There is something about Japanese horror movies that is just inherently freaky. It almost doesn’t matter what culture you were raised in, J-horror is guaranteed to curdle your blood.
Why is that? What is it that our Western society responds to so strongly in these tales lifted from traditional Japanese ghost stories and lore? Though there are plenty of reasons to be afraid, what I find so fascinating (and often terrifying) is the portrayal of female archetypes throughout these stories and how that translates to the big screen.
Japanese folklore has a thing for yūrei (ghosts). I mean, they are everywhere. This has to do with beliefs about death and death practices. The traditional belief is that all humans have a spirit that goes on after they pass away, sticking around to watch over their living family. The Japanese are therefore very respectful of the dead, so proper funereal rites must take place to honor their deceased loved ones. If the person dies suddenly or violently, they might become a yūrei, a ghost who can bridge back into the physical world with a mission.
The onryō is possibly the most feared type of yūrei; the vengeful spirit whose death leaves them ready to take out their revenge on just about anyone who gets in the way. Though these ghosts can be men or women, the most commonly portrayed type tend to be women.
One main reason why: these unruly, uncoordinated beings embody the complete opposite (or should I say disembody? Come on, now that is a good pun!) of how well-bred Japanese women are supposed to appear. They should have neat hair pulled into a tidy bun, move gracefully, and be beautiful and obedient. So, when they appear with long, unkempt hair; jerky movements; and supernatural powers, these ghosts become a symbol of female power unleashed, and you can just imagine how that terrifies the patriarchy.
Obviously, the major breakout film of the early 2000s J-horror boom was Hideo Nakata’s Ringu (1998) based on the Koji Suzuki book of the same title. Sadako’s dirty white dress, face obscured by long hair, dangling hands, and jagged walk—all classic onryō features!—brought on a craze of “dead wet girl” stories, including the successful Americanized Ring franchise. You can even see features of the onryō in other American films—remember the creepy ghost from the flooded basement in The Conjuring 2?
Traditionally, the onryō can be exorcised by helping them fulfill their purpose, which makes the ending of Ringu all the more interesting—and terrifying. I’ll personally always be partial to the original movie, though the American update manages to hang on to the slow, gruesome darkness that feels so inevitable, like it can and will happen to just about anybody.
Also check out:
- Dark Water, dir. Hideo Nataka (2002)
- Exte (Hair Extensions), dir. Sion Sono (2007)
- Ju-on (The Grudge), dir. Takashi Shimizu (2002)
- Kairo (Pulse), dir. Kiyoshi Kurosawa (2001)
- Noroi (The Curse), dir. Kōji Shiraishi (2005)
- One Missed Call, dir. Takashi Miike (2003)
To complement your J-horror, how about some excellent Japanese horror books in translation? Read on right here.