Natural Elements in Japanese Horror Films

by Dan Asenlund

While viewing a number of Japanese horror films recently, I made a small discovery. They were all abundant in natural elements. In Korei, earth and wind. In Dark Water, water. In Cure, fire (and water). For the sake of narrowing this article down, I will focus on the latter two examples. What is the meaning of the elements such strongly represented? Is it a sign that indeed evil, like the natural elements, is eternal and came to being together with goodness, such as the Chinese yin and yang concept? What does the use of these elements in Dark Water and Cure mean specifically? I will try to answer those and other questions as we go along.

First of all, let us track down natural elements in Japanese history. It is hard to cover all references to such broad elements as water and fire, but if we look into the creation tale of Japan, the Kojiki, we can make some assumptions about their meanings. The island of Onogoro, for example, is created by Izanagi and Izanami by stirring a jeweled spear in what appears to be a large basin of water (Freud and many others would say that this whole act is a phallic symbol!). Fire is also eminent when Izanami gives birth to the Fire-Deity, her private parts being burnt in the process. From the vomit she spills, more Deities are created. This shows that fire has a destructive as well as a constructive effect and involves sacrifice, which is interesting to note and something I will get back to later in the discussion of Cure.

Secondly, before delving deeper into the movies themselves, the significance of religious beliefs and customs in relation to the natural elements needs a mention. Japan is unique in the way religions are mixed within the same household. As folklorist Barre Tolken remarks in Ghosts and the Japanese: “Typically the same family that uses a Shinto ceremony for weddings will observe Buddhist rites for funerals; a businessman who espouses Confucian precepts in his profession may be a practicing Christian, a nonchalant Buddhist, or of no religion at all.“ We need to understand Shinto and Buddhism in particular to understand the Japanese people’s belief in kami (gods) and ghostly spirits such as yurei. In Shinto, “both natural elements (or phenomena) and man are given a possibility to become kami,” because they were both created by kami (see Kojiki). In Buddhism, which entered Japan from China through Korea, and became very influential about twelve hundred years ago during the Heian period, natural elements play a significant role as indicators of flow. The world is constantly floating, spinning – which by the way also could be said about modernity in Cure. Is the fire and water portrayed there just a metonymy for modernity? That could be one way to see it. But let us start with Dark Water.

Honogurai mizu no soko kara, the film’s title in Japanese which means something like “From the bottom of dim water,” primarily addresses the topic and problem of single mothers in Japan. But its imagery is more intricate than that. Why is the water honogurai and what significance does that have?

In Japanese mythology, both fire and water are related to kami. Water is considered especially holy and positive, but it is important that the water is clean to retain its positivism. In Dark Water, because Mitsuko is floating dead inside the water tank supplying Yoshimi’s and Ikuko’s apartment complex, the water is not clean. It is honogurai. This works in two ways: the water tastes bad because it is physically affected by the remains of a dead body inside the tank; also, the spirit of Mitsuko is trapped inside the floating water – she needs to be released in order for the water to become clean again.

To draw a Buddhist parallel to this, let us take a look at a Noh play that spurred out of a sequence from the classic Tale of Genji written by Murasaki Shikibu. In the play, entitled Aoi no Ue, Lady Rokujo is battling a vengeful spirit possibly sent to her for feeling jealousy over her ex-lover Genji (or perhaps it has been with her all the time, as some may argue). Before a Shamaness is sent to communicate with the evil spirit, Rokujo complains: “Harboring resentment toward others simply increases the misery of my floating life.“ Later, a holy man manages to outdrive the evil spirit and Rokujo is released from the floating and worldly attachments. Now, I don’t think this strong Buddhist message is very much related to Mitsuko in Dark Water, but I would like to emphasize water as something floating, something permanent in the world of impermanence. Mitsuko is stuck inside the tank similarly to the way Rokujo is stuck to the world of impermanence. When cleansed, both acquire peace.

We should also consider the traditional Japanese belief in the other world, anoyo (the world over there) and the road from this world (konoyo) after death. Anoyo usually means “the land across the mountains” or “over the seas” but is described by some very early accounts as lakes and streams with their own power. It could take up to 49 days to properly progress from konoyo to anoyo, but if a person dies suddenly, has unfinished business, or has not gone through the proper burial rituals, he or she might be called back to konoyo. Such is the case with Mitsuko, and hence the water is honogurai, or dark.

If water symbolizes the flow of life, then what does fire symbolize? More specifically, what is the significance of fire in Cure? As I mentioned above, many Japanese associate fire as related with kami, less holy than water but more emotional. It is also an important element in the Buddhist death rituals, performed by most Japanese today when a family member dies. For example, after the Obon festival (when the dead come back to konoyo for a few days during summer), torches accompany souls back to the anoyo (also interesting to note in relation to the previous discussion is that lanterns are placed in rivers and streams to guide the spirits, who use water to travel between the worlds). Another important factor to consider is that of the hitodama, a glowing flame sometimes seen above graveyards symbolizing ignited spirits of dead persons. A flame is also seen as a sign or omen that someone will soon die.

How is all this related to the representation of fire in Cure? For example, Mamiya uses a lighter to hypnotize some of his victims, such as the police officer in the koban (police box). That could work in many ways: the flame being an indicator that the policeman will soon die; the flame symbolizing Mamiya as hitodama with a task to fulfill (destruct modernity); the flame symbolizing the victim as a dead person stuck in the constantly spinning wheel of modernity; or simply as a metonymy for igniting the Cure (for modernity).

Another interesting thing I would like to mention is the association with hitodama and foxes, viewed as very tricky animals in Japanese culture that are on the borderline between the natural and the supernatural, relying on natural elements, and have the ability to transform themselves into many different shapes. The thought struck me that perhaps Mamiya is a disguised agent from the past, or from somewhere beyond, with the mission to detach people from modernity, with whatever consequences and methods it may require.

But not only fire is significant in Cure; water plays a prominent role as well. For example, Mamiya uses it instead of fire to set some of his victims into trance. One example is the doctor. Another is Takabe inside the cell. Why did Mamiya treat these cases differently? Did he have other purposes with the doctor and Takabe? Did he want to use water with them as a signal of their rebirth? But then, that does not explain the doctor’s actions inside the men’s bathroom. Mamiya threw water at the doctor because he was not allowed to light a cigarette inside the hospital, so in this case I think that water just served as a substitute for fire. The water he threw in her face could have been a sign to stop of the flowing of modernity, as I mentioned earlier, whereas the fire serves in a way to ignite the Cure itself.

We can also draw parallels between Mamiya and Swiss scientist Franz Anton Mesmer, whom Mamiya obviously admires and perhaps associates himself with. Mesmer was the founder or mesmerism, or what he himself called animal magnetism, which he claimed was a previously unknown fluid inside the human body, capable of healing. He was never really recognized for his findings and was often ridiculed by his contemporaries. Mamiya uses hypnosis the way Mesmer perhaps hypnotized his patients to make them believe in the magnetic fluid, thus mentally curing their illnesses. Both theories are very conspicuous, and perhaps Mamiya sees himself as a fulfiller of Mesmer’s unfinished quest. Even though their intentions might have been different (while using similar medicine), Mamiya probably feels compassion with Mesmer on several levels.

To sum this up, we can conclude that natural elements have played a large role in the history and myths of Japan, evident in Shinto as well as Buddhism and in many ancient texts. Both water and fire have constructive powers, fire being unique as it is also destructive and serves as a symbol for death and sacrifice. Mamiya, who is heavily associated with fire, pays the ultimate sacrifice in his quest to cure his “patients” from modernity. Water, as a sign of rebirth, serves both as the road between this and the other world as well as a symbol of a floating world. Its purity is highly valued, which makes the water tank in Dark Water significant as it contains a dead body and a stuck soul who needs a proper burial. We can draw the connection here that if mistreated, water loses its universal and cyclic powers and blocks passages of life. We should also note that many Japanese fear water because of the geographical as well as natural situations that persist in the region. As Dark Water’s director Nakata Hideo says in an interview about why water is scary: “The ocean can give birth to life, but it can also swallow life.”

To answer the question I posed in the introduction, whether or not natural elements symbolize eternal evil, I would say that while not necessarily doing so, they are highly symbiotic with life itself and serve as a middle wall between konoyo and anoyo. If something goes wrong along the way, the elements can take on evil powers until neutrality is restored. Fire is powerful and needs to be handled with gently; in the wrong hands, such as Mamiya’s, it can serve as an igniter of deadly cycles of terror and misdeed. Then we can of course argue that Mamiya’s are the right hands, relieving his victims from the curse of modernity. But that, again, is the topic of another study…

2 Responses to Natural Elements in Japanese Horror Films

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  2. Alberto says:

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