Twenty years ago, people packed theaters to watch a couple of Japanese teenagers view a strange videotape and soon after receive an ominous phone call with a cryptic message: “Seven days.”
Hideo Nakata’s 1998 film “Ringu” (known as “The Ring” overseas) was just one of a number of films — Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s “Cure” (1997), Takashi Miike’s “Audition” (1999), Takashi Shimizu’s “Ju-on: The Grudge” (2002) — that brought terror to cinemas around the world under the label of “J-horror” around the turn of the century.
Unlike the horror flicks of Hollywood, with their voracious zombies and inhuman serial killers, J-horror was typically populated by vengeful female ghosts who would attack their victims with single-minded implacability. The roots of such characters lay in kaidan, ghost stories from Japan’s past.
J-horror, however, was very much of the present, often incorporating modern technology: the haunted videotape in “Ringu,” said to kill anyone who watches it, or the PC from 2001’s “Kairo” (“Pulse”).
Chills also came from run-of-the-mill items, such as the cigarette lighter the soft-voiced killer flicks in front of his transfixed victims in “Cure,” or settings like the suburban home full of evil in “Ju-on.” Protagonists were ordinary Japanese, though many met anything-but-ordinary ends.
One herald of the J-horror boom was “Scary True Stories,” a three-part straight-to-video series directed by Norio Tsuruta that was released in 1991-92. Based on “true stories” submitted by readers to a horror comic, the films were omnibuses with Chiaki Konaka serving as scriptwriter on all three installments. Somewhat unknown overseas, Tsuruta has directed many other horror films and is known locally as the father of J-horror.
The mix of ancient and modern, the supernatural and the quotidian, made for a killing at the box office. Nakata and Shimizu went to Hollywood to direct remakes of their own horror hits, while in Japan, producer Takashige Ichise began cranking out a series of similar films complete with vengeful curses and dead kids with white faces. Audiences began to tire of the sameness and the genre eventually retreated back to the fringes of the industry, like a vampire heading back to its coffin as the sun comes up.
J-horror was more than just a blip in this country’s cinematic lineage, however, as Japanese movies have been frightening audiences for more than a century. Not much is known about such early horror titles as “Shinin no Sosei” (“Resurrection of a Corpse”) and “Bake Jizo” (“Jizo the Spook”), both from 1898, or “Botan Doro” (“The Tale of the Peony Lantern”) from 1910.
The last of those three was based on a an old Chinese ghost story and remade six more times by 1937, though these versions are all lost. Later “Peony Lantern” films from the postwar years and on can still be seen, however. The story tells of a young man who falls in love with the beautiful Otsuyu, who is later revealed to be a ghost. Despite dire warnings, he soon joins her on the other side.
Otsuyu is one of a trio of female ghosts referred to as sandai yūrei (the “big three ghosts”), who have served as macabre muses for dozens of kaidan films. The others are Okiku, a servant girl who ended up at the bottom of a Himeji Castle well after a dish went missing, and Oiwa, a loyal wife who was betrayed, poisoned and finally killed by her cheating samurai husband. These three have their spooky descendants in such present-day ghosts as Sadako (“Ringu”) and Kayako (“Ju-on”).
Prior to World War II, films featuring ghosts and other eerie entities were a popular if lightly regarded genre. After the war, with the rise of Japan’s studio system and its insatiable appetite for product, kaidan became fodder for program pictures — films churned out cheap and quick in a standard genre template.
The most influential creators of these films was Nobuo Nakagawa (1905-84). After directing movies in a variety of genres, he became Shintoho’s master of horror during the studio’s brief heyday in the 1950s. Fond of mash-ups that flouted genre conventions, Nakagawa inserted a Western-style vampire in his 1959 shocker “The Lady Vampire” — a first for a Japanese film. Played by Shintoho regular Shigeru Amachi, the blood-sucking savage is a dandyish painter of portraits who’s allergic to moonlight rather than the usual sunlight.
Nakagawa’s masterpiece, however, was his follow-up in the same year, “Ghost Story of Yotsuya” — known to locals as “Yotsuya Kaidan” and featuring big-three ghost Oiwa. Amachi starred again, this time as Oiwa’s husband, who wants to have her killed so he can marry a rich heiress. The film’s stand-out performance, however, came from Katsuko Wakasugi. As Oiwa, she runs the gamut of emotions — from unquestioning love for her husband to heart-rending shock as she watches her face dissolve from poison. The film’s creepy color photography, particularly the sickly greens and grisly reds, adds to the impact.
Internationally speaking, Kenji Mizoguchi’s 1953 film “Ugetsu” is the best-known kaidan film. Based on a collection of adapted Chinese and Japanese ghost stories first published in 1776, it tells the story of two men — one eager to become a samurai, the other aiming to get rich selling pottery — who fall victim to their desires (or delusions) despite the best efforts of their wives to bring them to their senses. The potter, Genjuro, is lured by the mysterious Lady Wakasa to her palatial home — only to learn (too late) that she’s a ghost.
Filmed with an unearthly beauty and pathos, “Ugetsu” conveys, better than any other film, why kaidan have haunted the collective imagination of the Japanese for so many centuries and in various forms of media. And if you need more chills, try strolling down a quiet Tokyo lane on Halloween night. That ethereal-looking woman in a kimono floating from the other direction has a well she’d like to show you.