In Japan, they know how to do scary.
It's been said many times that love is the universal language. It's also been said that laughter is the universal language. One thing that has not been said so often, which is just as true, is that fear is another universal language. While the outer manifestations of what we all consider scary might vary, the core elements remain the same.
In Japanese horror, entities beyond our wildest imagination live among us and may stride into our lives and wreak havoc at any time.
And so it is no surprise at all to find a host of terrifying offerings in One Hundred Years of Cinema's beautifully researched new video essay on the history of Japanese horror films. Watch the video and read our takeaways, below.
What is Japanese horror?
The essayist starts off by offering two solid bases for Japanese horror films. One is the idea of kaidan, or weird tales; these stories may smack slightly of fables, but really they're just tales of encounters with the denizens of the imagination, occasionally with a moral bent to them.
The other root of Japanese horror named here is Japanese theater, namely noh and kabuki drama. Noh plays were highly dramatized, mystical productions that often incorporated elements of the supernatural; kabuki plays were slightly wilder, more imaginative productions involving elaborate puppets. When you blend all of these sources into one work, the result can be remarkable; and as you'll see when you watch the clips the essayist provides, the overwhelmingly scary feeling you get when watching these films is that entities beyond our wildest imagination live beside us and among us at all times, and may, wholly unannounced, stride into our lives and wreak havoc. Here are some prime examples:
Tales of Ugetsu (1953)
After early, stark, surreal films like Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan and A Page of Madness came this eerie, unsettling film about a man who marries a ghost; it was a milestone in Japanese cinema, both because it was notably more frightening than the movies that came before it and because it taught viewers around the world about the Japanese attitude toward the supernatural. It was followed by such spooky films as Kaidan, The Mansion of the Ghost Cat, and Jigoku. These films, while they were certainly scary, also tell a lot about the nature of Japanese society, which was transitioning to democracy after centuries of monarchy.
Gojira was Inspired by a real-life event, in which a small fishing boat, filled with passengers, was trapped too close to the fallout from a nuclear bomb test. From that point forward, more or less, the threat of nuclear bombs became the major fear of the Japanese people, and their films reflected it.
Gojira broke the ground for this kind of film: the basic story is that a nuclear blast awakens a gigantic monster named Gojira, who proceeds to destroy everything in his path. Gojira was the precursor of the American Godzilla; both the Japanese and the American film spawned a host of sequels. Many of the films that followed in Gojira's wake were, indeed, driven by nuclear war fear—but their horror also grew out of a sense that wa, or harmony, had been disrupted. In one particularly gruesome example, Matango, a group of shipwrecked sailors live on mushrooms on a strange island, only to find that the mushrooms have a devastating and ultimately fatal effect on their bodies, disfiguring them in ways that resemble (too closely) the effects of radiation on the skin.
"Pink Movies" bucked prior Japanese film codes, which forbade female nudity of any kind.
The Pink Movie
The "pink movie" subgenre was, in essence, an injection of the sex, nudity, raunchy costumes, and overblown acting we commonly associate with sexploitation into the moody, off-kilter quality Japanese horror films typically possessed—a memorable mix! Films like Female Yakuza Tale (1973), Stray Cat Rock: Machine Animal (1970), Go, Go, Second Time Virgin (1969), and Assault! Jack the Ripper (1976), were unlike anything seen before in Japanese cinema or, for that matter, any cinema. The first of these films was Daydream (1964), a sadomasochistic dream narrative. The films bucked, fairly aggressively, prior Japanese film codes, which forbade female nudity of any kind.
The Erotic Ghost Film
The garishness of one genre gave way to the subtlety of another as, during the late 1960s, Japanese horror was dominated by more easily identifiable ghost films, often with a sexual or erotic undertone. Films like Onibaba and Kuroneko were visually striking mixtures of gothic elements (i.e. historical settings, loaded narratives, romantic abandonment) and frank eroticism.
The Bold 1970s
A severed arm flying out of a piano. Snakes falling into a glass elevator. Blood spewing from a face covered with white paint. These were just some of the jarring and exciting images in Japanese horror films of the 1970s, which benefited from relaxed aesthetic guidelines regarding sex, nudity, drugs, violence, and all the things which make modern horror films what they are. Some of the standouts during this time were Lake of Dracula, Hausu, and Shogun's Sadism, all redolent with wild visual punch.
The Gory 1980s
The next decade continued the tradition established in the 1970s, but because the films were seemingly geared more towards ticket sales and less towards aesthetic experience, the '80s is historically recognized as high on gore but low on substance. (Though some, I'm sure, might disagree.) Hits? Guzoo (complete with a serpent writhing out of a woman's mouth), Biotherapy, and the Guinea Pig series (featuring a fairly rigorous self-disembowelment) were all notables.
The gory films of the 80s took a radical step forward with 'Tetsuo: The Iron Man.'
Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989)
The gory films of the 80s took a radical step forward with this black-and-white film about a man who has parts of his body replaced with machine parts; beyond being a visually captivating and violent drama, the film pushed the metaphorical aspect of the story, offering an allegory for the dangers of technological progress when it outpaces moral fortitude.
Ringu and Beyond
The Japanese ancestor of American horror film The Ring, Ringu tells the by-now familiar story of a lethal videotape; what viewer who's seen the film could forget the shrunken figure of a girl, matted hair over her face, crawling out of a well? And then what that image leads to? This film was one of the most successful Japanese horror films ever, and its American remake was a huge hit as well. Films such as Dark Water, which saw a successful American remake, were also modern milestones.
What are your favorite Japanese horror films? Let us know in the comments!