Fall 2014 News News: Japanese Studies

Embracing the Horror: Japanese Studies Alum Mike Crandol (’07) talks about his current work

Mike Crandol '07
Mike Crandol ’07

This past October, William & Mary alum Mike Crandol (’07) returned to campus to share with us what he’s been up to since he left.  After graduating with a major in East Asian Studies, Mike entered the graduate program at the University of Minnesota, where he’s now finishing up his doctoral degree.  Mike’s research concerns the genre of “kaiki eiga”  or “bizarre films”—predecessors to today’s “J-horror.” After his fascinating talk, Mike answered some questions about grad school, his research, and how W&M prepared him for both.

 How did you become interested in Japan and Japanese cinema?

Anime was the gateway drug, like it is for a lot of people in my generation, I suppose. I’ve loved animation my whole life. When I was a kid I wanted to be a Disney animator. As I got older, the more sophisticated content in some Japanese animation appealed to me. I also started to get more interested in live-action cinema, so it all kind of came together neatly when I decided to major in East Asian Studies at W&M.

Did you do a study-abroad program while an undergrad at W&M?

No. At the time I was convinced that I needed to study Japanese for several more years before I’d even be able to function in Japan. I’ve since learned that’s not true. The sooner you go to Japan, the faster you will pick up the language, no matter what level you’re at when you arrive.

Why did you decide to continue on to graduate school?

I had no intention of going to grad school while I was at W&M. The summer after I graduated I went to talk to Professor [Rachel] DiNitto, and told her I really didn’t know what to do next, but I didn’t want to let all my time studying Japanese language and culture go to waste. She knew I was interested in cinema and suggested I apply to the PhD program in Asian Literatures, Cultures, and Media at the University of Minnesota, where a colleague of hers did some work on Japanese film. That colleague became my graduate advisor!

How did your undergrad experience at W&M prepare you for graduate school?

I think your undergraduate education ideally prepares you to be able to talk about texts and topics that interest you in a more insightful manner. It gives you the context and the raw materials. At W&M I took classes not only on Japanese film but Japanese history, culture, and religion as well. This allows you, as a grad student, to do theoretical analysis of Japanese film while taking into account cultural/historical contexts that a regular film critic might miss.

What led you to kaiki eiga?

Along with animation, horror movies are another lifelong interest of mine. J-horror was still pretty popular when I was at W&M – things like The Ring and Ju-on: The Grudge. Everybody – even academics – was talking about these films, but nobody seemed to know what had come before. While I was at W&M, Criterion released a film from 1960 called Jigoku by a director named Nakagawa Nobuo on DVD. In the extra features, renowned J-horror director Kurosawa Kiyoshi talks about the influence of Nakagawa’s kaiki eiga on his own films. That was the beginning, for me. Nakagawa was the greatest Japanese kaiki eiga director, but it’s this whole genre of popular horror film that covers a span of over 50 years. Yet today most people know almost nothing at all about it, even in Japan.

What sort of reception have you gotten to your research topic?

People are excited by it, both here and in Japan. There are only two or three scholars in Japan who have really tackled the topic before. Japanese academics I’ve met have been surprised a foreigner has even heard of some of these movies. And American and European scholars I’ve spoken with agree that it’s important to correct the notion in the West that Japanese horror is only Godzilla, The Ring, and splatter-gore pictures like Ichi the Killer.

Any advice for students trying to identify a compelling research project?

It’s of course important to try and find something new or ‘fresh’ that hasn’t really been done before, but I think it’s more important to do something you genuinely love. It sounds cliché but it’s true. If you’re going to devote a big chunk of your life to something, it needs to be something you’re passionate about. Be an otaku about it. If you have that level of geeky love for your topic, you’ll certainly be able to notice something about it that no one else has. And that’s how you make it fresh and your own.