Friday, July 17, 2009

Stuff: Fearful taxonomy.

I came across this curious bit of cross-cultural anthropology in, of all places, the online music criticism of Mark Iosifescu. His discussion of the low-fi, short-lived fuzzed-out psychedelic metal outfit Clockcleaner starts with an examination of the Japanese concept of bukimi, a perhaps uniquely Japanese varietal of dread:

The Japanese word bukimi goes some way toward accounting for the anticipatory dread that can creep insidiously into the lives of we otherwise sensible workaday souls. Meaning roughly ‘weird,’ but connoting ‘ghastly,’ ‘ghoulish,’ ‘eerie,’ and so on, the word was, per Robert J. Lifton’s 1967 book Death in Life: The Survivors of Hiroshima, rather ubiquitous in the recollections of those who had escaped that terrible event. Though the city’s inhabitants couldn’t literally have foreseen the imminent devastation or the form it’d take, they nonetheless may have been united in an uncannily inexplicable sense that said something was coming. Some vague opening of their perceptual space allowed for the distinct psychic likelihood of an event unprecedented, even in wartime. It was a sense afforded both by outward observation (as citizens of Hiroshima had eyed their city’s relative paucity of bombings with increasing anxiety as the rest of the country was bombarded) and deeper forebodings, ones less rational and more intuitive. The psychic space had, somehow or other, been cleared for unnamable catastrophe, and, in retrospect, this bukimi stands out.

The concept of bukimi shares obvious similarities to the post-Frued concept of the uncanny, that "unknown known" that suddenly opens up a vast negative space underneath the familiar. In fact, the Japanese phrase "Bukimi No Tani," coined by Japanese robotics maker Masahiro Mori, is the source, when translated, of the term "Uncanny Valley," the theoretical spectrum of negative human response generated by robots that look to much like us to be clearly machines, but not enough like us to fool us into thinking they're human.

The term is also akin to the Gothic sense of terror, which is the dreaded anticipation of a horrific experience. Indeed, one of the elements that differentiates bukimi from the uncanny is the sense of doomed fatedness it shares with Gothic terror.

Unlike both, however, there also an element of almost parodic grotesqueness. Bukimi implies a certain primal, illogical threat; but, the term also requires a certain level of gut-level intuitive logic. In the case of Hiroshima, there was a certain sense that, under the bombing schemes that had leveled so much of urban Japan, Hiroshima was due to get it. This is, in fact, the same sort of vague "logic" that gives slot machine players a sense that a certain machine is primed and that made Londoners desperately search for the deeper rationality of V2 rocket strikes. It isn't logic in the Russell-Whitehead sense, but rather the result of our brains inherent need to order things into meaningful patterns. It's the logic of luck and irony. Curiously, in Japan, the Garbage Pail Kids were called Bukimi Kun: the connection being that the wildly grotesque and seemingly anarchic forms of the children were, in fact, the obvious, if absurd, fulfillment of the logic of their joke names.

Perhaps the most obvious contemporary horror film expression of this sensibility would be J-horror, with its emphasis on sinister forces intruding on the relentlessly mundane everyday world, it's love of countdown style narratives, and the weird sense one gets that the baddies rigorously follow an idiosyncratic but standardized operating procedure. The "mystery" aspect of the best J-horror plots – where the motive and method of the intrusion must be deducted – fits with the bakimi's necessary balance of the observable and the unfathomable.

Perhaps what's most interesting about the concept of bakimi is that it suggests just another small aspect of the larger, and mostly unmapped, taxonomy of distinct aspects of the emotion we often lump under horror. Some critics have already done some work on this. There's the Victorian idea that divides horror and terror based on an effect of anticipation. Curt, of the beloved Groovy Age blog, has suggested that supernatural horror produces a distinct effect that cannot be replicated by horror that relies on naturalistic means. The concept of "body horror," a term advanced (I think) by Joan Hawkins, suggest a specific sort of effect made possible only by a direct appeal to the gut rather than the brain. And there are, of course, many others. I wonder: Given the time and will to conduct a suitably rigorous survey , could some produce a sort of Periodic Table of Horror Effects? Or, more likely, a Burton-ish Anatomy of Fear?


Ms Harker said...

The brains inability to make sense of what it is presented with and the consequent terror, bukimi or horror forms the basis on which the genre is built. There is also the fear attached to what may happen to the mind if it can't make sense of the situation and the pending/potential breakdown or insanity that invokes another layer of anxiety. I would love to see the Anatomy of Fear, surely someone has done a study somewhere on this?

Michael Arnzen said...

I think you're on to something BIG here in the call for an "Anatomy of Fear". I haven't quite come across one, as such, in my research. However, I'm reminded of various concepts and ideas explored in a recent issue of COLLAPSE (Vol. IV) -- which might still be available through -- that would likely appeal to you. THANK YOU for teaching me about "bukimi" -- a variation on das Unheimlich that I hadn't heard of before. Drop by my blog, The Popular Uncanny -- -- and leave a comment, if you like.

Gracias, -- Michael Arnzen

CRwM said...

Mr. Arnzen,

Thanks for the invite. I'm just glad somebody recognized the Anatomy of Melancholy reference.

CRwM said...

Ms Harker,

Can I say that what I love about your name is that is plays wonderfully of the original Drac in that the "Ms" would imply that the character is not married and therefore Ms Murray. But the Harker reference suggests the wife of Johnathan. It's subtle trap.

Well played.

Forgive me if I've stepped on the word play, but I've admired it for some time.

Ms Harker said...

Why thank you sir, nice to see you picked up on it... I also like to use Ms as it is a little more mysterious ;)