The release of Ju-On: Origins on Netflix at the beginning of this month revived my interest in a genre I hadn’t thought about much in recent years. The J-Horror genre was my first introduction into Japanese movies just as it was for many others, thanks to the J-Horror boom that saw horror films from Japan make the jump across the pond for limited releases alongside big-budget American remakes. Films like Ju-On: The Grudge and The Ring made themselves known internationally on the back of a unique brand of horror that captured imaginations at home before coming to the West. So influential and well-remembered were these films that you can assume its international name recognition influenced the greenlighting of Ju-On: Origins.
In recognition of the recent Netflix J-Drama TV series, this latest column will cast a look towards the J-Horror genre and in particular the boom period of the late 1990s and early 2000s, discussing the cultural conditions that brought these films into existence and helped them become such enduring hits.
With that, let’s get going.
A Horror Boom with a Long History and Worldwide Impact
What do you think about when you hear about the horror film The Ring? Do you think first of the 2002 American remake, or the 1998 Japanese film Ringu for which the US remake was based upon? How about The Grudge? Do you think about the 2004 American film, or Ju-On, the Japanese cinematic release from 2002? Who knows, maybe you think about the Japanese direct-to-video film from 2000.
While the J-Horror boom consists of more than just these films, if someone were to bring up the genre in conversation, Ju-On or Ringu will inevitably be the first films that come to mind. They’ve become the poster films for a shift in the horror genre both inside and outside of Japan, but you’d be forgiven to think that these films just suddenly came into existence from nothing. To understand why these films were so successful you need to understand the components that make up this film in the first place.
It should be noted that the term ‘J-Horror’ itself is a Western concept and refers mostly to a specific type of Japanese horror that features some sort of vengeful spirit or supernatural creature, often haunting a place or object related to their death. The term has been typically attached to films that fit the slow-burner tension-building horror narratives that can be found in the filmographies of Kiyoshi Kurosawa or the most iconic J-Horror films of the period.
Understanding the term as a Western creation used to help define films like Ringu assists us in understanding why the term is unnecessarily limiting as a descriptor for a genre of film. It works as a marketing term that exoticizes the original film and compartmentalizes the genre into a well-defined box, transforming a cinematic movement into a unique curiosity to gawk at. However, the term unnecessarily restricts what can be defined as J-Horror.
As a result, Japanese horror projects like Takashi Miike’s Audition are discussed in isolation of the J-Horror boom, simply as a result of the lack of supernatural intervention. Much of Miike’s early films could be categorized as horror films (you could classify this and Ichi the Killer as inspirations for ‘torture porn’ horror films that dominated the mid-late 2000s) yet are left out of the J-horror discussion for not falling into this specific categorization.
Audition takes inspiration from the horror films that preceded it in how it distorts color and space to create a sense of unease to the otherwise-standard drama between a sexist producer named Shigeharu Aoyama and Asami Yamazaki until its final act twist. Even if you were to consider Miike’s Audition a Japanese horror film, it wouldn’t be considered a J-Horror film as it doesn’t fit within the confines of the Western-produced term.
Since this article seeks to explore the J-Horror boom that is defined by this Western term, although it’s worth considering how restrictive and reductive J-Horror is as a definition for Japanese horror, the reasons for Audition’s success at home and abroad differ somewhat to the conditions that brought about J-Horror boom, even if the film takes influence from other movies that are a part of the boom.
The origin of what is traditionally considered J-Horror can be traced to the early 1990s with straight-to-video and made-for-TV anthologies like True Scary Stories (本当にあった怖い話) that exists as just one example of a glut of low-budget horror made for home consumption to satiate growing consumption needs that arose with the growing home video market. Stories like these look much further back in Japan’s history for the storytelling inspiration that drove these works.
Direct-to-video films from the beginning of the 1990s such as this tell stories of supernatural ghosts in contemporary settings, but tales of the supernatural can be found throughout Japanese cinematic history. Occasionally producing beloved classics like Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan while often resulting in cheaply made fodder for the release schedule, these derive from folktales about supernatural creatures such as onryo (meaning vengeful spirits). Much of these films are set in Edo-period Japan or earlier.
These tales often derive from the kaidan storytelling tradition about urban legends of supernatural beings in everyday settings and can be found in Japanese storytelling throughout history. Kaidan storytelling can be found in visual mediums that existed long before the birth of the film, with this storytelling style being found in plays in Noh and Kabuki theatre. Kaidan storytelling doesn’t necessarily mean a horror story, but in a modern context has often been used as such.
Modern J-Horror films take inspiration from all these sources when crafting their narratives, and that’s what makes the J-Horror boom so weird. What made Ringu such a success in Japan in 1998, sparking the influx of horror films that followed while simultaneously catching the eyes of Hollywood, was the way it not only spoke to uncertainties many in Japan were feeling at the time of its production but in the familiarity of its storytelling approach.
Low-budget J-Horror films like Ringu partially thanks to how these films modernized and reinvented kaidan storytelling within 1990s Japan. J-Horror matured on the technologically-advanced medium of home VHS tapes that were beginning to invade people’s homes as the genre’s popularity grew.
The format of availability was already a cause for concern, and through mixing these concerns with the unrest that punctuated a period of Japanese history defined by the breaking of the social contract as a result of the economic crash in 1989, films like Ringu tapped into the imagination of Japanese audiences in a way that horror films hadn’t been as successful at achieving before that point.
Alongside simply being a good film, the spirit of Sadako represents the clash between modernity and Japanese tradition, which spoke to those who feared for the country’s future now that modernization was being brought into question as a result of the economic crash
Bringing Ringu to the US removes it from the societal unrest that birthed its existence, forcing an extensive rewrite to contextualize the film within a more familiar political landscape. The Ring copies Sadako’s appearance for the US remake’s Samara without transferring the historical significance to her appearance or the concerns that inspired her existence.
This results in the American film being much more interested in the mechanics of Samara. Also, whereas much of the Japanese movie reflects the societal concerns mentioned above, the US film is less concerned about commenting on American society as a whole, instead interested in the internal family dynamic by shifting the focus far more onto Rachel’s quest to rescue her son.
The J-Horror boom was defined by a string of films that sought to comment on Japan’s post-World War 2 modernization and the impacts of technology on interpersonal communication. By commentating on how technology challenged Japanese tradition and how this reflected on society, the best films in the genre were able to use horror conventions to more widely discuss how modernization was fracturing society and human connection (in the case of another popular J-Horror film from the time, 2001’s Pulse).
J-Horror may no longer be as highly regarded as it once was at home or abroad, though films like Sadako 3D showcase the enduring legacy of older characters while movies like the upcoming Jiko Bukken: Kowai Modori are attempting to use the genre for social commentary. In saying that, despite having Ringu and Dark Water director Hideo Nakata working on that film, I do wonder whether the film will be any good when the trailers remind me of an inferior version of Pulse, except with internet streaming and the voyeuristic gaze for extreme material online defining the movie’s approach to horror.
Even if more modern films that fall under the banner of J-Horror fall into self-parody (in the case of films like Sadako vs Kayako), classics from this time continue to endure thanks to resonant messages that, even if their originality is lost in a sea of imitators, are strong enough to stand on their own. Perhaps that’s why these films continue to be remembered as fondly now as they were when they were initially released.
Film Flashback: Dark Water (仄暗い水の底から, Hideo Nakata, 2002)
Of all the films that defined the J-Horror boom of the late 1990s and early 2000s, Dark Water is perhaps the most overlooked. That’s not to say it was forgotten, and it was one of many Japanese horror films to receive a Western remake with the release of the Hollywood film of the same name in 2005. However, compared to other major films of the time, it is often overlooked in favor of movies like Pulse or, of course, Ju-On and The Ring. Which is a shame, really, since the way this film uses genre conventions to produce a biting critique of poverty that lifts the movie above its contemporaries.
Yoshimi Matsubara moves into a new apartment in a run-down apartment complex with her daughter Ikuko during a messy divorce with her ex-husband. After moving into the complex, enrolling Ikuko in the local nursery and getting a job at a small publishing company nearby, she notices a leak on her roof coming from the apartment above her but gets no response when trying to resolve it, and things just get stranger from there.
A small red bag keeps coming back to Yoshimi no matter how many times she gets rid of it, and she keeps spotting a young girl in a yellow raincoat that looks similar to Mitsuko Kawai, a child who went missing 2 years ago that used to live in the same apartment complex.
Helmed by Ringu director Hideo Nakata, Dark Water succeeds not just for its ability to create a tense and at-times terrifying horror film but for using the conventions of the medium to comment and critique how Japanese modernization made the country richer on the backs of a large swathe of the population left behind and forgotten by society as a whole. The Japanese economy following the end of World War 2 was built upon massive economic expansion driven by technological advancements businesses in the country were at the forefront of. Ever-expanding, companies used this wealth to buy up land and assets left and right all around the world, with workers on lifetime employment also benefitting from the bubble, particularly near the end of the bubble in the 1980s.
To simply view the bubble from these terms forgets the many people who didn’t benefit from this system. While not uncommon, women were less likely to be in full-time employment, and even those that were were less likely to revel in the high wages their male counterparts did. Temporary workers also didn’t benefit and faced stagnant wages at this time, only widening the gap between those with money and those without and creating worsening poverty for those not in public service work and white-collar employment.
These tensions rose to the surface after the bubble burst throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s, and you can find these tensions everywhere within Dark Water. Socio-economic anxiety is at the core of many of the central fears of this film, which the supernatural simply exacerbates. This is clear in how it takes until the 30-minute mark to be introduced to Mitsuko by name via a missing persons poster, and even then, the only reason why we as an audience link the events together is our prior knowledge of the horror genre.
Atmosphere in this film is built less by the fear of the supernatural and more so by the fear that if they complain too much about the leaking roof they’ll be forced out of their apartment. If they don’t take a lowly-paid copywriter job, they won’t have the money to pay for even this poorly-maintained apartment they call home. As divorce proceedings sit at the forefront of Yoshimi’s mind, the film is as much about keeping things together for the sake of her child as it is about the supernatural being haunting the apartment complex.
As a result, Dark Water is an ultimately tragic tale whose horror comes through the all-too-real fears that even their modest life will come crashing down around them as Yoshimi would do anything to protect her daughter. Learning more about Mitsuko builds a strong emotional core to the film that comes to a climax with an ending that delivers on all of the themes the movie has built up until this point.
It’s one thing for a horror movie to scare you. It’s another for it to make you cry as well.
Not only would I highly recommend you check out Dark Water as an often-overlooked film from the J-Horror boom, but the film is rather readily available should you seek to watch it. The film is streaming on Amazon Prime in the US and on the BFI Player in the UK. If you wish to buy the film, it’s available on Blu Ray in both the US and UK from Arrow Video, and, until the 20th July, is on sale on both Apple TV and Amazon digital in the US and UK for $2.99/£2.99. If you wish to simply rent the film, it’s just $0.99/£0.99.
That brings us to the end of the latest ‘Your Japanese Film Insight’. For a complete list of films recommended as part of this column, you can find them compiled together in a list, with links to their respective articles, over on Letterboxd.
Are there any films you want to see discussed in the future? Contact me directly on Twitter @socialanigirl!