Tag Archives: Japan

Telling Stories about Superweapons; or, There’s Only One Way This Can End

•1.

The only way I know how to make sense of the Iron Man sequel is to talk first about the original Godzilla, which is, in some complicated way, the later movie’s model and second precursor. Everyone knows that Godzilla had something to do with the nuclear bomb—that it was, like rocket-styled Chevys and bomb-expectant country gospel tunes, one of the key artifacts of atomic-age pop—but the point nonetheless needs to be clarified. So let yourself say the obvious: Without Hiroshima and Nagasaki there would have been no Godzilla. But then let me chime in that this is true in a way that is at once more straightforward and more complicated than you think.

A simple plot point gets us going: In Godzilla, the beast’s emergence is openly linked to nuclear testing in the Pacific. Nothing unusual there—variants on this conceit remained popular in horror movies throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s: that x-and-such a monster was caused by radiation. Usually, though, the idea had the character of a MacGuffin, a vacuous pseudo-explanation about which a given movie mostly didn’t care. And it turns out that this observation will hold for lots of different horror movies, in fact, and not just the radiated ones, since horror cinema has never been all that interested in what it is that makes its monsters walk: nuclear fallout, gypsy curses, chemical spills, ancient spells, passing comets, viruses, all of them more or less cursory and pretextual. This is what makes the ongoing debate among the fanboys over whether viral zombies are, because not technically dead, really zombies so inane, because in cinematic terms, back-from-the-crypt zombies and disease-bred zombies share pretty much everything but their pseudo-science, including the exponential logic of infection. Noting as much should make clear one of the things that is most unusual about Godzilla: It is one of those rare horror movies that really does care about origins. In lots of ways, it cares more about its atomic backstory than it does about the reptile’s morphology, which carries almost none of the former’s ideological charge. One way to start registering this point is to notice that the movie spends quite a long time allowing its characters to work through the nuclear explanation, showing Japanese people reacting to the news, following their debate about how to respond to this latest atomic threat. One man advocates keeping the information secret—not letting the world know that the country is still stalked by nuclear destruction—so as not to alarm Japan’s trading partners and political allies. The movie thereby registers the real Japan’s moment of nuclear repression or willed historical oblivion, its strenuous insistence, in the 1950s, on a Westernizing and post-atomic normalcy.

But then the movie itself serves to counter that very repression. The single most important thing about the monster is that he himself possesses the powers of nuclear destruction, and the movie’s most famous scenes are essentially one long re-staging of the Catastrophe: buildings tumble, entire cityscapes burn, medical workers check children with Geiger counters. When the monster breathes fire, the screen flashes and people shriek as they burst into flame. Refugees huddle. The movie seems determined, in some utterly straightforward way, to get on screen images from 1945, when this very directness would otherwise have been difficult just eight years after the war, setting out, as it were, to circumvent the psychic censorship that remained even after various official American bans had been lifted, performing the kind of end-run around repression that popular culture often undertakes—the service that stupid movies reliably perform for the political unconscious. The movie’s motivating fear, then, is easily named, which is simply that the bombs could hit again; that peace could evaporate; that it’s not over; eight years later and here we go again. The next time you hear someone say that horror movies traffic in “our fear of the unknown,” Godzilla is how you tell them that they’re wrong. When the movie came out, Nagasaki and Hiroshima weren’t even a decade back. Some people live in fear of the entirely known.

This is the sense in which the movie’s incorporation of its historical materials is almost alarmingly direct, without the intricacies and displacements that are otherwise the hallmark of allegory. And yet that allegory harbors a certain difficulty all the same. For Gojira, though unleashed by the atomic bomb, is not in fact a mutation, which is how you might have remembered the story. He seems, rather, to have been flushed out of some ecological hidey-hole when his coral reef got torched; he absorbed the bomb’s radiation and lived, like some indomitable and mountainous cockroach. But then what does it mean to turn the nuclear threat into a dinosaur or to let a prehistoric creature be the allegorical stand-in for the Enola Gay? This is all a little odd; odd first because it sutures together twentieth- century hyper-technology with something utterly primal; and odd, too, because the figure of the dinosaur—any dinosaur—calls to mind extinction, which in a nuclear movie means Our Possible Fate, but only if we think of the thunder lizard as a casualty (of a meteor, say, or volcanic gas from India) and not as the annihilating force. This peculiarity is evident in the movie in a small subplot concerning a paleontologist who doesn’t want the government to kill Godzilla; who wants time, rather, to study him, to work out how he has survived across the millennia. In one sense, this can be read as the movie’s meditation on “pure science,” in which the paleontologist appears as cousin to those real-world physicists who become fixated on the problem of fission in the abstract and don’t care that the nuclear winds are blowing across Nevada. And yet by allegorically making Godzilla a living creature, the movie generates a kind of eco-pathos for him that one couldn’t possibly feel for a warhead and indeed transfers to the Bomb itself some of the sympathy we might feel for its eventual species victims.

But then the movie also features a second scientist who also has marked affinities to Oppenheimer and Fermi, and it is with regards to him that the movie turns curious for real. The film’s inevitable question is: How can Gojira be defeated?—which we have to imagine also means something like: Can we imagine the overcoming of nuclear destruction? What is going to stop Japanese cities from burning again? And to this end, the film introduces a young physicist who has invented a fearsome technology, a small machine with the ability to suck all the oxygen from vast reaches of the ocean. He calls it an Oxygen Destroyer—and tellingly, he only ever says the words in English, even in the undubbed original, which phrasing associates the weapon with the US and so marks it as the-kind-of-infernal-device-the-Americans-might-have.

Here, then, is an unsurprising point: The movie features an unusually long debate about the ethics of using the machine—fifteen minutes that seem to have been scripted by the Union of Concerned Scientists. We can discern in this interlude a certain fantasy or thought experiment: a Japanese movie staging the debate that the Americans should have had with themselves and plainly didn’t. The local scientist, in fact, is determined not to hand over the technology—make a note of this, because that’s where Tony Stark comes in—and he seems to be modeling a moral relationship to science, a willingness to withhold destructive knowledge. In genre terms, this is rather fascinating: The physicist is plainly a Victor Frankenstein figure; the completely unexplained eye patch that he wears means that the movie wants us to see him as cracked and Gothic. But when he opens his mouth, he does not rave; he speaks instead with clarity, restraint, and concern, even as he stands there looking like a pirate in a lab coat. The mad scientist reflects on the ethics of technology and so crawls back from his genre-dictated insanity.

And now here’s the really surprising point: Having convincingly made the case for disarmament, the scientist then relents and agrees to press the death-button, and the movie mutates in an instant from an anti-nuclear broadside into an argued defense of mad science. I want to say this again, because I still don’t really believe it myself: The original Japanese Godzilla is not an anti-nuclear movie; it is in its own way entirely pro-bomb, rehearsing the agonized conversation over deploying such technology only to conclude that, yes, mass destruction is sometimes necessary to overcome threats that can’t be defeated by conventional armies.

But then it must be allowed that this decision is carefully framed and hedged. The scenario that the movie has identified has the character of an arms race or military competition or the structural compulsion to adopt the force of annihilation, and this is true because the readiest referent for “a threat that can’t be defeated by conventional military means” is itself nuclear weaponry. Godzilla is a stand in for the nukes, and so is the Oxygen Destroyer. The allegorical rebus reveals the same term on both sides of the equation. Dangerous technology can only be countered by dangerous technology. It’s the feeling one often gets watching Japanese movies or reading manga—that everything, once decoded, refers back to the bomb, every last robot and pixie and smurf. Hence the movie’s melancholy and its repetition compulsion: It is replaying images from war’s end because it can’t imagine a clear alternative in the present to the nuclear arsenal and is to that extent convinced that 1945 will ever be with us. It can’t imagine how to stand up to a nuclear power in a way that wouldn’t involve nuclear weapons.

So there is in the movie no authentically Japanese refusal of the atom. And yet Godzilla does nonetheless attempt a certain national solution: The scientist agrees that the weapon has to be used against Godzilla; but there is only one such device and he won’t share the blueprints; and then he dives into the ocean to confront Godzilla himself and refuses to resurface, thus ensuring that the oxygen destroyed will include his own. The movie, in other words, is trying to imagine the conditions in which a nuclear weapon could be used ethically, and its provisions are two: 1) That the weapon be utterly singular, not just single-use, since no bomb bangs twice, but irreproducible, incapable of being spread; and 2) that Oppenheimer be willing to strap himself to the bomb and ride it Kubrick-like to his own destruction. The notion that the Japanese have a more ethical relationship to destructive technology is thereby preserved in the movie, though in much modified form and not in the direction of a pacifism—just the contrary, rather—by resurrecting a few hallowed images from Japanese military history: the honor suicide, mostly. What the Manhattan Project lacked was the samurai code. The Japanese are more moral because they still have kamikaze.

•2.

It is important to keep Godzilla in front of us, because doing so is our best shot at noticing how fretful a movie Iron Man 2 really is, when we might otherwise mistake it for just another round of Downey-doing-his-thing: impish, blithe, getting by on muttery charm, a $200 million action movie with the cadences of screwball comedy—that’s what a lot of the critics said, and they were basically wrong. It’s the tone of the movie that the reviewers consistently bungled. “To find a comic-book hero who doesn’t agonize over his supergifts”—this is The New Yorker—“and would defend his constitutional right to get a kick out of them, is frankly a relief.” But nothing in Iron Man 2 breathes relief, and agony is in fact its prevailing mode, in a manner that is entirely at odds with the hero’s jive and patter, itself suspended for long stretches of the movie anyway. For Tony Stark is the Japanese scientist of the American Empire, the inventor who will not share his invention, the engineer who withholds the newest technology of death so that only he can command it: “You can’t have the suit. … I’m not giving you the suit. … You’re not getting the suit.” What the new movie shares with Godzilla is the notion that the perfect and ethical weapon would have to be entirely singular—there would literally only be one of them—and so would not be available for manufacture: a permanent prototype, forever in beta. Such is the importance of the many workshop scenes in both Iron Man installments, those oddly protracted sequences in which we watch our hero sketch and solder and glue. By investing the killer armor with artisanal qualities, as though ICBMs could be blacksmithed, they suggest that the weapon’s uniqueness could be maintained into the future, since it is the hallmark of any handcrafted object that it is in some strict sense unrepeatable. That’s a fantasy, yes, but it’s an unsettled one; unease is simply built into its scenario. The conceit of an unshareable weapon comes with a worry automatically attached, which is simply that one will become two. Arms proliferate, and then so do anxieties, in their wake.

It is this apprehension that Godzilla explores in its dialogue and that Iron Man 2 builds an entire plot around, which isn’t to say that the movies aren’t actually quite different. For the two Iron Men are both trying to imagine the imperial monopoly on violence, sovereignty at the level of the globe, force concentrated in American hands. This is the big difference between the old Japanese movie and its recent Hollywood counterparts, and it’s also why we can’t imagine Tony Stark heroically sacrificing himself—because imperial sovereignty requires that technological superiority be indefinitely preserved, on the understanding that it has desirable political effects, that it fosters order and lawfulness across the planet. Early on in the sequel, Tony calls this order by its proper name, which is the pax Americana. What’s remarkable, then, is that the movie can’t actually envision how the American peace is to be kept, even by its superhero and unofficial sovereign, to the point where either we have to think of IM2 as scrambling to keep its imperial fantasy running, and this in increasingly frantic and unconvincing ways, or we have to think of it as providing a spontaneous and unexpected dissent from that very fantasy.

Let’s just count the problems:

The most obvious threat in the movie is multipolarity, the simple idea that other actors in rival nations might have access to the suit and so might limit the American peacekeeper’s scope of action. Here the menace of a post-American world takes the form of Mickey Rourke’s Ivan Vanko, whose very body announces a Russia tattooed and resurgent, even as his mock-Ukrainian name smuggles into the movie memories of Dolph Lundgren and the Cold War inanities of Rocky IV. The Vanko-plot also provides the first good indication of just how nervous this movie is, because the Russian’s ability to improvise a pretty good facsimile of the Iron Man suit—to pirate, as it were, Tony Stark’s best handbag—means that the American is, in the movie’s own terms, just plain wrong, because he claims that other countries are years away from acquiring the technology, and they aren’t. The movie starts out from the premise that Tony Stark doesn’t fully understand the dangers of his own invention.

He understands some of them though, and from that perspective the movie is wary not only of foreign governments but also, and much more curiously, of the American one. This again goes back to a plot point: The people we most often see Tony Stark refusing to share the suit with are politicians and military officers. The anxiety here is in some sense easy to gloss, because it really is the Oxygen Destroyer all over again: Sharing the technology with the government would make it replicable and would put the design in the hands of the unreliable many. Indeed, to redesign the suit for combat would inevitably be to put it into mass production and so to make the weapon studiable by every battlefield scavenger and enemy spy. Committed to sovereignty at the level of the globe, the movie nonetheless resists centralization at the level of the nation—it doesn’t trust the U.S. government to inhabit its sovereignty well and worthily—which leaves it trying to conceive of an American imperialism without a strong American state. The empire can only perform its functions if there are private actors stronger than Washington.

That last point is going to have a certain type of reader crying Capitalism!—but you anarcho-socialists can just zip it, because the movie is every bit as wary of the market, which is, of course, the true vector of arms proliferation, the kindergarten classroom in which the nuclear flu spreads. It’s true that IM2 is a little muddy on this score, exaggerating an ambiguity that was already present in the first film. Initially, the movie fully commits to a vision of corporate rule and hence to a kind of Haliburton-speak: Tony boasts within the first ten minutes that Stark Industries has “successfully privatized world peace.” But the movie then shows him resigning from his own company and has him spend the balance of its running time fighting a rival arms manufacturer who wants his factories to start turning out suits in quantity, as though they were bike locks. Many of the newspaper critics complained that the movie was, in the usual manner of sequels, overstuffed or unwieldy; they accused the movie in particular of having too many villains. This makes the plot a little hard to keep up with, it’s true, but for once too-many-villains is very much the point, since Iron Man 2 is tracing out a certain problem, in the form of a network, whatever it is that connects the U.S. military to arms manufacturers to the foreign powers who also buy the Yankee guns. It is to this extent misleading to call Tony Stark a “supercapitalist,” as some of the reviews did, since he spends the entire film trying to keep his most important discovery off the market. The movie has as its center of gravity the notion that a certain class of objects should not become commodities.

But then—and here’s the real kicker—the movie doesn’t really trust Tony Stark either. If the first movie was telling a story about how a middle-aged playboy reinvented himself as a man of imperial purpose, then the sequel, which is careful to insert scenes of its superhero drunk, boastful, and reckless, is haunted by Tony’s bad behavior, hence by the possibility that the empire might backslide into loutishness. It’s a remarkable scene—the one in which Tony staggers around his Malibu house, suit on, visor up, laser-blasting holes into his own walls, recalling as it does, despite being set in civilian California, bad memories of some Manila bar, hooched-up sailors in port carrying their still loaded sidearms. The movie is thus able to internalize a dissenting view of US superpower, the perspective that colonized peoples have ever had of their occupiers, by allowing Iron Man to act out some of the American empire’s more minor crimes: U.S. soldiers taunting Iraqi children with bottled water; an American sergeant asking two uncomprehending Arab boys if they are going to grow up to be terrorist and gay.

So foreign powers can’t be trusted with the suit; and the US government can’t be trusted with the suit; and arms manufacturers can’t be trusted with the suit; and even Tony Stark probably can’t be trusted with the suit. A certain rift thus runs all the way through Iron Man 2. Visually, the movie continues to treat the suit as a techno-fetish or bucket full of whizbang, staging its best action scene in Monte Carlo and thereby ensuring we will spend the remainder of the movie seeing its hero as a kind of human Lamborghini. But in plot terms, the suit is less magic armor than monkey’s paw, a cursed object that produces more instability than it prevents. Iron Man 2 simply cannot work out a good relationship to its super-technology or to the dominion that such technology conveys.

…which isn’t to say that it doesn’t try. Its attempted solutions are two, one of which is easy to read but dumb, the other of which is much harder to specify—and also pretty dumb.

1) The business with Tony’s heart—the battery in his chest is poisoning him and he has to engineer a new one—is a tidy parable of recent oil politics and the search for renewable energy. The thing that fuels you will also kill you, and you will only survive if you can invent an alternate energy source. The idea is puzzling in many ways, all of which suggest how stuck the movie really is. First, Iron Man 2 tries to assure its audience that sovereignty has been restored to the American entrepreneur because in the battle for technological superiority he has acquired the next-generation model, the key to which is clean energy. This is something like the Obama-esque claim, endlessly repeated in the press over the last few years, that the US will maintain its global supremacy only if it can make (and patent) the breakthroughs that will lead the planet to renewable energy, if, that is, it can figure out how to run golf carts on eggshells and sewage plants on moonbeams. The movie’s version of the program is notable because it takes this run-of-the-mill futurism, which usually involves speculation about the American economy, and shifts it over into an openly military register, in the process laying bare the lethal dimensions of this green-capitalist fantasy, in which visions of ecological balance are yoked together with visions of permanent American ascendancy. But then this fantasy is hapless as it is lethal: the movie attempts a technological solution to its political problems having already conceded that technological monopolies of this kind cannot be preserved. Stranger still, Tony Stark only discovers clean energy because his dead father has left him its secret (in code!). American technological preeminence is thus framed as a passing of the generational baton, a paternal bequest, which invites us to think of  sun- and wind-power not as an innovation—which is how we more typically conceive of it: the Solar Revolution—but as a simple extension of the past, a way of keeping the American Century going—and this from the position of 1974, the date on the message-bearing movie-within-the-movie that Papa Stark has left behind—a date here designated as the age of American hope … 1974 now, the year of Watergate and the oil crisis, with the Vietnam War long since turned sour and illegal. Iron Man 2 wants us to recapture the can-do spirit of the Nixon administration’s final months.

2) Late in the movie, Tony Stark says “I need a sidekick” and then addresses another character as “partner.” Lines such as these would require no comment in any other superhero movie, but in IM2 they announce a program, because the very word “partner” means that power is being shared, and if power is being shared, then Tony is no longer functioning as the classic sovereign. This gets us to the movie’s preferred solution, which is to provide Tony Stark with allies and collaborators, an extended support network, arriving in the form of cameos and subplots and independent action sequences, all of which contribute, no less than the multiple and redundant desperadoes, to the movie’s sense of overload. Scarlett Johansson is on hand, strangely doubling Gwyneth Paltrow, whose own role is nonetheless expanded and not diminished, and then Samuel L. Jackson appears out of nowhere, and Don Cheadle starts getting more lines. The movie is trying, in other words, to craft a situation in which the sovereign, the proprietor of the peace-creating superweapon, need not stand alone, in which he can count on others—buddies and semi-heroes—to back him up and keep him in check: a civil society of comic-book characters. But then perhaps “civil society” isn’t quite right, because the role of the state in this new justice league remains unclear to the end and is in fact adorned by a set a elaborate hedges and ambiguities. Let me just list the uncertainties:

a) Johansson and Jackson both play agents from something called SHIELD, but there is no way of knowing, on the basis of the movie alone, without separate consultation of Wikipedia or a fanboy, what kind of agency SHIELD is. Is it an independent superheroes’ union? Does the D stand for “department” or “division”? Division of what? The US government? The United Nations? Please tell me the H doesn’t stand for “Homeland.” When we learn that the organization is recruiting Iron Man, it’s impossible to say what it is he is being recruited to.

b) And then the movie rescinds this already unclear offer: SHIELD is not recruiting Iron Man after all, though it may occasionally consult with him in any additional sequels. So Tony is and isn’t aligned with an agency that may or may not be governmental.

c) In the movie’s final action sequence, Tony Stark fights alongside a lieutenant colonel from the air force, to whom he has in fact given a second suit, which is a clear sign that the movie has given up on trying to imagine non-proliferation and has gone over to devising scenarios in which shared technology is the solution instead. More: The last scene before the credits roll shows him receiving a medal from a senator at a government function. The movie comes surprisingly close, in other words, to drafting Iron Man into the US government—but then doesn’t. And this might suggest something like the “private-public partnership” that has been at the core of centrist political rhetoric for the last few decades, but that observation would be more convincing if Tony Stark were a properly corporate man, which he isn’t.

d) Even the basic meaning of the expanded cast is unclear. The network of allies could mean that sovereignty has been shared out and to some small degree decentralized, which would of course entirely change its character as sovereignty. Or it could mean that Iron Man is being worked back into some government-military command structure and thus reinserted back into a sovereignty higher than himself. And there is simply no way to tell.

This much I can say: There is no category of film more routinely scorned than the sequel. Sequels are formulaic, yes, and derivative and all but instantly shark-jumping—they import into film, at great expense, some of the worst instincts of network television—and they are of considerable analytic interest all the same—because whatever an original movie’s ideological accomplishment, a sequel will have to undo some portion of this if it is to have any story at all to tell, which means that even a moderately thoughtful follow-up will spontaneously have the character of self-interrogation or auto-critique. It will compulsively pick at whatever in the first movie’s ending was least convincing to begin with. The sequels that extend a hit movie into a franchise are also the agents of that movie’s unmaking. So the first Iron Man entry was as amiable a story about the American empire as Hollywood has yet produced. But Iron Man 2 speaks its doubts about American power and then can’t figure out how to get them unspoken. The film’s final sequence shows a terrorist strike on New York City—a big one, carried through to its ka-bam!, unprevented and set in motion by the arms race around the suit. But Downey kissed Paltrow, and you probably thought it was a happy ending.

The spun sugar of destruction

The task today is to explain a movie that reviewers have described, unvariously, as “gonzo,” “beyond the pale,” “surreal,” “indefinable,” “gone, baby, gone,” and “totally inexplicable.” The movie is Nobuhijo Obayashi’s Hausu, from 1977, a horror film of sorts that has, at last, been playing in American theaters here and there over the past year, and, yes, the damnedest thing, the kind of movie that can turn any hour into midnight. A teenaged girl gets into a kung fu showdown with a wall phone. A stygian fruit stand turns a high-school teacher into a pile of ripe bananas, the bunches heaped high at his steering wheel, still wearing cap and spectacles, as though waiting to speed away, “Bananas everywhere!” his dying words, except you can’t really make them out over the rockabilly and the lounge jazz. The severed head of a recently decapitated young she-glutton chomps the assflesh of another teenaged girl, like a farmer wide-mouthing the season’s first crisp apple, and then tilts back to show a ragged neck packed with watermelon pulp.

And yet Hausu really isn’t all that hard to explain, as long as you’re willing to ask the obvious questions, to start with what is most familiar in the movie and work your way up to what is most bum-biting and outlandish. For Hausu is, at heart, really just a haunted house movie. Its Engrish-language title is telling you as much. A high-school student takes six of her girlfriends out to the countryside to visit her dead aunt, and the house attacks them, one by one, then pairwise, such that none ever returns.

Yes, there’s also a white cat with green laser eyes, but for the moment that will only confuse the issue. For now, we need merely plod, putting to Hausu the questions we would put to almost any ghost story. In some ways ghosts are unusually hard to talk about, because the ghosts one encounters in film and literature are so much more varied than the werewolves and the vampires and the zombies: they come in different shapes; they have different powers; different vulnerabilities. It could seem harder to generalize about them, to find any pattern of meaning amidst all that variation. But one point stands out, and I don’t think it’s hard to grasp. Ghosts are almost always figures for something you think should be gone, but isn’t. That’s it. A haunting just means that a trace of the past has come back. The ghost almost always announces some disruption in the order of time; the ghost is history itself, perceived as a problem; the disturbing persistence of history into the present. It is history that refuses to go away.

So when you watch a ghost movie, your chief task is to figure out how the movie understands the relationship between the past and the present; that is, you need to figure out what the movie has indentified as the salient features of the present; what it has picked out as the salient past; and then you need to figure out what they have to do with one another. Hausu makes this easy, by giving us a few minutes of fake newsreel, in early ‘40s black and white, in which we learn that the undead aunt is a kind of war widow, engaged once to a Japanese airman, who never returned and for whom, having made a pinky promise, she eternally waits. The movie, in other words, nominates its own past by shooting it on a different film stock: We have an older generation that is still pledged, in occult measure, to pre-war Japan, which here means not only thimbly tea cups and a population in fancy pajamas, but the Japanese empire and Japanese militarism. The aunt is witch-priestess of that Japan, endlessly mourning it, awaiting its return or re-rising sun.

The way the movie captures the present is necessarily more diffuse and so a little harder to pin down, though not much. The movie’s main characters are all teenaged girls, seven of them, with dwarflike names to match that number: Gorgeous, Prof, Sweet, Melody, Kung Fu, Fantasy, and Mac. This already gives us a lot to work with. The first thing that leaps out is the total absence of men, so first: a feminized Japan. Two of the girls—Prof and Kung Fu—conspicuously occupy roles customarily allotted to men, as the gang’s braniac and warrior-guardian, respectively, and so suggest a historical transition over to female self-sufficiency: a society that’s all ladies. But then fully four of the girls have English nicknames: “Gorgeous” and “Prof” are the subtitles’ translations of Japanese originals; “Kung Fu” is neither Japanese nor English; but Sweet, Melody, Fantasy, and Mac all are Anglo-monikers, English already in the dialogue, and so register a certain Americanism, except the movie’s subtitlers have gotten ahead of themselves, because “Fantasy” is actually, as spoken, “Fanta,” which means that one girl is named after a soda and another after a hamburger, so: A Japan so Westernized that children nickname themselves after value meals. The other thing to know about Hausu is that its dialogue is all a-titter, effervescent, silly, the opposite of mournful; the movie uses schoolgirl giggling the way Harold Pinter used to use pauses. The bundle of associations is the usual one: a feminized, consumer Japan; given over to the young; post-heroic, maybe even post-masculine. The movie can seem to pitch giddy, pop girl power against the imperial melancholy of their parents and grandparents.

This all makes for a reasonably straightforward ghost story, in which the present is pitted against the past—a generational battle, then. In those terms, the movie puts in front of us a failed present, which is what usually happens in a ghost story—a present that hasn’t extricated itself from the past. The old Japan reasserts itself: This is clearest in the movie’s coda, when we see the ghost-aunt’s niece, Gorgeous, now mistress of the old house, and so spectral in her own right, or atavistic, dressed in a kimono, fluidly opening shoji. In fact, we also see her welcoming—and then killing—her father’s new fiancée, and the important fact here is that at the beginning of the movie, the stepmom was described as “surprisingly good at cooking and other things.” The movie has thereby registered the questionable domesticity of modern Japanese women, and we can understand the house as busy trying to undo that shift, by relegating the powerpuff girls back to the old roles of maid and helpmeet. The movie’s title is in this sense oddly precise; it can dispense with the word “haunted” because it is premised on the observation that all houses are haunted or possessed, because all feed on their members, and especially on their less muscular ones, as this house does literally. The girls are to this extent the unlikely bearers of a feminism, whose defeat the movie will, with horror, recount. In place of fiends and demons, the movie has washrags and feather dusters, which all turn out to be the same anyway: Things that can destroy a carefree girl. One girl gets killed by the bedding.

But the movie is actually more complicated than this, because it also admits of a second reading, which runs concurrently alongside the first. Even as it pits the duty-bound war generation against the pop feminists of the mid-‘70s, the movie establishes a certain vexing continuity between the war widow and the girls and thereby forces us to consider the possibility that the girls are vulnerable to the Japanese past because fully its heirs.

A little background: It will help to know that there has been a lot of Japanese art over the last few decades that condemns its post-war addressees for being too too childish or too girly—a backlash, this, against Japan’s more or less official culture of cuteness: whatever it is that drives grown men to put stickers on their cell phones, or convinces Japan’s governors to assign each political district—they’re called prefectures—a certified cartoon mascot: a walking yellow fire hydrant with parsley on its head or a blue eel with jet engines strapped to its sides. To outsiders, Japan is at this point associated above all with manga and anime and children’s games and cosplay and the jailbait tartans of school uniforms. The point is that some Japanese commentators think that this trend has gotten way out of hand. That idea is most recognizable as a kind of right-wing nationalism—though there are variations—which nationalism holds that Japan’s atomic defeat destroyed the country’s great martial traditions; it destroyed the established forms of Japanese masculinity; it made it impossible for the Japanese to be real men. The military was largely disbanded; the imperial throne was turned into an empty symbol; the country became an American protectorate. Instead of a warrior Japan, one now finds the Neon Archipelago, overrun with women and children and shoppers.

There’s lots of evidence for this backlash. The position was codified in the glut of post-war samurai movies grieving for the vanished Japanese warrior class. But you might also consider Hirokazu Koreeda’s Nobody Knows, from 2004, a movie about children who have literally been abandoned to raise themselves, because no-one in Japan wants to be the adult; the adults in that movie wear cute little backpacks and carry cute little dogs, while their children starve and sit in their own filth and die: a cuteness that kills. Or you could have a look at Big Man Japan, from 2007, a movie about how modern Japanese people don’t even appreciate their own superheroes; a man with superhuman strength can’t get respect from the Japanese any longer, even when all he wants to do is defend Japan, the collective castration has cut so deep. That the superhero in that movie has a reality show is, at this point, a tired joke. The better joke is that nobody watches it.

In some sense, these are the movies that run counter to Hausu, depicting the same generational battle but reversing our allegiances, until we recoil in disgust from a Japan that has allowed itself to be infantilized, a whole country of overgrown kids. So here’s the thing: Hausu partly gives you that other, anti-girl reading of Japan, too. When the movie runs its three minutes of newsreel, from 1941, one of the schoolgirls says in voiceover: “Men were so much manlier back then”—and that at least puts the de-masculinization narrative in play. But the most important detail here is that the girls—and especially Fanta—are in the same position as the war widow, waiting for a man to show. The movie gives you four or five chances to spot the correspondence: The girls are expecting that a man will arrive to save them from the house, and he never comes. The movie, then, has a strong sense of the cycle of traumatic repetition. The ghost-widow is trapped eternally wishing for the return of Japanese manhood, and the girls are made to share her desire. If the teenagers prove unable to overcome the threat of the imperial past, then this is because they are themselves entirely too much like that past—a replica of the war widow and not her antithesis, like her the product of the early ‘40s, endlessly living out Japan’s defeat.

So what interests me about Hausu is that the movie invites a certain feminist reading: Bad-ass girls fight an encroaching domesticity. But it also invites an anti-feminist reading: A nation unhinged by the absence of men. It’s at this point that we have to start accounting for the movie’s fever-dream style, which is what those reviewers were mostly responding to. The movie is a cascade of lo-tech special effects and film tricks: garishly painted backdrops, dancing marionettes, psychedelic wipes, crude animation scratched right onto the negative, every possible lens filter, in seemingly random rotation. This all communicates a certain joie du cinéma, but it also makes the movie feel diabolical, completely cracked, and so unlike ordinary haunted house movies, which have always been the most genteel members of the horror canon—talky, sedate and goreless, with Merchant-Ivory production values—long steady shots of corridors well papered, dolly shots tracking invisible presences, protracted enough that you can pause to admire the sconces. Next to that—next to The Haunting and The Innocents and the aesthetic these share with home-improvement shows—Hausu plays like a stone freak-out.

But there’s a danger here, that in saying this I will make the movie sound experimental or avant-gardist. That would be misleading, because the easiest way to communicate what Hausu is up to would be to say that it has borrowed most of its techniques from children’s television and TV ads. When your cinephile buddy tells you that Hausu reminds him of some Kenneth Anger joint, you need to say in return that it looks like an episode of Captain Kangaroo or an old Peppermint Pattie commercial. If you can imagine a horror movie stitched together out of 200-some 30-second ads, you’ll begin to get a sense of what it’s like to watch Hausu. There’s one detail that is decisive in this regard—one amazingly simply device that transforms a viewer’s experience of the movie and shifts it irretrievably into the realm of the commercial—and that’s the movie’s pop soundtrack, which not only has almost no discernible relationship to what’s happening on screen, but—and this is the important part—is turned up much too high in the audio mix, competing with the dialogue, like music in TV and radio ads, but not like ordinary movie music.

What most matters, then, is that these last two observations mostly coincide: The movie seems demonic and its style is borrowed mostly from children’s television and TV spots. The movie asks you to imagine what it would be like to live inside a kiddie show and decides that it would be terrifying. This shunts us straight back to the movie’s doubleness. At the end of Hausu, you have to ask yourself, does the movie’s insistent, camp cuteness distract from the horror or merely add to it? The slapstick and the dumb jokes and the storybook cartoonishness—do these counteract the film’s Gothic qualities—or do they amplify the horror in a new direction?—such that Japan seems completely mad even before the haunted house starts exacting its toll. In other words, you might choose to see this as a movie in which cuteness squares off against horror (and then cuteness tragically loses)—and that reading just about makes sense. But you might also see it as a movie in which cuteness and horror get grafted onto one another, in which case you end up with cute horror or a horrible cuteness—in which case Hausu would be like a hundred other movies that wish the Japanese would just sack up. Check the poster: The movie’s presiding demon is a white cat, Hello Kitty as hell’s familiar. And at one point, the movie, for no apparent reason, runs maybe two seconds of nuclear footage, the mushroom cloud, and one of the girls chimes, in voiceover: “Oh, look, it’s cotton candy”—and you think: Wait … was that…? Did I see…? Atrocity? Candyfloss? Atrocity? Candyfloss? In an alternate history, the bomb that fell on Hiroshima was called Little Girl.