October 31, 2016 by crew
Japanese cinema is well known for its tradition of terrifying horror movies and since it is now October, the month of ghost and ghouls and all things creepy, I asked my friends and co-workers for the movies they recommend to watch this Halloween.
Now let’s dive into a world of vengeful yurei, yokai and psychopathic pop idols.
This one should come as no particular surprise. It’s one of the most well known examples of Japanese horror and even got a western remake (which, I gather, is to horror fans what the Star Wars prequels are to Sci-Fi fans).
Based on the novel of the same name by Koji Suzuki, Ringu tells the story of reporter Reiko Asakawa as she looks into a cursed video tape, which causes anyone who watches it to die after seven days. Together with her ex-husband Ryuji, they track the cause of the curse to vengeful spirit (onryo) of psychic Sadako Yamamura. But can they stop the curse before it claims their son, or will the video tape continue to spread Sadako’s vengeance?
Ringu draws heavily upon various aspects of Japanese folklore, especially the traditional imagining of a yurei (ghost), dressed in white funeral clothes with long, wild black hair, loose and hanging over the face.
It’s an image that comes straight out of ukiyo-e (Japanese woodblock prints) artwork, inspired heavily by the traditions of kabuki theatre.
More specifically, it is heavily inspired by the traditional story of Bancho Sarayashiki, more famously known as the plate counting ghost. In this story, a beautiful story named Okiku drives herself to insanity after she is blamed for the loss of a decorative plate, before being thrown down a well to her death.
I think Okiku’s method of haunting by counting to nine and then screaming rather pales in comparison to Sadako’s killer VHS.
Ju-On: The Grudge
Like Ringu, this one is also something of a given. But, together with Ringu, it was the film that every Japanese person I asked recommended. It too got a western remake, which is similarly not talked about.
Ju-On: The Grudge is actually the third in the Ju-On film series, although it was the first to get a cinematic release. The Grudge is told in non-linear order with six segments, each focused on different characters, which makes the plot a little difficult to recount.
The movie follows a series of people dealing with a haunted house. Each comes in contact with the spirits of Kayako and her son Toshio, the house’s original occupants who were killed by Kayako’s abusive husband Takeo. The rage and torturous nature of their death turns Kayako into a vengeful onryo, killing each person who comes to the house and then spreading the curse to wherever they die.
As with Ringu, Ju-On: The Grudge is heavily inspired by Japanese folklore. This is most notable through the way the curse is not confined to the haunted house, but can spread out from the first person to make contact with it like a disease, something often found in onryo revenge hauntings.
Interestingly, the ghosts of Ringu and The Grudge recently went head to head in the new cross-over movie Sadako vs Kayako.
Kwaidan may not be the scariest film on this list, but it might be the most significant, as it draws upon perhaps one of the most influential collections of Japanese folklore, Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things by Lafcadio Hearn.
Kwaidan is an anthology movie that first appeared in 1965. It retells a selection of the classic folk tales and ghost stories that Lafcadio Hearn collected throughout his life in Japan during the time of the Meiji Restoration (1868-1912).
In this movie, a samurai abandons his faithful wife for another woman, only to find that devotion can last long after death. A man comes face to face with a Yuki-Onna, a woman of the snow, the fearsome yokai that come in blizzards to drain the life from your body, while a writer finds the face of a samurai constantly appearing in his cup of tea.
Undoubtedly the most famous story from this collection though is that of Hoichi the Earless. The story follows that of a blind musician named Hoichi, who specialises in retelling the Tale of the Heike, the story of two warring clans the ghosts of which still haunt the battle site of Dan-no-Ura. Interestingly, according to local belief, it is these spirits that are responsible for Japan’s famous samurai crabs.
Heichi is one day hired by a royal family to tell the tale at their court, and he is fetched each night to come and play for them, This arouses the suspicions of his priest friends, who worry that, rather then a royal patron, he may in fact be playing for the spirits of the dead.
As I said, Kwaidan may not be the scariest movie to come from Japan, but it is a must for anyone interested in Japanese folklore, or even the traditions of the Japanese ghost story. If that doesn’t sell you, noted film critic Roger Ebert described it as “among the most beautiful films I’ve seen.” So if you fancy something a little different this Halloween, give Kwaidan a go.
There had to be at least one Japanese anime on this list. When I asked, I got a lot of good suggestions, including one called Toire-no-Hanako-San, or Hanako of the Toilet, a kid’s anime based around essentially a Japanese equivalent of the Bloody Mary urban legend.
However, that particular example is more geared towards kids and I wanted to keep more to the horror focus. For that, one recommendation kept cropping up. Perfect Blue.
This film differs in that it doesn’t rely upon ghosts or the supernatural, but is more in line with a Hitchcock-style psychological horror.
The film follows former J-Pop idol Mima Kirigoe, who leaves singing to pursue her career as an actress. Her decision causes her fans to become angry and she is repeatedly stalked by one who goes by the name of “Me-Mania”.
As she gets deeper into the traumatic role of her character, reality begins to break down for both Mima and the viewer. Then the murders begin. Can Mima be innocent, when she no longer trusts her own mind?
I will warn you, this film deals with some pretty traumatic stuff. Rape, murder, stalkers and mental breakdowns are all heavily featured in it. Themes of identity and self vs public perception are heavily featured in this, feeding to the psychologically tense story. However, it is all tied together in a compelling thriller-mystery, that wears its Hitchcock influences with pride, right down to the ending.
Finally, we return to the Onryo ghost story with Dark Water, a 2002 ghost movie based on a story written by the same writer as the original writer of Ringu.
Recently divorced Yoshimi Matsubara moves into a new apartment with her young daughter Ikuko. The apartment has a band leak in the ceiling, which the landlord refuses to fix. She traces the leak to the locked apartment above her own, where a young girl named Mitsuko Kawai used to live, until her mysterious disappearance.
What follows is a ghost story with a surprising level of drama and emotion to it, focusing on the relationship between Yoshimi and her daughter and the pressure she is under as a newly divorced mother.
Dark Water is probably not the movie you want to watch if you are just after a little light horror fun. However, it does stand out from the others with its strong character relationships and bittersweet ending. If you like your ghost stories to have a bit more heart, Dark Water might be worth checking out.
There we have it, five horror films from a land that certainly knows how to make things scary (including ice cream; I had a lobster flavour one at Ise Jingu).
Before we finish, I thought I’d just make a quick list of honorable mentions due to the large number of recommendations I received.
- Audition (this one is pretty sick)
- Ichi the Killer
- Fatal Frame
- Three Extremes
- Battle Royale (not what I would think of as a horror, but a lot of my friends recommended it as such)
- Jigoku Sensei Nube
- Vampire Hunter D (I love these anime movies)
- Noroi: The Curse
- Ayakashi Mononoke (anime series)
What’s your favourite Japanese horror movie? What sort of horror do you think is most effective?
Next Tabletop Otaku, I’ll be getting stuck into the most popular modelling hobby in Japan; Gundam figures.
"[Ringu and Grudge] keep with the traditional imagining of a yurei (ghost), dressed in white funeral clothes with long, wild black hair, loose and hanging over the face..."