In the midst of the Covid-19 lockdown, Andrew Carroll went on a J-Horror binge, with some movies of the movement currently available to stream on Shudder.
Everyone that has seen it remembers it. A TV flickers on of its own accord. As the only person in the room watches a still, bluish-grey image of a well appear. Slowly, jerkily a female figure clad in a white robe with dark hair covering her face pulls herself out of the well. Just as she pulled herself out of the well, the young woman with pale skin, drenched hair and clothes and bloodshot eyes will pull herself out of the TV. A short time later the only witness to this event will be found dead in a pool of stagnant well water with their fingers bent into claws and a rictus grimace of fear frozen on their face.
The scene is from Ring, the vanguard of the Japanese horror or J-Horror wave that struck western cinemas at the turn of the millennium. The sequence of Sadako (Rie Ino) pulling herself out of the well has been redone and remade and parodied countless times over the last two decades but its power is undiminished. Japanese society was moving into the modern world but it brought its ghosts with it and in a short period of time these vengeful spirits, furious demons and cyclical curses would change horror as the West understand it.
J-Horror for Beginners: Tradition Meets Technology
The vengeful women-in-white, grudge-holding child spirits and destructive demons might all be angry but they’re not stupid. They know that rather than languishing in the past they too must adapt to the modern world if they want to continue wreaking havoc on the living. The likes of Ring and Ju-On: The Grudge understand this well and in a way that’s easily translated across language and cultural barriers. The cursed videotape of Ring is an especially cruel way of replicating Sadako’s curse again and again but it’s Ju-On: The Grudge that uses technology in more intelligently evil ways.
The multiple intersecting storylines of Ju-On can be occasionally confusing – especially due to its non-linear narrative slipping, seemingly at random, between past and present with only characters’ names on title cards denoting the change. Still, the scares are so good and inventive without being cheap that it ceases to matter. One sequence has Hitomi Tokunaga (Misaki Ito), sister of the owner of the house where the enraged ghosts reside, tricked by the ghosts of Kayako (Takako Fuji) and Toshio (Yuya Ozeki) by means of CCTV, her landline and eventually her mobile phone. Of course it ends with the character taking refuge in the safest of all spaces; under the covers. But when a ghost can manipulate who you hear over the phone, a duvet means nothing and Hitomi is dragged screaming into oblivion.
Of all the technology common to J-Horror, phones are the ones that get the most mileage. As soon as Sadako’s cursed tape is watched the phone rings and when answered a voice rasps “Seven days…”. The use of phones in Ju-On is pretty much guaranteed misery but they really came to the fore and into modernity (at the time) with Takashi Miike’s One Missed Call.
The prolific director’s film about college students receiving calls from their future selves moments before their death might feel like a rehash of Ring and Ju-On. In fact, it very much was. Yet, the use of mobile phones, specifically the flip phones so popular in 2003, put J-Horror’s obsession with technology on the cutting edge of that tech. At least it seemed that way. However, two years before one of Japan’s greatest horror directors had gotten there already with an even newer form of technology.
Intermediate J-Horror: New Nightmares of the Modern Age
The early internet was an empty place compared to the endless landscape we know now but what if that emptiness manifested in the real world? Outlandish as it sounds horror master Kiyoshi Kurosawa – no relation to Akira – and his film Pulse took the new millennium fears of the internet to apocalyptic ends. Pulse centred on a group of computer science students in Tokyo as well as a slacker with no real tech knowledge and the curse discovered by both parties.
It begins with a virus taking over computers and asking, “Would you like to see a ghost?” before luring those foolish enough to respond to directions into rooms sealed by red tape and haunted by lurching, blurred figures. As more and more of Tokyo’s population disappears it becomes clear that this ghost in the machine isn’t looking for revenge only total annihilation. But the victims of these viral ghosts and online curse are never instantly dragged away via ethernet cable. They’re left to suffer, languishing in a kind of comatose half-life, taking their own lives or disappearing into shadows burnt onto walls and floors. It’s the kind of social disconnection that is emphasised throughout J-Horror by many directors but never better than in Kurosawa’s pre-J-Horror film Cure.
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It’s important to realise that J-Horror is an easy catch-all term for horror of a specifically Japanese variety. Much like Korean cinema has had and is still having its day in the west with thrillers like Oldboy and Parasite so too does J-Horror continue to exist just as it existed before Ring took America and Europe by storm. That’s a long way of justifying why Cure is here but it’s important to note that the Japanese horror genre was fully formed before the first western audiences shrank back in fear as Sadako crawled out of the TV. Cure – one of Parasite director Bong Joon-ho’s favourite films – is a perfect example of this form with its decaying urban spaces, disconnected characters and seemingly senseless deaths rooted in ancient, incomprehensible evil.
Detectives in J-Horror are often side characters; plot devices used to dump exposition on the plucky but frightened heroine or to disbelieve her before they themselves meet a terrifying end. In Cure, Detective Takabe (Koji Yakusho) takes centre stage as he investigates a series of unrelated, random murders linked only by Mamiya (Masato Hagiwara) a young man with a talent for hypnosis.
Kurosawa’s vision of Japan, or Tokyo at least, is decidedly more negative than those of his already nihilistic contemporaries. Spaces in his films are often either strictly utilitarian or rapidly falling to rot and ruin. Characters are often repressed or depressed or both and sometimes this is all that saves them from the ghosts and murderers that haunt his filmography.
Detective Takabe is driven by his work which leaves him little time to care for his mentally ill wife. He is disconnected from anyone and anything else that might offer him relief from his job. His best friend is a consulting psychiatrist and he greets colleagues by asking for updates on cases. This obsession is what saves him from Mamiya’s machinations however as everyone else the ex-student hypnotises has some degree of satisfaction in their lives. Of course, nothing is as it seems and the revelation that Mamiya might be as much of a victim as those he hypnotises hits like a sucker punch. It was J-Horror, fully formed, before we even had a word for it.
Advanced J-Horror: Found Footage and Feral Females
The found footage genre was dead in the water once they decided Paranormal Activity should get a sequel. That’s not to take away from its power as a raw dive into horror that’s up close and personal but it began to feel somehow both overcooked and half-baked around 2010. But just a few short years after The Blair Witch Project made the format in vogue, director and writer Koji Shiraishi would expand it in 2004’s spine-chilling faux documentary Noroi: The Curse.
The problem with found footage is that that’s all it is: footage. Often composed of blurred shapes in night vision mode, long close-ups and shaky chase sequences, there always seemed to be a lack of discipline to the proceedings and while that may have been the initial point the contrivance ultimately wore thin. What Shiraishi did was edit the footage into a comprehensive yet enigmatic documentary including segments taken from fake news bulletins and reality shows. Noroi’s sense of realism, despite the monstrous nature of the curse, is what gives it that sense of absolute dread and made it not just the scariest of that initial J-Horror crop but one of the scariest horror films, ever.
Noroi: The Curse is ostensibly a documentary made by occult expert Masafumi Kobayashi and his trusty cameraman Miyajima (Hisashi Miyajima) on the effects of a wide-ranging curse. The only filmmakers credited are Masafumi and Miyajima and the way it ties elliptical and strange events together is truly stunning to behold. What do dead pigeons, a flooded village, an illegal abortion clinic and a possessed actress have in common? The answer is not what you think but it is far worse than you can ever imagine and the mystery resolves itself in a single, brief shot I’ll probably never shake. Noroi asks first and foremost for patience as it spins out an investigation of nightmarish proportions all through a grainy, lo-fi video aesthetic that is nonetheless clear and clean in every way that matters.
The saying “He who dares wins” is often true within cinema and it proved effective with Shiraishi and Noroi just as it has proven effective, time and again, for Takashi Miike. A director of over 100 films from Yakuza brawl fests to samurai showdowns to family comedies, Miike is unique to Japan. There is no one else like him and nor will there be again. It’s why out of all the horror films to come out of Japan, his own work with 1999’s Audition might be the most ground-breaking. Sure Noroi is the scariest and Cure the best looking but Audition is, like Miike, truly one of a kind. Unlike nearly every other film on this list Audition, Cure and Noroi have never been subject to an American remake but their influence looms largest, nonetheless.
It’s best you go into Audition blind so I’ll give you the basics. Middle-aged widower Shigeharu Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi) is encouraged by his teenage son to look for a new wife. With the help of his film producer friend Yasuhisa (Jun Kunimura) he organises an audition to find a suitable candidate. Approximately 30 women unwittingly take part in the sexist trial thinking it’s for a romance film but Shigeharu has eyes on only one: Asami Yamazaki (Eihi Shiina). Of course the black haired beauty decked out in snow white clothes is far from who she claims to be and Shigeharu will suffer for abusing his privileges as a member of the patriarchal Japanese system.
Audition is, like Asami, never quite what it seems to be. For every woman mistreated in the first half there’s a man abused and tortured in the latter half. For a film that makes such a bold and violent feminist statement its ending turns this on its head. It’s a reflexive movie and it can be read in a number of ways but overall it feels like a fulfilment of J-Horror’s ultimate theme: disconnection. When all other avenues are closed both to humans and supernatural creatures it seems like violence and death is the only answer. Though it was released only a year after Ring, Miike’s film is the more accomplished of the two. There is no need for a cursed videotape or drowned ghost. Only a singularly fucked up relationship is needed for the black, rotten heart to pump corrupted blood through the mangled body Japanese horror cinema.