Considering “Silent Hill”: Western Influence on Japanese Horror

Silent-Hill-2-B

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

Jordan Cheresnowsky

10502096_811359175540882_5257088338524052679_nHello, my name is Jordan Cheresnowsky and I am a senior at the College of William and Mary. I am getting a distinct feeling of deja vu typing this, as I was a contributor to this blog my freshman year. Looking back on that bio now I am amazed at how much has changed in four years. Currently I am finishing up my self-designed major “Literatures of the Modern World,” a mashup of different cultural and literary classes that provides me with the necessary knowledge to become a media writer. As of two months ago I am a contributing writer for the “nerd culture” website All That’s Epic based out of California. There I write reviews, news, and features covering a wide variety of subjects such as film, television, and anime.

Though my current ambitions differ from those I posted on here my freshman year, I am still passionate about Japan and Japanese culture. When I was in middle school I was exposed to the Japanese culture through manga, opening my eyes to cultural differences I was unable to see living in a small town. From there I consumed all the information about Japan I could, from manga to anime, light novels to travel blogs, and even the occasional historical account or textbook. For the past four years I have taken a variety of government, history, literature, language, and film classes that have broadened my knowledge about Japan.

The Lady and the Monk: Bittersweet Love

The Lady and the Monk by Pico Iyer 352 pp. $11.21 Amazon

By Jordan Cheresnowsky

Born in Oxford, England, Pico Iyer became known for his accounts of his life living outside of set categories. In 1991, Iyer’s travels took him to Japan to live outside of the bustling culture, in the old Japan of poetry. The Lady and the Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto catalogues Iyer’s year spent in search of Buddhism in Japan. Though religion was his original focus in going to Japan, Iyer’s chance meeting with a young Japanese woman turns his story of traveling into the unknown into hers. Together they share the experience of breaking from the enjoyable to leave only the bittersweet.

Iyer’s year begins in autumn, at the beginning of his dream of living alone in a foreign country where he knows a bare minimum of the language. In the red light district of Kyoto he finds home is tacky yet traditional, the mixture of old and new placing Zen temples next to convenience stores and bars. The mixture of old and new reflects the traditional sense of the old, timeless Japan he seeks, and the more prominent, modernized Japan, presenting a two-sided city. Iyer keeps his opinions of the area moderate, not giving into stereotypes or being critical, and he tries to find the poetic qualities of his new surroundings. Despite the solitude he seeks, Iyer meets up with many Westerners who help close the language gap keeping him from Japan. From artists to those seeking Buddhism, Iyer is able to obtain many different perspectives on Japan, while withholding his own from the reader. “Every statement I made about Japan applied just as surely in the opposite direction,” Iyer states, remaining cautious about his own opinions of Japan. “I might think it odd that Japanese girls cover their mouths whenever they laugh – until I remembered that we were trained to cover our mouths when we yawn” (329).

The true focus of the novel is unclear at first, hidden behind Zen poetry and chance encounters at gaijin bars, or those catering to foreigners. Iyer’s true tale begins to shine when he meets a young woman, Sachiko, at a temple. The comical misunderstandings of their relationship begin at this point, with messages lost in translation between elementary Japanese and broken English. Yet Iyer soon realizes that this relationship is more than casual meetings to discuss music and movies. A love is born, one similar to Madame Butterfly, due to the “pairing of Western men and Eastern women [being] as natural as the partnership of sun and moon” (79) This love is simply because “everyone falls in love with what he cannot begin to understand” (79).

The Lady and the Monk is as much Sachiko’s story as it is Iyer’s. The focus of the novel is not on the mysterious land, or even on travels throughout the country, but on Sachiko’s growth from hesitant housewife with an often-absent husband to an independent woman. Sachiko, for Iyer, reveals the two-sidedness of Japan, the difference between the surface and emotion. On the surface is a highly efficient new-age Japanese mother. She dedicates herself to her children, her husband, and her family, being punctual and proper, and fulfilling every role expected of her. Underneath the shining surface, a whirlpool of emotion bubbles up, manifesting itself only in a teenager’s clothing and obsessions with foreign musicians, like Sting. A woman who was forced to grow up so fast, who was too busy fulfilling duty to truly discover what she wanted for herself, welcomes a friendship with Iyer, the nearest gaijin, as a way of escape.

“Encouraging people to realize their potential was an especially dangerous occupation in a country that taught them to fulfill their duty instead,” Iyer states, realizing the role he begins to play in Sachiko’s life (97). From his perspective as her foreign “savior,” he knows that his role is to stand by her for as long as he can, for the four seasons he will be in Japan. So Iyer teaches her about America, and she teaches him about Japan in turn, mostly causing her to realize the constraints placed upon her own life. Similar to girls whom he saw on one of his first trips to a gaijin bar, Japanese women are meant to play their role, to dance perfectly in unison, to fulfill expectations. Still, the story of the lady, Sachiko, and Iyer, the monk, moves across the four seasons, while their love for one another grows. He helps her break from the constraints of Japanese society and stand on her own while he experiences Japan with a woman at his side, his Madame Butterfly. However, Sachiko is the one who holds control over Iyer. The role of Madame Butterfly is truly played by Iyer, the foreign mystery there to liberate and then be done with.

“I little sad feeling,” Sachiko repeatedly states throughout the book, whether the situation is happy or sad, which Iyer comes to understand. The fleeting moment, the beauty of what once was, is something to be treasured in Japanese culture. Iyer and Sachiko’s journey is truly about breaking from what is enjoyable, such as love, leaving only a bittersweet feeling behind. Iyer flawlessly depicts Japan as well as his journey, providing an enjoyable read and glimpse into a foreign land. I believe Iyer’s is a wonderful story of love, one that can be used to understand the people, though not necessarily Japan.

Jordan Cheresnowsky

Hello! My name is Jordan Cheresnowsky and I am planning on being an East Asian Studies major with a minor Japanese at the College of William and Mary. My general interest in Japan began in eighth grade when a friend of mine threw a volume of manga at me, claiming that I would like it because of the pink and girly cover. Obviously I did, but not for the story. Growing up in a small town I did not experience foreign cultures too often. To be holding another country’s art form, their literature, in my hands and be able to see how lives were different overseas drastically changed my life. I could not get enough of the Japanese culture, reading everything from manga to light novels, online blogs to travel books, and even the occasional historical account. The summer of my junior year I dove headfirst into the Japanese language by attending the Virginia Governor’s Japanese Language Academy for three weeks. By the time I went home I realized my dream of becoming a Japanese translator, so I could one day bring to the English-speaking world the books and works that changed my perspective so drastically.

(Of course my mother would tell me years after my general interest in Asia began that when I was younger she kept me away from Japanese animation, like Sailor Moon, because the eyes freaked her out. It seems to have backfired just a bit.)