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August 6, 2012

Best Japanese Horror Films (Movie Reviews)

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...

[The ghost of Oiwa manifesting herself as a lantern obake. From the series One Hundred Tales (Hyaku monogatari) by Katsushika Hokusai.]

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. 
  • 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.
  • 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. 
  • Kuroneko (Yabu no naka no kuroneko, 1968) by Shindo Kaneto and with Nakamura Kichiemon, Otowa Nobuko and Taichi Kiwako. During a period of civil unrest, a woman and her daughter-in-law living in an isolated place are raped and murdered by a group of samurai, who also set fire to the house. After the killers have left, a black cat appears to lick the charred bodies... Afterwards, samurai passing through that area are found mysteriously dead with their throats torn out. We see what has happened to them: they are invited into the house where the two women live, regaled with sake and then killed while making love to the daughter. Meow! This is a combination of the motifs of "urami," grudge, from The Ghost of Yotsuya with the "ghostly woman" from Ugetsu. Then the son and husband, a fierce young samurai, returns from the war and the governor assigns him the duty to quell what is evidently a ghost. He encounters the two women in an eerily beautiful scene. They recognize each other - and although husband and wife still love each other, the women are "cat" demons the samurai has to kill, while from their side they have sworn to kill every samurai who visits their abode. The outcome can only be tragic, although there is also the brief bliss of love. Kuroneko offers no big shocks, but the atmosphere of the film is strangely haunting. Shindo uses the story to show the horrors of unnecessary wars and the terrible choices families may have to make in such a time. Extremely stylized and beautifully filmed in black and white. Shindo plays with light and dark like a Japanese Rembrandt. In the same style, Shindo also made the impressive Onibaba (see my post on this film).
  • 100 Monsters (Yokai Hyaku Monogatari, 1968) by Yasuda Kimiyoshi and with Araki Shinobu, Fujimaki Jun and Gomi Ryutaro. In the Edo-period a parlor game was popular where people would gather on a steamy hot August night and tell each other ghost (yokai) stories. A hundred lanterns or candles would be lighted, and after each story one was extinguished. In the darkness that followed on the final story, a ghost was believed to appear... This is an example of the "natural chill" I mentioned in my introduction. Such yokai stories were also gathered in book form, often with illustrations. They range from the eerie (Rokuro-kubi, a snake-necked woman) to the goofy (Kara-kasa, a one-legged umbrella with a freakishly large tongue). Sometimes yokai have taken up abode with humans and help them, as is the case in this film. 100 Monsters tells about an evil developer using yakuza "jiage" techniques to kick poor people out of a nagaya, a long row house - such a nagaya also figures in the famous film Humanity and Paper Balloons. Such forced evictions were a reality in the Japan of the fast-growth period when the film was made. Of course, the yokai who live in a shrine that is first demolished, come to the rescue... Several other yokai stories have been deftly woven into the film, which is a fantasy rather than an outright horror film, although there are some creepy sequences. Ambiguity is maintained so that the appearance of the various monsters could be delusion rather than reality. The finale is a battle between the yokai and the villains, filmed in slow motion - it has a tongue-in-cheek carnavalesque atmosphere touching on the surrealistic. This film with its simple effects is much better than Miike Takashi's The Great Yokai War of 2005, which sinks under the weight of its computer-game CGI effects, and as a story is very childish. The director, Yasuda Kimiyoshi, also made the interesting Daimajin, about a giant statue coming to life and protecting villagers against an evil warlord. 
  • Ring (1998) by Nakata Hideo and with Matsushima Nanako, Sanada Hiroyuki and Otaka Rikiya. Japan's best grossing horror movie is in fact a B-production that has the looks of an ordinary TV film - although I appreciate the lack of CGI or buckets full of tomato juice. The idea is beautifully simple: persons who watch an unnerving, grainy video (and receive a phone call immediately afterwards) die exactly one week later with a freaked-out expression on their faces. Reporter Reiko investigates the "Case of the Cursed Video" with a little help from ex-husband Ryuji. And after Reiko accidentally watches the video, her quest becomes a race against time... The ghost, Sadako, with her long black hair hanging down in front of her face is in the tradition of revengeful females a la Oiwa, the well that plays an important role in the film is also nicely traditional as this was a popular place for suicide in traditional Japan. And the finale is blood-curdling - your TV screen will never be the same! Based on a sentimental and rather forgettable novel by Suzuki Koji. There are two sequels and a prequel, a Korean rip-off and an American remake plus its sequel... all equally worthless. In the not so far future people will not know anymore what a videotape is and then all these films will become incomprehensible. Nakata Hideo went on to make his own (Yotsuya) Kaidan version, which is not very special. 
  • Onmyoji: The Yinyang Master (2001) by Takita Yojiro and with Nomura Mansei, Ito Hideaki and Sanada Hiroyuki. Onmyodo, the Way of Yin and Yang, was a system of divination and magic based on various Chinese superstitions. In the Heian-period, members of the nobility based their daily lives on it - take for example the belief in "lucky and unlucky directions." Practitioners called Onmyoji had important court positions at that time - the most famous one is Abe no Seimei, the hero of our film. Onmyoji had the task to protect the capital from evil spirits. They could also manipulate Shikigami, small "servant ghosts" that could be called up from cut-out paper manikins - in the film, Abe has three female companions who are all Shikigami. The story tells how Abe no Seimei has a contest in magic with a competing Onmyoji, Doson, who is plotting the downfall of the Emperor, while unleashing a horde of yokai... Together with court noble Minamoto no Hiromasa Abe tries to save the court. Interestingly, Abe no Seimei is played with "foxy" looks by Kyogen-actor Nomura Mansei (who also appeared in Kurosawa's Ran as the blind flutist). He plays Abe as an elusive, ambiguous figure, an ironic intellectual - a far cry from the "All-American hero," reason perhaps why the film although very popular in Japan, fell flat abroad. That is a pity for - although with a weaker second half - it is a colorful extravaganza and a good evocation of the belief in the Way of Yin and Yang from ancient Japan. In Japan the film unleashed a many years long "Abe Seimei" fashion, also making the small Seimei shrine in Kyoto popular among the young. After Onmyoji 2, director Takita Yojiro would go on to make the Oscar winning Departures
  • Ju-On (2002) by Shimizu Takashi and with Okina Megumi, Ito Misaki and Uehara Misa. The theatrical cut of Ju-On is a rehash of two straight to video releases. Again we have revengeful ghosts, now a woman and her son (the most creepy little boy in film history) who were brutally murdered by the husband/father. They still inhabit the house where the tragedy took place and are not keen on visitors. So when a social worker visits the haunted house, the two fiendish ghosts lie in waiting for her. The woman has a special way of descending the stairs and the boy just stares... Yes, there is a sequel plus an American remake - this time with the Japanese director at the helm. Ju-On is an effective little shocker that is actually better than the much overhyped Ring
  • One Missed Call (Chakushin ari, 2003) by Miike Takashi and with Shibasaki Ko and Tsutsumi Shin'ichi. What starts as a rather conventional J-Horror movie about a death-messaging keitai - following in the tracks of Ring and ripping off the South Korean Phone - finds its real "Miike" groove in the second half and ends up being weirdly thrilling. Young people mysteriously start receiving voice mail messages from their future selves, foretelling the exact date and time of their death. To save themselves and their friends, Yumi and Hiroshi stubbornly investigate the deadly mystery. The film becomes interesting when Natsumi, the third person to get the death message, agrees to go on a trashy TV show with a cartoonish paranormal expert (a sort of yamabushi priest) that airs at the exact time of her predicted death. It gives Miike a welcome chance for a satirical jab at the exploitation of the public - even their death - by the rating's hungry media. And it is good fun, even though the heads literally roll over the studio floor. But it gets even better when our heroes visit an abandoned hospital and evil rises from its temporary grave, mobile phone in hand - though nonsensically plastic, Miike's furious female phantom does pack a punch. One Missed Call here leaves generic horror for cult territory. It is difficult to assemble the pieces in a rational way, but the murderous rampage is ultimately linked to a case of child abuse - the victimizer used to give her victim a red candy in the mouth, as was also the case with the keitai-dead. In the end she morphs into Yumi, who starts abusing her boyfriend Hiroshi with a kitchen knife - and then drops a red candy in his mouth. We could say that abuse and violence send ripples through society, even to the future, and will be endlessly repeated unless resolutely stopped. 
  • Exte: Hair Extensions (2007) by Sono Shion and with Kuriyama Chiaki, Osugi Ren and Sato Megumi. This film about "killer black hair" is a spoof on J-Horror and the tradition of ghostly females with long, black hair. A dead woman keeps sprouting hair and a goofy hair fetishist decides to make money out if it by selling "hair extensions" to a beauty shop (where Kuriyama Chiaki works as a walking shampoo ad). Being from a dead female with a deep grudge, the hair extensions start killing their wearers in interesting ways. Finally, the film enters cult territory when a sort of hairy womb appears to regenerate the protagonists. Some campy fun, and the death knell for Japanese horror (for the time being). After watching, you will feel as if your mouth is full of hair... See my more detailed post about this film.