ansemaru: have you seen a little girl? (silent hill- harry mason)
[personal profile] ansemaru
 Here's something I find really interesting about (the original four) Silent Hill games: their cross-cultural nature.

Silent Hill, the town, is pretty clearly American. It's a sleepy tourist town by a lake in Maine, full of quaint mom-and-pop stores and old-fashioned houses. There's a rickety little amusement park like you see advertised on billboards on the highway through any mid-sized state. The neighboring town of South Ashfield is similarly American, but reflecting more of a suburban area, with apartments and a shopping mall being key locations. Characters have very plain, American-sounding names, and the majority of them are white, with a small group of minority characters appearing in Silent Hill 4 (as ghosts). Though not everything is perfect, and there's a definite feel that some of the portrayals of locations were filtered through movies rather than directly researched, it's a convincing effect that makes Silent Hill 1-4 give the impression of Steven King-influenced, homegrown horror.

But the inherent concept of Silent Hill as a town is very Japanese. The setup can be seen in other Japanese horror games such as Siren and in animated series like Ghost Hound or Higurashi: a small isolated town that has the trappings of being normal, but is caught in the grasp of a strange local cult worshipping a dangerous god, making the town a location that exists on the border between reality and something much, much worse. This is treated as a different situation and almost an entirely different definition of cult than the other common portrayal in Japanese media, the "new" cults typically centered in urban areas, focused on prophets/predictions of doom and obviously written with the Aum Shinrikyo terrorist attacks in mind. Though both scenarios are centered around what we would call a cult, it is a completely different thing than the small-town traditions rooted in evil, and almost deserves an entirely different term.

In Western media, cults are a different animal. A large portion of portrayals have more in common with the latter version of cults in Japanese media, drawing on Scientology and Jonestown and their ilk for inspiration. These are modern-day religions with roots in Christianity or New Age bullshit, which coexist with the modern world but do not subsume entire populations, rather clinging to their underbelly like an unpleasant infection. Examples of the first model, where a small and out-of-the-way population fall in with a strange and ancient religion are limited to The Wicker Man and few other examples- as cults go, it is not a common structure in Western culture. But even as Silent Hill tries to mimic the look and feel of a Western horror story, it cannot be divorced from the fact that the inherent concept of Silent Hill as a town is not very Western at all.

Silent Hill 4, while built upon a premise very tied to the cult from 1 and 3, does not take place in the town of Silent Hill for the most part, is not structured like the previous games, and was not even planned from the start as an entry in the Silent Hill series, but rather as a tangentially connected gaiden game by the same development team. As before, the visual trappings and characters are outwardly very much American, but on a whole are not in an American horror story. The motif of an individual who cannot leave his apartment is rooted in the concept of "hikikomori", though unlike a genuine hikikomori, Henry Townshend did not willingly shut himself away from the world. He did, however, have to undergo personal trials and emotional growth in order to find his way out of room 302. The entire narrative structure of a man trapped in his apartment by supernatural means, only able to leave via an unearthly portal to worlds born from the mind of a serial killer with a strange connection to said apartment, all the while haunted by unkillable and horrifying ghosts, while strange and convoluted, would not be one out of place with the tone and aesthetics of Japanese horror films.

Silent Hill 2's structure is probably the least coded to Western or Japanese narratives or horror tropes- it's the story of a man who travels to a town from his past to confront painful memories related to the woman he loved. Though it goes in a bit of a different direction, the film The Mothman Chronicles does something very similar, and many non-horror stories both Western and Japanese do the same thing, though all with considerably less sexual imagery and typically with more pleasant protagonists than James Sunderland. This structure less based in Japanese-coded tropes is perhaps why Silent Hill 2 is by far the most well-loved and critically acclaimed Silent Hill game among Western reviewers and critics- it feels the most true-to-life and relevant to the cultural experiences they have.

(no subject)

Date: 2012-10-26 06:45 pm (UTC)
From: [personal profile] khronos_keeper
Hey there, you have no idea who I am, but I ended up at your journal by creeping through several peoples' we both know. Hi, btw!

This is funny, because I've actually been playing SH2 again since Halloween is coming up, and I have some feels about this.

I really love your analysis, especially that Silent Hill 2 being accessible to Western players and stuff because of how it was least coded in Japanese cultural tropes. I would definitely agree with you here. I'd say that it's something that can be bridged cross culturally, and that it's as emotionally accessible for Japanese and Western peeps.

A thought that struck me during playthrough once, was that the Western actors must have added a layers of strangeness for Japanese players, which probably added to the overall feeling of uneasiness. For the actors to be expressing anger, grief, remorse, guilt, defiance in the coded Western way probably was uncanny. I know while watching Japanese horror movies, coded in their own culture, it adds to my level of "Aaahhhh!" because there's still a certain level of the unknown because of the culture that I'm not part of, and conflates with the general horror.

Example-- there's a Japanese horror movie called Reincarnation, about a young actress who starts having weird fainting spells and visions. The movie plugs along, and we learn that she's actually the reincarnated soul of a scientist who's research was focused on trying to get control over where souls are reincarnated into bodies. He ends up killing his children, and then himself, and the weird flashes of monsters and being pursued by this strange ghostly child are actually because the actress is the papa to these children. At the end of the movie, the actress is committed to an asylum because she went bugfuck insane, and the now old wife of the scientist comes to visit her. She places a doll and a ball that belonged to her children in the actress' room.

As the young woman, she starts flipping the fuck out, because of her terror of the children who had been haunting her. Then, she suddenly stills, and a small smile crosses her face, as we realize that the scientist sees them.

As a Westerner, my mind was so full of fuck. I was petrified. The way that they coded horror and other things was so unlike the tropes that I was used to, that the strangeness added to the experience.

I'd like to bring something else up, too. I dunno if it was unintentional on the part of the Japanese creators, but the cult type stuff pinged me as someone who grew up in a place like Silent hill. It's surprisingly similar to what a lot of the Northeastern settlers believe, due to what the British Isles/Scandinavian/Germanic cultures believed, and then mixed in with Christian practices. The idea of appeasing, tapping, avoiding supernatural forces is something I saw in some of the backwoods culture.

Anyway, I'm out. Awesome post.

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