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February 27, 2007

Book Notes - David Kalat ("J-Horror")

If you read my weekly CD & DVD release lists, you will notice I am a fan of horror films, with a special growing fondness over the past couple of years for Japanese horror films. David Kalat's J-Horror: The Definitive Guide to The Ring, The Grudge and Beyond is a vast resource to Japanese horror films, not only chronicling the various series of films, but also noting the genre's impact on American filmmakers.

In his own words, here is David Kalat's Book Notes contribution for his book, J-Horror: The Definitive Guide to The Ring, The Grudge and Beyond:

One of the reasons I love movies and have spent my life celebrating, chronicling, preserving and promoting motion pictures is that they are, at their best, so much more than a good story well-told. Movies unite the strengths of all kinds of artistic disciplines and media in one. A great movie is a collaboration between writers and actors, photographers and designers, engineers and managers, financial whiz-kids and pointy-headed technogeeks, and not least of all musicians.
The process of writing a definitive history of the J-Horror phenomenon entailed watching literally hundreds of movies—not all of them available with English subtitles. Over the course of two years I studied these films and cross-referenced them to track their common elements, and debunk a lot of widely-believed myths regarding their origins. Keeping these movies alive in my head while I wrote was a challenge, so I played their soundtracks as I sat, drinking gallons of lapsang souchong, hunched over a legal pad with a ballpoint pen clutched in my claw.

These soundtracks are wonderfully evocative, sometimes even better than the movies they adorn. Here are some of my favorite tracks:

PULSE (KAIRO) soundtrack by Takeshi Haketa, tracks 3, 9, and 14.

Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s original PULSE is one of the scariest movies I’ve ever seen, an esoteric and off-putting masterpiece stubbornly unwilling to condescend to its audience. It has the logic of a nightmare, images you’ll never shake off. Haketa’s score is every bit as unpredictable and resonant as Kurosawa’s disturbing film. These three tracks show the enormous range of Haketa’s colorful soundtrack, and the variety of moods spanned by the film. Track 3 is somber and funereal, with undercurrents hinting at a larger menace. This is a movie about modern technology destroying the world, and while some of Haketa’s inspired music invokes that technological horror, track 9 is a throwback to the baroque symphonies of past generations—a reminder of the heritage and tradition at stake. Track 14 comes from the jittery climax, as doom descends from the skies. This is an essential album for all J-Horror buffs and anyone who loves good movie music; if you’re in a hurry, though, these tracks condense the best the CD has on offer.

From the soundtrack to Higuchinsky’s UZUMAKI, the song “RAVEN” by Do As Infinity.

The rest of this CD compiles the creepy background music by Tetsuro Kashibuchi and Keiichi Suzuki, capped by this fluffy J-pop confection by the oddly-named band “Do As Infinity.” The commercial logic behind the CD is the same as any American soundtrack album: to help boost sales of the score by appending a radio-friendly single. However, the single in question here is almost scarier than the score, and effectively stands on its own as a catchy pop ditty. I put this track into regular rotation on my iPod, alongside the Killers and No Doubt.


If Hollywood insists on continuing to bill filmmaker Hideo Nakata as the Japanese Hitchcock, then Kenji Kawai is his Edward Herrmann. For the RINGU series, Kawai assembled a soundtrack of ambient sound, atonal noise, and sundry racket. One gets the feeling that if, while recording, a cat jumped in his lap and caused him to drop his instruments, he’d just leave that in the finished piece and keep on going. Little of that exciting, ground-breaking work is represented on this disappointing record that otherwise focuses its attention on uninteresting “remixes” and techno-noise. The commercial logic described above overtook the RINGU soundtrack album and all but ruined it. What has been salvaged of Kawai’s music is thrilling, though, and this track especially makes me want to stop what I’m doing and go watch the movie again.

DARK WATER soundtrack by Angelo Badalamenti, “END CREDITS.”

The original film by Hideo Nakata is one of my favorites of the J-Horror canon, while the misbegotten American remake is a case study in poor decisions. That said, I can’t fault the remake for its lushly orchestrated soundtrack by Angelo Badalamenti. Asian horror movies are singularly obsessed with issues of modern parenting. In either rendition, DARK WATER brings these themes to the fore. Badalamenti’s mournful and romantic elegies perfectly suggests an anguished mother, torn between unyielding guilt and undying love.

JU-ON COMPLETE SERIES soundtrack by Shiro Sato, “JU-ON THEME CHAIN.”

This album was the first J-Horror soundtrack I purchased, and the chapter on the JU-ON cycle was one of the first I wrote—which means I spun this CD more during my writing than any of the others, and it holds a special place in my memory. The final track on the disc, #34 “THE CRUSHED MOAN,” presents the choking “aa-aa-aa” of the strangled ghost in the attic: listening to that track while driving late at night is not recommended. Just before it comes the theme tune from the original direct-to-video versions: a simple, repetitive melody tapped out on a cheap synthesizer. But what it lacks in ornamentation, it more than makes up for visceral power—just like Takashi Shimizu’s JU-ON videos themselves. This track reminds me happily of the kind of music John Carpenter used to do for his classic low-budget thrillers.


This is a bit of a cheat. This isn’t J-Horror music at all, but it is moody as a thunderstorm and I listened to it a lot as I wrote (and I’m listening to it right now, as a matter of fact). Ifukube was the primary soundtrack composer behind the Godzilla series, and most of Toho’s classic science fiction spectacles of the 1960s and 70s. His music always had a grand, epic scope, perfect accompaniment to visions of giant monsters trampling cities. Beyond his work scoring just shy of 300 motion pictures (gasp!), Ifukube was a gifted classical composer who found some modest fame in the West—recognition denied most Japanese composers. The SINFONIA TAPKAARA CD is one of a handful of recordings of his non-movie classical compositions, performed by Dimitri Yablonsky conducting the Russian Philharmonic Orchestra. This particular track runs 21 minutes: freed from the responsibility of marrying music to onscreen mayhem, Ifukube here invokes familiar spirit Godzilla-oid themes inside a methodically-crafted work that starts small, explodes into grandeur, and returns to its starting point with newfound depth. Consider it the phantom soundtrack to a never-made monster movie masterpiece.

“HAUNTED,” by Poe from the album of the same name.

This isn’t a J-Horror track, either, but it comes awfully close. The singer Poe, named for Edgar Allan, is the sister of author Mark Z. Danielewski, whose 2000 bestseller HOUSE OF LEAVES is one of the purest manifestations of the J-Horror sensibility in American pop culture. Poe’s HAUNTED was conceived as a “soundtrack” to the book. The entire album is superb, but it is the title track that still sends shivers up my spine. Quite simply, it is one of the scariest songs I’ve ever heard.

see also:

the book's page at Random House

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2007 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)


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