Silence, Space, and Horror

Was The Grudge inspired by an ancient Japanese handscroll?

A unique aspect of Japanese horror films lies in their attention to silence. Suspense is integral to any film, Japanese and otherwise, but the sustained tension that permeates throughout films such as Ringu, Ju-on: The Grudge, and Dark Water creates an atmosphere of constant dread with relatively simple techniques. So why do Japanese horror films dedicate so much narrative time to moments of silence, suspense, and tension?

Scene from Ju-On: The Grudge (2002)

In traditional Japanese handscrolls (emaki), large swathes of the works often appear to be empty, either of visual or narrative content. In terms of visual content, The Classic of Filial Piety for Women depicts landscapes almost entirely hidden by thick clouds of mist and fog. In many frames from the Shigisan Engi scrolls, an enchanted storehouse floats across wide landscapes that take up multiple sheets of the scroll, populated only by mountains, animals and the occasional inconsequential peasant. These empty spaces serve important roles in the narrative. Aside from illustrating lovely, vast environments, the use of empty space signifies that a passage of time has occurred. Although a figure may appear twice in a narrative, if there is a significant amount of empty space between them, they have not been cloned, but are simply subjects of the “disparate moments in the same picture” convention. Essentially, in Japanese emaki, the passage of space also indicates the passage of time, and the two cannot be extricated, as the progression of emaki is achieved by scrolling through a relatively continuous landscape.

Zhao Mengfu, Twin Pines

Film, on the other hand, does not depend on progression through a landscape to indicate the progression of time. A scene with many important moments can take place in the same room, and in some cases, an entire film can be limited to a small, constrained space. In film, time is independent from space, which made my mission all the more difficult:

I wanted to connect the long silences in Japanese horror films to their ancient predecessors in emaki.

I ran into trouble when constructing my scenes: I realized that in many of these films, moments of extreme suspense and sustained silence took place in a single location, and therefore would only show up as a blip on the panning security-cam like eye of the emaki. In Ringu, these moments are in front of televisions, in Ju-On, they are at the base of a foyer stairway. For this reason, I chose a scene with as much movement of characters as possible, while still focusing on the silence between those movements.

Scene from The Grudge (2002)

Ju On seemed to be the most appropriate film for reconstruction as an emaki, because of the traditional architecture of the house in which most of the action takes place, and the age old subject matter of ghosts and curses. Also, most of the action in the house took place on either the first or second floor. I considered illustrating a scene which takes place in an apartment building, but then came to another realization: Japanese emaki depicted actions that mostly took place on a single plane. Aside from travelling to and from mountain peaks, life was relatively horizontal for Ancient Japanese people. In modern Japan, towering skyscrapers have introduced vertical travel, through elevators and stairways. The architecture of an emaki would have to be considerably altered to depict the explicitly modern phenomena of extremely tall buildings.

As I began sketching, I understood why handscrolls often rely on accompanying text to convey large parts of the narrative.When confronted with an integral scene that takes place in a single location, I was faced with the question: Which aspect of the scene should I illustrate? Do I extend the geographical scope of the scene to show multiple moments? Or do I attempt to combine each event into a single moment in time? At the end of the scene I chose, Katsuya finds his wife in a catatonic state in bed. In a single room, the following events take place:

  1. Katsuya tries to awaken her
  2. He attempts to call the police
  3. He searches the room for a presence he noticed
  4. He is surprised to see a little boy
  5. He asks the little boy “What are you doing here”?
  6. The boy meows loudly
  7. The closet behind him slams shut, the boy disappears
  8. His wife dies
  9. He goes into shock, gnawing his fingernails
  10. He is overcome by a dark force and his expression changes to a sinister one
  11. He notices someone is at the door.

How do you convey this all in a single image? I am sure the artists who drew Genji, Shigisan, and the Ippen scrolls had to consider similar dilemmas, and this may be why many of the emotions depicted in emaki were reduced to general, vague gestures.

My final handscroll, tied with the iconic Grudge hair.

By creating an emaki of my own, I not only began to adapt to the architectural thought process that goes into converting a typical narrative into a geo-linear one, but the material difficulty of depicting both the highly linear forms of buildings alongside the expressive, organic depictions of nature found in emaki. I mixed the use of brush and ink with a ink-nib pen, but I could not quite achieve the effortlessness by which the traditional emaki alternated and overlapped the two. I now understand that while both Japanese horror films and emaki often make liberal use of silence, their reasons for doing so split along the lines of time and space.

To see the full project, click here.

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