romance and “girly-gushiness” of a romance pulp.
Ace and Tobio’s relationship is a complicated one, however. The main issue? Well, as Ace finds out after saving Tobio from an onslaught of zombie attackers, she is really a highly attractive he. The idea of being in love with a transexual freaks Ace out. He runs and hides from Tobio, just as she has opened herself up to him and told him of her secret. It is at this point that the Spirit of Guitar Wolf appears to Ace, and tells him in a quite disciplinary and reprimanding way, “Love has no borders, nationalities, or genders!”
In a sense, Takeuchi’s film is referencing Japanese theater/film history and making an attempt to recall and rewrite a new one. Tobio’s transexuality not only plays on the existence of the wakashu, but decidedly challenges modern homophobia. This film has a fun and playful front, but it does recognize some extremely powerful and significant topics. In this particular instance, Ace’s adoration for Guitar Wolf makes him realize that his fear was misguided, and he spends the remainder of the film looking for Tobio in order to be reunited with the person that he loves, regardless of their gender.
Wild Zero has many things in common with Versus and I’m not referring simply to the fact that they both deal with yakuza, zombies and space travel. Takeuchi obviously utilizes the same tactics that Kitamura does by creating a hyperbolic, cartoonish and explosive narrative in order to relay issues of Japanese culture. While Versus works mostly with ideas of traditional Japanese-“ness,” Wild Zero confronts modernity and Western influence.
Wild Zero is about rock’n’roll and it is about being attacked by zombies. The band, Guitar Wolf (made up of Guitar Wolf, Bass Wolf and Drum Wolf), serves as a reminder of the past but how one might utilize the past in order to create the future. Their greaser-aesthetic and the pounding soundtrack only serve to support this idea. While songs like Bikini Kill’s “Rebel Girl” are not exactly rockabilly anthems, the rest of the soundtrack is filled with retro-sounding songs that have been renegotiated in order to fit a more punk-rock beat. But, as stated in the beginning of the film by Ace in response to the Captain (the corrupt, drug-dealing club manager), “Rock’n’roll is not over! Rock’n’roll never dies!” And it doesn’t. But as nostalgically rock’n’roll as Guitar Wolf look, they also drive a more modern car, Guitar Wolf’s motorcycle shoots fire out of the back, and they have (essentially) superhero powers. They are past and future, all intermingled within the rockabilly rhetoric of rock’n’roll living forever.
Wild Zero‘s penultimate concentration on science fiction, horror and heroism brings back ideas of pulp magazines. The concentration in many pulp magazines was victory over the invading force, whether that force was a robot, an alien, the opposing military side or an evil monster. Within this film, Ace must conquer his personal demons in addition to the zombies who are trying to kill him and keep him from saving Tobio. While he is engaged in this journey, the film makes continual references to the past in order to show how Ace’s eventual victory is also, in a way, a victory over what is outdated. Even the Captain, when he makes the statement “Remember the past!” to Guitar Wolf receives a very clear message of what the past means at this juncture.
In a sense, Guitar Wolf serves the same role in this movie as The Ramones did in Rock’n’Roll High School . The Ramones were there to be a band but also be a symbol. While Guitar Wolf is a much more active figure within the diegesis than The Ramones were, they serve similar functions. Not only does Guitar Wolf’s look bring up the highly Japanese addiction to the Western rock’n’roll aesthetic, but they are tour guides through the film. One thinks from the several songs that they do, that they would serve a very minor function; that they would simply be there to be the rock stars that Ace sees them as and have a simple performative role. But Takeuchi approaches it differently. Because fan culture is such a large part of Japanese culture, Wild Zero is used to celebrate that aspect of being Japanese but also deconstruct it. While Ace follows the band blindly at first, he learns that there is much to be gotten from their existence that is not received from simple hero-worship. As Ace says in his final voiceover, “From that day on, I never saw a Guitar Wolf show again…Courage and rock’n’roll: that’s what he taught me that night. Love has no boundaries, nationalities, or genders. And he was right.”
Confronting zombies, is a way of negotiating pop-cultural influences. And Wild Zero does so, no holds barred. The zombies are displayed like traditional iconic American zombie archetypes, a la George Romero. I would argue that the destruction of the zombies is analogous to the Western hold on Japanese culture. More importantly however, the existence of zombies that are so very Western in aesthetic only goes to show that there is a certain discursive element to their appearance. The characters’ conversation in regards to Night of the Living Dead seems to sustain this theory since none of them have actually seen the movie and yet they argue about it. This particular scene lays bare many features of Japanese fan culture. Add that to the character of Guitar Wolf (the entire band), and you have Takeuchi’s loud and proud declaration of Japanese pop-culture.
Look at Guitar Wolf themselves: they look like a rock’n’roll band, but they play music on their own terms. While I’m at a loss to describe exactly the kind of music that they play, it is certainly an amalgamation of noise, punk, rock and other genres alongside surrealistic lyrics. Takeuchi essentially makes the statement that, while Western pop-culture certainly informs Japanese pop-culture, it does not create it. While it may seem like a superficial thing to just take the aesthetic of one country’s media and apply it to your own, it is, in fact, more nationalistic and entirely Japanese.
As films, both Versus and Wild Zero may initially seem like wild, action-packed, fluff with acid-hallucination-like versions of plotlines (mostly in the case of Versus, but Wild Zero‘s wacky and comic-book-like story definitely counts). But, much like the science-fiction and horror pulps with their attacks on government and culture, these films have managed to sublimate ideas of Japanese culture within otherwise generic conventions. Part of this is not sublimated- I have yet to see a Western-culture film that is so densely packed with horror/scifi/romance iconography as these, and especially one that flips many of these conventions on their heads. On the whole, however, these films seem to introduce new methods of Japanese film-making that I, for one, enjoy a great deal.
(1) Tateishi, Ramie. “The Japanese Horror Film Series: Ring and Eko Eko Azarak.” Fear Without Frontiers: Horror Cinema Across the Globe. Ed. Steven Jay Schneider. Godalming, UK: FAB Press, 2003.
(3) Incidentally, WWII was also when romance comic books became extremely popular, for largely the same reasons. I would contend that one likely spawned the other, since romance pulps (and their famous covers) have a much longer history and go further back than romance comics. Of course, the irony of this is that romance comics continued and pulp magazines fell out of favor.