Videodrome :: The Cursed Kleenex Commercial

(Welcome to Videodrome. A recurring column plumbing the depths of vintage and contemporary cinema – from cult, exploitation, trash and grindhouse to sci-fi, horror, noir, documentary and beyond.)

Manchester, circa 1983. English poet and musician, Edward Barton, is inspired to write a poem after observing the city from his balcony. The poem will eventually become the lyrics to his song, “It’s A Fine Day.” Barton chooses to record the song a cappella, featuring a single vocal track from his girlfriend, Jane Lancaster. Released independently underneath the alias “Jane,” the song will soon be discovered by BBC disc jockey and tastemaker, John Peel. After hearing Peel play “It’s A Fine Day” on the radio, Iain McNay of Cherry Red Records obtains the rights to the song. It reaches number 5 on the UK indie charts, becoming the highest ever chart placement for an unaccompanied poem in UK history.

Tokyo, circa 1986. Thirty-four year old actress, Keiko Matsuzaka, has just landed a commercial for Kleenex. The commercial will be one of three-thirty-second spots for a new ad campaign rolling out across Japan. The campaign is an attempt to cross-pollinate the Kleenex tissue brand with the wildly successful manga series, “Urusei Yatsura.” The commercial will use the likeness of Sakura and Ten (characters from “Urusei Yatsura”) in the hopes of appealing to a younger demographic. In a flowing white dress, Matsuzaka will take on the appearance of Sakura. Opposite Matsuzaka, a child actor will play Ten – an “Oni” (a mythical creature from Japanese folklore) – who has orange skin, green hair, and a horn protruding from his head.

To this day, it’s unknown why Kleenex decided to use “It’s A Fine Day” in the commercial. Perhaps the sparse recording hit all the bullet-points the brand was looking for. On paper, the song is straight forward, optimistic, and easy to understand – ideal for a thirty-second commercial. It also came out of England at a time when British music was synonymous with “cool.” One needs look no further than New Order, The Smiths, The Clash, Squeeze, or any of the countless post-punk/new wave bands flooding out of the UK at the time. It’s easy to understand how a group of out-of-touch corporate executives in a Tokyo boardroom – thousands of miles away from Manchester – could assume a “one size fits all” philosophy to syncing a song John Peel championed on the BBC air-waves.

When the commercial debuted, Japanese television stations and Kleenex’s corporate offices were bombarded by phone calls from viewers complaining of nausea and dizziness. It was widely reported that young children were having severe night terrors after seeing the ad. Cases of suicides and psychotic states became rampant throughout Tokyo. Many native Japanese speakers mistook the English lyrics to “It’s A Fine Day” as German, confusing it with an old Eastern European folksong. When translated to Japanese, the mistaken German lyrics were “Die! Die! Everyone is cursed and will be killed!” Although it was only aired a handful of times, the commercial had enough of an adverse response that Kleenex immediately pulled it from syndication.

The thirty-second advertisement would become part of a multi-cultural game of telephone, resulting in the wide-held belief that the commercial was “cursed.” Rumors began to spread of cast members who had been driven mad. It was believed that Matsuzaka gave birth to a deformed child (much like the “Oni” in the commercial), leading to her hospitalization in a mental institution. Crew members were said to have suffered violent and untimely deaths, including a camera operator who died after being locked in a sauna.

As the years passed, the mythos surrounding the commercial would expand into a fatalistic stratosphere of folklore. Viewing the commercial became a form of Russian roulette. If you were able to get your hands on a bootleg VHS copy, you ran the risk of being cursed too. Some claimed that if your copy showed the “Oni” child as having blue skin instead of orange, death was right around the corner. Others claimed that if Lancaster’s soft voice changed to the raspy gargle of an “old hag,” it was only a matter of days before you were driven to the brink of insanity. As the tales grew taller throughout the nineties, the public’s desire to find the lost “Cursed Kleenex Commercial” increased.

Fast forward to 2006. After being out of circulation for twenty years, the commercial resurfaces on a new video platform called YouTube. It appears at a time when the concept of “death by found footage” is rampant in pop culture, birthing horror films such as The Ring and FEARDOTCOM. The “Cursed Kleenex Commercial” quickly amasses over a million views, introducing itself to a new generation. The word-of-mouth legends surrounding the commercial become forum board threads, spawning speculative posts from bloggers believing the footage contains demonic subliminal messages. It’s rumored on torrent sites that if you watch it after midnight, unexplained power outages will occur. Others claim that the music and editing will change after repeated viewings, a sure sign that the viewers days are numbered.

Without any context for the anime inspired visuals and the acappella song, it’s understandable how the commercial could be perceived as supernatural. Those unaware of the Ten character from “Urusei Yatsura” assumed the horned-child to be a “demon baby,” and those unfamiliar with Barton’s songwriting thought “It’s A Fine Day” was derived from an ancient hymn used to summon evil spirits. Even with proper context, there is still something deeply unsettling about the footage. It plays more like visuals pulled from a dream-state than a commercial for a major brand. The combination of sight and sound creates an unnerving atmosphere; there is an intangible sense of “something is wrong here.”

Most of the rumors surrounding the production have since been debunked, but the pure oddity of the commercial continues to fascinate and haunt viewers. Why is it so inherently disturbing? Spooky tales aside, perhaps the combination of a song inspired by the peacefulness of Manchester and a commercial inspired by the success of a Tokyo manga – a merger of two pieces of media from two completely different cultures, tonally out of sync with one another – is what gives it such cryptic resonance. The commercial is forever lost in translation, caught in a strange purgatory that’s out of time and out of place.

Or perhaps the tales are true. Perhaps the commercial is cursed, containing subconscious symbolism and subliminal messages that serve as the catalyst to nightmares, madness, and death. I’ll let you be the judge. Watch the commercial, if you dare… | e hehr

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