In the Edo-period, Japan must have been very ecologically-minded: how else could the custom come up of using ghost stories for a "natural chill" in August? On the other hand, without air-conditioner you have little choice but to create goose bumps in a natural way... The custom has remained - August is still the month that Kabuki exults in plays with ghosts, while in the cinema horror pictures rule the day. As this summer stands in the sign of "energy saving," I suggest you shut off the air-conditioner, open the windows (allowing you the hear the beautiful drone of the cicadas), poor yourself a glass of cool barley tea, pick up a hand fan, and sit down for a summer program of ice-cold horror movies! Even your blogger, a hardcore realist who denies the existence of ghosts and the supernatural, shivered so much he had an unexpectedly low electricity bill...
To help you in your selection, here are the ten best Japanese horror movies (in chronological order). I have left out typical cult films - although these can be extremely chilling! - , because I have treated them in a separate post, Best Japanese Cult Films; and I have concentrated on classical films illustrating typical Japanese examples of the form supernatural horror takes. There is little J-Horror on my list as I believe J-Horror was a ludicrously overhyped phenomenon ("B-films of TV quality"), that has not produced many films of lasting value.
What all Japanese horror films have in common is the presence of wronged females (or children in J-Horror) who have become revengeful ghosts, and the presence of a general atmosphere of creepiness rather than big shocks. Sex is not sinful - as in American teenage horror films - but something in which even the ghosts delight.
- Ugetsu (Ugetsu Monogatari, 1953) by Mizoguchi Kenji and with Mori Masayaku, Tanaka Kinuyo and Kyo Machiko. Draws on two tales from Ueda Akinari’s "Tales of Moonlight and Rain" (Ugetsu Monogatari, 1776), from which it also borrows the title, plus the story "Décoré!" by Guy de Maupassant. During a time of civil unrest, a farmer works hard at pottery to give his wife and young son a better life. His brother-in-law harbors grotesque dreams of becoming a samurai. When they set out to sell pottery in the city, they leave their wives behind. This is dangerous, with armies and loose soldiers roaming the countryside. The wife of the potter is killed, her sister raped and forced to become a prostitute. In the fates of both women the costs of war and oppression are demonstrated; women in Mizoguchi's films are often pitted against a male-dominated world of ambition, aggression and focus on money. While in the city, the potter falls in love with the Lady Wakasa and starts living in her mansion - only to be told she is a ghost. She is beautiful and sinister at the same time, conquering by being distant and strange, a good example of the East Asian motif of the ghostly woman: "a man meets a beautiful woman, spends the night with her in a great mansion and the next morning wakes up on a lonely grave." Her remaining passion has brought the dead woman to life. To protect him from evil, a priest writes a Buddhist incantation on his body (as in the next film, Kwaidan). Although the film is far from a supernatural shocker, these scenes have a haunting quality. The potter returns to his village and is happy to find wife and child at home. But this is also an illusion: the next morning villagers inform him his wife is in fact dead (the same motif as in the first Kwaidan story). He has met another ghost, but now a gentle and forgiving one. In the final scene he prays with his son at her grave. His brother-in-law, in the meantime, has redeemed his wife from prostitution, and they are starting over again as farmers. The cost of experience is high, the cost of war is unbearable. One of the great Japanese films of all time. Criterion essay one and two; Ebert. (10)
- The Ghost of Yotsuya (Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan, 1959) by Nakagawa Nobuo and with Amachi Shigeru, Wakasugi Katsuko, Emi Shuntaro, Kitazawa Noriko and Ikeuchi Junko. A truly classical horror film, about the famous story from the Kabuki play by Nanboku Tsuruya, written in 1825. The samurai Iemon asks for the hand of Oiwa; when the father refuses, he kills him and covers up the murder with the help of his evil servant Naosuke, who wants to marry Oiwa's sister Osode. Iemon marries Oiwa, but they are poor and Iemon soon gets tired of wife and baby. Then he has the chance to marry the rich heiress Oume... but first Oiwa has to die... He not only gives her poison, but also invites a sucker to the house, so that he can claim to have caught her with a lover. The film starts like an ordinary jidaigeki from the 1950s, filmed in broad screen and with beautiful colors and solid performances. But there is "horror" here, too: the cruel cunning of Iemon, who with an impassive face kills those he thinks are in his way. He mistreats his wife and later gives her the poison with a cool face. But he gets his deserts when supernatural horror kicks in: the bodies of the disfigured Oiwa and her so-called lover have been hammered to a door and thrown in the river, but they keep coming to the surface, slowly turning around. And then there is Oiwa suddenly hanging down from the ceiling! She has the whitish-blue face of a Japanese ghost and also suitably long black hair. Like most other Japanese female ghosts she is motivated by "urami," spiteful revenge, and it is clear there is no happiness possible for Iemon and his new wife. Other famous versions of the story were made by Mori Masaki in 1956 and by Toyoda Shiro in 1965, but Nakagawa Nobuo tops them all. (9)
- Kwaidan (Kaidan, 1964) by Kobayashi Masaki and with Mikuni Rentaro, Aratama Michiyo and Watanabe Misako. Stylish supernatural fantasy, but thanks to its conscious theatricality far more artistic than an ordinary horror film. I first saw Kwaidan when I was teaching at Leiden University - a couple of times a year, the Japanese department could get a film via the Japanese Embassy. When after the movie I walked home along the dark, old canals, a church clock struck twelve and I unconsciously shivered... Four separate stories from the works of Lafcadio Hearn: (1) "Black Hair": A samurai divorces his wife to make a better match in another town. Years later he returns to his first wife - she has gorgeous black hair but there is also something strange about her... A very effective shocker. (2) "The Woman in the Snow": In a snowstorm, a woodcutter meets a "snow woman," a ghostly female from folklore, who spares his life and even marries him on the condition that he never tell anyone about her origin. Of course, the woodcutter forgets his promise... (3) "Hoichi the Earless": Hoichi is a blind biwa player, a performer of the Tale of the Heike. He lives in a temple at Dannoura (Shimonoseki), where the last of the Heike with the child-emperor Antoku tragically perished during their final battle. Eventually, he finds himself singing to the ghosts of the very heroes that are the subject of his song, which drains his life force away. The monks try to protect him by writing a holy sutra over his body to make him invisible to the ghosts. But they forget his ears... My favorite among the four stories. (4) "In a Cup of Tea": a writer tells the story of a samurai who keeps seeing a mysterious face reflected in his cup of tea. Later he fights a duel with this elusive opponent. A witty conclusion to a hauntingly beautiful film. Criterion essay. (10)