Defining J-horror: The terror of deep time
The horror genre is not typically thought of as a “slow” genre. In fact, horror films today often feel like stimulus-response tests where shocking events happen suddenly and without warning. However, Japanese horror directors take up another tradition, one where events unfold gradually. A case point is the director Kiyoshi Kurosawa, whose films “Cure” (1997) and “Pulse” (2001) have become J-horror classics. In them, everything happens slowly, as in a dream or a trance state. His characters are prey to the gradual and inevitable unfolding of strange events that will forever lay beyond the scope of their comprehension. The result is hypnotic: it’s as if the horror is stretched out and experienced in slow-motion.
In the history of Japanese literature, the master of “slow horror” is Izumi Kyoka (1873-1939). An eccentric, introspective, and reclusive writer, Kyoka lived much of his life in poverty and ill health, and he frequently traveled around the Japanese countryside to convalesce from various ailments. His stories are not quite folktales, through as a child he was fascinated by his mother’s collection of kusazōshi (illustrated books), and he was a lifelong admirer of Japanese comic novels such as Jippensha Ikku’s “Tokaidochu Hizakurige” (“Shank’s Mare”).
Kyoka’s writing shows affinities with Western authors such as Gerard de Nerval and Charles Baudelaire, but he was less preoccupied with modern urban decay than his French counterparts, preferring instead the misty shadows of the Japanese countryside.
A prolific author, with more than 500 works to his name — plays, essays, travelogues and short stories — Kyoka is only now receiving the attention he deserves. This is thanks in part to the attentive and careful English translations of his writings by Charles Shiro Inouye in “Japanese Gothic Tales” and “In Light of Shadows,” which present a range of Kyoka’s fiction, from his early tales of gothic horror to his later dream-like novellas. While his writings were mostly ignored during his life, Kyoka’s unique approach to the supernatural has inspired novelists such as Haruki Murakami and Junichiro Tanizaki.
Yukio Mishima said Kyoka “drew from a vocabulary as rich as the sea to craft sentences of lasting stone and plunge into the deep forest of Japanese mysticism.”
What makes this pioneering horror writer unique is the dark lyricism that runs throughout his stories, a lyricism that is inseparable from his fascination with the natural world. A description of a mountain or forest can take on delirious proportions, as inner and outer states become intertwined, producing a mesmerizing, eerie tranquility. In one story, an old man recalls the day in the distant past when he had walked into the mountains to attempt suicide: “These red leaves were green then. I climbed through the shadows of the trees. When I looked toward the graveyard, the top of the hill was covered with mist, so I couldn’t see a thing. It was as if the gravestones had suddenly vanished like a mirage. But through the nettle trees, I saw the light of the temple’s tall lantern, coming to me through the branches, passing between the leaves, greeting the spirits of the dead, welcoming the dew, while above my head trailed the long ghost of a wisteria tassel, swaying before my eyes.”
In “Koya Hijiri” (“The Holy Man of Mount Koya”) — Kyoka’s most well-known tale — the road on which a monk is traveling gradually gives way to a wooded path, which itself gradually disappears, leaving the monk alone in the forest. He is beset by swaying trees, a swarm of insects and finally a downpour of leeches. Fatigued and delirious, the monk stands petrified in terror: “These terrifying mountain leeches had been gathered there since the age of the gods, lying in wait for passersby … . And at the same time, all these enormous trees, large enough to block out even the midday sun, will break into small pieces that will then turn into even more leeches.”
The forest takes on animistic properties as the boundaries between animal, plant and mineral pass away.
“The destruction of mankind,” the monk observes, “will begin with the forests of Hida turning into leeches and end with black creatures swimming in blood and muck. Only then will a new generation of life begin.”
Kyoka’s protagonists are usually wandering or lost — or both. They are all haunted in some way, by the past, by their memories, by the death of loved ones and, yes, by actual spirits and demons. His characters drift through towns, villages, temples and eventually they pass through obscure portals, usually in the woods, on a mountain, near a river or a pond. Beyond this, they discover another space that is neither town nor forest, and neither dream nor hallucination — a space at once natural and supernatural.
Author Akutagawa Ryunosuke, a contemporary of Kyoka, used the phrase “Kyoka no sekai” (“Kyoka’s world”) to describe this space of dread and wonder.
Kyoka was also a writer against his time. In Meiji Era (1868-1912) Japan, narrative fiction tended toward realism, with simple, unadorned language depicting the everyday lives of everyday people in stories with a linear chain of events and a clear direction. By contrast, Kyoka made use of modernist literary techniques — stories- within-stories, unreliable narrators, hidden references — to create his own shadowy world, most often expressed through luminous and mesmerizing descriptions of nature. Everything eventually becomes hazy in “Kyoka’s world,” as reality dissolves into dream, stories fold in on themselves and narrators dissipate into the very landscape, the climate and the elements that surround them.
While many of his stories address the themes of love and death, it is the natural world that pervades Kyoka’s writing. If his stories evoke a “slow horror,” perhaps this is because he drew so much from nature as a source of inspiration. Everything moves slowly, on a vast, planetary scale very different from the short-term concerns of human beings: the eerie rivers and ponds in the story “A Quiet Obsession,” the howling, singing wind in “A Song By Lantern Light,” the spectral shrouds of rain in “One Day in Spring,” the otherworldly mountains in “The Heart-vine” and the hallucinatory, menacing, cathedral-like forests of “The Holy Man of Mount Koya.”
This is not simply romanticism in which the natural world becomes a background for human drama. Kyoka allows the background to constantly seep into the foreground as his characters constantly find themselves being enveloped, little by little, by their environment. As this occurs, the normal clock-time of human beings is replaced by the deep time of forests, mountains and the languorous ebb and flow of the climate — at once expressive and impersonal, alluring and indifferent.
This is the second installment of a three-part series on the literary origins of Japanese horror. The third part of this series will run on Jan. 8. Eugene Thacker is the author of “In The Dust Of This Planet” (Zero Books, 2011) and “Cosmic Pessimism” (Univocal, 2015).