A Grotesque ruling from the BBFC

A Grotesque ruling from the BBFC originally published in Little White Lies


On the 18th of August, 2009, the British Board of Film Classification (or BBFC) refused to grant a certificate to Koji Shiraishi’s Grotesque (aka Gorotesku), which had been due for DVD release through 4Digital Asia. It is one of only four films to have been rejected for certification by the Board in the last five years, the others being Terrorists, Killers and Other Wackos in 2005, Murder Set Pieces in 2008 and NF713 (aka Enemy of the State) in 2009.

Commenting on their decision, BBFC director David Cooke and senior colleagues claimed:

“Unlike other recent ‘torture’ themed horror works, such as the Saw and Hostel series, Grotesque features minimal narrative or character development and presents the audience with little more than an unrelenting and escalating scenario of humiliation, brutality and sadism. In spite of a vestigial attempt to ‘explain’ the killer’s motivations at the very end of the film, the chief pleasure on offer is not related to understanding the motivations of any of the central characters. Rather, the chief pleasure on offer seems to be wallowing in the spectacle of sadism (including sexual sadism) for its own sake.”

To those of a certain mindset, i.e. the film’s natural audience, the BBFC’s censorious judgement might well come across instead as an advertisement. Indeed, it sounds remarkably like the lurid enticements found in the DVD’s original press release:

“Billed as ‘the cruelest Japanese splatter movie ever’ (a statement that doesn’t do the film’s graphic scenes of torture and dismemberment anywhere near enough justice), Grotesque is a survival horror movie that makes the likes of Saw and Hostel look like Mary Poppins in comparison”¦ Relentlessly intense and explicitly graphic in its scenes of torture, sexual abuse and violence, this is definitely not a film for the easily offended, the squeamish or the faint-hearted!”

4DigitalAsia have expressed dismay at the film’s subsequent rejection, and may well appeal the BBFC’s decision – but while this effectual banning (of what was already a niche title) may take a little away from 4Digital Asia’s coffers, it will only add to the notoriety of a film clearly designed to provoke.

4Digital Asia have commented: “We had expected to receive from the BBFC a list of recommended cuts enabling the film to be passed with an 18 certificate”. It is difficult to know how much could realistically have been removed from a claustrophobic three-hander with a duration of only 73 minutes – but if there is one lesson that Grotesque teaches us, it is the possibility of surviving the most horrific of slashing cuts with some integrity remaining.

The bare-bones plot of Koji Shiraishi’s Grotesque reeks all over of ‘torture porn’, that horror sub-genre born out of the shock images from Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay, and most closely associated with the Hostel and Saw franchises. As a virginal couple (Hiroaki Kawatsure, Tsugumi Nagasawa) returns from their first chaste date, they are violently abducted by a psychopathic loner (Shigeo Osako) and subjected in his plastic-sheeted dungeon to a series of sexual assaults and surgical tortures from which it becomes clear early on that they will not emerge in one piece.

The awful prisoner’s dilemma where one captive must willingly endure unspeakable agonies in order to prevent the other from suffering the same appears to have been lifted wholesale from Tom Shankland’s excellent morality noir WAZ (2007) – or at least from Jed Weintrob’s dumb-assed Scar 3D (2007). Yet Grotesque also harks back to a pre-9/11 tradition of stylised sadomasochism in Japanese cinema, from Masumura Yasuzo’s aestheticised abduction tale Blind Beast (1969) through Hideshi Hino’s surreal slice of snuff-aping misogyny Flowers of Flesh and Blood (1985) to Takashi Miike’s gruelling psychodrama Audition (1999) – and unlike most American ‘torture porn’, Grotesque actually foregrounds the sexual element implied by that genre label. For this reason (or perhaps just for all the gratuitous cruelty and graphic dismemberments), no doubt some will find even the prospect of Hidaishi’s film indefensible, while others will be gagging to see it.

Either way, adult audiences should arguably be free to follow their own instincts, as the BBFC assert in their own Classification Guidelines. As possible reasons for a film’s rejection, these same Guidelines state “portrayals of sexual or sexualized violence which might, for example, eroticise or endorse sexual assault.” Grotesque certainly does include sexual violence as well as “detailed portrayal of violent and dangerous acts”, but it is hard to detect even a hint of eroticisation or endorsement in a film that constantly focuses on the subjectivity of (not to mention Platonic relationship between) the two captives, while gradually revealing the perpetrator to be an impotent, pathetic outcast, incapable of the love that binds his victims together so closely.

There is, on the other hand, something to be said for the playful self-awareness of a film whose first onslaught hammers itself out to the upbeat strains of Scott Joplin’s The Entertainer, and whose outrageously over-the-top climax plays to the (diegetic) accompaniment of Land of Hope and Glory. And in any case, “the spectacle of sadism” that so bothers the BBFC seems to be, at least in part, a cinematic metaphor for the twists and turns of a couple’s journey from bodily lust to enduring love. Not unlike Audition and Antichrist, Grotesque employs surrealism and irrationality (especially in its title-affirming finale) to intimate that all the excruciating torments on display are not to be taken at face value, or indeed too seriously. After all, hasn’t love always hurt?

Grotesque is hardly great cinema (although it is quite good torture porn) – but one senses that it is the BBFC who should really be condemned here, for taking this film down into their darkened cellars and refusing its release, in whole or in part, into the light of day. Or is society really somehow morally more secure, not to mention better informed, for this decision?

© Anton Bitel