Japanese Horror Movies Reflections of Cultural Folklore

Jeff Sheng

By Jeff ShengMaroon-News Staff

There are scenes that define horror movies: when Norman Bates opens the shower curtain in Psycho, when Reagan turns her head 360 degrees in The Exorcist, and when Samara crawls out of the television in The Ring, we were truly terrified; that is, if we hadn’t already shut our eyes. These are memories that scarred and tormented us for many sleepless nights, and for some inexplicable reason, these are the memories that drove horror-goers back to the theatres last week for The Grudge (Ju-On). Though it may seem that Japanese horror movies have only recently started crawling into TV sets, or should I say out of TV sets across the U.S., The Ring and The Grudge are only the tip of the iceberg for the emergence of Japanese horror films. There has long been a devoted underground following of Asian horror cinema that has brooded under the soft underbelly of American pop culture. But what is it that makes J-horror so attractive and appealing? You can say that it was only a matter of time before one of the major production companies would say, “Hey, this scared the crap out of me; maybe it will scare the crap out of everyone!” Asian horror films have always had a nest here in the land of Hollywood. While American horror classics range from King Kong to The Sixth Sense, with a whole slew of bloody dead bodies in between, Japanese horror cinema provides a refreshing breath into a much exhausted slasher trend in recent American horror. It is unfair however, to say that films like Scream and Psycho did not frighten us, but avid horror fans need something new and exciting, something that taps deeper into the psyche, and they find it in Japan. In the land of the rising sun, ritual, culture, and tradition are highly prioritized in every-day orthopraxy. From its food, customs, and entertainment, we can see the complex culture that has been woven into Japanese life. Part of that intricate culture is the preservation of folklore. You may call it lucky (or unlucky) that the Japanese have good ghost stories. Either way, we can see a reflection of these ghost stories in their modern films that America is beginning to love. In that sense, Japanese horror has taken horror movies back to the beginning, where folkore of goblins and stories of ghosts genuinely scared us. Movies like Audition, Battle Royale, Kairo, Suicide Club, Ju On, and Cure are only a few of some of the most successful J-horror films that have followed such formulas. Japanese horror movies are not about the amount of blood and gore splashed on screen, but rather the psychological makeup of the story. A pattern existent in many of the scary Japanese movies is that the characters, settings, and storylines are about average people like you and me. Trend Central reports, “By incorporating creepy modern urban legends and authentic popular culture fears, Japanese horror flicks focus on the surreal haunting of ordinary people.” Thus, much of the scare-factor in J-horror films is already submersed in the culture from which it comes. Customary Japanese ghost stories have proven that certain formulas work when it comes to scares. For instance, The Ring was derived from the famous folklore Bancho sara-yashiki (The Story of Okiku). It tells of a woman who one day, while cleaning the family’s treasure of ten ceramic plates, breaks them by accident. In a fury, the housemother kills her and throws the woman into a well. Every night since, the ghost of the woman climbs out of the well, and?-yeah I think you know how it goes down after that. Similarly, The Grudge is also based loosely on a common genre of ghosts in Japanese folklore called Yuurei. These are ghosts who usually die in a heat of anger, intense emotion, anguish, or sorrow. They usually are female and are often depicted dressed in a white kimono with a triangular headband on their head. They usually have no legs, long black hair, and they crawl (beginning to sound familiar?) There are also traditional Japanese ghosts: there are Oni, which are ghouls or goblins; Kappa, which are water creatures who, depending on their mischievous nature can help people or kill them; Rokurokubi, which are slender females with elongated necks that can extend to frighten or spy on people; Hitotsume-Kozou which are one eyed goblins; and Yuki-Onna which are snowmen in white kimonos that appear on stormy nights and cause travelers to lose direction and, in turn, freeze to death. Japanese ghost stories are passed down from generation to generation, not so much for the sake of tradition, but rather because of the plain truth that they scare people. When asked how they come up with storylines and character designs during interviews with directors Hideo Nakata, Takashi Shimizu, and Takashi Miike, three of the biggest names in j-horror, they reveal that writing horror becomes natural to them because they know what scares them, and they know that folklores possess an immortal effect over generation after generation since what stimulates human fear is rather unchanging. By borrowing from cultural cues, Japanese horror has tapped into the psyche of American fans as well. In the tradition of great horror writers like Edgar Allan Poe, Japanese horror seems to have taken a step back and capitalized on the days when a truly scary fright fest was a good ghost story. By capturing elements that give life to the folklore of Japanese culture, directors have planted those very scare-factors into modern-day films, and, in turn, scare viewers to death. It seems that we love Japanese horror, we love being scared, and we want more of it. Now, all we have to do is find out whether those folklores are based on fact or fiction …