HAUNTED PAST, PSYCHOTIC PRESENT, DYSTOPIAN FUTURE
Japanese tradition of cinematic terror goes all the way to the 1920s (A PAGE OF MADNESS, 1926). In the following decades there were several adaptations of classic ghost stories, but they reached the Western shores only with Kenji Mizoguchi's UGETSU (1953), winner of the Silver Lion award at the prestigious Venice film festival, and the much-praised omnibus KWAIDAN (1964: see below), winner of the Special Jury Prize at Cannes. Reaching the Western festivals, and occasional distribution as well, these and many other titles showcased the treasures of Japanese folklore filmed with a lush cinematic style. They were made by well-known directors and stars, with respectable budgets, and exemplified high artistic standards at the time when Western horror was dominated by B-movie quickies of Roger Corman and Hammer production.
Dedicated for decades to its own folklore, Japan was fully recognized as a major player on the international horror scene only in the 1990s, when a series of young and brave directors abandoned costumed period pieces and embraced horror as a part of everyday, contemporary reality. Horror was no longer a fairy-tale like thing from the past: it was recognized as a major constituent of the current spirit of times. Horror tropes became essential for expressing the worldview of the new generation of Japanese directors such as Shinya Tsukamoto, Kyoshi Kurosawa, Sogo Ishii, Hideo Nakata, Takashi Miike and others. Their language of horror was not lost in translation: it was embraced by the jaded Western fans as a breath of fresh air (but also as a welcome variation for the money-grabbing producers yearning for the latest remake idea).
There are three dominant topics found in the majority of Japanese horrors, exemplified in the very title of this overview: ghost stories (both period and modern), psycho killers and bleakly futuristic cyberpunk horrors. They metaphorically represent a dark worldview in which the past is seen as a source of terror (usually merged with guilt), the present is a source of paranoia in which individuality and meaningful existence are threatened by a large-scale insanity, while the future is equally threatening with body mutation, identity dissolution and technological overkill. These themes occasionally overlap, and our division cannot be scalpel-precise, but it should serve the purpose of showing the undercurrents of the dominant trends in Japanese horror cinema, and the subtexts beneath the apparently innocuous genre cinema.
Because of an incredible number of significant titles dealing with psycho killers, that topic will be divided into two parts, while the final, fifth part of this series is devoted to important titles which could not be forced into any of the three major thematic divisions. Thus, our selection of the best Japanese horror films will be presented in five parts:
- Psychos (1): PSYCHO OBSESSION
- Psychos (2): SERIAL KILLERS
- Futuristic (cyberpunk) horrors
- A league of their own
Japanese ghosts, naturally, obey the rules of Shinto beliefs, but in their essence they are not much different from the Western ones. These apparitions (yurei) are created when a person dies suddenly and violently (including a rush suicide), thus leaving a certain 'business' among the living – unfinished. Improper burial is another common cause of haunting this world instead of joining the souls of the ancestors. Revenge remains the main purpose of these ghosts. Much can be read into the fact that Japanese ghosts tend to be almost exclusively female. Is it a national guilt projected and transformed into fear because of the violently subordinate place women had in the traditional Japanese society? Is it a way of admitting that the wronged ones (those most eager to avenge themselves) tended to be mostly – women? Whatever the case may be, there are much fewer stories and films about male ghosts (when they appeared, they were mostly warriors haunting their last battlefield).
Yurei are usually dressed in a long white robe, actually a kind of simple kimono (katabira), in which people were buried in the old days. Portrayed more or less the same as mortals, they are easier to mistake for a living person than their Western, transparent counterparts. Pale face and long black hair are the only hints of something amiss. According to same later beliefs, yurei have no legs, which means that they float instead of walk, but in theatrical or cinematic versions of ghost stories this detail is usually hidden beneath the long kimono, or disregarded altogether.
The most prolific Japanese director to deal with the traditional ghosts was Nobuo Nakagawa, with his classics THE GHOSTS OF KASANE SWAMP (1957), THE MANSION OF THE GHOST CAT (1958) and especially THE GHOST STORY OF YOTSUYA (1959). These titles are, unfortunately, still hard to find in the West and thus must be omitted, for the time being, from this selection. The same goes for a later addition to this sub-genre, Nobuhiko Obayashi's HOUSE (1977), which rates very highly among the few Western fortunates who were able to see it. Having in mind these omissions, the following selection should be sufficient to cover the best of the best among Japanese ghostly horrors.
Dir: Masaki Kobayashi
"Black Hair": A poor man abandons his wife and marries a rich woman. Unhappy with her, he goes back to his first wife, but realizes a bit too late that she's no longer alive...
"Hoichi, the Earless": A blind young monk goes every night to an abandoned graveyard, compelled by the ghosts of a famous battle to retell their story, over and over again...
"The Snow Maiden": A woodcutter marries a woman who just happens to be devoted to wander snowy landscapes, bringing death to mortals.
"In a Cup of Tea": A warrior is menaced by an elusive spirit first seen in a cup of tea staring up at him...
One of the first Japanese films to gain wide international recognition is also a matchless spook-fest of highest order. This omnibus, based on four ghost stories recorded by Lafcadio Hearn, showcases the riches of Japanese folklore, but also the riches of cinematic talent. As directed by Masaki Kobayashi, KWAIDAN is a painterly exercise in style, a stunning eye candy whose painted sets' artificiality only stresses the fairy tale aspects, never undermining the main effect: chill. Terror and beauty are merged just like the world of the living and the world of the (un)dead. Japanese ghosts do not come from a distinctly separated otherworld (as they do in the West): they are here, omnipresent, all the time. That is, if they are wronged, or with some business left unfinished. The mortal trespasses, witting or unwitting, are duly punished in all four parts of this omnibus, and thus they function as morality tales as well. The first tale is similar to UGETSU, being an allegory of male desire for wealth at any cost with a supernatural angle handled with much more zest for terror than UGETSU (which was not much concerned with frights and thus cannot be labelled a horror film). KWAIDAN is one of the most beautiful films of any nation, period or genre. It is also the grand-daddy of all Japanese ghost stories, unsurpassed even now, more than four decades later.
KURONEKO, aka THE BLACK CAT, 1968
Dir: Kaneto Shindo
A beatufil young woman and her mother-in-law are raped and killed by a marauding group of samurai. They come back as ghosts bent on seducing and killing the hateful warriors. The real trouble starts when their son and husband comes back home as a samurai. Will they be able to evade the vow they've made to the vengeance demons?
From the director of ONIBABA (see part 3 of this guide) here comes his second-best horror film, with visuals even more stunning than before (in glorious black and white). The woods are haunted by the seductive spectre who has no trouble attracting the weary warriors to a secluded house for an evening of sake, conversation and throat-ripping. Beautiful, poetic, but quite gory as well, this is a wonderful horror film with an intelligent subtext and a strong moral core (just like ONIBABA). It condemns an entire caste - not only the samurai but their rulers as well (shown to be equally contemptible). At the same time, it presents revenge as a morally dubious endeavor and deals with complex emotions rarely found in European and American gothic films of the time. Just like KWAIDAN and ONIBABA, it has been recently included in EUREKA'S 'Masters of Cinema' DVD series, and rightly so!
Dir: Hideo Nakata
A single-mother reporter investigates a series of mysterious deaths which seem to be connected with watching a certain video tape. After watching it herself, she becomes enmeshed in the race with death which only gets worse when her son watches the tape too. She has only seven days to save herself and her son, or else... Sadako will cause some more death-of-fright face disfigurements...
RING starts with a bang (SCREAM-style) but continues with a relatively subdued mystery which builds and builds and BUILDS until it explodes in a virtuoso double-bang finale. Or make it triple-bang, because the scenes of emptying the well and Videodrome-Sadako surprise are followed by the ending whose chilling implications are rightly presented as apocalyptic in that great final shot. A masterpiece of suggestion, RING is everything a great horror needs to be: subtle, scary, shocking, unobtrusively gruesome, visceral as much as cerebral and spiritual, convincingly ridiculous and ridiculously convincing, metaphysical, thought provoking, imaginative and strikingly memorable. It burns itself into your psyche never to leave your (sub)conscious with images which correspond with the deepest fears of mankind: fear of the dark, of death, fear of loss of a loved one (especially a child!), fear of forces surpassing our control and understanding, fear of gods and demons, lonely places, deep wells, dark waters... RINGU reminds us that Japan is a tiny piece of land surrounded by the vicious, mysterious ocean: this land in itself becomes a metaphor for our position in the cosmos the way Lovecraft wrote: 'We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.' And Lovecraftian hints are cleverly present in Sadako's otherworldly origin: 'Frolic in brine, goblins be thine'. Mostly remembered for its striking set-pieces – especially the much copied but never surpassed Sadako's emergence from the TV set – RING is equally masterful in its quieter moments, like a spooky scene in which our protagonist 'meets' (sort of) Sadako in broad daylight, in the park, surrounded by people. Blessed and cursed by being a trend-setter, RING is not responsible for dozens of copies or for the fact that all of them (including an inferior American remake) pale in comparison to its achievements.
Dir: Kyoshi Kurosawa
A young pair abducts a little girl hoping for ransom. The girl, however, dies. They get rid of the body, but can they get rid of the spirit?
Made for TV and slightly overshadowed by PULSE, made a year later, Kurosawa's SÉANCE is a great example of spook cinema. Inspired by an old British black comedy, SÉANCE ON A WET AFTERNOON (1964), it showcases the use of quiet moments, silence and broad daylight for exposing very dark (but occasionally darkly comical) aspects of (in)humanity. Restrained, like most of his other films (if you do not count his early slasher, GUARD FROM UNDERGROUND), this is a film that does not so much rely on shocks and jump scares as it does on the shiver inducing atmosphere which gets heavier and heavier.
Dir: Kyoshi Kurosawa
When there is no more room in Hell, the dead will walk... the internet? It seems so, after more and more people are found dead next to their computers. Even worse, they tend to leave vague black smudges as only traces of their former existence. And the situation grows more and more apocalyptic...
A highly idiosyncratic mixture of teen-horror and art film, PULSE works like a mutant offspring of Tarkovsky and Cronenberg sprinkled with heavy doses of RING spookiness. Its horrors are based on the idea that the real hell would be if not even death could bring the delivery from empty, pointless existence – if solitude and emptiness just kept growing in the afterlife. Kurosawa's point seems to be that his protagonists are already 'dead' – dead in life, living virtual lives in the cyberspace. The second half may be a bit self-indulgent, and any semblance of coherence is thrown away for the sake of random uber-scary scenes. Excellent sepia-toned, mute-colored photography and elaborate sound design and score work wonders in terms of an oppressive atmosphere of doom 'n' gloom, but one wishes Kurosawa opted for a more linear narrative and just slightly more coherent ending. The end, by the way, brings this film very close to the category of 'bleak futuristic/apocalyptic' horrors, to be dealt in detail in part 4. of this series.
DARK WATER, 2002
Dir: Hideo Nakata
Another single mother in Nakata's oeuvre, this time with a small daughter, rents a dilapidated apartment in an equally gothic building. The growing stain on the ceiling is only the beginning of much greater problems of supernatural origin.
Heavy on atmosphere and drama, low on rhythm and ambition, Nakata's follow-up to RING does not even attempt to top it in any regard. Instead, the whole ghost story is used as a kind of background for a not-too-exciting drama about mother-daughter relationship. With only a few characters confined to a single setting DARK WATER may be too small to merit a feature running time, and some viewers may feel the running time stretched a bit. If you do not expect another masterpiece there is a lot to enjoy in the visuals and elaborate soundscape (always reliable Kenji Kawai provides adequately brooding dark ambient score), but the slim story and not too original denouement prevent this from achieving a level of 'classic' and confine it to a 'slightly above average spook-o-rama'.
THE GRUDGE, 2002
Dir: Takashi Shimizu
A series of vaguely connected people come (one after another) to an unassuming haunted house and are killed by its ghosts. The end. Actually, to be continued.
Shimizu must be the only respectable director who has remade a film of his more than once (I stress 'respectable' so as to exclude Jesus Franco and the like). Originated as a direct-to-video cheapie, it got a video-sequel (criminally cheating by reprising at least half of the original film's footage!), a Japanese theatrical remake (which also got a sequel), and then the American remake (plus sequel)! There are good things to be said about both theatrical versions: the Japanese is fresher and colder, the American is more linear and easier to follow. They both provide good scares, undermined only by the fact that there are no developed characters to root for. Too fragmentary for its own good, THE GRUDGE is less than the sum of its parts, more like a cinema equivalent of a carnival 'Ghost house' ride than a real film with developed story.
ONE MISSED CALL, 2003
Dir: Takashi Miike
Randomly selected teenagers receive deadly messages on their cell phones, with their own last words/cries sent from three days in the future. Can you fight destiny? Even more importantly, can you afford to throw away your cell phone?
Unashamedly derivative, Miike's film is still delightfully quirky to provide interest and a lot of pleasure from more-than competently executed scenes of cell-phone terror. It is organized around set-pieces – who could forget the train suicide or death in front of TV studio's cameras? – while the story and characters are weak and secondary. The resolution of the mystery is convoluted (and ultimately redundant) while the final showdown goes so over the top it verges on the ridiculous. Never boring, but also rarely more than vaguely intriguing, ONE MISSED CALL is a well-made scare-fest which proves that Miike can function equally well within the mainstream production as he does outside of it.
Dir: Takashi Miike
A female novelist suffers from memories/nightmares having to do with her past, or at least a version of it. She is tormented by dreams/visions of two little sisters, carnival performers: in the fight over father's affection one of the girls is killed. The remaining one keeps dreaming of being buried alive...
Miike's segment in the Asian horror anthology THREE EXTREMES is (surprisingly! but aren't surprises his trade mark?) the least extreme of the three. Rather restrained for his standards, it is a deliberate surreal mystery whose playing with reality may be confounding for some viewers, but the visual and atmospheric mastery in some scenes is the closest that any Japanese director has come to the beauty of KWAIDAN.