The global popularity of horror movies reveals something universal and fundamental about humans: we actively seek out frightening themes to intentionally scare ourselves, and we like it! It could be argued that built into this patently peculiar behavior is simple human curiosity and a strong interest in “the unknown.” Insidiously intriguing, the unknown also prompts us to be cautious, sceptical, and downright fearful. Perhaps then it is the amplification of fear that makes the flavors of foreign horror so tempting and appealing, as if adding more unknown will amplify our thrill.
Defining what Japanese horror adds to this and why it is so popular overseas is a challenge. Most Japanese horror films revolve around universally human circumstances, but they often invoke specifically Japanese narratives that question society at large: group harmony, adherence to the norm, and a nuanced understanding of cultural context, to name a few. Further setting them apart, Japan’s scary movies often include supernatural themes and the actions of onryo, vengeful spirits who occasionally inflict their wrath with a technological twist. Nevertheless, the extra helping of scariness that comes from these films holds undeniable appeal for audiences around the world, and this popularity has even given rise to a new genre: J-Horror. Below you’ll find three of the best known and highly regarded examples in the world of Japanese fear on film.
photo: Ju-On: The Final Curse
We humans often resist forgiveness; we struggle to forget, to let go, to move on — in other words, we hold a Grudge, and that is naturally fertile ground for the horror genre and an easily translatable concept.
What made Juon’s narrative unique and compelling was that the titular grudge, acted out by vengeful spirits, was powered by the energy created in the wake of horrific human behavior. In this case, the act was a husband’s jealousy-fueled murder of his wife (Kayako) and probably his son (Toshio), in addition to killing the family cat — all of which took place at a single location. That place, the family home, absorbed and amplified this terrible energy, and, using the spirits of those who were killed, refocused the hate and rage on a succession of new victims unfortunate enough to come near. With each victim, each successive act of horror, that place of evil became stronger, further fueling the vengeful spirits.
In adapting this film for an American audience, the title did not require a complicated interpretation: “juon,” is directly translatable as “a grudge.” Although it was rewritten for an American audience — including changing the setting slightly to welcome a leading actress from overseas (Sarah Michelle Gellar), and a foreign professor Kayako falls in love with that eventually causes her death — the remake retained the general themes and non-linear storytelling of the original, in addition to the Japanese setting and the original film’s director.
Juon was already a franchise in Japan, and The Grudge, a massive financial success in the U.S., earning $187 million against a $10 million budget, also spawned a number of sequels and tie-in media.
Main Cast: Airi Taira,Nozomi Sasaki,Ren Kiriyama Director: Masayuki Ochiai
Not only is it often difficult to find the words to describe why something or someone is unsettling or frightening, it’s occasionally comical. The notion of a “slow-walking, disheveled teenage girl in a nightgown with a really bad hairdo” doesn’t sound very scary or even compelling on paper, but the iconic visage of that character, Ring’s Sadako, is unquestionably creepy and unsettling, probably across all cultures.
As a character, Sadako remains the most enduringly frightening part of Ring, but this isn’t a monster movie. The original film has a complicated plot involving the persecution and humiliation of a mother and daughter who claimed supernatural powers, their gruesome revenge, and, like our previous entry, an enduring curse powering spirits with the terrible energy of past brutality. Unlike Juon, however, this film’s curse is transferrable across both time and space by a very era-specific technological means: the VHS tape. Briefly put, one watches the VHS tape, one immediately gets a disturbing phone call, and then, seven days later, one dies, leaving a face unnaturally twisted by a fear so extreme that it’s fatal.
The American remake, The Ring (starring Naomi Watts), veered slightly off the plot established by its Japanese predecessor, but not too far. Most of the changes were in the backstory of Samara (né Sadako), her mother, and the original reasons for Samara’s murder. Interestingly, Samara climbing out of a video and through a television screen to attack her victim did not hit American audiences nearly as hard as Sadako doing the same in the original film. In the American version, it was just another creepy scene, but in Japan it’s become a fully formed, universally recognized horror meme.
The original film also saw considerable international distribution, and is unquestionably the leader in terms of internationally successful Japanese horror films. In Japan, Ring eventually spawned an entire franchise, and in the U.S., The Ring, which earned $249.3 million against a budget of $48 million, did the same.
Main Cast: Nanako Matsushima,Hiroyuki Sanada,Miki Nakatani Director: Hideo Nakata
3.ONE MISSED CALL（着信アリ）
photo: ONE MISSED CALL
Based on Yasushi Akimoto’s novel of the same name, Chakushin Ari is another example of supernatural horror at least partially vectored through modern technology. Throughout the film, primary and secondary characters receive chilling voicemails, sometimes from their future selves, essentially informing them of the time and manner of their own impending death. In the wake of these calls, there is a particularly off-putting and bizarre element involving candies of a certain color appearing in victims’ mouths. Parental abandonment, child abuse, and asthma all have roles to play in this film — this should sound like a complicated and convoluted narrative, because it really is. Unsurprisingly, and true to the J-horror genre, the ultimate source of the terror is a vengeful spirit, one who became so for very specific reasons and exacts vengeance in a very specific manner (remember the candies…). Frankly, this movie is pretty weird by any standard…but also weirdly compelling.
In an international collaboration between American, U.K., German, and Japanese interests, Chakushin Ari was remade and distributed in 2008 as One Missed Call. The remake is fairly congruent to the original narrative and even incorporated some footage and sound elements from the original film.
As was the case with the Japanese version, film critics weren’t kind to the remake. However, the original did return $16 million against a $1.7 million budget, and the remake earned $45 million against a $20 million budget. As true connoisseurs are well aware, critical praise is a poor measure of a horror film — it’s what the fans think that really matters. In this case, the fans voted with their yen and dollars, quite decidedly.
Main Cast: Ko Shibasaki,Shinichi Tsutsumi,Kazue Fukiishi,Goro Kishitani,Renji Ishibashi Director: Takashi Miike
At first, it might seem odd or even disturbing that horror films have become a medium for people of disparate cultures and distant geography to find commonality. But if you really think about it, this is actually a rather encouraging phenomenon that in fact highlights common points we all share as human beings. If what scares yous scares me too, we can be friends…and then intentionally, recreationally frighten and disturb ourselves with horror movies. From this point of view, Japanese horror films are a demonstrably effective means of fostering international relations and understanding!