Cinematic Genre: J-Horror Before “J-Horror”

Shura (Demons) (1971) Dir. Toshio Matsumoto

For much of its history, Japan and the horror genre have gone hand in hand. Whether it’s the nation’s orally passed down traditions, artworks, folklore of the ancient past, the theatrical productions of kabuki and noh, or through to the more recent advent of cinema; Japan has undeniably fostered one of the richest and most influential horror heritages in the world.

Whether people are aware of them or not, it is undeniable that Japanese influences have permeated the horror genre, or simply pop culture as a whole. One need only cast their mind back to the onslaught of mostly-terrible American remakes of mostly-decent Japanese horror films which plagued the noughties, to understand that Japanese horror has been supremely influential. This wave of films which emphasised restraint and atmosphere rather than the shock and gore of 1970s-1990s American slasher horror would come to be popularly called “J-Horror”. Hideo Nakata’s 1998 Ringu was the first to ignite a new curiosity in western audiences for what Japan was producing. Many famous and great films were to follow in this “New Wave”, Takashi Miike’s infamous Audition or Takashi Shimizu’s Ju-On: The Grudge for example. My personal favourite is Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse from 2001, an expert exploration of technology’s potential to isolate us from others and even ourselves.

However, Japan had been producing horror masterworks long before the new exposure of the 1990s-2000s. It is these works which I shall be highlighting in this Spooktober Halloween edition of Film Browse. Many of the motifs and concepts found within “J-Horror” were being cultivated throughout the 20th century and often in folklore long, long before. Pale, phantom women with long unkempt black hair, the very real horrors of the human heart or mind, the fear of technological advancement. All these things and more can be found in Japan before “J-Horror”, in films that also emphasised restraint rather than excess.

I shall be listing and discussing the films chronologically by release date, narrowing the list to ten of my personal highlights. I try to maintain a healthy range of famous heavy hitters, cult films, and the more obscure that are deserving of the spotlight. I shall be omitting kaiju films, as whilst they could be considered a subcategory of Japanese horror, kaiju films have become somewhat of their own beast that should be delved into separately.

Momijigari (1899) Dir. Shibata Tsunekichi

Calling this entry a horror film might be a bit of a stretch, but I feel it’s worthy of inclusion as a means to exploring and understanding Japan’s cinematic horror origins. Momijigari (“Maple Leaf Viewing” in English) is the oldest surviving Japanese film currently known in existence—although Japan had been making films for two to three years prior to this film. Two short ghost films, Bake Jizo and Shinin no sosei were made in 1898; though none of these earlier works have survived, leaving only Momijigari as our starting point.

The film is a recording of two kabuki actors performing a scene from the kabuki play Momijigari where this film takes its name from. In the scene, a yōkai has disguised itself as a princess but its true identity is discovered by a samurai. The two fight, the samurai wins.

Those with an interest in Japanese history may like to know that the aforementioned samurai is Taira no Koremochi, and this won’t be the only time we encounter the Taira clan in this Film Browse. Momijigari certainly won’t scare you, but it’s incredible to know that as soon as the Japanese were introduced to filmmaking by the Lumière Brothers, they immediately set about filming narrative rather than recordings of daily life. To add to that accomplishment, some of their very first efforts were already exploring the realms of the supernatural and folklore. Momijigari presents a demon, and the two slightly older, lost films which I mentioned earlier were also about ghosts. It is quite clear to see, therefore, that horror has been at the heart and soul of Japanese filmmaking since the very beginning.

A Page of Madness (1926) Dir. Teinosuke Kinugasa

Teinosuke Kinugasa’s A Page of Madness explores a different form of horror than Momijigari or some of the future greats that came afterwards. The film chooses to focus upon the horrors of the mind, rather than the otherworldly. The film itself was actually lost for 45 years until it was re-discovered by its director in his storeroom in 1971, so it can be fascinating to view the film and draw similarities between itself and those that came after it, knowing subsequent filmmakers after the film’s conception had likely never even seen A Page of Madness.

This silent film tells the story of a man who is hired as a janitor at an insane asylum, where his wife has become a patient. The man takes the job because he feels partly responsible for her mental illness and so seeks to be close to her. This is not the first time that a film had explored the minds of the mentally ill and drawn horror from their experiences; Robert Wiene’s 1920 horror masterpiece The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari had done so six years prior and likely formed some inspiration for Kinugasa’s effort. However, the two films are very different despite their shared themes.

A Page of Madness is notable for being a silent film with a complete lack of intertitles, thus relying solely on the imagery shown on-screen to relay a narrative. This contributes to the film’s highly impressionistic style, which it utilises to delve the viewer deeper and deeper into the minds of the mad. The film is not necessarily horrifying in its content, but rather in its use of the camera to create and distort the world it presents. This creates an effect that almost feels like we, the viewer, are losing our minds as we spend more time within this asylum, surrounded by these poor souls. The film is notable for its use of noh masks, which although actually only appearing for one sequence, has become quite an iconic image within Japanese horror.

Ugetsu (1953) Dir. Kenji Mizoguchi

The great director Kenji Mizoguchi is one of the most revered filmmakers ever to grace the world of film. His name and works live on alongside other Japanese master directors such as Akira Kurosawa, Yasujirō Ozu, Mikio Naruse, and Masaki Kobayashi. Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu, whilst being on the lighter side of horror as we may consider it today, warrants a discussion here for its pioneering use of horror motifs cultivated in and extracted from traditional folklore, and that would continue to evolve in subsequent horror films.

Ugetsu is the tale of two men, each of whom abandons their wives due to lust or greed. One man seeks to become a samurai, blatantly forsaking his wife in the process; whilst the other is seduced by the ghostly spirit of a dead princess. Ugestu presents a world in which the supernatural is very real, one can’t help but feel a sense of dread as our characters journey across fog-filled waters (a sequence which is echoed as a homage to Ugestu in Martin Scorsese’s Silence). Spectral ghost women have become an extremely popular motif in horror since, and the seduction of lustful men by these terrifying spirits has long been part of narratives in Japanese folklore, something that is no doubt fuelled by Japan’s Buddhist and Shinto spiritual origins where tales were told to warn people of the downfalls that come with lust or other sins.

It speaks volumes as to Mizoguchi’s mastery that he crafted one of the most powerful human dramas ever made using the supernatural—using horror—as a vessel to the world he was presenting. The ghosts in the film are certainly ominous enough to strike fear, but instead of using them for cheap scares, Mizoguchi uses them to explore the struggles of women in feudal Japan in a way that was relevant both to his time and to ours. He explores their mistreatments and also the restrictions placed upon them by society. Mizoguchi always was a humanist, and this film may be a drama at heart, but if the oppression of human beings isn’t horror, then I don’t know what is.

Onibaba (1964) Dir. Kaneto Shindō

Kaneto Shindō’s Onibaba would make for a great double-feature with A Page of Madness, if only for their striking imagery of traditional Japanese masks. However, where the latter is interested in the horrors of the mind, the former is interested in the horrors of the heart with maybe a tinge of the supernatural thrown in for good measure.

It’s very easy to lose yourself in the cinematography and imagery of Onibaba, much like the characters lose themselves in the tall pampas grass of the setting. The desperate tale of two women; a mother and her daughter-in-law eking out an impoverished existence amidst the backdrop of war-torn fourteenth-century Japan. The return of a local soldier sparks a horrifying conflict of lust and sexual envy between the two women, and the discovery of a samurai and his ominous hannya mask gives way to terrible things.

The film is steeped in the superstitions of Japan’s Buddhist and Shinto roots and is loosely based on the Buddhist parable of yome-odoshi-no-men which director Kaneto Shindō first heard as a child. Onibaba’s backdrop is that of a swamp surrounded by tall grass, the grass forms a sort of never-ending labyrinth; the claustrophobia of which is accentuated by Kiyomi Kuroda’s haunting cinematography. The film is sensual and erotically charged, which only adds to the very real horrors that take place in this swaying, grassy nightmare. Though, that’s not to say the supernatural plays no part in this tale…

Kwaidan (1965) Dir. Masaki Kobayashi

Masaki Kobayashi is a director most well known for his socio-politically conscious dramas such as The Human Condition, Harakiri, and Samurai Rebellion. Kwaidan, therefore, is quite the outlier in his filmography. Shot almost entirely on lavish studio sets, the film takes the supernatural of Japanese folklore and completely runs with it, adapting four of writer Lafcadio Hearn’s horror short stories into four corresponding short films, thus forming the anthology that is Kwaidan. I shall give a brief, spoiler-free synopsis of each:

The Black Hair – A struggling samurai abandons his loving wife in favour of a woman from a wealthy family, which brings about horrifying repercussions.

The Woman of the Snow – Two woodcutters find themselves lost in a snowstorm, where they are visited by a terrifying yuki-onna.

Hoichi the Earless – A blind monk sings the tale of the battle of Dan-no-ura fought between the Taira (!) and Minamoto clans at the end of the Genpei War. One night whilst playing his biwa, he is visited by a mysterious samurai who asks that the monk come with him to his lord’s house to perform his recitation of the aforementioned sea battle.

In a Cup of Tea – A samurai sees a strange face staring back at him inside a cup of tea; he drinks it nonetheless, things go awry.

Kwaidan achieves something incredible for a horror film: the harmonization of beauty and fear. Indeed, the film’s content is bone-chilling, yet Yoshio Miyajima’s cinematography is full of splendour and the film’s surrealist hand-painted sets elevate Kwaidan into a goliath of ethereal terror. Don’t let the film’s 182-minute runtime deter you, because the film is an anthology. You can always watch one tale and then pick up the next one later. Kwaidan is patient, haunting, and dramatic. Don’t expect jump scares, but do expect these terrible tales to linger and creep in your mind afterward.

Kuroneko (1968) Dir. Kaneto Shindō

Four years on from Onibaba, Kaneto Shindō released Kuroneko, an equally frightening film though one which leans more heavily into the supernatural. The film is set during Japan’s Heian era and begins with the brutal rape and murder of a mother and her daughter-in-law. Sometime later, two female ghosts are reported to be seducing and luring samurai to their deaths in a bamboo grove near Rashōmon gate (the very same Rashōmon gate featured in Kurosawa’s famous film). A young, newly-promoted samurai is sent to deal with the spirits by his governor.

The first thing that springs to my mind when I think of this film is its masterful use of light and shadow in drawing distinctions between the mortal and the ethereal. Much of the film is draped in gloomy darkness, but this does very well to emphasize the glowing apparitions of the bamboo grove. Kuroneko oozes one of the most haunting atmospheres in horror from beginning to end and often feels more like a dream than a film. Some sequences are especially surrealistic, and the soundtrack is ominous though minimalistic.

Just don’t blame me if you’re afraid of bamboo groves and black cats after Kuroneko.

Horrors of Malformed Men (1969) Dir. Teruo Ishii

I’m not really sure where to start with this one. Teruo Ishii’s demented Horrors of Malformed Men is one of the weirdest films you will ever see in your life. The film starts rather simply though interestingly enough, a man who has been wrongfully confined in a mental asylum repeatedly hears a strange lullaby and has no recollection of where he is from. The man escapes, seeking out the source of the lullaby. His investigation leads him to a mysterious family on the Sea of Japan coastline, a strange doppelgänger, and a foreboding island. However, whilst the film may begin feeling like A Page of Madness and then transition into an intriguing detective story, the film takes a complete left-turn from there and becomes one of the most bizarre, pulpy horror films I’ve ever seen. It was actually quite funny in parts though I have no idea if this was intentional.

Horrors of Malformed Men relentlessly throws crazy plot twists at you left, right, and centre. For any other film, this would completely sink the ship. Not deterred by any conventional sense of filmmaking, this film almost seems to know that it is being as weird as can be and continues to do so regardless of what anyone may think. And because of this, the film somehow ends up being incredibly enjoyable to watch. Although this is still a horror film, even if it is the “Mad Hatter” variant of the genre, it will still certainly creep you out, and probably physically disturb you. The film stars Teruo Yoshida who also featured in Yasujirō Ozu’s wistful final film An Autumn Afternoon; probably as completely opposite from Horrors of Malformed Men as you could get.

On second thought, “Mad Hatter” doesn’t do justice to how bonkers this film is. I have no idea how any of the actors kept a straight face whilst filming their scenes. I don’t know how someone managed to conjure this up. My brain is melting.

Shura (Demons) (1971) Dir. Toshio Matsumoto

The mid-20th century saw a flourishing of jidaigeki (period drama) samurai masterworks such as Seven Samurai, Harakiri, and Throne of Blood to name a few. However, this output in quality began to filter out towards the closing decades of the century. Great samurai films were still being made (here’s looking at you Ran), and they still are today. I recommend Shinya Tsukamoto’s 2018 Killing for a masterful example of a modern samurai film that evokes and builds upon the genre’s glorious past in a fresh way; a horror infused way no-less. However, during those twilight years, the genre saw Toshio Matsumoto’s dismally bleak Shura in 1971, one of the last masterpieces of that golden age.

At its heart, Shura is the purest and most sickening horror film under the guise of a jidaigeki. The harrowing tale of the “48th rōnin” who sets out for revenge after being cruelly cheated. There’s little more I can say about the plot without spoiling it, but the rōnin’s quest for vengeance takes him and those around him down an extremely dark path. Tonally, the film reminds me of Kihachi Okamoto’s 1966 classic The Sword of Doom as both films heavily employ expressionistic darkness and shadow to great oppressive effect, and both share a rōnin main character with a predilection for wearing a rōnin kasa straw hat. However, The Sword of Doom is much more a traditional jidaigeki, albeit a very brooding and bloody one. Shura, on the other hand, delves to such depths of despair, such nauseating violence, that it is a horror film first, jidaigeki second.

Matsumoto’s use of lighting and soundtrack, or lack thereof, is masterful. The ominous ringing of a temple bell, the sound of silence broken by the distressed cries of an infant, or the choking gags of a man drowning in his own blood; all steeped in crushing, demoralising darkness.

Toshio Matsumoto is one of the pioneers of experimental filmmaking in Japan. He only directed four feature films but many, many more avant-garde short films. Shura is not one of his more experimental efforts, but that style does effectively rear its head on occasion, contributing further to its cursed aura. The film is based on the kabuki play kamikakete sango taisetsu, a fact which is reflected in the film’s often stage-like framing, and use of traditional Japanese instruments to lightly evoke the required mood of specific scenes. As mentioned, the main character is the 48th rōnin of the legendary “47 Rōnin” tale, a fact that Japanese history enthusiasts will no doubt find intriguing.

The title is derived from the sanskrit word asura which is used to describe a sort of demon in Buddhist/Hindu belief; a very apt title. I cannot stress enough that Shura is extremely oppressive, I didn’t feel like the same person after watching it. There is not one piece of goodness to be found here; no hope, no joy nor virtue. Just despair, just death, just blood. Hell on earth.

Atman (1975) Dir. Toshio Matsumoto

Come the 70s and 80s, Japan had passed the golden age of eerie, patient horror films from the directors who would today be known as greats and the “New Wave” that would come to be called “J-Horror” had not yet been born. Thus, these decades began to see a lot more experimentation, transition, and exploration. We return to Toshio Matsumoto for his trippy, avant-garde short film Atman which I feel most deserves highlighting in this regard.

Clocking in at a hefty 12-minutes runtime, Atman is the perfect example of what can be achieved with just a camera, a soundtrack, and a subject. The film has no narrative to speak of, merely one figure donning a terrifying hannya mask and a camera which pulsates twists, and throbs around this person. Toshi Ichiyanagi’s entrancing score warps as the camera jumps and crashes with hypnotic and frenzied furore. Imagine the scariest singular moment from Onibaba, now drench this moment in high contrast colour and stretch it into 12 minutes of a pure, unrelenting nightmare-scape, that is how you arrive at this film.

Atman is an extremely experimental horror of the senses and one that is devilishly difficult to decipher. However, the title may give some pointers. Within Buddhism, the idea of “atman” is the concept of a permanently existing self, a soul of sorts. The Buddha rejected this idea and instead expressed that the “self” is fluid, ever-changing; there is no “me” to speak of. Atman the film, therefore, may be a reflection of atman the concept and our detrimental addiction to it. A lone figure sits, motionless, the camera thrusting us into some nightmarish fixation upon them. It’s hypnotising although not typically enjoyable.

Perhaps this may be a reflection of humanity’s fixation on atman, a sense of self we seem so desperate to cling onto, especially in the west. This fixation may not be best for us, as reflected in the film’s disorientating camerawork and the hannya mask upon which it focuses with such frenzy. Myself coming from a western background, I find it interesting to think about how the English language would be un-viable without words like “me”, “you”, “we”; words that denote self, denote an existing atman. Japanese however, whilst such words exist (watashi, anata etc.), is completely self-sufficient without the use of them; and usually these words are not used often at all. Entire conversations can be understood in Japanese without their usage. Likewise, the religion that mostly rejects the idea of atman is Buddhism. Buddhism is one of Japan’s spiritual pillars; just some food for thought.

Atman is quite an incredible yet terrifying experience, and this is only my take on it; best to watch in the middle of the night with all the lights off.

Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989) Dir. Shinya Tsukamoto

The homogenisation of cyberpunk and horror; body horror at its best and most bizarre. Shinya Tsukamoto is one of my favourite auteurs, his unique style is unrelenting, brutal, and unable to be replicated. I highly encourage readers to delve into his body of work. 1989’s Tetsuo: The Iron Man was his breakout cult hit and my first introduction to his breakneck brand of fever dreams. He even featured in a considerable acting role in Martin Scorsese’s 2016 passion project Silence. After arriving and waiting on the day like any other actor for the audition, Tsukamoto and Scorsese reportedly exchanged deep bows, each kindly hailing the other as a master director. Marty knows his stuff.

Shinya Tsukamoto in Silence (2016) Dir. Martin Scorsese

Tetsuo: The Iron Man begins with a man known only as the “Metal Fetishist” (played by Tsukamoto) who takes great pleasure in inserting pieces of metal into his body. Ironically, he is soon run over by a car driven by the “Man” (Tomoro Taguchi). The Man later begins to experience his body turn increasingly into metal, his flesh warped and replaced only by metal, only machinery. Various stomach-turning, bizarre, and weirdly sometimes sexual things happen as the camera pulsates through this unholy transformation.

Tetsuo is a monochrome cyberpunk nightmare. A film concerned with usurping the commonly held belief that man can use machinery for our own greater good, rather than perhaps machinery will inevitably use and replace man. The horrors of old were threaded by the fears of their times. It is no surprise therefore that in 1989, Tetsuo: The Iron Man is a demented, metal-infused exploration of fear of the technological. However, I don’t think Tsukamoto is afraid at all.

Tony Stark, eat your heart out.

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