Reverence for the truth, and the debasement of Japanese media

Cover of a spread in a tabloid magazine. In big bloody lettering: “Stuffed in a duct!! Riddle of a man’s suspicious corpse!” Close-up of the face of dead man, with surrounding photos of the duct from various angles. On the next page of photos of other with some relation to the guy. They’ve all either died suspiciously or gone missing.
2020.08.27, by Ansel
Filed under Essays, Film, Horror, Reviews

“I want to know the truth. Even when that truth is a terrible thing.”

★★★☆ Noroi (Curse) is both a fine horror story and an incisive satire of what passes for Japanese popular journalism. Eschewing the usual amateur, consumer-grade technical trappings of found footage horror, Kouji Shiraishi has instead crafted a highly polished documentary-style picture: the story of a professional journalist in pursuit of the truth.

The documentary’s presenter and director is the disappeared Masafumi Kobayashi (Jin Muraki), a middle-aged paranormal investigator who has spent a decade of his life documenting supernatural phenomena. A writer first and foremost with a background in folklore studies, Kobayashi dove into video late in his journalism career, making him an outsider to the Japanese media and especially entertainment industry. (Fittingly, his website was hosted on the Infoseek domain). Kobayashi is not your typical tabloid hack.

Though he is a major character and on-screen for most of the film, Kobayashi is never a “lead” or a focus until the very end of the film, which concentrates on the disturbing circumstances of his disappearance. Overall he comes across as something like the David Attenborough of ghosts.

The film has a wide cast representing a cross-section of Japanese society. Actresses and idols, homely single mothers, working nurses, academics, a local historian who looks like a chipmunk and is just as lovable, a cringingly off-kilter but earnest tinfoil hat conspiracy nut, gossipy old women who may or may not make use of expletives to describe their neighbors, blue and white collar workers who aren’t really thrilled to be on camera and are wary of getting into trouble that doesn’t involve them. When Kobayashi’s hand is involved, these people are depicted as they really are: mundane and caught up in their own rhythms and problems of life, though everyone and everything involved—including Kobayashi himself—is gradually, unwittingly sucked into a supernatural vortex of terror and violence. This is sharply contrasted with the other footage that Kobayashi integrates in his documentary: news reels, variety shows clips, Ghost Hunters with mamalukes, tawdry horror galas. Shock value is the lifeblood of showbiz. Standing across from this is Kobayashi: intent on revealing the truth.

What draws audiences to found footage horror is its verisimilitude: people like being as close to “reality” as possible, so that the uncanny is all the more shocking. Whenever the style is disparaged now, it’s not for the premise, that someone was filming all this when it happened, but for the inept film-making that plagues films of this style—and arguably horror as a whole. Overly shaky cameras, overdramatic facial expressions, people not behaving or thinking like real people. One guy, or Old Gods save us, all of them holding the idiot ball to get into this or that contrived situation. Noroi is held up by horror enthusiasts to be one of the most outstanding examples of found footage because director Shiraishi has raised the pursuit of reality above all else: by making his story a documentary dedicated to nothing but the uncovering of reality. He’s broken genre conventions in order to do that, and the film is not only novel, but a refreshing distillation of everything I love about found footage (verisimilitude).

Kobayashi is a nice guy. As dogged as he is in executing his professional and moral obligations ([Tolly] For him they’re one and the same—very impressive—), he doesn’t like confrontations. He’s never prodded people to get a rise out of them, never pushed, cornered, or hurt people for ratings or money or any other form of personal gain. The general public is his audience, people whom he wishes to inform, never an abstract viewership number or an exploitable source of entertainment. He hesitates to discomfort people, he hates making people feel bad, even when they’re acting objectively unreasonable towards him. Likewise he’s surrounded himself with good company—his cameraman is an upstanding guy who cares for the people he works with; his go-to sound engineer smirks like a smug bastard obviously proud of his work, but he never showboats and only dives straight into the nitty-gritty like a professional; his wife is just as sweet, kind, and concerned as him. She and her husband over the course of this one film unhesitatingly open up their home not once, but twice to people in need—people who probably should be in some kind of ghost witness protection program.

Before anyone mentions, yeah, I know this isn’t the first time someone’s made a doc-style horror. There’s the BBC’s Ghostwatch, Blair Witch’s first-class TV spots[1][2], and of course the infamous Cannibal Holocaust. And arguably Orson Welles’s infamous War of the Worlds radio drama.

Kobayashi’s respectful handling of his subjects lends Noroi a distance rarely seen in found footage films—what he’s made involves people, but it never devolves into a docusoap. Kobayashi practices a respectful and professional distance in all his work, and this actually makes all the people he interacts with more sympathetic, because from the start, the audience sees them as feeling people, not horror movie archetypes. His personal feelings intrude in his work only when it concerns someone’s safety, and his cautious and methodical approach renders Noroi a mystery film with a central detective, not a horror show spectacle. This will bore certain people. (But if you’re reading this site, you’re not one of those people anyway.) When the curse finally does touch the people near him and himself, the dread that the film has steadily been building turns into fear and terror shared between the audience and the characters.

Earlier in the film, this has the amusing effect of inspiring revulsion and contempt for the reality TV show types that don’t know how to deal with reality. The Ghost Hunters-like show I mentioned earlier is hosted by the UNGIRLS, a Japanese comedy duo of lanky mamalukes who, in the film, seem to be mamalukes in real life too. They just stand dumbly as their guest begins seizing on the forest floor in screaming agony. “Hey what’s up this time? What’s up? …Oh this is kinda bad actually.”

The director of the variety show that gathered the three has a better head on his shoulders, and one supposes he’s a nice guy. He tried to shield said guest from the terrible truth by editing the copy of the footage he gave her.

Again, these are figures in the media industry who are totally unequipped or unwilling to confront reality. Kobayashi obtains the raw footage and immediately shows it to the guest. The truth is terrible—but, regardless, it has to be known. In a parallel that would probably have Kobayashi turning in his grave (assuming he’s dead instead of simply MIA), the film begins with a warning that his documentary has been hitherto unreleased as it was “deemed too disturbing for public viewing.”

“Reality” TV isn’t specific to Japan, but Noroi does treat idiosyncrasies specific to Japanese popular culture in the early 2000s: panels of guests and celebrities reacting to footage (now a staple in American television and internationally on YouTube: the “reaction” video), pop idols conducting vox populi and “hands-on” investigations, the excessive and bombastic use of comic-style text overlays. The numerous cameos of celebrities and horror artists playing themselves are almost certainly lost to audiences outside of Japan: the UNGIRLS are an actual comedy duo (and I’m sure they’re much smarter in real life than in Noroi); Ai Ijima and Maria Takagi are two former porn stars in the service of primetime variety shows excerpted in Noroi; influential dark fantasy writer Hiroshi Aramata is the MC of a horror gala; and the most significant pop culture figure in the film is Marika Matsumoto, an actress who at that point was still fresh in Japanese popular consciousness as the cute girl from the convenience store commercials.

Noroi’s blurring of reality and fiction has a precedence in Shiraishi’s earlier work on the long-running (since 1999!) direct-to-video anthology series, Honto ni Atta! Noroi no Video (It Really Happened! Cursed Videos), which feature purported viewer-submitted videos of paranormal occurrences and the crew’s subsequent investigations into said happenings. …But personally, I drew a stronger connection to the naturalistic films of Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami: as polished as Noroi is, the film’s handful of simple, honest, humane, and really mundane exchanges with its various characters, many of whom are playing themselves and aren’t celebrities, reminded Tolly and I of Through the Olive Trees. In that film too the viewer meets many people in passing, and the little awkward gestures and niceties exchanged in mundane, everyday life impresses your heart as genuine. Homemade potato salad and (instant?) tea between new friends (“Isn’t this just regular tea?” “No, it’s the Marika deluxe oolong tea!”)—complaints about late rendezvous and compliments on performances from a previous film (“You were perfect in that part.” “Oh, it’s a part I play every day. I am a teacher!”)—this is from Through the Olive Trees—Shiraishi has mentioned in multiple interviews that the humane Kiarostami is one of his model filmmakers.

I can’t think of many other horror filmmakers—or filmmakers in general, honestly—who cite Abbas Kiarostami and South Korean director Lee Chang-dong as major influences on their filmmaking.

Shiraishi is a thoughtful man who thinks very closely about his craft. There are a handful of instances in Noroi where the shots feel too well composed, especially because the camera isn’t being held by a conscious human hand. The lighting’s too perfect, the palette’s been significantly altered in post, it’s too perfectly angled—the shot of a camera obviously not lying flat on its side. They seem like they’re from a completely different work—obviously they don’t fit the expected “feel” of a found footage film. In these rare cases, Shiraishi’s decided: “I want to evoke this mood. It doesn’t matter if it’s ‘unrealistic’—this film, right now, needs this technique to evoke the correct mood.” If the viewer can suspend their disbelief to accept these rare few shots, great! If not well, they’ll be thinking to themself, “Well this looks too professional.”

Still from the film. Marika Matsumoto looks sadly out the passenger window of a van window. The daylight outside is misty and very bright compared to the darkened, gloomy interior of the van. The colours are a uniform desaturated brown. The camera, sitting in the front passenger seat, is tiled to give the composition a feeling of unease.
Tell me you think this is a shot you’d expect from an unattended camera.

Whether the viewer will accept these shots or be pulled out of the film boils down to the individual’s own preferences and biases regarding “faked” documentaries. Shiraishi elaborated his theories on “faked” documentaries in a 2014 interview with Crank In!:

‘Direction’ is an objective term that represents the devices employed to make a work interesting. ‘Faked’ is a subjective term that represents some individual pieces of directed content, that’s all. If I have to say, when the stance of a work being ‘faked’ is introduced into public perception, then when a work is thought by the majority of the public to be ‘directed’ then it’s directed, if they recognise it as something ‘faked’ then it’s faked. That probably changes depending on how the press treats it, and other things like current trends. That judgment is nothing but a subjective one, and the standard of ‘genuine’ just depends on each individual person’s values of what they find ‘disagreeable’. Since people’s values are infinitely diverse, it isn’t possible to set an absolute standard there.

“Documentary is one of the POV techniques used to unify the footage actually captured by the camera during collection of material. Faked documentary is the direction of fiction that effectively utilizes the realism of a documentary. …Let’s say we have two works that differ only in stance; if you show the stance that it’s faked, then, even if the content is exactly the same, suddenly it’s a faked documentary.”

Personally, I thought Shiraishi made effective use of those “artificial”, off-kilter angles. I allowed myself to accept the shift in cinematography. Others might not. Tolly didn’t like them, he found his immersion “broken”, or at least briefly interrupted.

In Noroi, Shiraishi has made a valuable criticism of the Japanese press. This horror film treats people with a sympathy that is shamefully rare in all forms of media today, and effectively takes its audiences on an expedition to the truth that mirrors the actual creative process of gathering material and working through a documentary. If you want to be force-fed your “lore” and scared out of your seat at every turn then this ain’t for you. Kobayashi’s journey is more of a Lovecraftian unveiling of the unearthly, a descent into something esoteric and horrible. Shiraishi has been able to make such a horror film because of his willingness to go against the grain, in service to his work.

Unfortunately, this rigorous thoughtfulness over the devices of his craft and his declared disregard for “conventional” values of art have been a double-edged sword artistically. Four years later Shiraishi made the infamous Grotesque, a torture porn flick apparently so sadistic and of so little artistic substance that the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) banned its distribution in the UK. BBFC director David Cook said of the decision:

“Unlike other recent ‘torture’ themed horror works, such as the Saw and Hostel series, Grotesque features minimal narrative or character development and presents the audience with little more than an unrelenting and escalating scenario of humiliation, brutality and sadism. In spite of a vestigial attempt to ‘explain’ the killer’s motivations at the very end of the film, the chief pleasure on offer is not related to understanding the motivations of any of the central characters. Rather, the chief pleasure on offer seems to be wallowing in the spectacle of sadism (including sexual sadism) for its own sake.”

Shiraishi’s response (published in 3:AM Magazine):

“I was happy. Since there was a reaction I was very happy… the movie I’ve made has the power to cause a controversy… I wanted to make something that was impressive, and then the producer said, ‘I want you to make something horribly violent, so violent that it almost can’t be shown’, as these were my orders, I embraced the challenge of making something stirring and emotional whilst portraying extreme violence.”

I find myself disappointed and wishing Shiraishi shared more in common with his fictional Kobayashi. I certainly would welcome more works from that kind of personality than anything from the Splat Pack—Western horror filmmakers from Shiraishi’s same generation renowned for the cruelty and gore in their works. With the (un)release of Grotesque, I’m surprised no one else has counted him among their ranks.

I think this is significant to note: for Shiraishi, found footage isn’t a genre with pre-defined rules, but a tool. If you’re a high-brow film critic like Ansel then you can accept the interchanging of these tools very easily. But the layperson who sees found footage as a genre will be taken aback by the “incongruous” shots. I admit I initially approached the film from the standpoint of the “genre”.


Still, I’m uncertain how hard I should be on Shiraishi. It’s hard going in the Japanese film industry. Most of the films he’s directed aren’t stories he originally sought to make himself, but projects pitched to him by approaching producers who saw profit in such ventures; these include both Noroi and Grotesque. Shiraishi further commented in the 3:AM Magazine interview that he wanted to make a Hollywood blockbuster:

“I want money, making small films in Japan is not profitable. If you don’t make a big movie, you can’t make decent money, I’d like to achieve commercial success at some point…”

Again, going against the grain will only get you so far. For now it seems Shiraishi is content—or has to content himself with—taking gigs and working within their limits, as far as he can push them.

(To be clear: I and all of us at Baldora Station oppose the BBFC’s decision to censor Grotesque or any film in any capacity. If consenting adults want to enjoy a work of fantasy, then no matter how “problematic” or “gross” it is, they should be able to enjoy themselves.)

Noroi is available with English subtitles on the subscription streaming service Shudder. I can’t say anything about the quality of the subtitles as I haven’t seen it via Shudder.

I can say that the English fansubs that have been floating around on the Internet before the Shudder release has taken some liberties to make the speech more “direct” and American, unfortunately removing some of the politeness of Kobayashi and his cameraman, Hisashi Miyajima, and the nuances of other characters.