The ExPat Returneth

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Japanese Horror Films

Looking for a horror flick to watch for Halloween? Consider a Japanese version this year.

Horror stories and haunted houses are very popular in Japan, particularly around Obon, a time in August when the spirits of your ancestors are supposed to return to earth for a visit. Not too different than the origins of our Halloween. However, Japanese ghost stories are very different than our own, so their haunted houses don't rely on zombies and serial killers bearing chain saws. You're more likely to see obake, supernatural creatures that shapeshift into creatures like a one-eyed boy or a woman with long hair and a blackened mouth. Ghosts are often depicted as having white skin; long, disheveled black hair; and floating because of their lack of legs.

Years ago we rented the movie KWAIDAN, an anthology of four Edo-era Japanese folktales. Made in 1964, the movie literally means "Ghost Story" and won Special Jury Prize at Cannes Film Festival in 1965. This classic is a great Halloween movie to watch if you're looking for something more arty than "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" but still want some goosebumps.

Many Japanese ghost stories (Kaidan) are based on the ideas of revenge, wrath, and curses. According to Wikipedia, Japanese ghosts are more powerful in death than in life and you often see particularly powerless people, like women and servants, becoming vengeful ghosts. Hence, the abundance of female spirits with the bad hair. Sometimes they want revenge against the people who tormented them in life, sometimes they're so ticked off they'll kill everyone. Often times, there's also a water element involved because of the religious symbolism of water as a pathway to the underworld.

Modern Japanese horror (J-horror) movies still have these elements. I think because the horror motifs are very Eastern, unfortunately they don't always translate to a Western screen. IGN rated many of these movies in their Top Ten Worst and Best Asian Remakes. However, the original Japanese movies remain popular and much better than the Hollywood remakes.

Four popular Japanese movies remade for Hollywood, (three of these made IGN's worst Asian remakes) all carry these vengeful ghost and curse motifs. You can also find water symbolism in them. Skip the remakes, though, and go for the original.

Another horror film about a girl with bad hair
THE RING (RINGU, 1-3): After watching an evil video tape, the viewer mysteriously dies seven days later. (An interesting list of Ringu facts can be found at Geordie Japan).

DARK WATER (DARK WATER): When a divorced mother and her child move into a rundown apartment, a mysterious leak reveals a haunting.

3. THE GRUDGE (JU-ON, 1-2): A haunted house with a vengeful ghost.

4. ONE MISSED CALL (CHAKUSHIN ARI, 1-3): A group of college students die mysteriously after receiving voicemail from their future selves.

If you're more into serial killers than ghosts, there's plenty of those in J-Horror, too. Revolver Magazine described 2011's COLD FISH as a "totally bent Asia extreme serial-killer cinema at its best–equal parts disturbing and blackly comic." (They also recommend the Korean serial killer film, I SAW THE DEVIL).

Tofugu has a Top 10 Japanese Horror Film list that's fun to check out. DARK WATER, ONE MISSED CALL 1 and 2, and THE GRUDGE all made their list.

Do you have a favorite Japanese Horror Film? What scary Asian movies would you put in your top ten horror films?

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