One of the most beloved and influential subgenres of modern horror is J-horror, or Japanese horror. Movies like years 1998 Ringu and 2004 The Grudge were redone by American studios. Japanese horror tends to focus less on slasher-style gore. Instead, it creates psychological tension, allowing terror to live primarily in the imaginations of viewers. J-horror has its roots in Japanese folklore known as Youkai, with most of the early films in the genre drawing inspiration from classic kaidan, or ghost stories. Now that we are aware of its chilling origins, let’s take a journey through some of the stars of classic Japanese horror cinema.
A page of madness /Kurutta Ichipeiji, 1926 (dir. Teinosuke Kinugasa)
Thought lost for nearly forty-five years, this silent horror film is the product of avant-garde Japanese artists known as Shinkankakuha. Avoiding a more naturalistic portrayal, the film uses unsettling visuals, including some of the strangest masks you’ll ever see, to leave a lasting impact on audiences. Set in an isolated asylum in the countryside, we follow a janitor as his unstable relationship with his wife begins to interfere with his ability to do his job. When first released in 1926, the film used benshi, a popular storytelling that often featured beloved poets telling the story to audiences. Today you can find versions with or without narration, both of which are equally disturbing.
Ugetsu, 1953 (dir. Kenji Mizoguchi)
Based on the 1776 book of the same name by Ueda Akinari, Ugetsu is an example of Japanese Jidaigeki ghost story (period). In this ethereal and downright frightening film, Masayuki Mori plays GenjÅ«rÅ, a potter who ignores the warnings of a respected sage not to seek profit during this time of upheaval. Leaving his wife and child on the shore, GenjÅ«rÅ ââseeks a new market for his wares. In doing so, he falls under the spell of a mysterious nobleman named Lady Wakasa (Machiko KyÅ). We later learn that Wakasa is a spirit who has returned to Earth in order to experience love for the first time. Kazuo Miyagawa’s ethereal cinematography transports viewers as effectively as the film transports GenjÅ«rÅ ââitself.
The ghost of Yotsuya / Tokaido Yotsuya kaidan, 1959 (dir. Nobuo Nakagawa)
Find inspiration in Yotsuya Kaidan, a kabuki scenic work adapted more than 30 times, Nakagawa’s film remains one of the most influential of its kind. A story of betrayal, murder and ghostly revenge. The film stars Shigeru Amachi as Iemon Tamiya, a ruthless samurai who spends much of his time murdering people or preparing to murder people in the name of social advancement. Ultimately, the spirits of those he wronged drive the samurai and his co-conspirators mad, allowing the spirits to seek peace after their revenge is over. You can see echoes of this story in later films of the genre.
Jigoku, 1960 (dir. Nobuo Nakagawa)
The last film produced by Shintoho before the studio went bankrupt, Jigoku is notable for its explicit portrayals of tormented figures in hell. Bodies pile up at a breakneck pace in this film, starting with KyÅichi, a Yakuza gang leader who dies when students ShirÅ (Shigeru Amachi) and Tamura (YÅichi Numata) kill him in a hit-and-run. As guilt destroys ShirÅ, Tamura shows no remorse for the incident. Other characters throughout the film suffer a similar guilt for the deaths they caused, some during the war, others in more improper fashions. The rest of the plot gets a bit complicated, but be aware that there are scenes of mass poisoning, suicide, and ultimately torture in Limbo. It’s wild.
Onibaba, 1964 (dir. Kaneto Shindo)
During a civil war in 14th century Japan, along with her son, Kishi, gone to war, an older woman (Nobuko Otowa) and her stepdaughter (Jitsuko Yoshimura) survive by killing samurai who roam their swamp tall grass. , robbing them for anything they can sell. After learning that her son has passed away and her daughter-in-law is having an affair with neighbor Hachi (Kei SatÃ´), the older woman tries to scare the younger woman to death with a terrifying mask that she stole from her. ‘one of the dead samurai. The atmosphere of this spooky folk tale is heightened by Hikaru Hayashi’s frenzied score and the striking nighttime footage of cinematographer Kiyomi Kuroda.
Kwaidan, 1965 (dir. Masaki Kobayashi)
Kwaidan is a spelling of the Japanese term for ghost stories, which is the perfect title for this anthology movie. Inspired by Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Stranger Things, a 1904 compilation of folk tales by Lafcadio Hearn, Kobayashi’s film is made up of four spooky stories. In “Black hairâAn intriguing swordsman who divorces his wife to get married for money finds himself entangled in a corpse. “The Snow Woman,“has two carpenters who see their lives changed forever after meeting Yuki-onna, or the snow spirit. In”Hoichi the Earless,âA blind musician must make a pact with the spirits for his life. The final story, “In a cup of teaâ, Finds a horrific apparition in a teacup that terrifies everyone who looks at it.
Another’s face / Tanin no Kao, 1966 (dir. Hiroshi Teshigahara)
Based on a 1964 novel by KÅbÅ Abe, Teshigahara merges the traditions of J-horror with the artful cinema of the Japanese New Wave. Tatsuya Nakadai plays Engineer Okuyama, whose face is disfigured in an industrial accident and then receives a realistic mask to wear. Warned that the mask could change his personality, Okuyama tells his wife that he is on a business trip and begins to live a new life as a new man. As the film progresses, Okuyama’s personality indeed changes, slowly descending to a life of violence and perversion.
Genocide / Konchu daisenso, 1968 (dir. Kazui Nihonmatsu)
Blending horror and science fiction, Nihonmatsu’s film is a perfect example of Tokusatsu, the Japanese term for live-action movies that rely heavily on special effects. As a group of soldiers carry a hydrogen bomb, they are attacked by a swarm of killer insects. Wonderfully cheesy highs are mixed with gruesome action. For those who enjoy a slice of weird apocalyptic cinema, it doesn’t get much more unique than this.
Goke, Body Thief from Hell / Kyuketsuki Gokemidoro, 1968 (dir. Hajime Sato)
Another Tokusatsu classic, in Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell, passengers of a downed plane come face to face with an alien determined to own both their body and their soul. This luscious apocalyptic thread features some amazingly raw Michio Mikami special effects, also balancing vampire tropes with B-movie flying saucer vibes. There’s really nothing quite like this movie.
Yabu no Naka no Kuroneko, 1968 (dir. Kaneto Shindo)
An example of KaibyÅ, or fictional monster cat, the film’s title in Japanese is literally “a black cat in a bamboo grove”. Cats are frequent figures in Japanese folklore, including a spirit known as the bakeneko, which can change shape. Interestingly, âYabu no nakaâ is also an idiom that denotes a mystery that is difficult to unravel. Set in feudal Japan during a civil war, the story concerns the onryÅ, or vengeful spirits, of a woman and her daughter-in-law who were raped and murdered by a ruthless band of samurai. Demanding their revenge by posing as fancy ladies, they seduce and slowly kill any samurai they meet, tearing their throats apart like wild cats. The women’s revenge pact is threatened when they meet their husband / son, who has himself become a samurai.
The Living Skeleton / KyÅ«ketsu Dokurosen, 1968 (dir. Hiroshi Matsuno)
Mixing kaidan tropes, doppelganger thrillers, mad scientist movies and tokusatsu, Matsuno’s film focuses on a sleepy seaside town where a ship sinks after being ransacked by pirates. Years later, after a Catholic priest (Masumi Okada) offers shelter to Saeko (Kikko Matsuoka) when his twin sister Yoriko (also Matsuoka) goes missing at sea, Saeko discovers the submerged ship and its doomed passengers. Saeko must fight a supernatural bond with the living dead in order to save his own life.
Under the cherry blossoms / Sakura no mori no mankai no shita, 1975 (dir. Masahiro Shinoda)
Affirming himself as one of the mavericks of the Japanese New Wave, Masahiro Shinoda’s foray into horror is deeply unsettling. Based on a novel by Ango Sakaguch, the film follows a humble mountain dweller who falls under the spell of a woman he meets in an enchanted forest. In order to prove his devotion to her, he marries and murders a succession of seven women. Composer Toru Takemitsu’s atonal score reinforces the beautiful eerie atmosphere of this bloody romance.
Hausu, 1977 (dir. Nobuhiko Obayashi)
One of the craziest movies ever made, the iconic Obayashi Hausu follows a schoolgirl who convinces six classmates to accompany her to her sick aunt in her isolated rural estate. Faced with a myriad of supernatural forces, including a truly alluring wizarding cat, the girls are slowly devoured by the house, one by one. Obayashi specifically created the special effects to make it look like a child created them, which adds to the original charm of the film. Although originally ravaged by critics, the film captured a cult following and is now considered one of the greatest Japanese films of all time.