In which gaming journalist Harold Goldberg visits Capcom HQ in Osaka Japan, on the eve of Resident Evil 7’s debut, digs deep into the essence of Japanese horror and encounters some evil-looking forest cats.
It was all about losing my shit. Ring, the novel. Audition, the movie. Resident Evil 7: Biohazard, the game. I’m in Osaka, home of gaming monolith Capcom, and I’m thinking a lot about horror that derives from being alone in an unfamiliar place where the ever-darkening mind welcomes insanity. In this ancient city, I stagger around jetlagged in the rain. Looking through skyscraper windows, I see the salary men toiling into the night, all at laptops, all in white shirts and tightened ties. Later I roam the forested Osaka Castle Park, thinking about what unifies Japanese horror games, films, books and myths. I trip, gathering hundreds of tiny, sticky burrs on my jeans. On my hands and knees, I notice a number of mangy feral cats, all staking out a space away from each other, staring at me.
A quarter mile later, the heavy, musty air beside one hokora (mini-shrine) within the sprawling Hōkoku shrine complex gives me an asthma attack. I know there are spirits here—and not just here. Near Otemon Gate, I see the castle’s wide, foreboding moat, which speaks of protection but also isolation. During a war in 1600s, the unfortunates who unsuccessfully stormed the castle were buried en masse in what would become an area known as Sennichimae. A mall of sorts was built there, but the flagship Sennichi Department Store burned in 1972, claiming 118 lives.
“It is cursed,” says Masachika Kawata, the producer of Capcom’s long-running Resident Evil game series.
We’re at a dive bar, sitting at a tall oak table greased by fried food, and the talk centers upon fear. “They are still superstitious there,” continues Kawata, mentioning he knew of a person who worked on the ducts in the massive Bic Camera tech store, which stands on the site of the burned department store and the graves beneath. They’re so concerned with ghosts, including a hostess who is still said to haunt the environs, that the ducts are full of o-mikuji and ema—blessings and prayers on folded strips of paper and wooden plaques. Both are aimed to please kami, the gods or spirits who just might help you survive the horror if it comes your way. So particular disasters inspire myths and superstitions: hostess ghosts, child entities, even giant kaiju.
It’s naive to say that Japanese horror is different from U.S. horror simply because the societies have different histories of adversity. Yes, Japanese horror is influenced by the World War II bombings and the recent recessions. But as Linda Bailey points out in her book Traditions in World Cinema, it’s important to look at film subgenres to understand Japanese horror. Resident Evil 7 is partially about biohorror—particularly “the violent monstrosities that manifest themselves in the human body,” transforming it into something unknown. It’s also about torture. You could also say that the game is influenced by outrageous movies like the Guinea Pig series and Audition.
Loneliness can twist people. It can eat them up, the idea of being left alone whether you like it or not.
After a relatively subtle buildup, horror in Japanese film can bludgeon much harder than in, say, U.S. films. You’ll endure intense, almost surgical eye-cutting in the Guinea Pig series as opposed to the less sickening Venus Fly Trap in Saw II. And this may be the vital key to Japanese horror in general: the steady buildup that provides an almost ignorable tension long before the unexpectedly vicious and bloody reveal. At its best, it fills your head, heart and soul with an aura of fear that lingers after the scares are done. In the most lauded recent U.S. movies, the terror doesn’t stay with you after the theater or streaming experience has ended.
In addition, there’s what’s known as dove-style violence. In RE7, as an outsider brought into an evil family, you are the weakest of the flock. And if you don’t become stronger in exactly the way they command, that flock, that psychotic family, will peck at you until you die. RE7’s insidious Baker family takes perverse joy in forcing food into the character you play while bound to a chair at the dinner. And they revel in cutting you up.
Throughout, you exist as the embodiment of loneliness, which manifests itself as fear that swerves wildly into paranoia. You are not only being watched, not only being attacked; you are being toyed with, manipulated. And you have no one there to help you—not for a long time anyway.
In the Capcom offices, Kawata talks about everything from kabuki ghosts to the black ships of Commodore Perry. Late in the conversation, he opens up about his life as a child in Osaka. “Loneliness can twist people,” he says. “It can eat them up, the idea of being left alone whether you like it or not. It’s a central fear that I can feel inside me. I’m an only child who lost my father and grew up with my mother. Now, I’m very happy with my Capcom family. But you see on the news that loneliness is pandemic in the modern world. Even as people are more able to be in touch with one another, they never have felt more lonely.” Other team members I converse with acknowledge that it’s Kawata’s loneliness as a boy that provided the germ of Resident Evil 7.
On the same day, I witness the nearly finished product. In a warehouse-like room, I’m diving deep into RE7 with headphones on and an HD monitor a foot from my snout. What’s most unsettling isn’t the monsters, giant stinging bees or the creeps with their oozing wounds; it’s the claustrophobic environments you must navigate, the slivery pine walls that crush and stab your injured body as well as your spirit. When I remove my headset for a break, I hear the whimpers and yelps of other journalists. We are all together in a room but, just the same, all alone in our own game of groans. It’s then that terror that takes over—the Japanese horror of isolation that makes you terribly aware and constantly, mewlingly afraid.
A day later, I miss my flight home. A sadistic Japan Airlines employee books me on a 40-hour hell ride on American, a march through five airports. Through the shaky midnight train rides, the bumpy buses, the cramped transcontinental flight, I sleep fitfully, dreaming of claustrophobia and torment. Now I know the real meaning of a resident evil. The horror. The Japanese horror. It lingers. I hate that I love it.