Best of J-Horror

J-horror, in fact, didn’t quite come out of nowhere. In fact the genre has a long tradition in Japanese cinema, from classics such as “Kaidan” or “Onibaba” (both 1964), to the popular “Gakkou no Kaidan” (School Ghost Stories) series of the 90s, but nobody could expect the worldwide impact “Ringu” would have on the horror world. All thanks to the US remake, which definitely helped in spreading the word across the globe. Generally speaking, the biggest difference to Western horror is their more restrained approach, with a focus on psychological horror rather than jump scares and gore. That said, Japanese filmmakers are also pretty prolific and imaginative when it comes to splatter horror. Classic Japanese horror cinema is strongly influenced by traditional Kabuki and Noh theater, as well as the old legends of vengeful spirits (“Onryō”) such as Oiwa in the “Yotsuya Kaidan” story. Partly, specifically the typical visual appearance and jerky movements of female spirits, also seem to have been inspired by the lesser known Butoh theater. During its heyday, Japan seemed to pump out classic after classic. Works such as “Ringu”, “Dark Water”, “Juon: The Grudge”, and “Uzumaki” helped define the genre and establish the now familiar genre conventions. They also inspired similar trends in other Asian countries such as South Korea, Thailand, and more recently Indonesia and the Philippines. But like every trend, the J-horror wave eventually died down. Some of the former masters of horror moved on to other genres (Nakata), while some stayed true to their roots (Shimizu, Ochiai). There were some attempts to keep the genre alive, like the “J-Horror Theater” series by producer Takashige Ichise, to moderate success. After a relatively quiet period, there has been a revival of sorts recently. Since 2015, Nakata has been releasing about one film every other year, Takashi Shimizu is working on his “folk horror” trilogy, and we also got two Juon sequels (“The Beginning of the End”, “The Final Curse”), just to mention a few.

But nothing has quite come close to the golden age. There could be various reasons for that. Perhaps it’s that the genre simply doesn’t have anything more to offer. Naturally, you can only watch long-haired ghost girls so many times before they stop being scary. But above all, to me it looks like that certain atmosphere, that certain magic, has been lost. Classic early 2000s J-horror had that certain iconic style, the underlit grainy long shots, sparse camera movement, understated sound score, the slow-burn eeriness. They just don’t make ’em like that any more. Of course, Japan itself isn’t the same or looks the same as 20 years ago, either. It’s kinda like 80s glam rock, it wouldn’t be the same if you tried to do it today. Horror has arguably become more mainstream, not only in Japan, but everywhere in the world. At the same time, it’s not hard to see how a bigger budget can lead to worse results: While we might see bigger names in the cast and technically slick productions, something gets lost in the process. That certain edge. Production companies are less willing to take risks, likely leading to less freedom for the director, resulting in less original works. It also seems to me like the horror is watered down for the masses. Ironically, despite the higher budget, one area where the newer films tend to stumble are the special effects. The CG ghosts of “The Complex” or “Stigmatized Properties” wouldn’t scare a 6-year-old.

That said, a lot of the recent J-horror output has been pretty decent, more on that here. The glory days of “J-horror” phenomenon might be long gone, but it’s never too late to check out the classics!

Ring (“Ringu”)
1998, Hideo Nakata

While investigating a series of mysterious deaths, reporter Reiko Asakawa (Nanako Matsushima) and her ex-husband Ryuji Takayama (the great Hiroyuki Sanada – “Last Samurai”, “Sunshine” etc.) end up getting involved with a cursed videotape that kills you exactly one week after watching. Looking into the videotape’s past, Asakawa and Takayama learn the story of psychic Shizuko Yamamura, and her daughter Sadako…

Even today, over 20 years after its release, the quality of “Ring” remains unmatched in horror cinema. Ring not only reinvented and popularized J-horror, it also perfected it. The atmosphere of foreboding, the feeling of dread, the style and execution of it all, Nakata really outdid himself here. Some elements were already present in Nakata’s previous work “Don’t Look Up”, and are also noticeable in subsequent works like “Dark Water”. Another thing that deserves mention is the iconic score by Kenji Kawai, without which the whole thing would only be half as scary. It’s the icing on the cake that helps “Ring” stand out from the pack. Originally based on Koji Suzuki’s novel of the same name, a horror match made in heaven (or hell?), “Ring” went on to spawn an entire movie series: After the box office failure of “Spiral” (jap. “Rasen”), which was based on the sequel novel but helmed by a different director, Nakata went on to direct his own “Ring 2”, which was followed by prequel “Ring 0: Birthday”, sequels “Sadako 3D” 1&2, and finally Nakata’s own “Sadako”, again based on a Suzuki novel. There have also been two lesser known “Ring” and “Rasen” TV series. The whole series’ continuity can be confusing, as the movies follow a different timeline from the books, and it’s not entirely clear if the later movie sequels bear any connection at all. But they all share in common the fear-inducing secret star of the series – Sadako. Probably one of the most iconic horror film characters ever, has become a pop culture icon and helped gain “Ring” gain its cult status. Just mentioning her name is enough to give people goosebumps. What makes Sadako’s appearance in “Ring” so effective is that we only get the see glimpses of her while she is established as a terrifying threat. Anxiety is built up as we we see the results of her inescapable curse. So when she finally comes for us (in an unexpected moment), the result is all the more shocking. Unfortunately, even director Nakata himself hasn’t been able to catch lighting in a bottle again (with the possible exception of Dark Water, also based on a story by Suzuki), and none of his later works even came close.

Dark Water
(“Honogurai Mizu no Soko Kara”, lit. “From the Deep Dark Water”)
2002, Hideo

Single mother Yoshimi Matsubara (Hitomi Kuroki) is going through a vicious custody battle and quickly needs a place to live for herself and her young daughter Ikuko. She finally settles for an almost empty run-down apartment building, the only place she can afford. It doesn’t take long before strange things start happening. A wet stain on the ceiling that keeps getting bigger, dark hair coming out of the tap, a children’s bag appearing out of nowhere. Little Ikuko starting to sleepwalk and talk to imaginary friends, before disappearing from her room. It looks like the building is haunted by something sinister, and everything seems to be related to a missing girl case from years earlier.

Another classic from Hideo Nakata, again based on Koji Suzuki’s writing, a short story in this case. While similar to “Ring” in style, this story seems a little more personal. As if the apartment building itself wasn’t scary enough, Yoshimi’s living situation totally adds to the anxiety. The sense of foreboding and impending doom is almost as unbearable as Ring, and you can’t help but feel for the mother and daughter. Because what could be more horrifying than losing one’s child? That aside, in my opinion this is one of the scariest haunted house stories ever. Following in Sadako’s footsteps, the ghoulish Mitsuko in her yellow raincoat doesn’t unleash her full wrath until the very end, but by that time you’ll already be clenching your teeth in anxiety. It seems like director Nakata is at his best when he can work with source material from someone else, namely Koji Suzuki. After Dark Water, Nakata didn’t return to supernatural horror until 2015’s “The Complex”. Anyway, Dark Water rightfully belongs up there with the classics of J-horror. In fact, it’s is so good that Hollywood didn’t even manage to mess up their remake (2005, also titled Dark Water), along with 2002’s “Ring” one of their better efforts.

Kairo / Pulse (lit. “Circuit”)
2001, Kiyoshi Kurosawa

What if the internet is really a gateway for ghosts to come into our world? And what if it doesn’t help connect people, but actually just isolates and traps them in their own loneliness? No way, right?
Anyway, a wave of suicide and other strange happenings starts occurring around Tokyo that might be part of something bigger. There are two separate stories that don’t converge until the end: Plant shop employee Michi (Kumiko Aso) sees her friends disappear one by one after encountering something supernatural; College student Kawashima (Haruhiko Kato) finds his computer haunted by a strange website and consults an IT student, Harue (Koyuki). Meanwhile, more and more people fall victim to the strange phenomena.

Made in the early days of the internet, the movie could be understood as a kind of warning against the dangers of technology. There are definitely some interesting ideas at work here, and the movie raises some questions about society, technology, and life after death. If anything, director Kurosawa (not related to Akira) might have used a few ideas too many, and not everything makes complete sense. I’m not sure I totally understood how ghosts use the internet to come to our world to trap people in their own loneliness, only to turn them into ghosts as well. And if that’s the case, should we all stop using the internet? Anyway, try not to think about it too hard. Because social commentary aside, “Kairo” is more than fun enough to watch for its story and atmosphere. Although it’s more of a lingering sense of dread and foreboding than all-out horror, there is one ghost appearance in the first half that you won’t forget anytime soon. The way the shadowy spirits are portrayed here is quite interesting and realistic (if such a thing is possible), reminding me of real life accounts of (alleged) ghost encounters. In any case, this is a very different kind of horror from “Ring”, but director Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s vision is absolutely sublime. If anybody deserves the title “auteur”, it’s him. Although considered a master of horror, having made works such as “Cure”, “Seance”, “Loft” and “Retribution”, his movies are sometimes hard to pinpoint in terms of genre. Anyway his trademark slow-burn horror and carefully constructed mise-en-scene are on full display here. Nobody can make the streets, factories and apartment complexes of Tokyo look more bleak and drab than Kurosawa. What I mean to say is that “Kairo” just oozes atmosphere, and the feeling of dread will stay with you much longer than any evil spirit jumping in your face. It’s the ultimate slow-burn horror (and actually one of my all-time favorite horror movies). Though it might not be for everyone, there is nothing quite like it, so I strongly recommend checking it out.

Ju-On (lit. “Vengeful Curse”)
2001, Takashi Shimizu

“Ju-on is a curse of those who die in the grip of a powerful rage”

You probably already know the story. A suburban home somewhere in Tokyo, haunted by the ghosts of a mother and son murdered there – Kayako and Toshio Saeki. Don’t set foot inside, because that’s is enough to become a target. But not only that: The curse will also spread to people around you like an infection. There is no escape, Kayako and Toshio will come for you sooner or later. “Ju-On: The Grudge” consists of several episodes featuring different characters (at different points in time) who entered the place for one reason or another: Social worker Rika (Megumi Okina); Salaryman Katsuya (Kanji Tsuda) and his family, current residents of the house; Former police detective Toyama (Yoji Tanaka), who was in charge of the original murder case; and finally the Saeki family themselves.

“Ju-On: The Grudge” was the first cinematic release, followed the straight-to-video “Ju-On: The Curse 1&2”. It’s a good start to get into the series. It never gets boring thanks to the episodic structure, stories are told in non-chronological order and are loosely connected. There is an overall atmosphere of impending doom, and some of the scares are pretty effective. Subsequent Ju-On installments tend to have a more coherent plot, but overall they are all quite similar. Similarly to “Ring” series, the continuity within the series is not entirely clear. “Beginning of the End” and “Final Curse” is a kind of reboot with different actors and all, while “White Ghost” and “Black Ghost” share the same concept but seem to take place in a different house. There has also been a Netflix series titled “Ju-On: Origins” which seems to follow yet another timeline, but I won’t get into that here. I really enjoyed the whole series, and all entries are well-made totally worth watching. But I gotta say, after over 6 installments, the formula is getting a little stale. Especially since we already know what’ll happen to everyone who sets foot in that house. There isn’t much to the story, and we only get to meet most of the characters for a brief amount of time. As for the hauntings, where other horror films aim for subtlety, Juon goes the opposite way: Show as many ghosts as possible. …And it totally works! Blue-skinned Kayako and her characteristic groan still creep me out every time. The appeal of “Ju-On” pretty much lies in constantly getting scared, kind of like a haunted house ride. The question isn’t whether or not the ghosts are gonna come, but when. Even the house itself, inconspicuous at first, will scare the sh*t out of you by the end. As a haunted house movie, the whole thing is definitely pretty effective. Actually my favorite in the whole series is the original “Ju-On: The Curse”, which might be a tad creepier than the theatrical version. But you can’t go wrong with any of them.

Hypnosis / The Hypnotist
1999, Masayuki Ochiai

Veteran detective Sakurai (Ken Utsui) and rookie psychologist Saga (Goro Inagaki, of SMAP) investigate a string of strange suicides that have one thing in common: All victims uttered “green monkey” before taking their lives. Concluding that they were all under hypnosis, Sakurai and Saga suspect a popular stage hypnotist to be behind it all. Saga develops an interest in his main act Yuka (Miho Kanno), who suffers from multiple personality disorder. As the suicide victims keep piling up, Sakurai and Saga soon find themselves in over their heads.

It really baffles me that nobody has ever heard of this film. Because it definitely deserves to be mentioned alongside the other classics of J-horror. Director Ochiai (Infection, Juon: The Beginning of the End / The Final Curse, Infection) often unfairly tends to get forgotten in light of his more famous contemporaries, but his talents are on full display here. Ochiai’s direction has a certain swagger and helps keep things light-hearted despite the subject matter. Camera work, clever use of lighting, and the musical score work together perfectly to underline the atmosphere. Story-wise, things never get boring, and culminate in a finale that I bet you won’t see coming. There is quite a bit of humor and the tone of the movie isn’t overly serious. Some of the deaths are pretty gruesome, but so over the top that they’re still watchable. What I enjoyed most here, apart from the mesmerizing story, is the cast of quirky characters. All performers are giving it their all and they look like they had fun playing their roles. Especially Miho Kanno is great to see playing four different personas. The late Ren Osugi also makes an appearance as an asshole rival cop. Also, the movie is actually based on a series of novels by (by Keisuke Matsuoka) that were never released in English, and were apparently inspired by the Aum Shinrikyo attacks. Anyway, the movie adaptation of Hypnosis is really a unique and entertaining entry into the J-horror canon. You won’t regret checking it out.

Coming up:

Uzumaki (2000)

Further recommendations:

Pet Peeve / Fuan no Tane
The Vanished / Ame no Machi
Nightmare Detective

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