By Marcus Nicholls
“I would call back at least for literature (or film) this world of shadows we are losing. In the mansion called literature I would have the eaves deep and the walls dark, I would push back into the shadows the things that come forward too clearly, I would strip away the useless decoration. I do not ask that this be done everywhere, but perhaps we may be allowed at least one mansion where we can turn off the electric lights and see what it is like without them.”
Jun’ichirō Tanizaki was a Japanese author of novels, drama, essays and silent film scenarios. This latter connection builds a bridge, and then allows me to tentatively cross it, between horror cinema and some of the theories he propounds in his work ‘In Praise of Shadows’. Whilst the title may serve to place this slim volume close to the celluloid crevasses of that abyssal genre, the book is actually an aesthetic treatise praising idiosyncratic aspects of Eastern culture in juxtaposition to those of the West. I believe that in lifting some of the matrices of ideas from domestic settings to fit analogically over facets of the horror genre, we can extract some interesting concepts that align with my own feelings concerning the cinema of screams.
The titular shadows form an obvious point to open on, being, as they are, ubiquitous on both sides of the equation. Tanizaki talks of the Japanese dwelling hoarding shadows, as opposed to the Western custom of flooding houses with as much light as possible. Consequently for the West, shadows take on an othered, ominous quality, whereas in Eastern cultures, shadows are a homely blanket and a beautiful robe for interiors and interiority. The Modernist architectural obsession with transparency, so proliferated through Le Corbusier, is the complete antithesis of the traditional Japanese darkness — and through both of these stylistic apertures we can see horror seep. Whereas the attempted banishing of shadow and the masking of the hidden with apparent transparency can only lead to a creeping, fear-steeped return of the repressed, it is interesting to note the differences in the generalised agents of horror in respective geographically-oriented sub-genres. In the Western imagination, darkness must herald horror for it is othered, it is the past returning to corrupt the cleaned, airy psyches of Modernity. Horror enters from without, home-invasion scenarios proliferating and individual agents of terror impinging with shadow upon the light domestic spaces. In more Eastern horror, the evil blossoms from within the house, the family, the psyche. This influence is now more obviously felt upon Western horror, and I must, of course, make sweeping generalisations in order to apply theories to whole cinematic cultures.
Shadow becomes a vehicle for the uncanny — for the West, it signifies an atavistic return, a shattering of the glass floor of Modernism and a plunge into a tangled past of superstition. In Eastern horror, the uncanny grows from that which is part of the material of the home (illustrating its German etymology of unheimlich); those shadows which have been a comforting, beautiful mother become abject and give birth to a horrific domesticity. If we look at the cinematic horror of each, we see dominant trends for, respectively, serial killers and ghosts, the former fearing the unknown and the latter, the known. In shadows and their place in either culture, we can trace the loci generating modern fears. The dark will always be, from our earliest sense-memories embedded in our DNA, the place of fear as it is a visual representation of the absence of knowledge (the English etymology of uncanny).
Away from attempting Freudian investigations of the horror of shadows, we can read more of Tanizaki’s work in terms of pure film aesthetics. He identifies an appreciation for jade rather than diamonds as a particularly evocative elucidation of the differences in taste between West and East. Dwelling upon its “faintly muddy light, like the crystallised air of the centuries”, as opposed to the glittery newness of rubies and diamonds, he muses that in the cloudiness is gathered the musty depths of the Chinese past, haunting the stone. Like tin, which is valued in the East for the “pensive lustre” it acquires through long use, jade evokes age and mystery, not to mention the subtlety that emerges when seen beside the lapidary coruscations of diamonds. Like modern architecture, the West loves its precious stones to have sharp angles and transparency. Like the use of shadows, depths are elided and history is banished for a polished sheen. The horror cinema of the West, particularly Hollywood as a touchstone, can be analogised with this propensity. The surgical horror with its gore and sudden shocks is like the diamond being turned before the light, facets sparking, as if newly made. Western horror is often transparent and yet all surface — we see clear meaning and motive. Eastern horror is often clouded; it carries traces of a heavy past. It is subtle and slow, the terror is paced like shadows gradually deepening in a room before at an indeterminate juncture the viewer realises something is crouching in a corner. Hollywood flings a juddering jump-cut into the face of the viewer, arcs of gore framing the revealed nebulosity. There is patience in the horror of Japan and Korea: like jade, the horror is opaque, inscrutable, demanding.
Lacquerware and the choice of tin over steel for cutlery provide Tanizaki with further ruminations on the Eastern desire for shadow’s presence. These surfaces are allowed to gather darkness within themselves, emerging gently as if blushing darkly under the caresses of the hands of clocks. Darkness in Eastern aesthetics is necessary for beauty, and as a consequence light takes on a more fragile grace in the careful restraint of its use. Imperfection is not desperately erased at every instance, but instead it is included in the whole, whilst colours respond better to dimmed, sparse light, becoming more profound, less distracting and easier to tonally manipulate.
The penchant for these chatoyant visual depths, plus the ensconcing of shadow as a permanent negative icon-lamp within interiors gives Japanese houses — and horror cinema — a most distinctive aesthetic. Far more likely to induce prickling horripilations are the beautiful, shade-drenched spaces of films such as Audition, The Eye and A Tale of Two Sisters, where the presence of terrible pasts is a patina grafted upon the dusky rooms, and uncertainty trembles around absences cloaked in vestibules of thick gloaming. More akin to early Western horror cinema, where the Victorian Gothic of films such as The Innocents sunk chiaroscuro well-shafts through the beacons of the Enlightenment to dredge terror from atavistic superstition.
Horror should wear history like a patina, a beautiful matt trace of imperfection that makes the past a constant presence and allows ghosts to congeal in the gaps. It should be cowled in shadow, for in the tactile absences built by shade, the imagination strides with more feverish vigour. Western horror shows too much, whilst paradoxically hiding the roots of terror, buried deep in the past. Without the signifiers, it returns in more outlandish and less affecting forms. Just as I believe the aesthetic tastes of the West could benefit from rummaging through the palette of Eastern horror, so does Tanizaki laud the Eastern aesthetics of interiors. In some of these defining characteristics that he elaborates upon, we can note parallels in the manipulation of horror between the cinema of Japan, Korea and China. The very textures of our horror should evoke unease and summon ghosts amidst the shimmering shadows, before allowing “the horror” to emerge from the dark slowly, as if painted by Rembrandt, flecks of gold trickling from the black. Or as the whisper from Kurtz in the depths of the jungle’s dark heart; Coppola’s Eastern-influenced scene perhaps ties together and illustrates these concepts in a small succession of frames.
Marcus Nicholls is a contributing editor for the magazine.