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Sowing the Seeds of J-Horror: The Cross-Fertilization of
Japanese and American Horror Cinema

Adviser: Richard H. Okada

Philicia S. Saunders

East Asian Studies

“... I put my heart and soul into every chapter in this book. It is mine—my vision and my inspiration.”

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I have always had an interest in cinema. Whenever I had a research paper to write for any class, I would turn to film. In fact, the final paper for my freshman writing seminar was on the work of Alfred Hitchcock in the 1950s. Of course, I naturally gravitated toward cinema for my independent papers at Princeton during my final years. My senior thesis topic incorporated my interests in East Asian cinema—specifically Japanese cinema. I explored Japanese horror films and contrasted them with American horror films. I noted how horror is represented and what themes arise in both cinemas.

My thesis was constructed around previous coursework and independent work that I had completed in the Department of East Asian Studies. I had a general interest not only in film, but also popular culture and language. My first junior paper was on the subject of yakuza (Japanese gangster) films, and how they are represented in such a medium. I wrote my second junior paper, about Hayao Miyazaki films, while I was studying abroad for the spring semester in Kyoto, Japan. 

I knew I wanted to do an extensive film analysis for my thesis, but it was difficult for me to pinpoint what subject to spend my entire senior year researching and exploring. I finally chose my topic in the summer before my senior year. First, I stood back and asked myself what aspects of Japanese cinema are truly unique. I had this thought when I was watching Kairo (Pulse) with my mother and sister. We routinely rent horror films every other week, and most of the films are Japanese and Korean. I wondered what made us go back week after week to rent horror films from these countries. My thesis process started right at this moment. In fact, I started compiling a list of films for my research the next day. I completed about 30 film screenings before I began narrowing down my thesis topic and meeting with my adviser, Professor Richard Okada. He is very knowledgeable on the subject; he urged me to think more deeply about my topic, rather than simply seeing what was obvious. He also urged me to read a plethora of Japanese film reviews, which would be an excellent way to round out the analysis that I was doing on the films themselves. As I read, I kept thinking, “What is the point of what I am viewing in these films?” Professor Okada kept this question in my mind whenever we met.

I also watched American horror films so that I could notice similar and dissimilar themes. I kept extensive notes on each film that I screened. I made sure that I watched these films two or three times so as to catch every single detail. I wanted my chapters to be fully developed and to exhibit my complete understanding of each film that I addressed. I drew maps, connected ideas, and talked about my ideas with professors to strengthen my argument.

I feel that my thesis, in addition to my junior papers, was a very rewarding way to culminate my Princeton experience. As a freshman and a sophomore, I was anxious about the day when I would have to sit down and write page after page of research. But when I actually reached my junior and senior years, I felt eager and ready to write on topics that I have a great interest in. I knew that the pages would come once I chose a provocative topic. I was surprised that I could actually draw sophisticated conclusions from the many films that I screened in Japanese and in English. I am in no way a film critic, but I drew from what I knew and utilized the analytic skills that I had acquired over the years in East Asian cinema courses.

I found it very difficult to narrow down all of the research that I had done over the course of six months. I had seen a variety of films, and I did not know how to touch upon all of them in my thesis. I treated each chapter as a separate essay, and they all had to tie together into my overarching thesis. I felt at times that my notes and thoughts were disorganized. I suggest that a senior should not be discouraged by this. I just took a few days off whenever I got frustrated and then tackled my thesis again when I had regained my focus.

I feel that I accomplished a great deal during the thesis process. I honed my research skills as well as my skills in film analysis. I remember thinking, when I went to turn in my thesis, that I put my heart and soul into every chapter in this book. It is mine—my vision and my inspiration. I feel that my thesis offers a window into Japanese cinema and culture. I hope to have contributed my knowledge to the East Asian studies repertoire of distinguished senior theses. Not many people have written analyses of film in the East Asian Studies department, and I hope to inspire another student to not be afraid to take a similar path if he or she is interested. In addition, as a result of writing my thesis, I plan to take more courses in graduate school relating to film analysis.

The advice that I would give to seniors about their theses is to focus. I know this might seem obvious, but it worked best for me during the challenging process. It can be very easy to procrastinate and devote your time to other activities or commitments. I found myself dedicating a little time each day to either watching a film or reading an interview with a director. I found my adviser to be a helpful guide and confidant. Professor Okada helped me think in a different way by suggesting other interpretations of texts. One should not look to an adviser for what is right and what is wrong. This is your thesis, and it is necessary for you to find answers for yourself—take risks!

Sowing the Seeds of J-Horror: The Cross-Fertilization of
Japanese and American Horror Cinema

Philicia S. Saunders

Richard H. Okada

Professor of East Asian Studies

“Philicia’s thesis brought into dramatic contrast the differences between Japanese and Western approaches to horror, and thus provided a window onto basic assumptions that underlie both.”

Generally speaking, one of the greatest pleasures to be derived from advising a senior thesis consists in witnessing the dramatic transformations that can occur when the “light” comes on and the student hits her or his stride in the writing/thinking process. A particularly striking transformation occurs when a student submits a draft in which she or he dutifully cites sources and adds comments that basically paraphrase the citations and that contain very little, if any, original thought. After receiving suggestions that it’s really okay to be critical of, rather than be blindly faithful to, one’s cited sources, and that the sources are not gospel, the student may come to realize that she does in fact have her own thoughts and interpretations regarding the material. It is from this point forward that the thesis-writing experience changes to a more dynamic interaction between student and chosen material. Of course, many students do not need such nudging and are able to engage more proactively with secondary sources from the very beginning; the reverse also is, unfortunately, sometimes the case. Advising theses, then, provides the opportunity to work closely with a student on a project that becomes self-defining, when the student is forced to summon the energy and intellectual reserves they did not know they had. Such extreme experiences are not part of regular classroom situations, where one normally does not observe closely the different phases involved in the process of a student writing a substantial and independently realized piece of work.

Philicia Saunders was one of three seniors whom I advised during the academic year 2009–10. Working with Philicia was particularly rewarding due to her passion for her topic—a comparison of Japanese and Western horror films—and because she was such a dedicated and energetic worker, throwing herself tirelessly into the process of writing and, especially, revising. I knew from early conversations that she had watched a substantial number of Japanese horror films, but what I found astounding was her knowledge of Western films in the genre. The first step was organizing the overall layout of the thesis. After settling on a workable outline that consisted of a series of interesting and apposite East-West film pairs dealing with different aspects of the horror genre, we established a flexible writing schedule, and Philicia did her part by submitting drafts at regular intervals. As Philicia diligently began to produce her chapters, her early drafts displayed the tendency, noted above, to follow faithfully what her sources stated, contextualized by her own comments, which did not venture beyond what might be called reductive paraphrase.

There followed an intense period that consisted of my editing her chapters, going over her writing sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, to show her where she needed to let us hear her own voice, and to formulate more extensively her own arguments and conclusions concerning what she felt were the most compelling aspects of the films under analysis. Philicia accepted the comments with a wholly refreshing, nondefensive open-mindedness, re-watched films when necessary, developed or expanded her own interpretations, and dedicated herself to revamping her thesis. The result carried much more of Philicia’s own imprimatur, bearing the clear traces of a concerted coming-to-grips with the richness and often spectacular nature of the material. Philicia’s thesis brought into dramatic contrast the differences between Japanese and Western approaches to horror, and thus provided a window onto basic assumptions that underlie both. It demonstrated that although the process of globalization has flattened the content of many artistic forms, discernable styles and tonal emphases remain in the presence of cross-cultural, transnational flows. It also showed that the direction of such flows is not only West to East.

Perhaps the most important point for seniors to keep in mind is to work hard toward submitting an initial complete draft at a date early enough to leave sufficient time for the all-important process of editing and revision. The ultimate quality of the finished product often hinges on the time a student can spend in taking true possession of the material or topic at hand and allowing her or his own voice to be heard.