Noroi: The Curse

To conclude this trilogy of films by Kōji Shiraishi, I rewatched what's probably his most famous film and one of a few that got me into J-Horror and film analysis in general: Noroi. As I said in my review of Occult, when something has had an impact on you and others, it's hard to do justice to it in a piece of writing, but for the sake of getting my thoughts on paper before they leak through the holes in my brain, I'll make an attempt to say whatever I didn't mention in the other two posts where Noroi has already come up several times before.

One of the things that stood out to me the most compared to the other two films, which I did mention in their respective reviews, is that while Cult and Occult exist on opposite ends of the spectrum for me of having a distancing effect where the audience seems less coaxed into suspending their disbelief, Noroi feels like it exists right in the middle. It functions well as both a conventional horror film – again, in a way that was very timely with the popularity of the found footage genre in the 2000s – and also as a weird piece of haunted media that has running threads of being conscious of itself and the genre it's working in. But I would by no means describe Noroi as being middle of the road either; it's more like in striking this balance it feels more so than the other two like it exists in a perfect valley of the weird and the eerie.1

As I said before, Occult is a movie that is extremely down to earth and casual as far as its treatment of the subject matter goes. It gets uncomfortably close to the real world not just with the decision for Shiraishi to play himself in his own movie alongside another J-Horror director Kiyoshi Kurosawa, and not just because everything that happens in it feels so mundane and not like things that happen in a horror movie, but also because the events in it seem to very strongly parallel the Aum Shinrikyo sarin gas attacks and the Fukagawa Serial Slasher case. It's very notable and disappointing that I didn't pick up on the latter of the two events in my review of Occult, because it adds an entire new layer to interpret these films within: Their presence within the Denpa genre of Japanese media.

It just so happens that I had skimmed through the article linked above on Denpa while working on something else, and it mentions the Fukagawa slashings as the origins of Denpa specifically because the perpetrator of the slashings claimed he was being manipulated by electromagnetic waves. Having already argued in previous reviews that Shiraishi seems to have a fixation which he explores through the found footage genre in the relationship between media of the violent, macabre, or paranormal variety and its ambiguous relationship to reality, this very clear link to Denpa only solidifies this further. The Fukagawa case is an example of a common theme schizophrenic patients experience which has been called the "influencing machine", which is what it sounds like: The patient claims that their delusions are being created by a machine that is affecting their thoughts and perceptions, or they even claim it physically affects their bodies, or causes sensations that feel like electricity. The famous (to certain kinds of people) Richard Shaver case – in which the eponymous Shaver claimed that a race of subterranean creatures who lived in the hollow Earth had kidnapped and imprisoned him for several years – also happened to feature an influencing machine.2 This connection between Denpa, Richard Shaver, and the Fukagawa slashings is I think the key to not just understanding Shiraishi's films but also many other pieces of media from this era in Japan, especially J-Horror.

Shiraishi specifically has ended up being a good starting point for this because his films very directly confront this connection between electromagnetic machines and seeing things that aren't there (in one sense of existence at least) specifically through film and media. I'm going to ignore any of the more conventional and obvious interpretations of his films that a skeptic could draw from this that what he's really talking about is violence in media, because sure that's also probably there, but it's not very interesting to me and I think it also would necessary lose out on a lot of the interesting machinery of his films which can be used to construct this but also seem to be attuned to do far more powerful things. Obviously if you're reading this blog or have read the other posts on Shiraishi you know I'm talking about hyperstition, and how Shiraishi's films are a surprisingly interesting and understated example of exploring found footage's ambiguous relationship to reality as a carrier for hyperfictions. But Noroi in particular is unusual for not just being a found footage film, but a found footage film within another piece of "found footage" where the film itself is bascically a framing device for Noroi yet also is part of Noroi. In fact, the film is a whole collage of different pieces of found media.

Unlike something like the Blair Witch Project where it basically claims that the film itself, the film called "The Blair Witch Project", is literally a piece of found footage that exists in the real world and expecting the audience to play along with the gimmick, Noroi: The Curse is the title of a fictional documentary within the film directed by Shiraishi's self-insert character in the film, Masafumi Kobayashi. The title of the film the audience is watching is therefore not the actual piece of media we have in physical or digital form, the one that has the entire sequence of the framing narrative and the fictional documentary Noroi: The Curse embedded within it. Rather, its name isn't known to us. There's a complete absence of any explanation within the film for who assembled the film which has the Noroi documentary within it or the footage that follows from it. The film simultaneously is presented as something that is found footage, "a true story", yet as the audience by being invested in its existence as a true piece of media and suspending our disbelief we end up being framed within the framing device of the film itself and are in the world that Noroi has created.

The setting of Noroi is also worthy of talking about, because as I said, the fictional documentary Noroi: The Curse is itself a collage of different pieces of fictional media within this piece of fictional media. It features various pieces of fictional news reels, variety shows, and documentaries, all of which create the impression of a Japan in 2004 where the paranormal is something that is taken somewhat seriously by the average person (insofar as they've become just another mundane part of life) and where disappearances, unmotivated murders, and mass suicides all seem to be common to the world. I don't know what Japanese media is like outside of a few specific things I like (i.e. anime and certain Japanese Cinema), so I don't know if there's any real-world precedent for things like the variety shows in Noroi. Obviously, in the US at least, there's plenty of wooish paranormal daytime television programming, but it doesn't have the kind of casual everydayness of what's depicted in Noroi. Everything in Noroi – much like Occult's treatment of the character Eno – feels like it has the same balance of superficiality and authenticity that you would expect from any other piece of media on a subject other than the paranormal. By contrast, paranormal media in the US always has this Ringling Bros. esque winking at the audience, where it's played straight but you're in on it and are along for the corny haunted house ride. This is especially apparent in things like Ghost Adventures and Zach Baggans' whole personality and performance, or, to use one of my favorite guilty pleasures as an example of this, the Chills YouTube channel. With something like Chills, you know that all the footage he shows is fake, or staged, or easily explained by something else, and I say this as a literal insane person who is far from being a skeptic. But that's what makes it fun, because it's a very explicit flirtation with the nature of media in general as something where you always know that what's on the screen isn't real but you still are invested in it as if it was.

These things give the world of Noroi a flavor and backdrop that's very understated, something you have to think about to realize that the film is deliberately edited together to give the sense of a world whose view of reality is starting to crumble. It's a world where a secular scientific rationalism has seemingly lost its influence,3 and in its place people have begun to search for ways of explaining the world that veer off from traditional religions into the weirdness of the 20th century described by researchers like Jacques Vallée as modern reconfigurations of the same basic folkloric archetypes that are present throughout all of human history. This helps to, subconsciously perhaps, create the impression that the world of Noroi is one where something apocalyptic is about to happen soon. Much like Occult and Cult, the apocalypse never quite happens or at least isn't shown on screen, though Noroi does the most work at building a world at the brink of its end.

Returning back to Denpa and influencing machines, Noroi's engagement with these themes is as I said before in a nice medium of being weird and eerie. It's weird because the world of Noroi and the events that take place have a foreboding sense of wrongness, like something is just a bit off and everyone is going mad or disappearing, and it's eerie because it's all presented to the audience through several layers of distancing where what the audience is viewing is a reality that has been constructed for them by whatever anonymous person or organization assembled the footage from the fictional Noroi: The Curse documentary, the events follwing it, and the framing narrative into the film we're watching. But it goes even further by having a piece of fictional found media within the fictional documentary which is within the fictional framing narrative that has assembled piece of fictional media together into the film we're watching: The video taping of the Kagutaba ritual. Not only that, but this fictional film within the documentary is actually pivotal to the events of the documentary because it's what leads Kobayashi to attempt to recreate the ritual with Marika Matsumoto.4 Like many things in the film, there's an absence of any definitive explanation for what goes on in the film, only speculation on the part of the characters (who seem to get things wrong at times), but on rewatching this I get the impression that performing the Kagutaba ritual is what sets of the final events of the documentary in motion since we see the ritual take place shortly after. And just to hint even more so at the importance of the film, the mask that Junko Ishii wears in the Kagutaba ritual is displayed in many posters for Noroi.

I hate to mention this since I feel like the term "Lovecraftian" gets thrown around far too often these days by annoying millennials whose familiarity with Lovecraft is mostly through cultural osmosis, but Noroi is the first of these three films where I feel like there's an undeniable Lovecraft influence. Occult has a bit of that too, but it's less interesting to me than talking about its connections to ufology (even though the two are not exactly separate topics). But in Noroi it's very prominent, particularly in the customs of the Shimokage village who perform the Kagutaba ritual. The film implies, but never makes it quite explicit, that Kagutaba isn't really a demon but some kind of alien entity, something "eldritch" and beyond our ability to understand. The idea of ancient religions long since lost to time whose origins is in visitations by aliens or other entities beyond our understanding is classic Lovecraft, and if that wasn't obvious enough, Shimokage being submerged under a dam is about as obvious a reference to "The Colour Out of Space" as you can get. Bringing up Lovecraft matters though because as I said, there is a strong thread within ufology and the occult which argues that Lovecraft's fiction either has an accidental resonance with certain real-world occult traditions (something that Kenneth Grant talked about a lot), or obviously you know this if you're reading my blog but the hyperstitious, hyperfictional aspects of Lovecraft's work was also a topic of research by the Cthulhu Club.

With all of this in mind, I can't help on rewatching this film but reinterpret all its layers of reality that bottoms out with the film of Kagutaba ritual as functioning within the film as a piece of hyperfiction, something sent back in time maybe, that makes the rest of the events in the documentary happen and consequently also makes things happen to the audience who is drawn into this maze of fiction and unfiction. This theme of film being able to travel across time is itself also prominent in Shiraishi's films, in Noroi where the ancient Kagutaba ritual is recorded on film and essentially able to travel from the past to the present of the documentary, footage after the events of the documentary is mailed by Kobayashi, and also in Occult where the film Eno takes is literally sent 20 years in the future and a recording of a different dimension. The Ccru also makes it extremely clear what one of its elements of hyperstition is: "2. Fictional quantity functional as a time-travelling device."

It feels like I'm only scratching the surface here of these three Kōji Shiraishi films, let alone other things in the J-Horror genre that I want to talk about, but this post has already gotten a bit too long for something that demands to be explored in more depth in a different format. I decided to watch these three films completely on a whim, but they ended up being far more fruitful than I could have expected for thinking through Denpa, J-Horror, and the Japanese Cybergothic more. I haven't even touched on other things in the film either, like the character Mitsuo Hori, who is so much a character straight out of a tabloid like Weekly World News that his death at the end of the film is literally presented through a tabloid like that. I also haven't touched on the presence of motherhood and family where children are the carriers of some apocalyptic evil, something which feels very deliberate given that Japan has been known for having a crisis of birth rates. But there are too many things to discuss. "I guess it's too late for all of us."

Obviously I recommend checking out Noroi if you haven't already seen it, but if you're into J-Horror at all you've surely at least heard of it before.

Footnotes:

1

At least, by my completely cargoculted idea of Mark Fisher's takes on the two concepts. Having come to this thought during the process of writing this seems like an indication that I need to get around to actually reading that book.

2

Another one of my favorite J-Horror films, and films in general, is a movie called Marebito which is heavily influenced by Richard Shaver. So it looks like I'm going to have to rewatch that one next.

3

Something which I should add is distinctly Western, which feels very significant since Japan's economy crashing after the 80s is undoubtedly thanks to the post-war era where Japan became heavily Americanized. Japan more than many other countries has felt how Western civilization is basically one huge elaborate con job.

4

Side note: I didn't know this but Matsumoto is a real-life actress playing a fictionalized version of herself in Noroi.

Created: 2023-04-03 Mon 01:43

Last updated: 2024-03-05 Tue 22:36