Recently, I was wasting time rather than pushing ahead with my comprehensive exam reading (much like I am now) by watching a series of specials aired by the cable channel Bravo on the 100 most frightening film scenes. I justified this expenditure of time by telling myself it would provide an interesting counterpoint for the readings I was doing. Color me shocked when this turned out to actually be true.
I had gotten almost all of the way through the countdown when I came upon entry #11 - Miike Takashi's ground-breaking Audition (1999) - and I noticed a very curious phenomenon. The commentators on the movie, almost all of them men, were strikingly disturbed by this film. Rob Zombie (yes, the Rob Zombie who made House of 1000 Corpses  and The Devil's Rejects ) called it one of the few films that actually creeped him out, and John Landis (director of 1981's An American Werewolf in London) actually said that it was "too real" and wondered what the filmmakers were thinking when they made it.(1)
I found this reaction kind of peculiar, particularly coming as it was from two giants of the horror film genre. No other film selected had produced that kind of response from its reviewers. #50 on the list, Wes Craven's Last House on the Left (1972)— a film with a similar level of violence—had generated praise. It was referred to as "taboo-breaking," "a political statement about the nature" of violence, and something that "pushed the envelope." (2) This in spite of, or perhaps because of, its graphic depiction of death by disembowelment. The commentators were horrified by this film, but not profoundly disturbed by it in the way that they clearly were with Audition. So why should that be? Well, the answer may lie in the object of the film's violence and in a gendered perception of violence as whole.
Audition is a film about a mild-mannered, middle-aged widower. His son and his friends have been urging him to remarry for years, as they want him to have someone to take care of him, but he's resisted up until now. In order to find a wife he participates in a fake audition—staged by a film producer friend—where around forty women are brought in under the false pretense of auditioning for a part in a film. The man picks one of the women to date and (if all goes well) to marry. However, the women he picks is completely and utterly out of her mind, and she eventually breaks into his house, ties him up, and tortures him (the torture including, but not limited to, activation of pain points with acupuncture needles and amputation of the feet with piano wire).
The really interesting thing about the way the male commentators talk about this movie is the fact that they classify the main character as a completely likable guy. This is, I think, the key to why they feel so profoundly uncomfortable with this particular brand of violence. They identify with him, and they experience the violence done to him in a way that is uncomfortable to a degree that seeing a young woman stabbed to death is not uncomfortable.
This argument is the basis of an essay on early-medieval Japanese art by the scholar Ikeda Shinobu entitled "Images of Women in Battle Scenes: 'Sexually' Imprinted Bodies." (3) In the essay Ikeda suggests that the predominance of female victims in the famous handscroll "Burning of the Sanjo Palace" in the Illustrated Tale of the Heiji Disturbance (Heiji monogatari emaki), coupled with the depiction of the warriors in the scroll with barbaric, almost comic features, indicates that this handscroll was probably produced by and for a courtier audience. She further suggests that the female victims, some of whom are shown en dishabille, serve as focuses of sexual excitement for the viewers.
While I don't accept the second-half of this argument (for reasons that I will explain below), I do somewhat accept the first-half of it. The notion that a Kamakura period courtier would not have enjoyed visualizing someone who looked an awful lot like himself be trampled and beaten is a fairly sound one. Even the most emphatic horror fans of the modern age have shown themselves to dislike violence perpetrated against the "I-guy" and to only embrace it when there is significant payoff in the end (as in Hostel where the main character takes bloody revenge on his tormenter). Identification with film characters is what makes the horror genre so hard to deal with, and—if I may suggest it—what makes the horror genre hard for many women to appreciate. In the horror film, women are nearly-always the object of lingering violence, which invokes a strange kind of fascination if you can imagine it happening to someone else but evinces utter revulsion if you are made to feel it happening to you.
My belief that psychological impulses operating in the modern period also operated in the pre-modern period is a tricky one to hold, I admit. On the one hand, I feel it is important to ground all historical inquiries firmly within an appropriate context that takes into account as much of the reality of the era as we can reconstruct. On the other hand, I also feel that the human animal hasn't really evolved all that much in the last thousand years. Consequently, even as I struggle for the all powerful holy grail of "proper historicity," I'm haunted by a sense that plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.
This is actually why I cannot accept the second premise of Ikeda's argument. I don't read horror connoisseurs' appreciation of violence as tied to sexual excitement in any period. A number of films certainly do play upon the horrific qualities of sexual violence—A Clockwork Orange (1971), The Evil Dead (1981), Meatball Machine (2005), Slither (2006), etc.—but these sequences are almost invariably read as fearsomely grotesque rather than titillating. (4) There's no reason to assume that things would have been different at the early-medieval Japanese court. The argument that the representation of horror often involves a gendered gaze, and that violations of the standard trope of male visualization of violence against the female are specifically transgressive and unsettling, is a strong one. But a gendered gaze is not ipso facto a sexualized one.
Nevertheless, the gendered gaze provides a framework in which violence (often sexual in nature) can more easily be done to women as it is invariably more acceptable. And as a good friend of mine recently pointed out, this acceptability of violence trickles out into other genres as well. Just consider what the reaction to a female vampire protagonist stalking a male high school student would be. We all love the oh-so-epic-and-true romance of Edward and Bella, but we'd be shocked and horrified by Edwina and Beau. In fact, we have quite a lengthy record of being complacent in response to male-female aggression in the mainstream while at the same time being censorious of female-male aggression. The noted self-defense specialist Gavin de Becker has pointed out that films reinforce this narrative in countless scenarios. (5) Benjamin Braddock of 1967's The Graduate is a charming oaf, whose annoying persistence ultimately gets him the girl. Evelyn of 1971's Play Misty for Me is a psychopathic bitch, whose terrifying persistence ultimately gets her killed.
The reality of the stalker experience is that both of the above scenarios (male-agressor-female-victim and female-agressor-male-victim) (6) are the same, but the cultural perception of them—filtered through a very gendered lens—results in extremely different media portrayals.
The mild-mannered, middle-aged widower of Audition is the nicest guy in the world according to the male commentators who squirm in response to his protracted torture. But actually, he's not the nicest guy in the world. He's a man who cynically used a fake audition to orchestrate a no-strings-attached, no-risk-involved trip to the meat market. It doesn't mean that he deserved to be tortured, but it does tell us a lot about the way we as a society still think of the role of cause-and-effect in violent acts. If he'd been a mild-mannered, middle-aged widow I suspect that the narrative of what happened to he[r] (and how [s]he participated in bringing it on [her]self) would be very, very different.
1) Commentary on Audition can be viewed here from the 7:58 mark. Viewer discretion is advised.
2) Commentary on Last House on the Left can be viewed here from the 1:10 mark. Viewer discretion is advised.
3) Ikeda Shinobu, "Images of Women in Battle Scenes: 'Sexually' Imprinted Bodies," in Gender and Power in the Japanese Visual Field, ed. Joshua S. Mostow et al (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2003): 35-48.
4) For a thought-provoking breakdown of the different "species" of the grotesque, see Noel Carroll, “The Grotesque Today: Preliminary Notes Toward a Taxonomy,” in Modern Art and the Grotesque, ed. Frances S. Connelly (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003): 291-312.
5) Gavin de Becker, The Gift of Fear (New York: Dell, 1999): 236-37.
6) Admittedly, this argument relies on a hetero-normative binary example. While I recognize that the issue of non-cisgendered violence is equally serious in this day and age, it is outside the scope of this essay.
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