Japanese Horror Movies
Scary movies have undergone a revitalization in recent years, and much of this can be attributed to the success of Japanese horror movies, also known J-Horror movies. Japanese horror films usually have a distinctive narrative and visual style, often with strong violence and sexuality. Many of the best Japanese horror films (or "best J-horror movies) also draw from the folklore and cultural mythology of their native land.
This post looks at the beginnings of Japanese horror, the era of exploitative cinema, and the modern J-Horror craze. Important Japanese horror directors will be examined, as well as the phenomenon of the yurei (or Japanese ghosts).
Japanese Horror Movies - The Early Years
The first true Japanese horror movie was Ugetsu (1953). Unlike today’s gory Japanese horror movies, these early Japanese horror pictures were more supernatural in nature, often emphasizing suspense and tension. Other influential Japanese horror films of this early period include The Ghosts of Kasane Swamp (1957), The Mansion of the Ghost Cat (1958), The Ghost of Otsu (1959), Jigoku (1960), Onibaba (1964) and Kwaidan (1964).
Kwaidan is significant as the precursor to the modern Japanese ghost story movies which have become so popular. In fact, the word kwaidan literally translates to “ghost story.” Besides dealing with the spirit world, many of these early Japanese horror movies also served as morality tales, extolling the virtues of loyalty, honesty, and determination.
But the high point of this era is considered to be the release of Onibaba. The film doesn’t shy away from sex and violence, and many viewers of the time were shocked by the amount of on-screen nudity. Because of this, it’s usually viewed as a more ambitious and edgy work than its contemporaries. It should also be noted that Jigoku, made four years prior to Onibaba, also includes graphic depictions of sex and violence which were considered groundbreaking for their time.
At the same time that these early Japanese horror films were being produced, Japan was also beginning to mimic the popularity of American science-fiction films with works such as Godzilla (1954), Gamera (1965) and Attack of the Mushroom People (1963). Godzilla proved especially popular, and the Godzilla horror movie franchise has spawned over 20 films and untold millions in merchandising.
Japanese Exploitation Films
During the late ‘60s, the world was in turmoil, and this is reflected in not only American cinema but also in Japanese horror movies of the period. Much like their Western counterparts, Japanese filmmakers used this as an opportunity to stretch the limits of how much sex and violence could be depicted on film.
"Pink Films" became popular in Japan during this time, and these were essentially softcore porn movies combined with elements of sci-fi or horror. A number of sub-genres also developed from the Pink Film craze. One was known as “ero guro,” and it combined both grotesque and erotic imagery. Examples of this sub-genre include Blind Beast (1969) and Horrors of the Malformed Men (1969).
Another sub-genre of the Pink film was known as “pinky violence.” These films featured the expected amount of eroticism, but they also included large amounts of graphic violence aimed at women. Women were often held captive, and some of the more popular films featured schoolgirls, nuns or women convicts. One example of this type of film was 1972’s Female Prisoner 701: Scorpion.
“Splatter Eros” was a sub-genre of the pink film which became popular in the ‘80s. With the popularity of splatter films in the U.S., these films combined graphic violence directed at women with scenes of rape and sexual humiliation. 1986’s Entrails of a Virgin was a particularly notorious example of this kind of film. Other films included Entrails of a Beautiful Woman and Female Inquisitor.
During this period, not all Japanese exploitation films included high levels of sensuality. The Guinea Pig series, for example, rejected the eroticism of the pink films in favor of realistic depictions of murder and death. They were so realistic, in fact, that the series was eventually banned by the Japanese government. Years later, actor Charlie Sheen would view one of these films and report it to the FBI as a possible snuff film: it wasn’t, of course.
Other brutal films of the period included Evil Dead Trap (1988) and All Night Long (1992). Less controversial Japanese horror movies were also being made during this time, including such works as Hiruko the Goblin (1991) and The Guard from Underground (1992).
The J-Horror Movies Craze
J-Horror (which stands for “Japanese Horror”) appeared in the late ‘90s. The craze was spawned by the release of Ringu in 1998. This film was a return to the ghost stories of old, and it has since generated a number of sequels and American remakes. Besides being the highest-grossing Japanese horror movie, Ringu is also considered among the scariest Japanese horror films.
Many modern Japanese horror movies tend to focus on themes of the supernatural, with malevolent ghosts often stalking schoolchildren and unlucky Asian beauties. These Japanese ghost stories can be traced all the way back to the country’s Edo and Meiji periods.
The ghosts depicted in these films are known as yurei, and they are kept on the physical plane by emotions such as hate and revenge. They often take the form of pale female ghosts with stringy, black hair (the hair dates back to Kabuki theatre). White clothing is worn, as this is the traditional color of a Japanese funeral garb. Other elements included from Japanese folklore include shamanism, exorcism, possession and precognition.
Here are some other J-Horror films which you might find interesting. While opinions vary, any one of these works could be considered among the scariest Japanese horror films.
Ju-on (also known as The Curse of The Grudge) - A popular straight-to-video release involving a killer curse. A number of American remakes and sequels are available.
Kairo (also known as Pulse) - Ghosts come back into the world via the internet. It was remade in the United States as Pulse in 2006.
Dark Water - The spirit of a dead child returns to interact with the living. Also has an American remake starring Jennifer Connelly.
One Missed Call - People receive a phone call which causes them to die. Their phone then calls someone else, and the cycle continues. Remade in the U.S..
Shikoku - Another film about the spirit of a young child unable to leave the physical plane. It’s also got a crazy mother who practices dark magic.
Rasen - The sequel to Ringu, released at the same time as the original film.
Audition - A 1999 Japanese horror film about a lonely man’s search for a female companion. Unfortunately, he chooses the absolute worst woman possible. The last 25 minutes of this film certainly qualify it as one of the best Japanese horror movies ever.
Cure - A series of brutal killing take place, and each victim has an X carved into their chest. But each murder is committed by a different killer, and they can’t remember why.
Noroi (also known as The Curse) - Filmed as a mockumentary, this film is unusually long for a horror film at over two hours. The film’s tagline promises that everyone will die.
Cursed - A haunted convenience store starts to claim the lives of customers.
Suicide Club - Wave after wave of Japanese residents start committing suicide, many of them high school age children. Great opening scene when dozens of schoolgirls jump in front of an oncoming subway train.
Marebito - A man explores tunnels deep beneath the city. He finds a naked girl chained up, and he takes her home. He quickly realizes, however, that something is not natural about the girl.
Strange Circus - A wheelchair-bound novelist creates disturbing works involving incest, rape, murder and suicide. But do these stories have something to do with the author’s past?
Tokyo Gore Police - In the near future, mutants and cops wage war in the streets of Tokyo. Gory.
Versus - Zombies, gangsters and lots of gunfights. And don’t forget about the reincarnation angle.
Japanese Horror Movie Directors
A large number of Japanese horror movie directors have enjoyed popularity during the J-Horror era:
Hideo Nakata - Making his directorial with Ghost Actress (1996), this eventually enabled him to direct the popular Ringu (1998). Other notable works include Ringu 2 (1999), Dark Water (2002), The Ring Two (2005), The Ring Three (2009), and Death Note: L, Change the World (2007).
Masaki Kobayashi - The director of the groundbreaking Kwaidan. He passed away in 1996 at the age of 80.
Nubuo Nakagawa - Famous for folk-inspired horror films of the ‘50s and ‘60s. His most well-known films remains the 1960 classic, Jigoku.
Takashi Miike - A controversial filmmaker known for graphic depictions of on-screen violence. His work includes Ichi the Killer (2001), Audition, and MPD Psycho. He was invited to direct an episode for Showtime’s Masters of Horror series, but his completed film, Imprint, was deemed to be too disturbing for the network to air (although it is available on DVD).
Takashi Shimizu - Known for the Ju-on series of Japanese horror movies (and directing the American remakes), he also created 2004’s Marebito.
Kiyoshi Kurosawa - His first major work was 1997’s serial killer film, Kyua (Cure). This was followed by Charisma (1999), Pulse (2001) and Doppelganger (2003).
Sion Sono - A poet and filmmaker best known for directing Strange Circus and Suicide Circle (also known as Suicide Club).
Tsuruta Norio - This Japanese horror director has made Borei Gakkyu (A Haunted School) (1996), Ring 0: Birthday (2000), Kakashi (Scarecrow) (2001), and Yogen (Premonition) (2004).