Considering “Silent Hill”: Western Influence on Japanese Horror

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An Introduction to J-Horror

In the horror genre, Japanese movies, games, and literature tend to stand out with their unique twist. Over time Japanese horror, or J-Horror, has become notable for its thematic and conventional treatment of the horror genre that sets it apart from western horror. Though there is no true definition of what Japanese horror is, as elements of horror can be found in multiple cultures, there are certain things that can be picked out as being Japanese horror tropes. J-Horror media tends to focus on the psychological aspects of horror and seek to build up a high level of suspense using stories and tropes grounded within Japanese cultural tradition.

Speaking of horror in Japan signify to refer to a set of long standing mythological and literary traditions, deeply rooted in the Japanese imaginary. A wide range of Shinto or Buddhist tropes and motifs, linked to the territory of the arcane, the demonic, the possession, the fantasies, the deaths and the avenging spirits, is part of many works of the Japanese literary and theatrical tradition and constitute a repertory on which cinema will then seize in order to appropriate themes and figures (Picard). 

Survival horror games in particular, such as the Fatal Frame and Corpse Party series, can trace their foundational elements back to traditional Japanese ghost stories. However, an approach to Japanese survival horror games that focuses simply on the uniquely Japanese elements of the games would be inappropriate. Because “fear is universal in a way,” a country’s horror media does not necessarily feed off of its own culture in order to create new content (McRoy). Series like Konami’s Silent Hill and Capcom’s Resident Evil both have distinctly western influences, drawing inspiration from western films like The Exorcist and The Evil Dead.

In this article we will be looking at the distinctly western influences found in the Silent Hill games, which focuses on a psychological horror aspect to storytelling and game play, with a main focus on the second game in the series, Silent Hill 2.

 The Silent Hill Series

Silent Hill Map

Silent Hill is a survival horror series that currently has ten released titles and an eleventh, which was briefly in production before being cancelled. Each installment in the series follows a protagonist that is “called” to the American town of Silent Hill for varying reasons. Generally these characters are trying to find something or run away from their past, causing them to become trapped in the foggy, lakeside town facing visions of their darkest fears. When creating the series the developers at Konami wanted to make “modern American horror through Japanese eyes” (Picard). With this intention, Japanese psychological horror, seen through the stories heavy psychological elements and monster design, and American horror tropes, such as murders for cult rituals, Indian burial grounds, and underground Civil War prisons, were blended together.

Silent Hill 2 in particular stands out among the Silent Hill series due to its story turning away from the cult plot line that dominated other games towards a deeper psychological aspect. The game follows James Sunderland, a man who goes on a trip to Silent Hill in search of his dead wife. There he meets other individuals who are all looking for something, either safety or a person they lost, though interactions with them are kept to a minimum. As the story unfolds it becomes clear that no one is seeing the same things, and that the town is unique to each individual that enters it, playing heavily on each characters psychology, past experiences, and emotional state. Thus, it plays on the perception of reality, where you can never be certain if events are actually happening.

The horror is one commonly found in Japanese games: subtle, depending ultimately on atmosphere and a sense of horror that slowly creeps up on the player. As someone is playing Silent Hill 2 there may be the confusion as to what the greatest enemy in the game is: the town, the surprisingly human monsters, James, or the player. The ending received is determined entirely on how the player treats James and the other characters in the game. Do they heal James frequently, or let his health remain low? Do they seek to help out other characters, or just allow them to meet their fate? How much does the player care?

The developers sought to show western influence, not simply by playing off of the west’s horror tropes, but by making clear references to American horror films. James, the main character, wears an outfit fairly similar to the main character in Jacob’s Ladder. An important puzzle piece, symbolizing the devil, can be found in an abandoned baby carriage, harkening back to Rosemary’s Baby. Additionally, the bar one of the characters works in, called Heaven’s Night, is strikingly similar to the bar in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet.

Pockmarked WallsOne Silent Hill 2 scene in particular goes beyond just showing western influence, and decides to comment on the American “lifestyle.” Though starting off the game with basic melee weapons, such as a board with nails and a metal pipe, by the second major area the main character obtains a firearm. Going into an apartment, a standard handgun and some ammunition can be found in a bright red shopping cart. If the player chooses to look around the room they can see the walls pockmarked with bullet holes. This display is meant as commentary by the developers on how easy it is to obtain guns in America, and the violence that comes as a result of it.

By looking at these clear western influences in J-Horror video games it becomes clear fear is cross cultural. Though some elements about J-Horror are uniquely Japanese they cannot be considered outside the influence of other nation’s horror.

Discussion

In this article the Silent Hill and Resident Evil series are mentioned at having western influence. Can you think of any other Japanese horror games that share western elements?

When developing Silent Hill, Konami wanted to make “modern American horror through Japanese eyes.” Is there a case where an American company sought to make modern Japanese horror through western eyes?

Sources

McRoy, Jay. Japanese Horror Cinema. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005. Print.

Picard, Martin. “Haunting Grounds: Transnationality and Intermediality in Japanese Survival Horror Video Games.” Horror Video Games: Essays on the Fusion of Fear and Play. By Bernard Perron. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2009. N. pag. Print.

Related Links

Silent Hill 2 E3 Trailer

The Making of Silent Hill 2

Silent Hill (2006) Film Clip – Nurse Scene

It’s the End of the World and We’re Okay With That: Looking at the Apocalyptic in Japanese Pop Culture

When you imagine an apocalypse, what comes to mind?  Probably images of destruction: ruined buildings, cities devoid of living people, a permeating sense of sadness and loss.  In reality, these are all things we fear.  Yet, the apocalyptic is one of the most prominent genres in Japanese pop culture.  Why is that so?

Prewar Origins: Natural Disasters, Mono no Aware and Mappō

Contrary to popular belief, Japanese culture was suffused with imaginations of the apocalyptic before postwar Japan.  That does not mean to say that the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, among other disasters, did not propagate an intense focus on the genre.  It merely asserts that the concern had already been established.

The Great Wave off Kanagawa, by Hokusai, 1820's.

The Great Wave off Kanagawa, by Hokusai, 1820’s.

To start off, Japan as a nation has had its fair share of natural disasters.  The country is located near two converging tectonic plates and is at the edge of the Pacific Ocean.  This means that Japan has constantly been subjected to a number of typhoons, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis and earthquakes over the course of its history.  In short, the destruction associated with those natural disasters had already become a part of Japanese culture over time.  A great example of this would be The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Hokusai, the image of a giant wave towering over Mt. Fuji being one of the most popular images associated with Japan today.

 

Japan Sinks, comic cover for the manga by Sakyo Komatsu

Japan Sinks, comic cover for the manga by Sakyo Komatsu

 

Another one of the earlier fundamental elements of the apocalyptic exclusive to Japanese culture is the concept of Mono no Aware.  The philosophy revolves around the awareness of impermanence.  This was developed in the Heian period, when a scholar named Motoori Norinaga wrote a critique on the famous Tale of Genji (Yoda).  His critique was the basis for the literary philosophy, which ended up being a major influence in Japanese culture.

 

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, by Hayao Miyazaki

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, by Hayao Miyazaki

 

The concept of Mappō is also an apocalyptic doctrine that has been present since Japan’s Kamakura Period.  As Susan Napier states, “Mappō revolves around the idea of a destroyed word being saved by a religious figure, who in this case was the Maitreyea Buddha” (252).  One of the best examples that has demonstrated this concept in Japanese popular culture was Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, where Nausicaa posed as the messianic figure that diverted the strife between humans and insects of a toxic jungle.

 

 

Postwar Origins: Unnatural Disasters and the Creation of Kaiju Eiga

Undoubtedly, Japan’s fascination with the apocalyptic grew exponentially postwar.  Japan is the only country that has ever been subjected to atomic attack, and many aspects of its pop culture were influenced by such events.

The Original Godzilla

The original Gojira, off the set

Gojira, the iconic monster that decimated Tokyo in films of the postwar era, was a creative response to the unnatural disasters that wrecked Japan in 1945 and 1954.  The Lucky Dragon incident of 1954, in which the United States’ Atomic Energy Commission set off a thermonuclear bomb near a Japanese fishing boat, brought back the fear associated with nuclear destruction (Szczepanski).

Such incidents, including elements that were present in Japanese culture before World War Two, are good reason to support why the apocalyptic genre is and continues to be a significant theme in Japanese popular culture.

Gojira’s creation led to the popularity of the monster film genre in Japan, or the kaiju eiga.  According to Gyan Prakash, kaiju eiga are a result of  “’mass trauma that exists over the use of nuclear weapons and the possibility of future nuclear wars’ while also reveling in the aesthetics of destruction….the peculiar beauties to be found in wreaking havoc, in making a mess” (107).

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With the continual presence of natural disasters in Japan and the foundations of Mono no Aware and Mappō doctrine already in place, the atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as the Lucky Dragon incident, set the stage for the rise of the apocalyptic genre in Japanese popular culture.

 

Discussion Questions:

1.  Godzilla spawned the beginning of the kaiju eiga genre in Japan.  Do you think the 2014 reboot was influenced primarily by the disaster at Fukushima (addressing a grand narrative) or because we just want to see big monsters fight it out (Azuma’s database)?

2.  Do you think that the apocalyptic genre has changed over time?  For example, it is said that the genre has become more optimistic in recent years, compared to the nihilistic qualities of the apocalyptic genre in the 1970’s and 80’s.

 

Sources:

Napier, Susan Jolliffe. Anime from Akira to Howl’s Moving Castle: Experiencing Contemporary Japanese Animation. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

Prakash, Gyan. Noir Urbanisms: Dystopic Images of the Modern City. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010.

Szczepanski, Kallie. “Lucky Dragon Incident | Bikini Atoll Tests and Japanese Fishermen.” http://asianhistory.about.com/od/japan/p/Lucky-Dragon-Nuclear-Incident.htm.

Yoda, Tomiko. “Fractured Dialogues: Mono No Aware and Poetic Communication in The Tale of Genji.” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies Vol. 59, no. No. 2 (1999).

Not Your Typical Magical Girl: The subculture of Grand Narrative Consumption.

Hiroki Azuma proposes that within postmodern otaku culture there is a lack of desire to consume the grand narrative, and instead otaku seek to consume a character database. However, there are several anime that can be pitted against his theory. One is called Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica, a magical girl anime that completely deconstructs the magical girl genre. Madoka Magica is one of the few anime with a grand narrative that have made it into mainstream anime consumption. Azuma’s theory is that there is a lack of a grand narrative in postmodern anime and I agree that the grand narrative is dissipating, however, what can’t be seen on the surface of otaku culture is that there is still a subculture of anime that focuses on a grand narrative.

Database Consumption

Azuma built this idea off of Otsuka Eiji’s theory of narrative consumption. He modernizes it by claiming that postmodern otaku culture has further digressed from the consumption of small narratives in the 1980’s to a different consumption behavior in the 1990’s that focuses more on the desire for a specific set of characteristics a character may have that otaku feel “moe” towards, and he calls this “database consumption” (Azuma 38). The database is a list of these characteristics that many otaku find appealing, and what they strive to consume. Instead of looking for a story with meaningful plot they look for the characteristics of a character that they find attractive. There are also other attractive “moe-elements” other than visually appealing characteristics that include the way a character speaks, “settings”, “stereotypical narrative development”, and the “specific curves” or body proportions of a figurine (42). An example of this could be a character that is typically seen as a klutz and dimwitted. Otaku search out anime that contain this particular character trope and endlessly consume it. Magical girl characters are a perfect example of this character consumption model. The magical girl genre stereotypically contains characters that are cute, heroic, and seek to bring justice to those that do wrong. They can also contain typical anime characteristics like cat ears, maid-like or school-like uniforms, and colorful unnatural hair colors.

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Not so typical Magical Girls

However, there is a popular magical girl anime that breaks down Azuma’s Theory of database consumption that is called Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica. It was written by Gen Urobuchi and directed by Akiyuki Shinbo, and is a series about Madoka Kaname, an eighth grader who decides to become a magical girl which is granted by a creature named Kyubey (MAL). Kyubey in turn grants them one wish, but in order for their wish to come true they must become a magical girl. Once they become a magical girl they receive a Soul Gem. These magical girls battle an opposing force called witches and this is supposed to represent a “good vs evil” framework. Throughout the anime we are confronted by dream-like and ‘cutesy’ imagery and also database representations of what a magical girl looks like, which is a magical girl fighting uniform and also unnatural hair colors. The main Character, Madoka, comes across as a naïve and hardworking junior high student who doesn’t have any hardships in her life but wants to selflessly help other people.

Initially Madoka Magica comes off as a generic Magical girl anime, but after the first few episodes the anime starts to take a darker more psychological turn. It completely “deconstructs” the magical girl genre and throws fans through a loop (Wu). After the death of one of the main characters there was an uproar within the fandom. Especially since the death came so “sudden and without warning” (Wu). The death threw the characters and fans into emotional turmoil and they started to discover the truth about what it meant to be a magical girl. By becoming a magical girl they are in a sense giving up their humanity, and this is shown in episode 6 when “Madoka threw away Sayaka Miki’s Soul Gem” (Wu). By doing this Madoka Magica uses a bait-and-switch style of marketing in which is presents the grand narrative to its viewers regardless of whether or not they were seeking it. They used the database as a camouflage and as a result, we are presented with a series that breaks away from the database as soon as it seduces its viewers.

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Madoka Magica also contrasts with mainstream database consumption anime merely by the amount of episodes that it is composed of. Unlike other magical girl anime, Madoka Magica is a 12 episode anime. Most magical girl anime are compose of approximately 50 or more episodes in which there is a generic repeating story arc where the characters face a new evil and defeat it successfully. Story arcs can be repeated hundreds of times and contain many filler episodes that contain no plot and only a light-hearted interactions between the characters in the series. Sailor Moon is a perfect example of a popular magical girl anime that is based off of character consumption with a small narrative in contrast to Madoka Magica that contains a database framework but also a grand narrative. Sailor moon is a series that contains 46 episodes in the first series, and goes on to repeat the good vs evil fight in several different story arcs. Despite the small amount of episodes, Madoka Magica successfully produces a grand narrative that is resolved within the last episode and leaves you fully satisfied with the story line.

Even though Madoka Magica strayed from the path of a typical Magical girl anime it was very successful. The very moment the true nature of Madoka Magica was revealed during episode 3 “the popular forum 2ch achieved a record-breaking number of posts discussing the anime” (Wu). The unexpected inclusion of a grand narrative solidified the consumer’s emotional investment into the story line of an anime that started off in a very generic way. The success of the anime was further confirmed when “the first Blu-ray Disc volume sold more than 50,000 copies in the first week of sales” which broke “the original record held by Bakemonogatari” and was only “surpassed a month later by its own second volume”(Wu). Though reactions to the anime were polarizing at times. Some original fans of the Magical girl genre opposed the deconstruction of what it mean to be a magical girl and don’t consider it a true magical girl anime. Even so, based on the differing reactions the anime drew, the subculture of otaku that still crave the grand narrative were drawn to the concept of the anime. Some even consumed it entirely for the purpose of the grand narrative it was said to contain. This shows that the database consumption model can be used as an effective marketing tool to draw viewers into a grand narrative.

Discussion Questions:

  • Do you think that the grand narrative is something that is currently on the rise in comparison to the 1990’s?
  • What do you think of the concept of genre deconstruction?
  • Do you think disguising the grand narrative in the database as a way to shock viewers is a good or bad thing?

Sources:

Azuma, Hiroki. “Chapter 2: Database Animals.” Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 2009. 29-54. Print.

MAL. “Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica.” My Anime List. MyAnimeList, LLC. Web. 5 Apr. 2015. <http://myanimelist.net/anime/9756/Mahou_Shoujo_Madoka%E2%98%85Magica/>.

Wu, Justin. “The Madoka Legacy: A Brief Review of Puella Magi Madoka Magica.” The Artifice. N.p., 22 Sept. 2013. Web. 05 Apr. 2015. <http://the-artifice.com/puella-magi-madoka-magica/>.

Related Links:

Top 20 Psychological anime – http://www.imdb.com/list/ls073030809/

My Neighbor Totoro Conspiracy theories – http://www.tofugu.com/2013/08/15/conspiracy-theory-totoro/

Satoshi Kon: Existentialism and Reality – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fp-IjV0wjIo

Shoot ‘Em Up & Slice ‘Em Down: A Cross-Cultural Examination of Western and Samurai Cinema

Seven Samurai Poster

Seven Samurai (1954) poster

At first glance, one may look upon films such as Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961) and Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and think that the two are wholly aesthetically different, coming from two separate genres.  The samurai and western genres, however, are more correlated than one might believe.  The samurai film, and other forms of jidai-geki (period piece), is “singularly Japanese in that it draws upon the peculiarities of Japanese history and myth just as the Western [has drawn] upon those elements in America” (Nolley 232).

The similarities are various, even amongst their histories, but which ones would have helped Japan and the United States latch onto the other’s traditional genre, especially in the case of the United States?  First, it will be necessary to examine how influences have not been just a one-way street.

American Influence on Japan

Akira Kurosawa, arguably one of Japan’s most important filmmakers, may have started his career with other forms of jidai-geki and cemented his legacy with Rashomon (1950), but he is most notable for being the greatest auteur that samurai cinema has ever seen.  Films such as Seven Samurai (1954), Throne of Blood (1957), Yojimbo (1961), and Ran (1985) have received international acclaim, multiple awards, and remain some of the most influential pieces of cinema to come from Japan.  He admits, however, that the influence for his films, specifically Yojimbo, was born “out of a love for the Hollywood Western” (Frayling 122).  He points out that “Westerns have been made over and over again, and in the process a kind of grammar has evolved” and that he has “learned from this grammar of the Western” (Frayling 122).

What Kurosawa says about the western not only applies to Japan, but also to the rest of the world.  The image of man in a cowboy hat with a pistol at his hip is recognizable the world over and the “explanation for the astonishing popularity of the Western can be contained in one word: Hollywood” (Buscombe 15).  Hollywood has always been the dominant force in the global film industry, and even during its turbulent history, the Western genre always seemed to find its way into theaters or television screens.  Whether or not anyone calls themselves a fan of the genre, anyone can recognize the iconography.  The influence has been global, and the effects are certainly visible in samurai cinema.

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A Fistful of Dollars (1964) poster

Japanese Influence on the U.S.

There are certainly a fair share of westerns and filmmakers that owe their thanks to samurai cinema.  John Struges remade Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai as the western The Magnificent Seven (1960), and the ‘Man with No Name’ character popularized by Clint Eastwood was the product of Toshirô Mifune’s ‘Samurai with No Name’ from Yojimbo.  The history is present, although the influence is perhaps a little more speculative.  From 1930 to 1968, the Motion Picture Production Code, a set of strict guidelines by which filmmakers had to follow in order for the censors to approve their films, dominated Hollywood.  The originators of the Code were concerned with the effects that film might have on the moral standing of the American people, and one of their chief concerns was the depiction of violence.

Among many other stipulations, the Code essentially told filmmakers not to depict violence in a graphic or excessive manner.  As long as the violence was central to the plot, it was deemed acceptable.  By 1960, however, the American public became more liberalized and the Code’s authority began to crumble.  Filmmakers, such as Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone, were slowly able to get away with more brutal depictions of violence.  With American – although perhaps Western, because of Leone’s identity as an Italian – directors finding influence from samurai cinema, it is entirely possible that depictions of violence from Japan, whose film were not affected by the Code, inspired them to push the bloody boundaries of what could and could not be shown.

As previously stated, numerous aesthetics of samurai cinema were an influence on the western genre, but which aspects do these two share that Americans would have been able to identify with most?

Ties to the Landscape

Although potentially a less obvious reason for an American embracing of samurai cinema, the presentation of the Japanese landscape in these jidai-geki bears a few similarities to other depictions of the landscape in the western.  Admittedly, however, not very many samurai films “present the wide open spaces of the old-style Western.  The Japanese setting has always tended to close in on the swordsman” (Anderson 9).  Some westerns may do the same with the right intimate setting, but ultimately the territory remains too important a piece of iconography to ignore.

As J.L. Anderson points out, for the most part, the “expansive natural landscapes with the body of a Western film contrast with the closer views of blossoming flowers, pools of reflecting water, butterflies soaring in the wind, and solitary naked bushes of the conventional jidai-geki” (10).  What this quote from Anderson points out, however, is a similarity in the romanticizing of the landscape that the samurai film presents.  The iconography and how it is depicted may differ, but the presentation from both reveals nostalgia for images of nations of old, and could instill as sense of national pride in the viewers.  American viewers may have embraced the samurai film as a means of Orientalizing Japan, but there is no denying the similarities between the western and the samurai film and the influence it had.

There is, however, a more obvious reason for an American embracing of the samurai film, and it lies with the protagonist.

All a Man Needs is a Weapon and His Morals

Whether the hero uses a sword or a pistol, American audiences embraced samurai cinema because of its traditional depictions of powerfully masculine protagonists resembling the loner heroes of the western.  Kenneth S. Nolley accurately states that films from both genres “are about how a group of people with a great deal of expertise (as fighters) employ their expertise in the defense of a group of people weaker than they” and these groups of people are mostly, if not always, strong men (233).  These men have been used to exploit graphic violence in both sorts of cinema, and their use has reinforced traditional ideas of masculinity, in terms of physicality.

For both sorts of films, however, honor and the inner battle between duty and morals have been essential narrative qualities, even in the seemingly lawless Wild West.  Just as the samurai have the code of bushido – at least, in those that do not attempt at being revisionist – and the inner struggle between giri (duty) and ninjo (personal morality), the West and its characters, mostly, abide by an unspoken code of honor and experience the same struggles.  For instance, to attack a person from behind “is to violate, if not the code of the real West, then the code of the Western movie” (14).  Some outlaws, such as Billy the Kid, may break this rule, but for the most part protagonists in westerns uphold whatever honor they have.  Additionally, some western protagonists, such as Pat Garrett, experience the same inner struggle as those in samurai films, as he struggles with having to kill longtime friend and outlaw Billy the Kid.

Discussion Questions:

1. Western and samurai films have been one of the most successful and popular genres for each respective country’s film industries, but have equally turbulent histories experiencing rapid booms and steady declines.  They may not be as popular anymore, but can we still call them culturally relevant?  Is there any chance for a resurgence in popularity in contemporary cinema?

2. One of the reasons that makes western and samurai films so unique is that each is immediately recognizable based upon the iconography that has been instilled in the minds of viewers for decades.  If there is any chance to save both genres from falling into obscurity, does the iconography need to be updated to modern times?  Has the traditional setting for each been so engrained in cinema that audiences need these familiarities to recognize a film as belonging to either genre?

Sources:

Anderson, J. L. “Japanese Swordfighters And American Gunfighters.” Cinema Journal 12.2 (1973): 1-21. Film & Television Literature Index with Full Text. Web. 5 Apr. 2015.

Nolley, Kenneth S. “The Western As Jidai-Geki.” Western American Literature 11.3 (1976): 231-238. America: History & Life. Web. 5 Apr. 2015.

Frayling, Christopher. Sergio Leone: Something to Do with Death. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012. Print.

Buscombe, Edward, ed. The BFI Companion to the Western. New York: Atheneum, 1988. Print.

Links:

Samurai Cinema 101 – http://www.midnighteye.com/features/samurai-cinema-101/

The Motion Picture Production Code of 1930 – http://www.und.edu/instruct/cjacobs/ProductionCode.htm

“How the Western Was Lost (and Why it Matters)” by Michael Agresta – http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2013/07/how-the-western-was-lost-and-why-it-matters/278057/