Watching the Detectives is a series of posts about drawing inspiration from fictitious paranormal investigators, occult detectives, police psychics, and monster hunters. The rest of the series can be found here.
The website TV Tropes often talks about tropes originating in particular properties and then being codified by others. What they mean by this is that while some ideas have been around literally forever, their cultural presence can often be traced back to one particular use of said idea that proved so hugely popular and influential that everyone wound up using the idea in the exact same way.
I am still not sure how I feel about the assumptions and social-mechanics informing the TV Tropes website, but I do enjoy the way that these kinds of discussions often wind up feeling like people discussing the lineages of race horses, pedigree dogs, or Royal houses. Even serious literary scholars codify and legitimise cultural scenes by trying to come up with lists of literary ancestors, influences who did the same thing in another place and another time. But if we can talk about ancestors, can we not also talk about orphans?
For example, we can talk about occult detectives and how the sub-genre was ‘sired’ by Sheridan Le Fanu and then ‘codified’ by Bram Stoker but can we not also talk about the extinction of that particular cultural line? Consider for example the way that the original Buffy the Vampire Slayer film turned up at a time when the Occult Detective series was almost completely dead on its arse. In fact, the sub-genre had so little salience at the time that both the film and the TV series spent a lot of time dunking on traditional Occult Detectives in the form of the Watchers. One could even say that the central meta-textual theme of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a popular feminist take on the idea that stories about Occult Detectives are lame compared to stories about teenaged super-heroes and it’s time for the dusty-old detective dudes to step aside. Thus the Occult Detective sub-genre was broken down for parts and separated from its roots in Horror and Crime Fiction so that its ideas could be cannibalised and resold under the guise of Urban Fantasy. In other words, Buffy was a series that made orphans… it was so popular and so influential that it made the Occult Detective genre disappear and made it impossible to tell those kinds of stories without magic swords, lightening-bolts, and bantering heroes in trench-coats or leather trousers.
Kôji Shiraishi is a director with the power to make orphans. Best known in the West for his films Noroi and Occult he tells Occult Detective stories with such a clear and timely vision that it is difficult to imagine telling similar stories without at least acknowledging that sensibility. In fact, at this point, the only thing preventing him from launching a new golden age of Occult Detective stories is the fact that his films and TV series are almost impossible to find in English. I was lucky enough to stumble upon full subtitled run of Senritsu Kaiki File Kowasugi uploaded to YouTube but they now appear to have disappeared again.
Senritsu Kaiki File Kowasugi is everything you want from both Japanese horror and an Occult Detective series: It is weird, it is visually striking, it is mind-bending, and (like many of Shiraishi’s other films) it ends with a spiral down into conspiracy theories, cosmic horror, and really quite unpleasant depictions of mental illness. This is the Occult Detective genre stripped back to its basics and made new again.
The series opens with a scene whose vibe will define the rest of the series: Two guys equipped with a camcorder are stood on a residential street. They whisper excitedly to each other as they peer around a corner at the person who caught their attention. Some way down the street, a woman with long, uncombed hair and a facemask is stood staring at something off-camera. She rocks awkwardly back and forward, obviously distressed her mutterings rise to an incomprehensible shout before she notices that she is being observed. Suddenly, she turns and runs straight at the camera.
The whole scene is distinctly unpleasant. The peering around corners and off-camera whispering reeks of voyeurism while the woman’s dishevelled state and incomprehensible shouts smack of someone in the middle of a mental health crisis. We are seeing that which propriety demands we ought not to look at. We are intruding, and now the person we have intruded upon is running straight at us.
Given that this film was made in the early 2010s just before the universal ownership of camera phones as well as the capacity to easily stick this kind of material online, it’s interesting to note the differences between the context in which the film was made and the context in which it is now being viewed. Had I stumbled on this film by accident, I would assume it was footage of a Japanese woman on the worst day of her life. It would also probably be the third or fourth such video I have seen this week. We are now so comfortable with mining online cruelty for clout that we no longer think twice before pulling out our phones and making a video of someone in the middle of a personal crisis.
Back in 2012, Japan had not yet reached that point and it’s interesting to note that the characters do not parse the video as a woman having a nervous breakdown. They skip straight past that and assume that it is a ghost (though, at one point, one of the characters suggests that the woman’s tallness might imply that she was a man). This is because while British (and, to a certain extent American) ghosts tend to be these bloodless, spectral presences, Japanese ghosts are much closer to the creatures that appear in the stories of M. R. James: They are dangerous, fleshy, grotesques who are just as likely to rip your face off as they are to drag you to hell.
The video-makers decide to take their tape to the period-equivalent of a successful paranormal YouTube channel: A man who manages to make a living by turning grainy ambiguous footage into professionally-produced paranormal investigation DVDs that are then sold to the public. He is a gruff, rude, and periodically violent man named Kudo (played with real physical heft by Chika Kobuyama) who is assisted by the somewhat sceptical and incomprehensibly loyal Ishikawa (played with magnificent awkwardness by Shigeo Ohsako).
The bulk of the first episode finds Kudo and Ishikawa doing the grunt-work of paranormal investigators: There’s a lot of fussing with cameras, getting bored on stake-outs, and in one hilarious sequence, timing each other as they run up and down a street in order to work out whether the woman in the facemask might have had super-speed.
If I had to condense the vibe of SKFK down to a single word then that word would be ‘squalor’. For example, Kudo’s offices are these cramped, windowless spaces dominated by huge metallic shelves that are groaning with unsold DVDs while the flat the video-makers inhabit is tiny, full of trash, and located down the back of a half-flooded alleyway. There is a real sense of desperation to the people appearing in these films and the proximity of these impoverished people to mental illness is no accident.
People who remember the J-Horror boom that followed in the wake of Ringu will remember that a lot of those films shared a similar occult iconography. These were films where the spirits were always women whose long black hair obscured their faces and where the otherness of the supernatural was represented by pools of black water. A lot of these images were inherited from Japanese folklore and so they do resurface in Shiraishi’s films but Shiraishi associates the supernatural with a different form of iconography, that of mental illness.
If we take the woman from the first episode’s opening scene, it’s pretty obvious how her ghostliness could easily be interpreted as signs of mental health problems. Shiraishi returns to this iconography again and again throughout the series as those touched by the supernatural are often found living in filthy, trash-covered housing where they respond to visitors with a combination of fear and hostility. In Shiraishi’s films, to be touched by the Other means that you will most likely stop bathing and start scrawling incomprehensible nonsense all over scraps of paper that you then stick up around your neighbourhood. The proximity to poverty is not accidental either, the characters who encounter the supernatural in this series are already on the margins of society… they are either young people without jobs or older people who lost their jobs as a result of some personal crisis. They are shut-ins, and people who happen to make money as sex-workers as well as people so nostalgic for their own childhoods that they spend their time breaking into their old high school just to revisit the places where they were once brutally bullied. This is true of all of Shiraishi’s films but there’s a particularly striking example to the found in Occult where a character who ‘experiences miracles’ sleeps in cyber-café cubicles, eats ramen, and desperately tries to keep his head above water by applying for shift work on zero-hour contracts.
It’s interesting to note that the idea of homelessness as a vector for enchantment is not exactly new. For example, back in the 1890s, Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan presents us not only with well-connected gentlemen who have been sucked into homelessness as a result of their encounters with the Other but also Otherness itself as a kind of weird demi-monde that dwells in back alleys and unfashionable run-down neighbourhoods. Similarly, 2004’s Marebito is an impressionistic Occult Detective story that is all about marginalised people encountering the Other and drifting off into a paranormal underworld situated in weird tunnels under the streets of Tokyo. The difference in Shiraishi’s handling of the trope is that he eschews all thoughts of narrative or symbolism. His characters are not so much mystics and hermits as people who are literally insane, penniless, and desperately clinging on to the lowest rung of Japanese society.
As with most works of cosmic horror, SKFK features people being dragged down into the depths through cracks in the façade of bourgeois existence only here the gaps are those that are open to all of us: How many jobs can you lose before you become unemployable? How shitty an apartment can you inhabit before it starts to impact both your health and your social life? How long can you go without your meds? How long till you just… disappear?
The first film in the series deals with the ‘Slit-mouthed woman’, a figure reminiscent of the tall hat-wearing spirit who was re-imagined as a vampire in a recent Resident Evil game but who also exists as the Japanese urban legend known as Hachishakusama (usually translated as Eight Feet Tall) a ghostly figure with a male voice who ‘takes a liking’ to young boys and causes them to disappear. The use of the term ‘liking’ is really significant and gives the urban legend a creepy sexual vibe. In SKFK, the ghost is a herald of mental illness and a gatekeeper for the disappeared. While it never features in the series itself, one of the characters talks about how the split-mouthed woman supposedly manifests herself by asking young men if they find her attractive. Those who turn her down are killed but those who respond positively come to resemble her. This connects to the voyeuristic elements of that opening scene… are you attracted to the tall woman with the long hair? Will you open the door when she comes knocking? If you do… you’ll follow her into the underworld.
There are similar Freudian mechanics at work in the second series where two young women break into their old school only to be confronted by a ghost known (hilariously) as ‘Toilet Hanako’ because she is the ghost of a young woman who died in a school toilet. This episode is dominated by the characters travelling back-and-forth in time in an effort to stop one of the girls from killing herself but read between the lines and it becomes a story about not just nostalgia but also the idea of fleeing from the psychological hardships of adulthood. In particular, the episode touches on the issue of adolescent bullying and the idea of repressed lesbian lust manifesting itself as violent hostility. The girls keep returning to the school because they can’t cope with being adults but they return to the toilet because it was a site of sexualised bullying. In a sense, the ghost is a manifestation of one girl’s innocence and how that loss of innocence can be so traumatic that it eventually leads to suicide.
The idea of mass-graves and institutional violence returns quite forcefully in the final episode of the series but this third episode is mostly about the film-makers trying to team up with a local farmer who has become obsessed with the idea of killing the Kappa after one of them attacked his daughter. The episode ends with a couple of the characters being sucked down into a kind of magical living death but it’s hard not to see this living death as a commentary on sexual trauma and the idea of surviving rape only to live on as a pale shadow of your former self.
The final, climactic episode ends with one of the funniest scenes in the entire series. Having secured footage of the Kappa and made a lot of money selling DVDs, the team decide to up their production values by hiring a load of TV personalities and hiking into the mountains to visit a haunted village. The episode opens with a round-table in which everyone introduces themselves including a scientist and a model/idol who smiles and respectfully asks people to buy copies of her erotic photoshoots. Kudo then plays them footage of an interview that ends with the interviewee slitting his own throat with a butcher’s knife. When both the idol and the scientist complain that their agents hadn’t mentioned anything about this, Kudo says that it’s very unfortunate but they have already been paid so… tough.
The group pack up their equipment and hike into the mountains where things end very badly indeed but while the episode definitely ups the stakes and contains a lot more effects shots than the previous episodes, I am struck by the references to a very different obscure Japanese film.
Back in 1987, a director named Kazuo Hara made a documentary about a man in his sixties who was investigating the suspicious deaths of two Japanese soldiers during a period when the Japanese army’s supply lines were cut and people were starving. While The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On is an incredibly dark film, one of the most striking things about it are the scenes where the veteran turns up at the homes of former officers and angrily demands answers only for the officers and their families to be so taken aback by the rudeness and the impertinence of the man that they literally do not know what to say. There is a scene in Senritsu Kaiki File Kowasugi that is almost identical to the scenes in The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On and it too deals with atrocities committed during World War II. What unites these films on a thematic level is the idea that the pursuit of truth is fundamentally incompatible with a bourgeois lifestyle. Like the Japanese veteran who turns up at the homes of his one-time superiors only to harangue them to the point where he gets carted off by the cops, the characters in SKFK have chosen to pay attention to things that their society encourages them to ignore. Shiraichi’s films struggle to distinguish between mystical truth-seekers and raving derelicts because, in the world he describes, there is no functional difference. Both the mad and the insightful have chosen to step outside the boundaries of polite Japanese society and for this they will be relentlessly punished.
The series ends with a radical expansion of its own scope, a not-so-subtle shuffle that moves the focus of the films from the personal to the political. Suddenly, SKFK is not about the young guys getting haunted by some eerily-tall hot chick, it’s about the Japanese army working with sorcerers to produce a race of God-like giants. Though initially quite jarring, this expansion of the series’ scope actually moves it closer to such familiar venues for cosmic horror as Lovecraft’s obsession with breeding and the X-Files exploration of deep-state conspiracy theories. While initially quite jarring, this sudden expansion of the series’ scope actually serves a deeper truth, namely that immiseration falls not so much on those who discover the truth as though who dare to question the system.
Senritsu Kaiki File Kowasugi is a fantastic piece of Occult Detective story-telling that is a great well of inspiration for anyone who aspires to tell these kinds of stories. Senritsu Kaiki File Kowasugi is an Occult Detective story that is free from not only the Urban Fantasy tropes that have come to dominate the narrative space since the success of Buffy, but also free from the sense of middle-class safety that you find in many of the stories associated with such golden age Occult Detectives as William Hope Hodgeson’s Carnacki and Algernon Blackwood’s John Silence. The characters in Senritsu Kaiki File Kowasugi don’t get to return home to comfortable offices and dinner-parties full of boot-licking simps; they are destroyed by their proximity to the truth because even stumbling on the truth is enough to edge you out of comfortable bourgeois normality and our society does not tolerate dissidents.