Hammer Film Productions Horror and the Japanese Counterparts

Michael Crandol
Michael Crandol

Transnational studies of popular film genres too often impose a Hollywood-derived understanding of generic categories on another culture’s cinema, or else conceive of national genres as essentially separate from Hollywood’s hegemony.

In practice, however, any given culture’s popular film genres consist of a commingling of native traditions and international influences, with the generic corpus composed of foreign as well as domestic specimens.

For example, the Japanese filmic category of frightening and monstrous material known as kaiki eiga — a phrase often translated as “horror movies” but more literally meaning “strange” or “bizarre” films — encompasses both domestically made adaptations of traditional Japanese ghost stories as well as foreign horror film series like Dracula and Frankenstein, contextualizing the genre within transnational pop culture.

In light of this, it is tempting to think of the kaiki genre as merely the Japanese analogue to the Anglophone “horror movie.” To date there has been little if any attempt in either English or Japanese scholarship to theorise a difference between kaiki and horror film, despite conspicuous cases in which the definitions diverge.

Most notably, Western academics, critics, and fans continue to ascribe a privileged place to Godzilla (Gojira, 1954) as a seminal work of Japanese horror film despite the fact that the Godzilla franchise has historically not been understood to be part of the kaiki genre in Japan.

To demonstrate how kaiki both aligns with and deviates from the Anglophone category of horror film — as well as the importance of examining the presence of foreign film in any discussion of “national genres” — I will consider the Japanese critical reception of Godzilla during the late 1950s in light of the concurrent and immense popularity in Japan of the United Kingdom’s Hammer horror films — notably ‘Horror of Dracula’ (1958).

Peter Cushing’s Dr Frankenstein and Christopher Lee’s Count Dracula took Japan by storm at a time when the kaiki genre was going through an identity crisis brought on by atomic age science fiction horrors like Godzilla.

The mass popularity of the Hammer films in Japan — with their period settings and shocking acts of personal, bodily violence — played a pivotal role in re-asserting the traditional gothic, suspenseful markers of kaiki, effectively banishing the more conspicuously postmodern Godzilla from the genre.

In 1957 a small British studio by the name of Hammer Films released ‘The Curse of Frankenstein’, a watershed (or perhaps we should say bloodshed) moment in the history of horror cinema and screen violence.

The first of Hammer’s innumerable Technicolor updates of classic Universal Studios monster movies, the international commercial success of ‘The Curse of Frankenstein’ and its follow-up, 1958’s ‘Horror of Dracula’, made global horror icons of stars Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee and ignited a worldwide revival of B-grade gothic horror during the ensuing decade, inspiring everything from Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe adaptations starring Vincent Price to the Technicolor fever dreams of Italian horror master Mario Bava.

In the case of Japanese kaiki cinema, the Hammer films appeared simultaneously with the Shintoho studio’s own lurid, colour updates of nineteenth-century ghost stories such as director Nakagawa Nobuo’s ‘The Ghost Story of Yotsuya’ (Tōkaidō Yotsuya kaidan, 1959), widely considered the pinnacle of domestic kaiki filmmaking.

Horror movie fans often reflect on this period as the dawn of “modern horror”, when films like ‘Psycho’ (1960) and ‘Night of the Living Dead’ (1968) drove a stake through the heart of the classic, gothic mode of horror first embodied by Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. As previous horror scholars have pointed out, however, such a teleological conception ignores the fact that such films appeared almost simultaneously with what was actually the zenith of popularity for the gothic horror movie in terms of international production (Hutchings, The Horror Film 27-29).

At a time when the definitions of the horror genre were being challenged, Hammer horror asserted the traditional gothic markers of period settings, creepy cobwebbed castle corridors, and monsters from a folkloric past stalking unwitting victims blinded by the rationality of the Enlightenment. But Hammer brought something new to cinema screens as well: splashes of bright-red Technicolor blood and a more overtly sexual Count Dracula in the persona of Christopher Lee — all of which seems rather tame today, but which at the time drew no small amount of critical outrage.

Nina Hibbon’s 1958 review of ‘Horror of Dracula’ in The Daily Worker typifies the critical response of the time: “I went to see Dracula, a Hammer film, prepared to enjoy a nervous giggle. I was even ready to poke gentle fun at it. I came away revolted and outraged […]. Laughable nonsense? Not when it is filmed like this, with realism and with the modern conveniences of colour and widescreen […]. This film disgusts the mind and repels the senses.” (qtd. in Hutchings, Hammer and Beyond 9)

The British censors routinely gave the Hammer pictures an “X” rating, and even then the gorier scenes had to be excised before granted a release. The American releases were similarly censored.

In Japan, however, Hammer films played uncut, and the critical reaction to their bloody displays was far more accepting than the cries of outrage heard elsewhere around the globe.

Kinema Junpō, Japan’s longest-running and most prestigious film magazine, said of Dracula, “Scenes that will likely cause weak-willed women and children to spontaneously scream and throw both hands over their eyes appear one on the heels of another. The reasons for this are exceedingly simple — Technicolor, and special effects […] The script, the performances, the cinematography, every aim and effort is put entirely toward the single focus of creating a sense of gloom and instilling terror, and on this account, we can say the film is a total success.” (Sugiyama 120)

Critic Sugiyama Shizuo zeroes in on the same elements Hibbon found so deplorable (the “realism” of violent special effects photographed in colour) but praises the film for just that reason, and neither Japanese critics nor censors expressed any objection to their presence.

Although there appears to be no truth to the rumour that Hammer routinely prepared a “Japanese cut” of each film that included extra bits of gore, the filmmakers were likely aware that scenes which would not make it past the United Kingdom censors would be able to be retained in the Japanese release.

Indeed, the original, uncut version of their landmark Dracula film was thought lost until 2011 when a print was discovered in the Tokyo National Film Center archive, Japan being one of the few places in the world where the film had screened in its complete form.

As mentioned, Hammer horror invaded Japan at a particularly pivotal moment in the history of the discourse of kaiki eiga, a phrase most often rendered in English as “horror movies”, although quite a bit of nuance is lost in translation. Nowadays kaiki eiga means something more like “gothic horror” and is reserved for classic B-pictures based on traditional Japanese ghost stories as well as imported period horror pictures like Dracula and Frankenstein.

Since the 1980s, more recent, contemporarily-set films like American slasher movies or the homegrown but globally successful and influential “J-horror” pictures like ‘Ring’ (1998) have been referred to as horā eiga, using the English transliteration of the word “horror.”

But in 1957, the year Hammer unleashed ‘The Curse of Frankenstein’ on an unsuspecting world, kaiki eiga was experiencing an identity crisis in Japan, even as the notion of the “horror movie” itself was in flux globally during the 1950s.

Films such as ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’ (1951), ‘The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms’ (1953), ‘Them!’ (1954), ‘Earth vs. the Flying Saucers’ (1956), and arguably the most well-known example, Japan’s own Godzilla, were immensely popular, and their distinctly of-the-moment fears of nuclear Armageddon blurred the boundaries of horror and science fiction.

Universal Studios even tried re-branding their classic 1930s and 40s horror cycles as “science fiction films” (Altman 78-79), but although a case might be made for ‘Frankenstein’s Monster’, it was difficult to see the sci-fi in ‘Count Dracula’, ‘The Mummy’, or the ‘Wolf Man’.

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