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Japanese horror

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Japanese horror is Japanese horror fiction in popular culture, noted for its unique thematic and conventional treatment of the horror genre in light of western treatments. Japanese horror tends to focus on psychological horror and tension building (suspense), and supernatural horror, particularly involving ghosts (yūrei) and poltergeists, while many contain themes of folk religion such as: possession, exorcism, shamanism, precognition, and yōkai.

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  • ✪ The Grudge & Ringu: What Makes Japanese Horror Creepy? | Darkology #24


Japanese horror is unlike any other. Or is it? When I think about my fall into the pit of horror obsession, the first real moment of morbid fascination stems from when I found out about The Ring. Unlike what I was used to with the western slasher films and dreamtime boogiemen of the time, this movie had a potent psychological element to it. By now, I’m sure most of you are familiar with the material, but to give a brief summary for those new to Japanese horror: The Ring follows a journalist who learns of a cursed videotape attached to a string of mysterious deaths. According to legend, those who watch the videotape die 7 days later. The journalist is able to find a copy of the cursed tape and after watching it, begins experiencing subliminal visions and the increasing presence of something supernatural in the background. Something about the curse and the mysterious vengeful spirit behind it haunted me. Not only was I terrified- I was curious. I found myself looking for anything I could get my little hands on to better understand the curse I had recently learned of. And before long, I found myself reading a piece of the original source material: a Japanese horror manga based on a novel from 1991 simply called “Ring”. The images were hauntingly disturbing. There was something powerful in them, unlike any graphic novel I'd ever seen before. Eventually, I convinced a cousin of mine to come to the local Blockbuster with me, where we picked up a copy of the film that the Dreamworks adaptation was based on. Known to the western world as “Ringu”, Ring was horrifying. But this was a different type of horrifying. It was more subtle, more psychological. It had an unending dread. I distinctly remember how hard it was to sleep that night. And from then on, I found myself particularly excited whenever a new horror in a similar vein was released to the U.S. Something about it all was so captivating. Even looking back at my art from those days, there's no question creepy Japanese ghosts were an inspiration. So today on Darkology, we're going to explore just what makes Japanese horror so creepy. It's a common idea that Japanese horror or J-horror is exceptionally eluding. This is especially the case if you come from a western background where customs are quite different from East Asian cultures. In western culture, we’re used to being treated to a certain format of storytelling. Everything needs to be explained and we're often hand fed information especially with regards to motives behind spirits and supernatural happenings. In western horror we're used to seeing blood, guts, and action. A growing opinion is that western horror films have become more and more akin to violent adventure films. The thing about J-horror is, it's target audience isn't westerners. It isn't trying to appeal to the customs of Hollywood. It's its own separate entity, and it's built on a foundation of rich mythology and ancient belief systems from a different world. Perhaps that’s why it's so alien to us. Because it quite literally is. To gain a better understanding of what Japanese horror is, we need to first take a look at certain pieces of Japanese culture. More specifically, it's views on death and the afterlife. There are two main belief systems in Japan: Buddhism and Shinto. Buddhism focuses around the idea of death and rebirth and that life is merely an illusion, while Shinto is more concerned with praying to ancestors and nature spirits- a belief in a sacred power or kami flowing through all things animate and inanimate, serving to connect the present with the past. What's interesting here is that unlike its Christian counterparts, these belief systems aren't based in determining a good or an evil side, nor do they require strong religious alignments. According to Wikipedia, approximately 75% of the population practices some form of Buddhism while 90% practices some form of Shinto, meaning many practice a bit of both in between. Neither need be followed exclusively and to most, these belief systems are in place simply because they’re tradition. For example, funerals are often Buddhist in nature, while weddings are more Shinto. The main point here is that religion is flexible in Japan- and this results in two things. The first is a hybrid culture with a vast wealth of legends and mythology to draw from. The second is a society that accepts life as something fundamentally beyond human understanding- an acceptance of the ambiguous and the unknown surrounding us. H.P. Lovecraft has very little to do with J-Horror in practice, but he does have a famous quote that resonates quite well here and ironically too when you consider the xenophobia of his time: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown” This might begin to explain why J-Horror is so creepy; because it’s saturated in actual uncertainty and mystery. It covers the elements of life and death that we don’t really have a scientific explanation for. Japanese folklore has a very extensive mythology of monsters, creatures, and yokai. Here are just a few: The Otoroshi The Mujina The Kitsune The Kappa The Oni The Futakuchi-Onna The Onamazu The Shinigami But when we look at J-Horror what do we think of? Well here are some of its more popular examples in pop culture: Silent Hill Resident Evil Fatal Frame Uzumaki and the work of Itou Junji And perhaps most popular: Ju-On Ring When we look at these works, we see lots of surreal elements that aren’t entirely understood. Things that are alien in nature. Much of these works also have a basis in an idea of the afterlife. The traditional Shinto belief system includes the idea that each person has a soul or reikon (霊魂). Upon death, a reikon leaves the physical body, and moves to a purgatorial, in-between state as they await a proper send off. This tradition of sacred funeral rites allows the reikon to pass onto the afterlife where they can join their ancestors. If done properly, the reikon is said to return once a year to be with the family, continuing to watch over them from the afterlife. That’s sort of a best-case scenario when it comes to death in Japan. But remember Japan’s vast wealth of legends and cryptid mythology? Well- this persists especially when it comes to the dead. There are believed to be many different types of ghosts, and this is where things start to get creepy. The type of ghost a person will become is determined by the circumstances surrounding that person’s death. It’s believed that when a person dies under abrupt circumstances that don’t offer an honorable or sacred send off, they instead become a yurei- a spirit kept from a peaceful afterlife. And more to the point of this video, the especially unfortunate ones who die under extremely negative circumstances such as a violent murder or suicide, well- it is believed that the powerful emotions made manifest linger beyond death, in the form of a vengeful spirit: an Onryō. This is what we see in movies like The Ring and The Grudge. It’s what has become prevalent in popular online Japanese urban legends including the likes of Kuchisake-Onna (The Slit-Mouthed Woman), Teke-Teke, and Hachishakusama. These are all examples of yurei, the concept of a pale ghost with long black hair, shrouded in a white burial cloth or the clothes they died in. And they embody the concept of onnen (怨念)- that emotions can be so strong, they persist beyond the grave. A classic example of this embedded into our own reality is the legend of Okiku’s Well. The story of a woman who was brutally tortured and killed in the midst of a betrayal from a man that she loved. Her body was dumped into a well where her vengeful spirit now lingers, coming out to haunt people as a bothersome onryō with no clear way to appease her perpetually tortured soul. This is the tale surrounding the well at the real-life location of Himeji Castle. One of the things that truly makes J-Horror stand out is how different it feels in atmosphere from what we’re used to seeing in western horror. So let’s compare. Western horror seems to be more about granting scares in the form of shock value. Again, it’s about blood, gore, and action. We often know what to expect when we see the invincible killer pacing towards the group of dumb college student archetypes. We know what happens when a person wakes up tied to a rusty chair in a seedy warehouse. We’ve seen what happens when a family moves into a big house for dirt cheap or when a person fucks with a strange artifact. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Western horror is very much a valid entry into storytelling as much as any other. But a lot of it isn’t really creepy. It’s shocking. It’s horrific. It’s even hilarious at times. But most of us don’t walk away from a movie like The Mummy, Freddy Vs. Jason, or Saw feeling haunted. Of course there are a few exceptions Western horror does encapsulate a very wide range of subgenres. But more often than not, western horror generally keeps us entertained for about as long as the film’s runtime. In contrast, Japanese horror is a lot more about deep-seated dread. What's creepier: a voice recording that gives cryptic instructions for surviving a grisly trap, or a dog barking at an empty closet? What's creepier: a butcher with a chainsaw or the sound of meowing in a house void of pets? The thing about a dog barking at an empty closet or just the looming dread of an empty dark room is that they're both very relatable situations. Scenarios we might actually face when we come home. It's that game you play with your brain, trying to convince yourself that it's just your imagination. At least when there's a weapon-wielding psychopath bolting in your direction, you have some semblance of what to do next. Yes we have fears of being kidnapped or being chopped up in real life, but our fears of what just went bump in the night are far more potent because we experience them far more frequently, and again- it's all about that damned unknown. Japanese horror focuses on messing with your psyche. It doesn’t just scare you. It psychologically tortures you with long uncomfortable scenes where nothing really happens. Scenes where subliminal imagery builds up over a long period of time, sometimes lasting long after the credits have rolled. I think that's the heart of what truly makes Japanese Horror films so creepy. They're very good at prolonging this uncomfortable feeling. But perhaps this isn't a fair comparison. Western horror is wonderful, and can manage to give us a scare in a very different way. Perhaps it'd be better to compare a Japanese original with an American remake. So in preparation for this video, I sat down and rewatched The Ring and Ringu back-to-back to gain a clearer insight on just what makes J-Horror creepy. One of the biggest differences I noticed about original Japanese horror films in general is their sound design. Here's a scene from Ring Now here's a scene from The Ring What's the difference? In contrast to fully-scored western remakes, J-Horror films have very little to no music or sound. We're often served with long silences throughout most of the film. Usually if there is background sound, it’s more deep atmospheric noise and dull drolls than music. For the most part, the silence adds to the immersive effect of the film. It helps us focus more on the dialogue between characters, not just what is said, but what is implied in the uncomfortable pauses. As awesome as it would be, in real life we don’t have a full orchestra soundtracking our lives. In a very subliminal way, the absence of sound places the characters on screen in a scenario that we can relate to. It places us inside the mind of the character we’re watching. It makes what we’re seeing on screen that much more real. And when something out of this world finally does happen, it hits that much harder. In the case of Ju-on, it serves to bolster the effect of whenever the faint sound of a death rattle is heard. Or when something unexpected happens, like in this scene from Ring Does this effect perhaps stem from a fear of silence? The internet term for a fear of silence is known as Sedatephobia. It’s derived from sedate which in Greek means silent, sleeping, or dead. One of the driving factors behind this fear is the anxiety brought about by the unknown. In horror films, sound is one of the subconscious go-tos that help us prepare for a scare. We rely on sound to preemptively guard ourselves. What silence does is rob us of this comfortable fallback, leaving us in a constant state of terror. A little tidbit about terror by the way: it’s not quite the same thing as horror. Where horror is the intense feeling of revulsion after we’ve seen something scary, terror is the dread we feel leading up to something scary. In some ways, it might be more appropriate to call J-Horror, J-Terror. Another main difference is how western adaptations often go to great lengths to explain the context behind a villain or a mystery. They leave very little to the imagination and lack the subliminality of the original. A prime example of this is a comparison between Ring and The Ring. When objects from the videotape start popping up in real life, the original doesn't cut to obvious clips from the videotape to remind you. It's much more subtle. It makes you question, did I see that earlier? When Rachel gets a phone call in The Ring, we hear a voice whisper the ominous “seven days” warning. When Reiko gets a phone call, she just hears strange noises that could be heard on the tape. When a new day starts in The Ring, a text appears on screen warning us how many days are left. In Ring, the text only says what day it is, and we're left with an uncertainty of numbers. Just before Rachel finds her son, Aiden watching the tape, she has a vivid nightmare. Just before Reiko finds her son, Yoichi watching the tape, she wakes up to a strange voice in the room cautiously saying “Auntie”. This chilling scene from Ring was taken out entirely in the remake. (Baby-Daddy pointing with cloth over head) Or take Rings, the 2017 American sequel that spent a lot of time unraveling the mystery of Samara, where by the time we got to the end, we understood the character to a point that she wasn't scary anymore. Suddenly we feel in control because we understand what's happening- and that leaves us feeling comfortable. In western horror, we’re typically treated to full-blown explanations and ways to solve the curse, kill the monster, or escape the killer. We know why Freddy Kreuger, Regan, and Jigsaw do what they do. He’s a vengeful spirit. She’s possessed by a demon. He’s a rehabilitation extremist. The explanation that the character is just evil or a sadistic sociopath is also commonly seen. And look it’s not like we aren’t told why Sadako or Kayako are doing what they’re doing. In fact, both of their films give a pretty solid backstory. It’s the ominous way in which they’re presented and the haunting concept of onnen; eternal suffering and wrath incarnate. And to his credit, Freddy Kreuger actually isn’t too far off from this idea. He’s a malicious and vengeful spirit with supernatural abilities. It’s just that he’s presented as this sort of comical villain with one-liners and catch phrases that make it hard to fear him at the end of the day. Given a more subtle presentation, I think Freddy would be on the same level of creepy with these famous Onryo spirits or The Babadook. Original Japanese horror more often leaves us with more questions than answers, and this stimulates our imaginations. Our minds are forced to fill in the blanks with our own unique fears, making for a personal experience that leaves us wondering well after we’ve finished watching the film. Trying to understand and make sense of cryptic messages left to our imaginations quite literally haunts us for some time afterwards. Lucas Sussman, a horror screenwriter once said, “horror is about not being in control.” And I think that's something that can be applied to real life. There are some exceptions to this but when we compare Juon to its American remake, The Grudge, we get a much less detailed backstory behind the malicious spirit haunting our protagonist. This goes back into a common trope with western horror, which is that audiences have come to know what to expect. We’re used to being fed answers in a western adaptation. And given the expectations of the average western viewer, this is understandable. This goes back to Japan’s different culture and higher tolerance for the unknown. A film that doesn’t connect a lot of dots in an obvious manner might not sit too well with a western audience, and so its western counterpart will naturally include more backstory and explanation. As a side note, I’m not saying that I think one was better than the other. I actually really loved The Grudge. It’s a fantastic film that was a huge refresher for its time. And that’s not just because it was directed by the same guy that directed the original. They’re just made for very different audiences. Some things get lost in translation and in the context of this video, I should say I felt that Juon was stronger in terms of prolonged creepiness. Modern Japanese horror often makes things that weren't scary such as our home appliances, and adds a new dimension to them, making us question our surroundings in ways we hadn't before. Take for example the population of viewers who feared their television sets after watching The Ring for the first time. The premise is simple. You watch a videotape and then receive a call on the phone. In the context of what it means here, these pieces of technology aren't so reliable. And that's the idea that leaves us in dread- if we can't even rely on our trusty TVs to keep us numb and distracted, what can we rely on? It activates a mild agoraphobia. I think one of the best examples of this comes from a scene in The Grudge when a character finds herself being harassed by a slew of creepy haunts. Something follows her home from work, and she turns on the TV for a mind-numbing distraction, only for the images on screen to distort in a horrific manner. She can't even trust her phone when she receives a call from the spirit pretending to be her brother. Her only remaining defense is to jump into bed and hide beneath the comfort of her blanket. For many of us, this is a highly relatable scenario. Something scary is out there, but it can't get you in the sanctuary of your covers. Only- when it comes to being haunted by an Onryo, that isn't true. This is one instance of that lasting terror I mentioned. Objects that are typically seen as inanimate and mundane lose that comforting quality when you're being haunted by this idea. The Grudge series takes this to stupid levels- you can't even trust the clothes on your back or the hair on your head. And then there’s the movement of these entities that become a source of terror. Often times, we’re used to seeing the killer or monster approach the victim head on in a very human way. Chuckie, Jason, and Pennywise have arms and legs that move in a familiar way. Sadako and Kayako on other hand seem to prefer a disjointed shaky crawl that appears slow, but then speeds up abruptly to an alarming pace. These scenes are typically acted out in reverse then played backwards to achieve a look that is unsettlingly unfamiliar. Admittedly, it can’t be said that Japanese Horror films are the only ones that are creepy. David Lynch has a detailed vision for sound design and how ambient noise affects the psyche, and he makes great use of it in Twin Peaks. Stanley Kubrick films tend to feature long dollying shots and unnaturally symmetric atmospheres. And in more recent times, we’ve seen a surge of western horror films that both play on the concept of the unknown and leave us there. The work of James Wan is a prime example of this. A lot of his films have long scenes where we’re allowed to marinate in dread and uncertainty, only for nothing to happen. Or take The Babadook, a story where by the end, we still don't really understand what the deal is behind the creature or why it does what it does. These all make great use of psychologically unnerving elements and Japanese horror has mastered this. Japanese horror takes its legends of creepy entities which are already inherently unsettling tales, and portrays them to viewers in such a way that our minds are stimulated and our amygdalas are exercised. From sound, to concept, to visuals, J-Horror effectively weaves a subtle and ominous dread. What makes Japanese Horror so creepy, is how much it sinks into our uncertainties. Hey did you enjoy that video? If you did, be sure to leave a like and comment what your introduction into J-Horror was. And as always, thanks for watching.



The origins of Japanese horror can be traced to horror and ghost story classics of the Edo period and the Meiji period, which were known as kaidan. Elements of several of these popular folktales have been worked into the stories of modern films, especially in the traditional nature of the Japanese ghost.

Ghost stories have an even older history in Japanese literature, dating back to at least the Heian period (794–1185). Konjaku Monogatarishū written during that time featured a number of ghost stories from India, China and Japan. Kabuki and noh, forms of traditional Japanese theater, often depict horror tales of revenge and ghastly appearances, many of which have been used as source material for films.


Notable films

Notable directors

Anime and manga

Certain popular Japanese horror films are based on manga, including Tomie, Uzumaki, and Yogen.

Video games


Hidetoshi Imura as Seijun from Tales from the Dead.
Hidetoshi Imura as Seijun from Tales from the Dead.

Since the early 2000s, several of the more popular Japanese horror films have been remade. Ring (1998) was one of the first to be remade in America as The Ring, and later The Ring Two (although this sequel bears almost no similarity to the original Japanese sequel). Other notable examples include The Grudge (2004), Dark Water (2005), and One Missed Call (2008)

With the exception of The Ring, most American remakes of Japanese horror films have received negative reviews (although The Grudge received mixed reviews).[1][2][3] One Missed Call has received the worst reception of all, having earned the Moldy Tomato Award at Rotten Tomatoes for garnering a 0% critical approval rating. The Grudge 4 was announced in 2011, but no news has surfaced since. Similarly, The Ring 3D was reportedly green-lit by Paramount in 2010,[4] and it was reported in 2016 that the film would be renamed Rings and released in early 2017.

Many of the original directors who created these Asian horror films have gone on to direct the American remakes.[citation needed] For example, Hideo Nakata, director of Ring, directed the remake The Ring Two; and Takashi Shimizu, director of the original Ju-on, directed the remake The Grudge as well as its sequel, The Grudge 2.

Several other Asian countries have also remade Japanese horror films. For example, South Korea created their own version of the Japanese horror classic Ring, titled The Ring Virus.

In 2007, Los Angeles-based writer-director Jason Cuadrado released the film Tales from the Dead, a horror film in four parts that Cuadrado filmed in the United States with a cast of Japanese actors speaking their native language.

See also


  1. ^ "The Ring". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 2014-07-29.
  2. ^ The Grudge at Metacritic
  3. ^ One Missed Call at Metacritic
  4. ^ "Paramount to Make The Ring 3D". /Film. April 26, 2010. Retrieved September 24, 2013.

Further reading

External links

This page was last edited on 10 March 2019, at 03:31
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