Ring (Ringu) (1998)
‘Ringu’ is based on a novel by Koji Suzuki, who is known as the ‘Japanese Stephen King’ and for any western viewer is the starting point for any exploration of modern Asian horror films. It’s brilliance lies in its combination of the iconography of classic Japanese horror cinema with modern urban legends and fear of technology (plus a nod to the brilliantly atmospheric M.R James story ‘Casting the Runes’.) It therefore manages to play both an elegant chiller in the Kaidan eiga tradition (Sadaka is the modern apotheosis of theatrical yurei) and as a horror-shocker with teen-appeal.
Reiko, a TV journalist from Tokyo, sets out to investigate a set of unusual deaths caused by a ‘cursed videotape’. Each victim receives a phone call immediately after watching the tape informing them that they have only a week to live. Reiko herself becomes exposed to the curse when she travels to a cabin on the Izu peninsula where some of the victims had briefly resided.
With the help of her ex-husband Ryuji she uncovers the history of a psychic woman, Shizuko, who hurled herself into the volcano on Oshima Island 40 years previously. The source of the curse is Shizuko’s daughter Sadako, who sealed up in a well.
Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1988)
A Tokyo businessman apparently kills a metal fetishist in a hit and run accident. He and his girlfriend dump the body. However, he is cursed by the victim and soon his own body begins to mutate from the inside out into a grotesque flesh and metal hybrid. As his mutation accelerates he inadvertently kills his accomplice girlfriend with a drill that has taken the place of his penis.
‘Tetsuo: The Iron Man’ has an unorthodox, wild plot, but how the movie is presented is even wilder – grainy black and white film, visual distortions, surreal hallucinations, stop-motion sequences and a percussive industrial soundtrack punctuated by shrieks and screams.
For further reading please check out Dominic O’Brien’s review of 1988’s Tetsuo: The Iron Man.
Audition (Odishon) (1999)
Aoyama, a widowed TV producer living with his teenage son, decides to remarry several years after his wife’s death. His friend Yoshikawa suggests that he hold an ’audition’ for girls for a non-existent movie and that it would be a way he could choose an attractive candidate to become involved with.
Aoyama is taken with ex-ballet dancer, Asami. He begins dating her and decides to take her away for a romantic weekend, intending to propose. She insists that he must be able to only love her alone, but then she suddenly disappears.
He looks into Asami’s past, and discovers disturbing information regarding an uncle who abused her, but also linking her to possible abductions and disappearances.
As evening falls, Asami breaks into Aoyama’s house and so begins an evening of recriminations and gruesome revenge, in retaliation for her humiliation and his perceived betrayal.
The movie was based on a novella by Ryu Murakami and gained huge notoriety when it provoked mass walk-outs at the Rotterdam Film Festival in 2000. After building a sense of discomfort and trepidation, (who can forget that twitching sack in Asami’s apartment?) Miike unleashes an unbridled assault on audience sensibilities in the final reel. The sight of Asami in her plastic apron and latex gloves, brandishing her hypodermic and cheese-wire, is one not easily erased from the subconscious.
Battle Royale (Batoru Rowaiaru) (2000)
Enforcing the terms of the new ‘Battle Royale Act’ one class of ninth-grade students is selected annually by lottery and relocated to an isolated island, fitted with explosive collars, given random weapons and forced to participate in a 3-day survival competition in which the last student left alive is the winner.
Are you thinking that this premise sounds familiar? Yes, I had that same feeling when I first saw some recent and very popular ‘Young Adult’ franchises. I’ll just say this – ‘Battle Royale’ did it first.
Although he based it on a popular novel by Koushun Takami, veteran director Kinji Fukasaku (1930-2003) claimed the movie was also influenced by his own experiences of violence and death as a teenager during World War II.
While not a traditional horror movie, this cult film could be said to belong to the slasher genre – various grisly deaths are meted out by a range of antagonists in imaginative and unpredictable ways. Fukasaku’s experience in Yakuza movies allowed him to create some chilling nihilistic characters, blackly comic set-pieces and orchestrated violence in a movie that is actually in part, a critique of totalitarianism and Japan’s ultra-completive education system and the fears surrounding escalating teenage delinquency.
For further reading please check out Ren Zelen’s article, The Hunger Games vs. Battle Royale.
Pulse (Kairo) (2001)
Michi, a Tokyo florist, witnesses the suicide of a colleague when she visits his flat to retrieve a computer disc he had been working on. The disc contains images of what appears to be a ghostly realm.
Student Ryosuke stumbles across a software programme inviting him to ‘meet a ghost’ in which he sees disturbing images. Other characters encounter spectres in ‘forbidden rooms’ which they then seal off with duct tape. It all seems to indicate that souls are finding a way back into the real world via the web. Ghosts begin to appear briefly in public places, society begins to disintegrate.
‘Pulse’ is one of those Japanese horror movies which ambitiously engages with philosophical speculations while delivering shocks and chills. Kurosawa’s unconventional approach creates a film in which the viewer is genuinely disoriented and which has the feeling of a waking nightmare filled with a pervasive malaise which builds to an apocalyptic finale.
Dark Water (Honogurai mizu no soko kara) (2002)
Yoshimi, a young mother going through an acrimonious divorce, moves into a dilapidated apartment block with her five year old daughter Ikuko. They are plagued by filthy water dripping down from the apartment above and Ikuko begins to talk to an ‘imaginary friend’. This is discovered to be the apparition of a young girl, Mitsuko, who disappeared from the building several years previously.
Yoshimi gradually uncovers the truth of Mitsuko’s sad fate and why her spirit is so restless, and then finds that she has to make a terrible choice to protect her own daughter.
The decrepit, soaking, dank apartment block is a character in itself, and projects an effective spookiness, permeated by an atmosphere of sadness and despair, but it is director Nakata’s ability to focus on sympathetic and credible characters which really draws the viewer into the film. In addition to our distress at the supernatural events which begin to threaten Yoshimi and her daughter, we fear for her own fragile emotional state. The denouement is certainly frightening, but also genuinely heart-breaking.
Ju-on: The Grudge (2002)
Of all the modern Japanese horrors, [the third] ‘Ju-on’ is most notable in its successful fusing of Japanese kaidan tradition with contemporary American-style techniques. Shimizu uses simple but striking effects accompanied by truly unusual and creative sound design to in order to generate moments of sublime, bone-chilling terror.
The film’s narrative is divided into different sections with different characters and timelines which deprive the viewer of a single, conventional protagonist to identify with. In addition, the troubled, implacable entities are not confined to one location, but follow their victims to their workplaces or homes. Nowhere is safe.
However, the restless ghosts themselves, while conjuring terror and fear, also succeed in radiating a sense of hurt, anger and rejection. There are social subtexts such as the elderly lady left neglected in the cursed house, signifying the breakdown of the traditional Shino values of obligation and parental respect.
Suicide Club (Jisatsu sakuru) (2002), directed by Shion Soso.
Versus (2000), directed by Ryuhei Kitamura.
Death Note (Desu Noyo) (2006), directed by Kaneko Shuesuke.
Marebito (2004) aka The Stranger from Afar, directed by Takashi Shimizu.