J-Horror & the Hard-Boiled Detective Story: Two Films from the Early 2000s
J-Horror and the Hard-boiled Detective Story in:
Warning: This is an essay, not a review. Essays on this site can (and often will) include “spoilers.”
Another Heaven and Suicide Club both focus on late 1990s Tokyo detectives. One detective is young and single. The other is middle-aged and has a wife and kids. Cases involving suspicious deaths that turn out to be far from run-of-the-mill confront both of them. Both soon realize that there’s more going on than meets the eye. At first, none of their colleagues will believe them. How will they deal with these cases?
Although both films fall under the generic category of Japanese horror, they are also crime/detective stories. As such, they conform to the classic American hard-boiled detective story (think Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, and Raymond Chandler), which offers a noir improvisation on the traditional “whodunit” tale. John G. Cawelti (1976) offers the following description of the hard-boiled version:
The hard-boiled detective sets out to investigate a crime but invariably finds that he must go beyond the solution to some kind of personal choice or action. While the classical writer typically treats the actual apprehension of the criminal as a less significant matter than the explanation of the crime, the hard-boiled story usually ends with a confrontation between detective and criminal. Sometimes this is a violent encounter similar to the climactic shootdown of many westerns. This difference in endings results from a greater personal involvement on the part of the hard-boiled detective. Since he becomes emotionally and morally committed to some of the persons involved, or because the crime poses some basic crisis in his image of himself, the hard-boiled detective remains unfulfilled until he has taken a personal moral stance toward the criminal.
In Another Heaven, Detective Manabu Hayase (Yôsuke Eguchi) is part of a team investigating a routine homicide. Then he learns that the killer has removed the brain of his victim. He soon locates it in a pot of stew boiling on the stove. The team’s reaction of disgust is part of the dark humor that characterizes the film. Manabu becomes the lead detective on the case, which turns into an apparent serial killer investigation.
Suicide Club starts with a shocking group suicide involving fifty-four high-school girls. Director Sono stages the blood-soaked scene in a characteristically Japanese way. It’s horrible and campy at the same time. Detective Toshiharu Kuroda (Ryo Ishibashi), along with partners Shibusawa (Masatoshi Nagase) and Murata (Akaji Maro), catches the case.
There is a difference in the nature of each detective’s quarry. One pursues a supernatural evil, the other a human malevolence. With the help of Asako (Miwako Ichikawa), Manabu realizes that the killer he’s after is a supernatural entity — a fallen angel (i.e., demon). In Suicide Club, nobody thinks that the case involves a crime. So there’s no formal investigation at first. But the suicides continue. The three detectives soon get a tip that makes them suspect that there is foul play involved.
While both detectives are members of hard-boiled squads, each of them has a sensitive side. This personality characteristic is at odds with their work personas. It develops while they pursue their respective cases. In both cases, this trait comes out due to the presence and influence of a woman.
With Manabu, it’s Asako. She’s the anti-type of the ideal Japanese woman (embodied by Dr. Kazuko Ohno [Yôko Ohshima]), but sexy and smart in an offbeat way. She’s a perfect match for Manabu, despite others’ assertions that she’s absolutely wrong for him. It’s unfortunate that she’s an ex-con whom he met while investigating a previous case. Due to prejudice against her background, it takes him until the third act of the film to realize that he loves her and to act on this realization. At this point, of course, she’s doomed.
For Kuroda, it’s Mitsuko (Sayako Hagiwara). She’s a somewhat delinquent high school student who gets caught up in the Suicide Club conspiracy promoted by the members of the J-Pop band “Dessert.” She reminds him of his children and his worries about his family life. Unlike Asako in Another Heaven, she does not die, likely due to her third-act participation in a bizarre onstage interview with the members of “Dessert.” Instead, Kuroda kills himself after his family members commit suicide. It’s all part of the confusing story of Suicide Club, the meaning of which might be at least partially “lost in translation” to Western audiences.
How does all this relate to the classic American hard-boiled detective story? In the long run, both detectives must involve themselves personally in their cases. Manabu’s reluctance to become emotionally involved with Asako derives from his inability to face the real reason that he became a detective. When he finally accepts her, he is also able to admit that he didn’t join the police force to help other people. Instead, he wanted to immerse himself in the dark world in which detectives work. He realizes that this is why the demon “Something” has targeted him for possession. This crisis of self-image leads him to choose to commit morally and emotionally to Asako, which allows him to survive in the end.
Kuroda’s outcome is not as good. He has to face the fact that his detective work has taken him away from his wife and children, leaving them vulnerable in his absence. He attempts to draw closer to them (such as in the “family meeting” scene), but they are too distracted by their immersion in pop culture to notice. When his wife and children kill themselves, he realizes that he has failed to save them from the evil influence of pop culture’s electronic reach. As a result, he kills himself in despair. His personal involvement in and moral/emotional commitment to his detective work lead to his destruction.
Speaking of pop culture, both films address its potential for malevolent misuse. Another Heaven includes a montage scene in which commentators criticize movies, television, and books for their violent content. The evil that stalks Tokyo in this film draws strength from the violence inherent in pop culture. But Suicide Club foregrounds and emphasizes this theme. It’s much more direct in its criticism of pop culture. In the end, “Dessert” is the evil force behind the mass suicides. The youthful members of this prototypical J-pop group are not as cute and innocent as they seem. And pop culture might not be just a harmless source of innocent, mindless fun either.
Cawelti JG (1976). Adventure, mystery, and romance: Formula stories as art and popular culture. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 200 – 201.