Nihonjinron: J-Horror


[Flixist community member dj-anon just keeps churning out these sweet essays about Japanese cinema and culture, if you haven’t taken a glance at his look at the Japanese Horror genre, you should!]

Part 9: The Art of Fear

The scary movie craze of the late 90’s and early 2000’s, in Japan, is difficult to categorize and explain, as it was not an unified movement or a uniform approach, let alone a simple fad. It coincided with, and simultaneously propelled, what had been a stagnant film industry into the rich boom Japan now enjoys.

The high amount of scary movies the nation saw during that era, was in part because of a willingness by the studios to invest in the genre, to ride on the success that the very first hits enjoyed. It was also a consequence of directors looking for job, finding an easy door to the industry by creating movies that were, at least in appearance, scary, while subtlety injecting the plots and story lines they actually wanted to do. It was perhaps this, what lead the j-horror genre to posses attributes that went beyond simple scares and shocking images.

Creating a scary movie involves developing what is probably the most difficult genre to accomplish. It not only requires a specific sensitivity by the director and writer; and for the vision to be transparently portrayed into actual images, that have to maneuver around modest budgets; it shares the difficulty of humor, requiring a perfect, deliberate, yet natural timing; but its most difficult challenge is that the viewers themselves have to willingly submit to the intentions of the filmmaker. A noisy theater or a person throwing gags at each scene or a preconceived posture of rationalizing the film too much or even just watching the movie with daylight, can hopelessly brake the mood, with zero chance of regaining the audience.

The effectiveness of all the great j-horror films resides in capturing the viewers with a deep atmosphere first, and only then, introduce the scares with a morbid precision.

Ring 0: Birthday [2000]

Ringu should not need introduction, but it does. With its American adaptation ultimately becoming The Ring that the world knows, it has created a division between fans of the franchise: one sector prefers the more sophisticated, higher budget finish of the adaptation; the other sector argues in favor of the distinct sensibility and method of the original movie. Yet, the origins of The Ring are not as straightforward.


The Ring, released in 2002, directed by Gore Verbinski and adapted by Ehren Kruger, is a synthesis of Ringu and Ringu 2, released in 1998 and 1999, respectively. Both directed by Nakata Hideo and written by Takahashi Hiroshi. The films themselves were based on the books by Suzuki Kouji, known as Ring Cycle, that comprehends the books: Ringu (Ring,) Rasen (Spiral,) Rupu (Loop) and Ba-sudei (Birthday,) written between 1991 and 1999.

In 1998, shortly after the mania for Ringu had exploded in Japan, a sequel was already in production. It was released in the same year under the title Rasen. However, it was greatly discarded and subsequently ignored by the moviegoers. Ringu 2, that appeared in theaters one year later, would become canon and the real sequel for the first film, in the collective pop culture consciousness of Japan.

The American version, has its differences and deviations from the Japanese one, starting from the more stylish images of the cursed videotape, more akin to an art house short, while in the Japanese version the images were more of a random ensemble of chaotic clips. The most remarkable difference, one that highlighted the difference between the Hollywood and the Japanese way, was the lack of allusion to ESP (extrasensory perception) powers that some characters possessed.

The Japanese version had its clear differences with the books as well. The film Rasen, follows more faithfully the story originally written by Suzuki Kouji, which ironically, was the main factor that doomed the movie to failure. The Japanese didn’t really like Suzuki’s vision, they wanted the vision of Takahashi Hiroshi.

It is easy to see the reason behind the aversion to Rasen. The books by Suzuki Kouji are closer to science fiction, and only tread casually around fear and spooks. Subjects like genetics, evolving viruses, metaphysical paradoxes, post apocalyptic scenarios, psychiatric plots, were the actual events behind the Ring books. In the Suzuki universe, Sadako (known as Samara in the U.S. version) was a hermaphrodite with psychic powers. In other words: Ringu, the film, was clearly a ghost story, while Ringu, the book, was a wild, medical sci-fi thriller.

Ring 0: Birthday, was released a year after Ringu 2, intended as a prequel to the first film. The adaptation borrowed heavily from the book, while simultaneously avoiding any deviation from the ghost story setting the populace loved. Takahashi Hiroshi himself wrote the script. Such approach lead to a fundamental flaw in the film: it is hopelessly divided in two very different, uneven parts.

The first part is an intimate look at Sadako, the girl, not the ghost. With muted colors, crushed blacks and a seamless green tint, the first fraction of the film is an authentic masterpiece. A textbook demonstration, like a thesis on the fundamentals of the j-horror. A macabre, harmonious dance of pacing, music, acting, and cinematography, transports the audience gradually into a paranormal world that submerges the viewer in an uncontrollable panic, via deliberate zoom-ins and pans. Although, for most of the movie, scenes usually involve many actors on screen, a sense of loneliness and emptiness pervades the bleak mood the film evokes.

The second part though, focuses on the metaphysical plots that are more akin to the books; although that is not exactly something bad on its own, it is the rushed nature of its approach, that suddenly removes the trance from the audience as the movie becomes some sort of surreal, lively, cheesy drama. When considering the film as a whole, its second phase greatly deprecates the value of the first hour or so.

Regardless, the phenomenon of the Ring transcended worldwide, making movie enthusiasts lust after other j-horror films as well, which lead to highlight a very obvious characteristic: since Ringu, in a way, was the mother of the j-horror genre, subsequent Japanese scary movies borrowed from it; specially the emblematic long black haired girl in a white robe, as other notable films later reused, like The Grudge and Dark Water. Or so it was assumed that way…

On Curses and the Yuurei:

Although, for statistical purposes, Japan is often labeled as either atheist or Buddhist, it is easier to understand the contemporary Japan as a superstitious nation, instead of trying to attach a specific religious belief or method to them.

That superstition derives from the Shinto: in its current form, an amalgamation of indigenous folklore and Buddhism, that in practice doesn’t go beyond small customs, the way funerals are conducted, and excuses for festivals. What also contributes to the confusion by foreigners, regarding to the Japanese stance on religion, is that Shinto is a big influence on, and shape of the Nihonjinron, as the root ideologies of Buddhism and Shinto have profoundly determined the social structure and behavior of Japan. Yet, Shinto, unlike Christianity, doesn’t set a rigorous or even a specific method to comply to its beliefs.

Kami is an umbrella term to refer to spirits, deities, gods, entities, and all sort afterlife and higher than life creatures preached within the Shinto. The uneven approach, by the Japanese, to religion, makes it hard to make a generalized statement, but it could be reasonable to say that for the Japanese, the existence of spirits is a given. And its not in the western way, where the belief is that those that passed away are in heaven, wherever that might be, giving a sense of distance. Shinto establishes that spirits, both the recently deceased and those of previous eras, can maintain a physical form, or manifestation, in the plain of the living. Folklore is filled with legends of constant contact between the living and the spirits, the majority of them, in a positive, benign context.

Japan’s Obon festival, akin to Mexico’s Day of the Death, is a ritual celebrating an annual return of the spirits, with dances and prayers performed in their honor. For a spirit to enjoy this, the proper ritual has to be executed; the ritual being: an honorable funeral.

When that doesn’t happen, when a person dies in shame or rage, through murder or self-murder, when its body is forgotten, lost or desecrated, the spirit is left in unrest. Such as spirit is called a Yuurei.

According to the circumstances and the reasons for the death, the Yuurei manifest themselves in search for a proper release from Earth. This can mean that the ghost will try to attract attention so its body can be found for a proper burial, or for it to reveal the real causes behind its death, cleaning its name or closing a circle or pending business. Once this is done, the Yuurei goes to heaven for a peaceful afterlife.

But in extreme cases, the Yuurei finds a purpose of existence in bitterness and revenge, clinging to Earth, creating a curse. This type of extreme Yuurei, sometimes called Onryo, cannot be reasoned with, it is not looking for closure or release, no ritual can appease the rage and only is looking for others to suffer as greatly as it did.

When, in Kabuki theater, the subject of fear began to be treated, an obvious problem arose. How could ghastly characters be stylized, when the standard look in Kabuki was already pale and dark? The solution was simple and ingenious. Yuurei have been traditionally the spirit of women. The first objective was to make their garments evoke somberness and death; the decision was to use the plain white dresses women used, traditionally, for funerals, to contrast the vivid and colorful vestimentary the rest of the characters used. They could not use the traditional hairstyle for funerals, though, as plain, straight hair was not distinctive enough. The solution was to adopt a disheveled look, with the hair covering the actor’s face, to transmit a sense of enigma.


One Missed Call [2003]

Miike Takashi is a highly respected director, not only in Japan, but around the world. That is why his involvement with One Missed Call generates a lot of debate. Some say the film is a parody, others that it is a satire, many think it was just a cash in, a sector argues it is just a flop.

Its premise certainly invites to dismissal: Young, attractive people receive a cellphone call predicting their death; friends on their contact list inherit the curse.

Seemingly riding on the “curse through technology” bandwagon, the pre-production affair for One Missed Call is certainly peculiar. The screenwriter, Minako Daira, whose fishy C.V. only includes this very same film and its sequels; and Takashi’s apparent lack of involvement in the story, leaves only one man that could be pointed out as the movie’s mastermind: Akimoto Yasushi, who we talked about in Nihonjinron’s previous article. The man behind AKB48, created this franchise, and managed to get Miike Takashi in it.

However, One Missed Call triumphs where every good ghost story needs to: A ghost tale is only as good as its curse, and the story behind it.


Once the film is past the killing spree to prove the power and dangerousness of the curse, the details behind it start to pour in little by little, the movie suddenly becoming a paranormal detective thriller. By the time the events that originated the curse are revealed, the viewer is already way past the parade of gory deaths, and is left with a raw, sorrowful story, so humane and lamentable, that successfully gives meaning to all the previous events in the film. From there, the resolution to the curse (and to the movie,) is attempted in a style that deviates from the usual reactions by the cursed and the yuurei, without breaking the rules of a curse.

Whether it was Miike Takashi fixing, in-production, a cheesy script, allowing it to become something more interesting; or Akimoto Yasushi, actually inspired, but delivering with some obvious flaws, One Missed Call delivers compelling scares through a curse that rings true, thanks to a background story that generates empathy.

Pulse [2001]

Kurosawa Kiyoshi was one of the directors to lead the late 90’s resurgence of the Japanese cinema. With Cure, in 1997, a metaphysical detective thriller, he sketched the contemporary horror style that Sadako would consecrate a year later.

However, Cure wasn’t meant as a scary movie. Kurosawa would address the genre, properly, in 2001, with Pulse.

It strikes as incredible, the circumstances of the film industry at that time. Japan seemed to posses an endless stream of talented directors and writers, delivering one extraordinary film after the other. The “curse through technology” could have easily become a shallow gimmick, within other circumstances. Kurosawa, in Pulse, uses the internet as the medium.

At core, the movie is more of a philosophical thriller with spooks, and that shows as the scary bits relent as the film advances.

Average and bad ghost movies always struggle on establishing their phantoms as really menacing phantoms, so they picture them in strident ways. The ghosts in Pulse, induce instant panic without making a sound or even moving.


Noroi [2005]

Back in 1999, when America was struck by the commotion of the Blair Witch Project, successfully imprinting the found footage style into the worldwide collective consciousness; it arose two main criticisms: the validity of such method, that focuses more on confusing the viewer than on telling an actual story, and the fact that these movies rarely amount to anything, where the genre’s Achilles heel resides in the ending.

Specifically to the Blair Witch Project, big part of the criticism resided in the characters being way more scared than the viewers, since the movie rarely showed anything more than leafs and branches, relying a lot on the viewers self suggestion and self instigation. Noroi, could be called Japan’s Blair Witch Project; not for its impact on society or film history, but because of the actual content. However, Noroi takes horror to levels out of Blair Witch Project’s scope, and possibly of any other film. Horror, as its dictionary definition states: of intense feeling of fear, shock and disgust; while watching this film, you will feel all of these, but mostly fear. Intense, suffocating, overwhelming fear; the most a film can deliver.

Koji Shiraishi is not really a good director or writer. His filmography is filled with sub-par movies and made to order films that are more gratuitous than fulfilling. Noroi itself, is not perfect: the concept and events that conform the film are not new nor original; in that sense, Noroi is not anywhere near groundbreaking.

The movie starts rather unimpressively. After a narrated introduction, the viewer is suddenly shown the found footage that doesn’t really have an impact. The first minutes of Noroi strike as a mediocre paranormal TV show, trying to hook the audience with fishy anecdotes.

With a running time of 115 minutes, it is a movie that takes its time. Particularly lengthy for the found footage genre. With its slow build up, Kobayashi Masafumi is introduced as a paranormal researcher. While the footage shown never really focuses on Kobayashi, the spectator grows increasingly familiar with him, as he, despite his unusual job, strikes as a passionate but serious person, normal and serene.

This, precisely, is the pillar of the movie. Having a non-charlatan, humble, average person in the center of the events, allows the other characters to come forward as real persons, as well.

Interestingly, when remembering Noroi, there is not a specific scene to be remembered as the scariest one. There is not a single big scare in the movie. Its triumph card relies on the uncanniness of Shiraishi when it comes to the found footage style. In its progression, apparently unrelated events sum up to reveal the main plot. The footage is a collection of clips comprehending a large span of time, instead of attempting a faux real time presentation; therefore, there is no meaningless running, no exaggerated camera shake, and doesn’t scare away from editing, so the camera is only on when it makes sense, not bothering with idle scenes that are supposed to show how real the footage is.

The film becomes peculiarly rich when it explores the Shinto mythology, transforming it from a paranormal story to a plain macabre, pagan plot.


“The fear of blood tends to create fear for the flesh”