Halloween Hijinks: Japanese Body Horror

Confession: I was struggling to come up with another iconic monster to round up for this year’s Halloween article, and as such, a suggestion came my way – why not focus on a monster movie subgenre that isn’t constrained to the individual monster’s form? Or, that form itself is without constraint? Basically, I got a request to cover Japanese body horror.

Body horror isn’t about fear of the monster itself (exclusively, anyway), but rather the process of a person involuntarily transforming into one. Naturally, this has overlap with many major monster types: werewolves who don’t want to be werewolves, zombies decaying as they retain their humanity, the people who have an adverse reaction to eating mermaid flesh. In the interest of time I certainly can’t hit them all (having procrastinated on starting this until right before Halloween), but I’ll try to cover the titles that are best, best-known, and potentially interesting to readers here.

To start with, while “body horror” is usually assigned as a genre beginning with Cronenberg and his ilk, the idea of fear at a gross unnatural physical change is fundamental to human psychology and dates back throughout literature. In Japan, you could look to the rapid aging of Urashima Taro at the end of his legend or the protagonist’s gradual draining of vitality during the Peony Lantern story as such, the same with cautionary tales about deformed-and-deforming vengeful spirits such as the Kuchisake Onna and the Teketeke.

The second World War brought about deformity on a larger scale than previously encountered, enhancing the taboo of the subject but also cementing it in the collective subconscious, and thus prompting a certain level of metaphor to be tactful about the topic (lest one handle it outright and get banned, like the haunting Prophecies of Nostradamus). This, as with most subjects, brings us to the topic of Godzilla. Very much analogous to radiation victims, the world’s most famous kaiju was designed with hide resembling the keloid scars that developed on a-bomb survivors. While I’ll credit Shin Godzilla as the entry that leans the most heavily into this “gradually evolving, unpredictably amorphous” take on the character, Godzilla’s role as a mutation has been a staple of the franchise since the beginning.

The body horror in 1954’s Godzilla isn’t really realized from the human perspective, however, but that came from some of the science fiction films that Ishiro Honda directed in its wake. The next worth mentioning is 1958’s The H-man, in which people are attacked by blob monsters and, in turn, become blob monsters themselves (the same time period saw other countries making liquid creature movies, such as The Quatermass Xperiment, The Blob, and Caltiki the Immortal Monster; blobs were in vogue). However, while horrifying, these melting transformations were relatively quick; there wasn’t a sense of lingering with the effects…that would arrive with what’s arguably Honda’s best horror film, Matango.

A moody horror drama, Matango focused on a group of misfit castaways stranded on a remote island without food. They discover irradiated mushrooms with devastating effects: ingesting the fungus gradually turns the person into a mushroom monster, sort of a zombie predating the modern zombie phenomena. But how long can a starving person hold out? Those mushrooms are delicious after all…

Of course, the mastermind behind such monster effects was none other than Eiji Tsuburaya, so I guess it’s a fine time to bring up the Ultraman franchise, which has a number of arguable appearances. While the character of Kanegon has become quite a cute mascot with numerous appearances, it’s easy to forget that he’s supposed to be a human child karmically transformed into a money-gobbling freak, and the Ultra Q episode “Kanegon’s Cocoon” was actually a major influence on Shinya Tsukamoto when conceiving Tetsuo the Iron Man – the *definitive* Japanese body horror flick (though one can argue that Kanegon’s rotting appearance in Redman is a horror unto itself). Another iconic character with a tragic backstory is A. Jamila, an astronaut who was mutated into a kaiju only for Ultraman to murder. Those are both examples from the 1960s, without a graphic fleshy component of the transformations, but the franchise got there eventually, as is evidenced by the gradually evolving, live-organism-absorbing Beast the One in Ultraman the Next.

That’s not to say that there weren’t graphic transformations during the golden age, though. The most notable title of the time is probably 1959’s The Manster, which is admittedly a mostly American-made feature filmed in Japan. Our hapless hero is the victim of medical experimentation and winds up growing an entire evil twin out of his shoulder.

Medical experimentation is certainly a source for a fair degree of body horror, from the notorious Horrors of Malformed Men (the banned Toei picture about artificial mutilation, itself stitched together from five unrelated Rampo Edogawa stories) to the equally notorious Guinea Pig pictures of the 1980s (which Charlie Sheen famously mistook for actual snuff films) all the way to the insanity of the modern manga Franken Fran, in which the cute girl protagonist performs miraculous surgeries that sometimes turn her patients into monsters in thematically ironic ways. On the particularly monster-movie-heavy side of these, the 2018 gekimation flick Violence Voyager is certainly an experience, centering on a theme park where the proprietor has lured in various children to turn them into boxy-headed misfits.

However, such operations are also the source of a great many Japanese superheroes, ranging from Cyborg 009 to 8man to Kamen Rider. This causes no end of angsty pontificating as the protagonists lament their own lack of humanity, but for the most part they were physically indistinguishable. It was out of this concept that some of the next set of heroes came along, such as Inazuman, Demon Lord Dante, and even Kazuo Koike’s version of The Incredible Hulk, who (despite not having been surgically altered) represented more grotesque transformations. The most significant of that wave is certainly Devilman, a series that started as a repackaging of ideas from Demon Lord Dante and wound up not just being Go Nagai’s magnum opus, but a veritable essential classic that spawned countless spinoffs, retellings, and imitations. A lot of the horror in Devilman focuses around demons cruelty towards humans and vice versa, but the handful of “Devilmen” (those who are possessed by demons and transform but still maintain human will) are appalled at the creatures that they they’ve become; easy to imagine with Nagai’s ghastly imagination and psychosexual imagery at the helm.

Devilman was a huge influence on Hideaki Anno for Evangelion and Clamp for X, but from a body horror perspective, I think the most noteworthy direct descendent is Hitoshi Iwaaki’s Parasyte. The parallels are obvious, only with alien parasites instead of demons: the series begins with a human who is improperly possessed, retaining his humanity, moves on to him hunting down the successfully possessed who are eating people, and culminates with the revelation that regular people afraid of monsters are capable of inflicting cruelty beyond even the monsters’ imaginations. Iwaaki actually penned a story for the Neo Devilman spinoff, in case there was any room for plausible doubt. Anyway, the aliens cause the heads of the humans possessed to be amorphous shapeshifters who can change disguises and turn into various bladed weapons (James Cameron wanted to adapt the series at one point, raising immediate comparisons to the second terminator), but our hero only has his hand taken over (putting him into the “possessed talking hand” camp with the leads of Midori Days, Jujutsu Kaisen, and Vampire Hunter D), thus body horror. One nice thing about the series that one can rarely say is this: every version is good. Read the manga, watch the anime, watch the live-action movies; you’ll have a great time with any of them.

The gory excesses of Nagai’s manga work married well with the splatter boom brought about by home video in the 1980s, and thus a glut of hyperviolent works began flooding store shelves, bringing about a new level of excessive, painful transformation sequences as well. Suddenly there was a flood of heroes in titles like Shin Kamen Rider, The Guyver, Baoh, Guy, Biohunter, Genocyber, Apocalypse Zero (which has no shortage of fucked up content, for sure!), and more whose henshins were more the stuff of nightmares than an imitable pose for kids to copy at home.

Often the source of such hero’s powers was something dangerous that constantly threatened to consume them if they weren’t careful. The idea of this borrowed dark power taking over is a big part of Devilman, but has become a ubiquitous trope in all sorts of media (heck, take a look at all the recent Ultraman storylines with Belial widgets), but is accompanied by physical changes of varying levels of grotesqueness in the likes of Naruto, Yu Yu Hakusho, Garo, Ushio & Tora, Tokyo Ghoul, and the current Jujutsu Kaisen, to name a very few, when the enhanced combat abilities may result in a hero growing tails, claws, extra eyes/mouths, and so on.

Of course, it rarely gets quite as out of control as it did for Tetsuo, the antagonist of Katsuhiro Otomo’s seminal work Akira. I feel like I shouldn’t even have to explain this one, since it’s such a classic, lampooned from Robot Chicken to South Park and used in Absolut Vodka commercials, but if for some reason you like body horror and still haven’t watched the most technically well-made anime picture ever produced…well, do it.

What’s often less reported is how Akira is in many ways a send-up to the classic Mitsuteru Yokoyama work Gigantor (AKA Tetsujin 28): The titular Akira refers to himself as #28, the hero is named Shotaro Kaneda, and Tetsuo’s name means “Iron Man” as a play on Tetsujin’s “Iron Person”. I say this mostly as a way to segue to a movie that hit the next year, coincidentally also pronounced Tetsuo (albeit with different kanji), and also meaning “Iron Man”, naturally released abroad as Tetsuo the Iron Man.

Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo has been a strong bit of genre contention in my circles since the recent Arrow box set put it back into the limelight. The premise is that a person, in retaliation for a past wicked misdeed, is cursed and begins growing metal and machinery from his body, as well as the ability to absorb such within himself. I think that’s a stretch to define as “cyberpunk”, since there’s not really anything “cyber” about it, but upon debate I’ve found many titles less deserving of the moniker also get lumped into the genre. What the movie certainly is, however, is body horror, with our nameless protagonist slowly having a meltdown as he…well…melts down into a pile of unrecognizable scrap material. The sequel, Body Hammer, does feel a bit more scifi and methodological, perhaps due to the “cyberpunk” label that was placed on the original (Tsukamoto apparently had to have the term explained to him after the international acclaim of the first film).

If you decide to watch the Tetsuo trilogy, I would also recommend tracking down the origins of it, the 1986 short The Phantom of Regular Size, which was basically remade into Tetsuo (not included in the recent box set due to music rights issues, but it’s floating around the internet), as well as A Snake of June, which maintains several of the same themes, only more sexual. Of course, Tsukamoto’s filmography has quite a bit of flesh-destroying body horror, from Hiruko the Goblin to Tokyo Fist to Vital, so it really depends on what your stomach can handle.

Curse-based transformation is a recurring motif in Japanese horror, and in the late-1980s economic bubble environment that gave birth to Tetsuo, there were independent creators knocking out offbeat horror flicks for the video market on a fairly regular basis. A few that come to mind include Conton (1987), which has a haunted protagonist puke up snake-like things and eventually turn into a big monster at the end, Gakidama (AKA Hungry Devil Spirit, 1985), in which the hero coughs up a flesh ball with a life of its own, Entrails of a Beautiful Woman (1986), that ends with a rape victim turning into a demon and laying waste to her tormentors (ironically only available in the US, not in Japan), George Iida’s very Cronenberg 1987 debut The Unborn (AKA Cyclops), where a woman pregnant with a monster baby is pursued by a freakish man, and the long-delayed, eventually-released Bloody Muscle Bodybuilder in Hell, which is true to its reputation as the “Japanese Evil Dead”, not to mention extreme anime titles like Wicked City, Dark Cat, Iczer 1, and so on. (There’s also 1988’s Evil Dead Trap, which features *spoiler* a serial killer with a malformed conjoined twin…maybe that’s body horror? Or maybe it just lives with other Japanese video nasties like Biotherapy, Sweet Home, and Guzoo, a woefully under-appreciated part of the cinematic landscape.)

There are more modern examples as well. By now I’ve probably talked Hajime Ohata’s Henge (2011) up enough that most folks reading should be aware of it, since it turns into a kaiju flick at the end, but it’s a nice little love story where a wife takes care of her demonically possessed (?) husband as he morphs into something terrible. 2017’s Vampire Clay has hapless art students who get bitten by creatures sculpted from blood-soaked clay turn into mushy clay people themselves, smooshing and stretching in disturbing ways. There’s also Sion Sono’s 2007 flick Exte, about living hair extensions taking over their hosts, which is like something out of a Junji Ito story.

Oh, gosh, that reminds me, we haven’t talked about Junji Ito yet.

I’ve got some mixed feelings about Ito, since he’s awesome and his work is awesome, but, a lot like how Tezuka is the only classic manga author to get a foothold in the US market, Ito is now unironically referred to as “the guy who makes all of the horror manga”. I’m sure he’d feel similarly, given his reverence for other foundational Japanese horror maestros like Daijiro Morohoshi, Hideshi Hino, Shigeru Mizuki, and Kazuo Umezz who, incidentally, have also done their fair share of body horror:

The only non-Ito name to seem to be getting some Western cred in the horror manga field lately is Shintaro Kago, who’s largely an ero-guro type (though some titles like Dementia 21 are pretty great). I honestly had to search a while to find a representative Kago piece that wasn’t too disturbing for the blog!

But Junji Ito is the brand name that you can buy t-shirts of at Hot Topic, so I guess he deserves some deep focus. As salty as the prior statement may seem, it is legitimately great that he’s having his day in the sun, since his work has been excellent, and, frankly, this was a long time coming. He made his debut in 1987 and gradually racked up a bibliography and rep for stellar short stories, but the popularity poop really hit the fan in 1999 when his first story Tomie was adapted into a theatrical film, and it was a massive hit. There have now been eight theatrical Tomie flicks plus a TV miniseries, OVA, and there was going to be an American remake until Quibi died, so the fate of that one is unknown. The biggest J-horror franchise to not yet get an Americanized treatment, it makes sense that Tomie was viewed as problematic, since it’s at least gynophobic, possibly misogynistic, in that the main antagonist is an unkillable schoolgirl creature who gets her jollies driving men insane and goading them to kill each other, potential suitors, and her. Tomie’s various forms as she regenerates from a lover’s psychotic dismemberment are indeed grotesque, but since she’s hardly a sympathetic monster and doesn’t seem to mind, I’m not sure if the body horror label is appropriate for her or not.

Junji Ito is more than Tomie, though: in addition to the first Tomie sequel, nine other live-action adaptations of Ito’s work occurred in 2000 alone! Of these, the best two, coincidentally the two available stateside, and the two with the most body-horror, were both directed by Andrey Higuchinsky, a music video director who cut his horror drama teeth on the 1997 Eko Eko Azarak TV series. The first of these is the theatrical adaptation of Ito’s long-running (by Ito standards) manga Uzumaki, about a town plagued by the abstract concept of spirals, which is still generally considered the best cinematic adaptation of his work, and a contender for a spot in any pantheon of top Japanese horror movies, assuming you can get your head around (and around and around and around) the cooky premise. The spiral infection takes on many forms, from people contorting themselves into spiral shapes, removing their own fingerprints and cochlea, growing out hair into prehensile spiral tendrils (I told you it was like Exte), and even turning into snails. The story is very much a series of vignettes leading to a climax, but the creepy creativity keeps it up throughout. It’ll be interesting to see how the animated adaptation for Adult Swim compares when it hits next year!

A few months after Uzumaki hit theaters, Higuchinsky was back, this time adapting Ito’s short story “Long Dream” across a two-part television event, which has been edited into a single movie for its DVD release here. This one is interesting, since it starts as complete, a faithful adaptation of the story (presumably the first half when it aired on TV), then, as though they realized they had to kill some more time, it has an original, much more conventional horror story tacked onto the plot for the finale. As much of a letdown as the back half may be, the setup is compelling enough, with a patient at a sleep clinic suffering from Inception-esque time dilation in his dreams: a night’s sleep seems like days to him, then like years, then like millennia. He gradually evolves into the next step in human evolution as so much time passes in his own mind. Keep in mind it’s on a TV budget, though it’s a lot more cinematic than a lot of the television productions of the time!

Junji Ito has countless other stories, so it’s a fool’s errand to try to run through them all; perhaps for some future Halloween I’ll do a run-through of the various movie and TV adaptations, though. Most of them are mediocre, but every once in a while you run across something like these Higuchinsky flicks, or the brilliant Tomie Unlimited, which was a good fit for the franchise because of the director selection of Noboru Iguchi, the unhinged master of gonzo Japanese splatter.

So, uh, I guess we better talk about Noboru Iguchi now. Initially a porn director, he started down a path towards what Wikipedia would have you think is “mainstream film” with some early horror comedies like 1997’s Kurushime-san and 2003’s Larva to Love getting acclaim, then moving on to Kazuo Umezz adaptations like Snake Girl and Cat Eyed Boy. What really put him into the international eye (for cult film junkies) was the 2006 adaptation of Go Nagai’s Sukeban Boy (AKA Delinquent in Drag), featuring a whole bag of what were to become Iguchi’s hallmarks: school uniforms, gratuitous nudity, wanton violence, scatological humor, and grotesque body horror far exceeding even what was in Nagai’s original. As the characters sprouted guns from bloody stumps and shot projectiles from their horribly mishappen nipples, audience cheered; suddenly lead actress Asami had become an action star and a whole new subgenre was born.

Sukeban Boy could very well have been a one-off fluke had foreign audiences not taken notice, but what really cemented that this was going to be *the* new voice of Japanese cult cinema was American distributor Media Blasters, hot off their first original co-production Death Trance, courting Iguchi to do a follow-up. Thus, Machine Girl was born, and the decade that followed was a whole movement of similar splattery content, including the entire Sushi Typhoon label at Nikkatsu, much of it tailored towards a cartoonishly exaggerated view of Japan for Western audiences. Examples of this 2000s Japansploitation include Iguchi’s own RoboGeisha, Mutant Girls Squad, Karate Robo Zaborgar, and Dead Sushi, and extends to others in the wake like Go Ohara’s Geisha Assassin and Psycho Gothic Lolita (which also has some nice monster transformations!), Seiji Chiba’s Alien vs Ninja, Kengo Kaji’s Samurai Princess, and so on. In short, it was a major boom.

The name raised the most by this movement was undoubtedly Yoshihiro Nishimura. Mostly an effects guy early on, Nishimura had already been collaborating with Iguchi for a while by the time Machine Girl rolled around, having previously done gun-breast effects in Sukeban Boy, and before that in one of Iguchi’s hardcore porn films featuring future Samurai Zombie star Nana Natsume (according to Iguchi, his inspirations for this were Shotaro Ishinomori’s 009-1 and, of course, Devilman). During Machine Girl’s production, Media Blasters asked Nishimura if he’d like to helm a movie of his own, to which he dug up his old 1995 student film Anatomia Extinction, and decided a remake was overdue. The result was Tokyo Gore Police, a huge step up in every direction.

While Anatomia Extinction is a neat little dystopian indie that transparently apes Cronenberg and Tsukamoto, Tokyo Gore Police feels very much like its own, fully-realized vision, in which an out-of-control virus has caused some people to spontaneously sprout weapons from their bodies in a cornucopia of unsettling ways, necessitating a police force equipped to respond. There are certainly elements that feel like earlier splatter flicks and cyberpunk works like Bubblegum Crisis, but the overall effect is something that I feel like Nishimura’s been trying to recapture for his career ever since…and what a career it’s been!

Nishimura’s been all over the place since 2008, with his fingers in everything from Tormented to Jellyfish Eyes to Shin Godzilla, racking up producer credits along with effects, writing, and direction. His directorial works have literally gone around the globe, getting invited into international anthologies like ABCs of Death and The Profane Exhibit. He’s really good at collaborating with other directors, as he has with erotic zombie maestro Naoyuki Tomomatsu on Vampire Girl vs Frankenstein Girl, or Shinji Higuchi on the Attack on Titan TV miniseries, or Noboru Iguchi and Tak Sakaguchi on Mutant Girls Squad. I think he really shines in these collaborations, and they wind up being more than the sum of their parts….much like some of the weird semi-human creatures in the films.

One of Nishimura’s recent directorial outings is 2017’s Kodoku Meatball Machine, which deserves special mention as the third installment in the Meatball Machine franchise. That series revolves around tiny aliens who take over human bodies and pilot them around like mecha, augmenting them with weapon enhancements along the way. It started in 1999 with Junichi Yamamoto’s low-budget Meatball Machine (now marketed as Meatball Machine Origin), which was remade in 2005 with Yudai Yamaguchi in the director’s seat, Nishimura on effects, and the great Keita Amemiya on character designs. So, in a way, Nishimura winding up at the helm for the third one feels like a natural progression, bringing his own manic energy to the already pretty over-the-top trilogy.

(Hey, while we’re on the topic of aliens taking over human bodies, does Goke the Bodysnatcher from Hell count as body horror? Eh, whatever.)

Speaking of Keita Amemiya, he, along with Mahiro Maeda and Blade of the Immortal’s Hiroaki Samura worked on a video game that’s kind of body horror: Dororo. Or perhaps it’s the opposite of body horror. It’s based on the classic Osamu Tezuka manga that’s also been adapted into anime twice (the recent Mappa version written by Yasuko Kobayashi is real good) as well as a live-action film. The premise is that our hero Hyakkimaru had his various bodyparts stolen by demons as an infant, so now he’s a kind of Edo-era cyborg with swords for hands and whatnot. He goes around killing the demons, and each as he ganks each one it returns an eye, an ear, a tongue, skin, etc, so he becomes more whole as the work goes along, which is kind of antithetical to the usual subgenre route of someone losing their humanity.

Tezuka was a doctor by training, so his work often intersects medical fantasy, particularly when the eponymous surgeon in Black Jack builds a body for his daughter/love interest who was initially a sentient vestigial twin, or the main character of Ode to Kirihito is turned into a strange dog man by disease. Hey, that’s all kind of body horror, come to think of it.

On that note, perhaps it’s time to wrap this piece up. I think we’ve covered the major titles, and there’s not much else I want to talk abou-

Yep, we’re done here.

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2 Responses to Halloween Hijinks: Japanese Body Horror

  1. Shinpei Inami says:

    Mikadroid count as body horror?

    • kevnder says:

      I could see that! It’s certainly part of that bubble economy direct-to-video horror wave, at least. It was first imagined as a zombie movie, even, which would have made it one of the first modern zombie flicks made in Japan.

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