The Fleeting Nature of Techno-Horror: Kairo's Failure to Appeal to Gen Z
Techno-horror is a sub-genre of horror defined by the use of science or technology as the source of horror, and often, this genre is used to critique modern technology. However, due to the intertwined nature between techno-horror and contemporary technology, when that technology becomes obsolete, so does the horror presented in the film. In this paper, first, I will separate the relative concepts of “horrifying,” where a film’s horror exists solely in the world of the narrative, and “terrifying,” where a film’s horror can extend beyond the film and into the viewer’s everyday lives. Then, by using the example of the 2001 Kiyoshi Kurosawa film Kairo, I will not only illustrate how a film’s particular horror can be “terrifying” in its relative contemporary and evolve to be “horrifying” as the concepts in the film become less relative, but also I will argue that Kairo was never intended by Kurosawa to be a “terrifying” film—despite the reception of the film. To conclude, I will briefly mention how techno-horror is manifesting in the contemporary and solidify the argument that techno-horror as a genre must continue to adapt to modern society to truly be “terrifying.”
The multi-level term art-horror coined by Noel Carroll is horror that provokes an abnormal emotional state of horror, horror that is brought about by “beliefs, thoughts, or judgements about a particular kind of object,” or horror that is aroused by a “dangerously threatening and impure” object (Santilli, 177). Using this term, the film Kairo (2001) by Kiyoshi Kurosawa hits all the boxes. Kairo is a horror film, where the horror is brought about through judgement of the internet, a newly emerging technology. Kairo follows the parallel—and later intertwined—stories of Michi, a plant shop worker, and Ryosuke, a college student, as they navigate through a paranormal apocalypse caused by internet ghosts. These internet ghosts target lonely people and cause them to go into a state of psychosis and commit suicide or vanish into black smudges. As people begin disappearing one by one, Michi and Ryosuke desperately try to find survivors and a way out of Tokyo. At a first glance, Kairo implies a perception that the internet is “threatening and impure” (Santilli, 176). Through Kairo’s narrative, Kurosawa implies that the internet cannot cure loneliness nor replace human connection. However, in a contemporary lens, Kurosawa’s film failed to be truly “terrifying.” After viewing Kairo, I was not left with the same unsettling feeling that other horror films like Cure (1997) by the same director gave me, nor was I left anxious about the particular horror or message featured in this film afterwards. While Kairo indeed, was most definitely a horror film, it was not terrifying on a deeper level when viewed in a contemporary scope. In this paper, I will first define the concepts of “horrifying” versus “terrifying” and claim that the two can be separate. Then, I will argue that Kurosawa did not even intend Kairo to be a scary film, evident by the changes in composition style and the ending of the film. I will continue by attributing the disparities in the different interpretations of the film by analyzing how techno-horror is an ever-shifting genre. Through this, I will conclude by arguing that Kairo failed to be terrifying in the contemporary due to the internet no longer being “impure.”
In this paper, I will first separate the concepts of “horrifying” and “terrifying.” For a horror film to be “horrifying” and “terrifying,” a horror film needs to be “uncannily terrifying” rather than simply “horrifying.” However, the intertwinement of these two concepts is not a necessity and can lead to films that are only “horrifying” or only “terrifying.” I believe that what truly separates the concepts is the fact that a terrifying film needs to linger in the mind. It requires deeper intellectual concepts that are unsettling and unsatisfying—rather than simply relying on horrifying imagery and sound. For example, in the essay “Culture, Evil, and Horror,” Paul Santilli argues that for a film to be truly “terrifying," “the evil of violent murders” or other grotesque imagery is not enough (183). Instead, a truly terrifying film requires the concept of “death after death” where the “dead do not stay dead” (Santilli, 185). Santilli attributes the popularity of monsters like an undead zombie and vampires to this concept, as these monsters do not offer a “clean” death. Also, Santilli adds that the characteristic of leaving a film on a cliffhanger—hinting at a return of the monster, perhaps—greatly adds to the terrifying aspects of the film as the horror is now extended beyond the time constant of that singular film. In other words, for a film to be “terrifying,” there must be an extension of the horror presented beyond the film in a way that can linger in a viewers mind. This can be achieved through things such as an unclean ending to a narrative or through relating the horror presented in the film to anxieties in the contemporary. In addition, due to this definition of “terrifying” that requires a sense of horror that extends into the contemporary of a viewer rather than existing solely in the cinematic universe of the film, what can be considered terrifying can vastly differ based off of contemporary culture, issues, and concerns. Kairo is not only a perfect example of how the concepts of horrifying and terrifying can be two separate concepts, but also how the concept of terrifying can change based off of contemporary culture—and in this case contemporary technology.
In Kairo, the two main characters Michi and Ryosuke, struggle to find their way out of a dilapidating Tokyo where lonely people, one by one, are committing suicide or disappearing into black smudges due to ghosts that are spread through the internet. Despite this very horrifying synopsis, I argue that there are no terrifying conceptual aspects to a contemporary viewer familiar with the internet. In addition, I believe that Kurosawa did not even intend for Kairo to be terrifying, despite having the stereotypical aspects of a horror film like a bleak colour palette and sudden eerie noises. Rather than a being a hard critique on technology and the internet, Kurosawa implies that while this newfound technology is dangerous, as long as the usage is not obsessive to the point of being completely “immersed”—symbolized in the disintegration of the characters into black smudges—perhaps it could assist in forming “real” connections.
The fact that Kurosawa’s intention was not to create a typical horrifying and terrifying film is evident through the framing—and more specifically the shift in the type of framing—throughout the film. In the first majority of the film, most of the compositions were shot from outside a barrier. At the beginning of the film, Michi goes to check on her friend, Taguchi, due to his recent distance from the rest of the friend group. When she arrives at his apartment, Michi begins by observing Taguchi from a distance behind the shelter of a curtain. After she pushes the curtain aside to go closer and talk to Taguchi, the camera and thus the viewer is left behind where she was previously standing——the distance between the viewer and the two further emphasized by the wall intruding on the left side of the composition and the curtain on the right. Later on, when Michi and her friends are discussing Taguchi’s death at a cafe, there is a window separating the group of friends and the viewer—the cafe’s name on the glass obscuring the viewer’s gaze. This impersonal gaze and distant composition serve two main functions. Firstly, this represents the shallowness of the characters’ interactions with each other. For example, despite Taguchi being severely depressed and his dark, dingy room reflecting his mental state, Michi fails to get him to verbally open up or emotionally console him—thus resulting in Taguchi’s suicide. Also, the impersonal composition represents the symbolic distance between the viewers and the character as the viewers and characters have not been able to bond yet.
It isn't until the two main characters experience a deeper emotional connection that framing becomes consistently more personal and allows the viewer to share the emotional experience. For example, when Ryosuke and Michi first meet, Ryosuke offers a drink to Michi and the two sit on a bench. In this scene, once again the composition is set up as if the viewer is an outsider. At the edges of the full shot composition, on both sides, are wall-like structures, solidifying distance between the viewer and the characters and symbolically representing the emotional walls between the two characters. Once the two bond after having a conversation about their experience through the apocalypse and fix a car together, Michi and Ryosuke start driving away from the main city. Although there is still a window-pane blocking the viewer from the characters, the distance between the viewer and the characters has been greatly reduced as the shot is no longer a full shot but a closeup shot. This gradual bonding and attachment, not only of the two characters, but also, of the viewer and the characters, reaches climax after the death of Harue, one of Ryosuke’s friends. After the traumatic death of Harue, Michi and Ryosuke return to the car and visually solidly their newfound emotional bond through exchange of physical touch and comfort. When the two start driving to the harbour, the scene is now being shot utilizing a point of view shot from Michi’s perspective. This brings the viewer directly into Michi’s seat, and, thus, in the “in-group” the two characters have created. At this point, it is evident that not only Michi and Ryosuke have created a strong bond, but also this bond extends to the viewer as “we” have all been through these struggles together.
Kairo presenting a more ambiguous message about technology rather than a negative one is further supported by the “happy” ending. Despite the film ending in what should be perceived as a tragedy—the death of Ryosuke—not only was the last scene of this film coupled with cheery pop music, but also, Michi ends the film by saying “Now alone with my last friend in the world, I have found happiness” (Kairo, 1:50:33). While Michi’s quote can be read in a more melancholic tone, the composition shift throughout the film and pop music in the ending scene implies a more positive tone. Although she is now alone as Ryosuke dissolved into a black smudge, she is content in her “loneliness”—unlike the lonely people featured previously in the film that turned to technology to fill a void, like Harue, which lead to their eventual death. It is implied that Michi is able to feel this happiness even though she is one of the few survivors in this world due to the sincerity of the bond between her and Ryosuke—which they were only able to experience because of the internet ghosts that caused this apocalypse. While it is a fact that this film critics technology through the narrative symbolism of the apocalypse and internet ghosts, it also highlights a positive side effect—an ability to create genuine connections when not indulged in excessively and a heightened appreciation for those sincere connections.
It is important to note that my interpretation of this film, as a younger viewer, will vastly differ from critics from previous generations. Perhaps someone from a previous generation will not think of Kairo as a film that showcases both the good and bad of technology, rather preferring an interpretation that favours the bad side of technology. Perhaps for older viewers, the horror of the paranormal internet ghosts overshadow the bonding between Michi and Ryosuke or Michi’s happiness at the end and view their friendship as a plot device to intertwine the two separate storylines. However, while the concepts presented in Kairo are scary in the context of the film, in the context of the contemporary, they are not scary. The concepts of the internet ghosts—and anxiety about the internet in general—fails to go past the film to the younger generation because they are used to this technology. When Kairo first came out in 2001, while the internet was already mainstream in the academic world, the internet had just become accessible to a majority of households. Thus, while there was some familiarity about the internet at the time, for the most part, it was a foreign thing. The long term effects of internet usage, communication over the internet, and what the internet truly is were all things that were unknown during that time because of just how new the internet was. While the internet was used at home, it was still a stranger—which gives the uncanny feeling and anxiety of the unknown those of the older generation will feel at viewing Kairo. However, to a younger generation, the internet to this not uncanny whatsoever. As the younger generation grew up beside the internet, they do not have the same anxieties about the endless possibilities of the internet. In other words, techno-horror using the internet as a motif is outdated in relation to contemporary culture. The internet cannot be terrifying due to lacking the ability of its horror to extend beyond the world if the film and into the mind of a young, contemporary viewer.
However, just because the internet cannot be terrifying in the contemporary does not mean the concept of “techno-horror” is outdated. Instead of using the internet as the face of “techno-horror” like how Kurosawa did, other, more contemporary aspects of technology can be used. For example, artificial intelligence or social media can take a similar role in contemporary techno-horror as the internet did in Kurosawa’s film. In specific, social media is at a similar point in society to where the internet was about twenty years ago. For example, the episode “Nosedive” (2016) from the hit techno-horror tv show, Black Mirror, echoes a very similar message to Kairo but on the topic of social media usage. The setting of “Nosedive” is a society where everyone has a “rating” that is directly intertwined with one’s socioeconomic status. In this episode, the main character, Lacey is obsessed with raising her rating and the plot follows Lacey as her rating spirals down due to a series of unfortunate events. Lacey begins to have revelations about this rating system as the world begins treating her differently due to her new status, and at the end of the episode, Lacey, due to her low rating, is arrested and removed from the rating system. In jail, Lacey meets a man who is also removed from the rating system and enjoys her first taste of verbal freedom as the two happily insult each other. Through this episode, Black Mirror tackles a very contemporary concern through unnerving means—similar to how Kairo did in its time. A rating system is not extremely farfetched given the current advancement of social media in our daily life, just how an emotional apocalypse caused by over-reliance on the internet is not a completely unhinged idea. In addition, both cause their viewers—relative to each work’s era—to consider how they should view a technology that is becoming more and more common in their everyday life. However, only “Nosedive” can be effectively being both scary and terrifying to the contemporary viewer as it directly relates to contemporary concerns and questions and thus can linger in a viewers mind beyond the world of the film. While social media is used in increasingly common in our everyday lives, the possibilities of social media are still not explored and, specifically, social media’s effect on the modern-day youth continues to be a hotly debated topic. Social media, as of now, is seemingly “infinite,” just as the internet was in the past. Thus, due to these many possibilities of the future of social media that we are concerned about in our daily life, the motif of social media as a source of horror can extend beyond the world of the film.
Thus, despite the fact that both Kairo and “Nosedive” and be considered techno-horror, only “Nosedive” can be considered truly terrifying in a contemporary lens. While the motifs presented in Kairo are horrifying in the context of a film, to a contemporary viewer who has grown up with the internet, Kairo fails to extend its message and anxieties beyond the film. Thus, the internet can no longer be used effectively in contemporary horror. In addition, perhaps decades later, just as how the concept of internet ghosts is no longer terrifying, when the seemingly infinite possibilities of social media are explored, the social media related horror explored in “Nosedive” may fail to be terrifying as well. However, this failure to continue to be consistently terrifying does not mean techno-horror is an outdated genre. Simply, this means that techno-horror, as a genre, must continue to adapt to modern technology and science.
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