John Patterson examines Koji Shiraishi’s extreme horror ‘Grotesque’ and its surprising takedown of heteronormativity.
Grotesque is a film that has stuck with me for a very long time. I’ve written about it before, and watching the movie is actually what got me into film writing and academics. It is a compelling and enigmatic film that lends itself well to multiple different readings and theoretical lenses, one of which we’ll take a look at today. It’s always interesting to view a film from several angles and see what sticks out. Sometimes, you can surprise yourself when you think you’ve figured a film out and suddenly a new perspective opens up. It’s the lifeblood of writing about film: it’s a constant surprise and joy.
This month will be slightly different than previous months. The focus will be on the way the film looks at heteronormativity. Grotesque picks apart the concepts, tropes, and ideas on the subject while laying them bare as a series of systems. I think that there is value in looking at this from a queer perspective. These sorts of notions affect the way queer people are perceived as well. By pulling apart a series of systems that seem to be considered the norm, the film finds the ways in which these systems fail. This can be seen as a similar lens that was used to cover Shatter Dead in an earlier column entry. Also, a quick content warning as there will be a breakdown of a scene of sexual assault in the film.
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Grotesque is directed by Kōji Shiraishi. Shiraishi is mostly noted nowadays for directing incredible found footage films like Noroi: The Curse, Occult, and A Record of Sweet Murder. However, in 2009 he also released the extreme horror film Grotesque, which stands out in his filmography. The film leaves behind found footage in order to focus on sickly realism that takes place in only a couple of claustrophobic locations. After the sweeping cosmic implications of his other films, Grotesque is very insular and smaller in scale.
The film follows The Doctor as he abducts, tortures, and abuses the new couple of Aki and Kazuo. We spend a very brief time outside of his torture room, with small reprieves in the beginning and near the end of the film. These are welcome, since Grotesque doesn’t let up for most of its brief running time. The lulls in the savagery are triggered by moments of false hope, before plunging the viewer and the cast back into hell.
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The Doctor is a brutal and sadistic man. He takes great pleasure in both the physical and psychological torment of his victims. Early on he even implies that there is a sexual edge to his pursuits, saying that:
“What I want from you is excitement. If you’re able to excite me with your wills to live, then I’ll let you go.”
However, he can’t be taken at face value; his motives remain a mystery for the duration of the film. However, he also starts his torture by seeming to enforce a horror trope by picking it apart.
The couple is on their first date when The Doctor abducts them, much to his annoyance. He seems upset that they haven’t had sex yet, but not enough to free them; he needs to be in control at all times. Instead, he assaults them both in turn, making sure to ensure they get their fluids on each other. With this complete, he actually begins his torture in earnest. It’s a very strange scene that stands out as being odd in the context of the film. But there are a few different ways to look at this scene.
The first would be to look at it as symbolic of the “sex kills” trope in horror films. They haven’t had sex so he feels like they have to before they can be killed. The Doctor assumes that two people together have been intimate, and his assumption is what leads to this horrific aside. In this interpretation, the couple doesn’t adhere to the Doctor’s rules. So, The Doctor has to fix this situation in order to get the film back in motion. In a way, it is the film pointing to the trope before side-stepping it.
The second interpretation of this sequence is the Doctor sees this as a moment to put himself into their relationship. He laments the fact that they haven’t been intimate, then puts himself in the middle to disrupt the interaction and make himself a part of the process. The way it is done is cold and clinical, with The Doctor showing no sign of arousal or excitement. The task is completed solely with his hands as he stares off in a detached manner. It’s a thoroughly upsetting scene. This also the first moment where the Doctor’s fixation on their roles and relationship is explored.
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He also frequently mocks the couple for failing to perform their given roles as a heteronormative couple in a relationship. He picks at the things that he sees as shortcomings, such as Kazuo’s failure to protect Aki or Aki’s failure to sacrifice enough for Kazuo. While he torments their bodies, he comments on their failings to fit the mold that society attempts to put them in. The Doctor isn’t only torturing their bodies, but also pulling apart the way they perceive and interact with the world and each other. He’s exposing the nerve endings that exist because of societal pressures and expectations that surround and impact everyone.
Grotesque reaches a chaotic climax when The Doctor makes them decide who will lose their genitalia. He removes one of Aki’s nipples. Then he threatens to remove the other and mutilate her genitals unless Kazuo consents to have his genitals cut off. This signals a switch in the proceedings since The Doctor is putting Kazuo in the situation he generally reserves for Aki. However, he mockingly looks touched when Kazuo agrees. This castration is where he decides that he has reached the correct level of excitement and will now nurse them back to health.
At this point, he seems to stick to his word. The couple seems hopeful and he nurses their wounds, ensuring that they can get their strength back. During this sequence, you can see how they’ve been affected by him both mentally and physically. They are cautious but allow themselves to hope that their nightmare is at an end. They feel as though they will return to their (hetero)normal lives with some scars and missing parts, but able to live out their lives.
However, they wake up in the torture room again. Their final torment is that Kazuo has his intestines connected to a hook. If he can make his way to Aki and cut her bonds then the Doctor will let her go. The Doctor is asking him to sacrifice again, knowing from previous experience that he will acquiesce. Kazuo slowly makes his way across the room, his intestines unraveling behind him as he goes. He makes it to Aki. But, he finds that her bonds have been reinforced with wire and are impossible to cut with the scissors he’s been given.
In a final mockery, The Doctor cuts off Aki’s head in front of Kazuo. However, her head falls onto his shoulder and bites him. This distracts him and he gets too close to Kazuo, who stabs him in the leg. The couple dies with their faces almost touching, smiling at one another. The Doctor has misinterpreted their devotion to each other as being their overriding emotion, not noticing the malice that they harbor towards him (with good reason). While he doesn’t die, we see that he now walks with a limp, forever marked by the experience outside of his ideals.
With all of this in mind, it can be said that the Doctor himself represents heteronormativity and what is expected. His assault on them both earlier is in order to attempt to “normalize” their sex life, while he also spends a great deal of the movie attempting to get them to act in a way that would align with his expectations. His expectations are heteronormative in nature, and he seems upset or disappointed whenever the couple strays from these ideas. He attempts to “fix” this through his own intervention, but only causes more misery.
The couple doesn’t fit into the Doctor’s archetypes and expectations, so they represent anything outside of the heteronormative ideal. While they are a straight couple, they don’t adhere to the notions and pressures that are set by a conservative society. The Doctor attempts to break them through means such as removing their genitals, but instead, he highlights how far away from his expectations they actually are. The configuration of their bodies doesn’t matter to them, only their connection to each other.
Finally, they leave their mark on the Doctor even though they don’t make it to the end of the film. It’s like the struggle to break or question these systems in general, which only happens over time and through great effort. His limp is a reminder that he isn’t the arbiter of society, and eventually, his accumulated injuries from these attempts to impose his expectations will be the end of him. The film ends with him finding new victims, but his limp implies that he will eventually run out of luck.
I would absolutely suggest Grotesque to anyone with any interest in extreme horror. It takes a simple structure and puts the viewer through a gauntlet of misery, but a lot of the strange choices draw attention to the film’s construction. While this may have been way different from previous column entries, it is always my intent to cover all the ways in which a film can be seen through a queer reading. I hope that everyone is doing well. Keep your head up and stay safe.