Just wanted to plug this new book called “Domesday” by a Japanese author named Kei Urahama. It was actually written in the apocalyptic-ly auspicious year of 2000 but is released as an English version during another Mayan-ly auspicious year of 2012. It is just as relevant this year as it was over a decade ago.
I was fortunate to meet the author, Kei Urahama, while assisting on the translation of a script he was working on with Shion Sono several years ago. Although that film project was looking very promising at first, receiving awards at the Pusan project market, it hasn’t moved forward since then. Luckily this novel, Domesday, has progressed to the international stage. I was honored to be able to be involved even in a small way in preparing this book to be published outside Japan. It won a very illustrious Japanese award called the Komatsu Sakyo award that is the Japanese equivalent of the Nebula or Hugo awards.
I never gave much thought to Japanese science fiction – most of us have been avid J-horror fans or anime fans over the years, and although there are often elements of sci-fi in Japanese anime and manga, for the most part we don’t pay much attention to their sci-fi novels. As you might imagine though, there is a long, rich tradition of sci-fi literature in Japan. Domesday is definitely a book worthy of note since it stands out even among its peers in J-Sci-Fi.
Why does it stand out? First and foremost, it incorporates many elements that both Eastern and Western sci-fi often avoid. There is a major character who is a religionist and hence directly refers to and quotes from the Bible. Those who’ve had the good fortune to read the book are commenting that it has a lot of relevance to current events and trends in America. We are often astounded at how authors of ‘speculative fiction’ can predict the future. Well I’d say Kei Urahama was prescient of future events and trends by about a decade. I’m definitely not one to talk about the plot and ruin it for you though. Check this book out and see what I mean.
Although… should I say it? Yes, there are ZOMBIES – but these zombies don’t follow any of the cliches that I’ve ever come across. This horror element to the novel will definitely keep you on your toes as even the characters compare and contrast the zombies from their own personal hell to those from the classic films and video games. Self-reflexive zombies? What next?
Not something you think about every day (unless you’re a psychopath or a serious fan of zombie movies) is what kind of creative new tool would a killer use to snuff someone out in the most spectacular way.
Can you believe there’re people sitting around all day thinking up such things? They’re called horror film scriptwriters.
Basically the financial success of “Saw” generated an unavoidable domino effect where everybody and their rich uncle tried to make knock-offs with titles named after every tool and implement imaginable. It got ridiculous enough to have the character Christopher on The Sopranos produce a movie with funding from his rich uncles entitled “Cleaver”.
As an aside, does anyone have a list of all the film titles spawned by the “Saw” phenomenon? Here in Japan the B-film distributors change the names of films to whatever they think will cater to Japanese tastes so I have no clue the plethora of titles that must exist outside the archipelago. I’m curious to hear from someone on the other side of the world who has a savant’s mind for useless trivia. Help me out here and leave a comment if anything comes to mind…
My own little zombie film being based in Japan, there came a time I needed to do research on what makeshift weapons your average countryside Japanese might find on hand to defend themselves during the apocalypse. So I made a little field trip to the local hardware store and here are some of the beauties I found.
Japan’s local hardware store is a western martial artist’s wet dream, right? I bet those guys who hang out on street corners swinging around nunchuks would probably pay a pretty penny for the gardening implements above. Maybe I should start a side business to support my expensive film-making habit.
Of course everyone knows that martial arts the world over come from oppressed farmers whose overlords prohibit them carrying around conventional weapons. Something tells me I don’t want to be oppressing farmers carrying any of the above tools.
But maybe I shouldn’t be writing about this at all. On the one hand there are those who question the need for these horrible slasher films sucking up all of Hollywood’s lower tiers of talent. What does it say about our world that especially single men linger in the “Horror” aisle of their video stores obsessing over which movie will truly shock and thrill them out of their humdrum socks.
On the other hand there are those who say these films are a kind of cathartic exorcism that allow us to get our darkest fears out in the open and hence overcome them. I don’t imagine people from either side of the argument really enjoy horror films to start with though.
Me – I don’t have a clue. I just love watching a good scary movie with a good story.
Nothing is more important in zombie movies than the hideout location.
In our pre-production location search and before we found the perfect hide-out for my film, I was at my wit’s end as none of the tunnels seemed to be working out. If you think hard about it, there are not actually many good places to hide during a zombie apocalypse. You could probably fill up volumes on the subject and I would venture a guess that a few zombiephiles have already done so. The film commission manager finally found a place that did look promising so we headed out once again to check it out.
We had to park the car at a gate as the road beyond thinned out – the first bad sign that no matter how cool the tunnel might look we probably wouldn’t be able to schlep the gear that far anyway. We made our way down a thin country trail for about five minutes to finally reach a large culvert. It was about two meters wide and two and a half high and creepy as hell. It was designed to capture and channel the torrential rains that ran off the mountains beyond. It was quite long and although you could see light at the other end it dropped off to impenetrable darkness about ten meters in leaving most of its span an unknown. A whole circus of troglodytes could have been cavorting in there and we wouldn’t have a clue.
At this stage in the game there were more staff there – about five or so in all including the assistant directors, and I felt I had to be “the director” and plunge right into that darkness before anyone else just to show how brave a leader I was. I got nervous as I realized I didn’t have a flashlight of any sort. The first assistant director was clever enough to have his own little mini-maglite but it didn’t penetrate far enough ahead to cover my ground. I knew several of the group were following behind him as well, but gradually their voices and footfalls grew silent and I was pretty much moving in an odd silent darkness with just a small disk of light ahead to keep me from skewing into the way. I guessed everyone except myself and the first AD had opted to remain behind.
The floor kept getting more and more wet until my shoes were splashing deeper than I’d imagined they should. At this point I began to wonder what possible location would be so good that I had to get to the other side of the tunnel in the first place. No way we were shooting this far out anyway. It was already about an hour’s drive from where the crew would be staying – much too far to relocate and shoot unless we planned to lose an entire day on the hide-out scene.
Finally the light started to brighten up and I made it to the other end. There I found… nothing. It just ran into an immediate stand of trees that hardly allowed room for a tripod. I turned and looked back down the tunnel but saw the view was just about the same as the front end – nothing spectacular. I checked my shoes and legs for mountain leeches then plunged back into the darkness to get back to the rest of the group. Only the first assistant director had come all the way out of loyalty I suppose, the rest being too wise to trudge all the way down the tunnel knowing they’d just have to go back anyway.
I slogged back to the other side. Yes it was pretty creepy but not in a way that you could transfer to film. That happens. The creepiest of places have a symmetry that can’t be captured on film. It takes a good DP or director to really instill fear into an image, one who understands how shadows and darkness should crowd into a frame leaving much to the audience’s imagination and some negative space for the soundtrack to resonate with.
Everyone together again at the front end, we began to head back for the cars when we noticed something odd in the hillside next to the tunnel about ten meters further up the road. There were three holes dug into the slope. They were almost perfectly round and two of them were about a meter and a half in diameter with the third being a little smaller. Hmm… what could that be? The first AD went up to the first hole and shone his flashlight inside.
I was a bit too far back to see whatever it was that he saw, but it made him lurch back like it was full of snakes. He said something to the rest of the group in Japanese that I couldn’t make out but it seemed like everyone was walking just a tad faster toward the cars.
Curiosity getting the best of me I slowed the AD down and asked him what he saw in there. “There were people living in there,” he said. To this day I’m not sure if he actually saw people or their clothes and bedding but probably he isn’t sure himself either. But who was going to go back and take a second look to make sure. That would be what some idiot in a horror film would do, right?
Sounds very much like a “The Hills Have Eyes” rip-off but this really happened. It’s ever-so-slightly troubling to think of that place even now. It was at least forty-five-minutes-drive from anything you’d call civilization. Who would opt to live out there? What did they eat? How many of them were there?
Questions that we weren’t ever going to find the answers to. Thankfully we didn’t end up shooting the film anywhere near there. Let’s make horror films, not live them, right?
If you’d like to learn more about trogs, watch here.
The first hideout I’d imagined was perhaps a bit too schoolgirl-ish although on the plus side it would have made the scene a bit more colorful. I’m quite happy we didn’t go for the playground tunnel thing since it would have been a bit too overstated for my taste.
It would have been quite a challenge to shoot in this playground as well since just about every angle was quite cluttered and too challenging for the art department to give that post-apocalyptic minimalist look as well.
We moved on from the playground and what followed was probably a string of six or so different tunnels that pretty much all had some promising aspects but at least one glaringly wrong thing that would rule it out. For example some of the problems were:
1. Too dark to shoot with low-budget lights and the RedOne camera
2. Too far off the beaten track for us to lug all the gear and work into a busy shooting day
3. Too dangerous to climb or crawl too
4. Too close to major thoroughfares too avoid errant shadows and constant noise
5. Too large and/or generic looking to be believable or visually interesting – Who would really hide out in a huge tunnel during a zombie apocalypse anyway?
Once again I won’t give any spoilers about the location we finally chose for the hide-out scene. It made it into the film and comes soon after the title sequence, but in fact we didn’t find it until the last minute and it took the DP forcing me into choosing it… I’m glad he did.
Making zombie movies can be filled with real life horror stories as well. Since the bomb shelter caves of Chiba were too far from Tokyo, I still had to find a suitably dismal location for my heroine to hide out once the apocalypse was underway.
I’d always thought of some kind of remote, man-made cave or tunnel as the best place. So the Numazu Film Commission guy went looking for locations based on my descriptions. One of my ideas was hiding out in some kind of playground jungle gym tube (is that what they’re called?).
This image of the heroine camping out in a playground was inspired by an event in my own life. Not to divulge my age but I was a starving exchange student studying film in Paris the year the Berlin wall came down. Unlike most of my co-exchangists, I was incredibly broke so my year abroad there was much different from a lot of other study-abroadists. While they rented two-thousand dollar flats on the rive-gauche, I was moving almost once a month from one unbearable hole to another. What this meant was that while they all jetted off to slum it at the Cannes Film Festival or party on the remains of the Berlin Wall, I was struggling to scrape the francs together to buy my daily crust of bread (really not kidding). Not saying I was jealous of them, but I was jealous of them. I pretty much survived on the government subsidized baguettes smeared sparingly with Nutella washed down with tap water. Not complaining though because it all become grist for the old imagination, right? I pretty much knew what it felt like to survive the apocalypse eating crusts of bread.
Worse fate than any apocalypse, I ended up teaching English to save money over the next few months (talk about story material for zombie movies..). I then traveled by low-budget rail to Prague and Bratislava in the then-Czechoslovakia just after the Velvet Revolution. Gradually my meager funds diminished and I couldn’t even afford the cheapest of flop-houses. I could have probably sold my jeans but instead I ended up sleeping on a playground jungle gym using my backpack as a pillow. I say “sleeping” but maybe I just wasn’t cut out for a hobo life because as the night wore on I didn’t sleep a wink due to all the strange, evocative noises. The noises included something that truly sounded like the three-headed dog of hell, Cerberus prowling around the area for lost souls to feed on. When it actually got really close to my jungle gym perch, I heard what sounded like Hercules roaring for it to get back on the leash.
I somehow managed not to soil my valuable jeans but when it finally became light in the morning I did find that some other hobo had silently crept up and was sleeping on the same jungle gym a meter or so from my choice spot.
But I digress.
The Film Commission guy found some excellent choices for a tunnel and after looking at some snapshots we chose a few and went for a drive to check them out…
Some people find monster horror films – especially the CG driven ones – not to be scary or interesting at all. It’s not that they don’t like horror films, it’s just that for them, for a film to be truly frightening, it has to be something they can actually believe in. For people to really get a true sense of suspense, a CG animated monster or any monster at all just doesn’t cut it. For such people the scariest films are actually psycho-killer films – not the goofy slasher flix where the dude has astronomical metaphysical powers, but films like “Silence of the Lambs” where they feel truly threatened by what they consider to be the true monsters of our world.
I don’t think most people who watch zombie movies are really deriving their pleasure from a high level of suspension of disbelief though.
Zombie movie fans don’t spend a lot of time mulling over whether or not this thing would really happen or not. Instead, for some bizarre reason I think zombie fans actually think it would be cool if a zombie apocalypse happened. Am I right?
I mean, come on, all this effort that has gone into hypothesizing zombie survival scenarios comes from folks who are tired with the current status quo and at least like to fantasize about what would happen if the tables were rather violently turned and suddenly they were cast into a world of zombie survival. To be more specific, a world where all the people who frustrate them on a daily basis were wiped out aside from a handful of hot survivor women (who used to sexually frustrate them) who would now sleep with them.
Anyway, kind of got off on a tangent there since once again I’m working my way to yet another reminiscence about location scouting for my own (alternative) zombie film in Japan.
My other location scouting tales were about the week or so we spent tooling around the area of Japan called Chiba, with its non-native elephants and native mountain leeches and rock roaches. This true story happened about the time we’d finally settled on the Numazu area in Shizuoka. A short aside about that though – we finally settled on Numazu because the Film Commission there is truly amazing.
Not only did they have a dedicated staff member who spent countless hours helping me find the right locations – so patiently driving around by himself searching for areas based on sketches I’d made up and locating the areas with most visual potential (for free!!!!) – but they also have a non-profit organization that supplies extras and production assistants (for free!!!!).
These are volunteers who actually show up with genuine enthusiasm and help out any way they can. My opinion of the Numazu Film Commission is so high that I think that even if you don’t want to make a movie, you should make a movie there!
During the pre-production stage of the filmmaking process for our indie zombie film we explored many locations within a days drive of Tokyo.
Along the Chiba coast were sundry temples and shrines in various states of disrepair but perhaps the most horror inspiring one of all is one that I managed to snap a few shots of.
No way to work this little guy into the film plot really – no matter how much I would have liked to. He should probably have a film of his own in my opinion. This photo should get the coveted Creepy Japan Award (made that up) but the fact is the actual place is even more creepy than the photo.
I was quite curious as to what purpose this particular shrine had. What did people come to this particular statue to pray for? Obviously someone was taking care of his upkeep as his robe looked pearly white. But was he meant to be a regular jizo statue for helping along travelers and children? Or was he especially helping those lost at sea since he was facing the ocean? Only someone in Chiba knows…
When we finally made the film in a completely different area called Numazu in Shizuoka prefecture, we did include a scene with jizo statues but they don’t look anything like this particular one. Somehow his image still remains imprinted in my memory though… maybe because I keep staring at the photo.
When I was writing the script of the film some four years back, I didn’t really think of this film as a “zombie” film. Although it definitely should fall into the greater “zombie horror” genre, the film is much more about the journey of a girl faced by a perplexing threat that doesn’t always follow traditional zombie rules. I won’t elaborate on this here since it would be too many spoilers. Having said this, I still think calling this section “Making a Zombie Movie in Japan” is about as precise as it can be though.
The real question is – Do you really care? Probably not, but if you happen to fall into that very thin slice of humanity that wants to make a zombie film in Japan or you just love all things Japanese, then maybe you’ll want to read on. For me, the making of the film was such a fascinating, stimulating, grueling and traumatic process that it just makes sense to write about it if even for catharsis.
Schoolgirl Apocalypse was listed as “highly recommended” by the Hamburg
Japan FilmFest and played to a full house at the main-stage Metropolis
Cinema. One of the few zombie movies shown but widely liked.