How do these flashes of terror compare? These are some of the best films from Japanese horror.
The first horror film I remember watching was The Ring. Ever since I was a kid, I have been a huge fan of the horror genre. I would look for stories and legends all the time, trying to feel the thrill of these nerve-inducing tales. However, I was little, so my parents wouldn’t allow me to watch these films. So, when I finally managed to convince them to let me watch one, I chose the 2002 film about the cursed tape and the famous phone call with a ghostly voice saying, “Seven days…” I watched the film with my dad. Everything was going well. I wasn’t scared at all. “How brave am I!”, I thought, so proud of myself and so excited about the film, feeling like such a grownup because I was finally able to watch a horror film. Then, there was the scene with the tape. Along with the protagonist, the audience watches the cursed video that unleashes the vengeful ghost that only gives you seven days to live. Then, the tape ended, and our phone rang. I felt the color vanishing from my face. All my previous bravery and bragging about being a grownup disappeared in the blink of an eye. My dad paused the film and went to answer the phone, but I begged him not to do it, insisting more and more desperately as he was closer to the phone and took it… I remember my heart stopping for an eternal second as he answered… It was just my cousin looking for my mom. Now we laugh about how scared I was because of the strange and creepy coincidence. However, I couldn’t sleep for a whole week, thinking about the girl with the black hair that covered her face, crawling on the floor, trapping me with her putrid and wet hands. The way The Ring scared me was quite a novelty for me, and still I regard that film as one of the best horror flicks of the 2000s.
My first experience with a horror movie didn’t stop me from searching for more to scare me the way The Ring did. Later, I found out it was based on a Japanese horror film called Ringu. From then on, I became interested in Japanese horror films, as they were totally different from the usual Hollywood plots. The thing about these films that has inspired American directors to remake them for English-speaking audiences is that they do not follow the usual Hollywood tropes, but rather recur to local myths and legends that captivate audiences from all over the world due to the unique way they play with one of humanity’s primal emotions: fear.
Today's Western horror films, rely on jump scares a lot, a resource that, I believe, must be used wisely. Otherwise, the fear factor weakens. They just want to startle the audience, so they're not actually building an eerie atmosphere. The good horror films follow you like a ghost even after you’ve left the movie theater or after you’ve turned off the TV. Japanese horror films, also called J-Horror, manage to do so by twisting everyday life’s elements –a cellphone, a TV, a camera, an apartment, even water– and using them as links between the realms of the living and the dead. But not only that, the dead are vengeful souls suffering for the way they were mistreated in life, and they spread their suffering onto the living like a disease with no cure.
Unlike Western monsters, all J-Horror ghosts look almost the same: almost all of them have long, black hair, white clothes, pale skin, wide, sunken eyes, and their mouth is wide open, as if they were emitting a silent scream. These features make them scary because they remit us to ancient fears. As they move, not only do they resemble predators crawling before attacking, but they also make this strange creaking sound that reminds us of the stiffness of rigor mortis. On a visual level, the open mouth isn’t just uncanny by itself, but it mirrors the expression that’s expected from the audience. Thus, for better or for worse, the imaginative and terrifying imagery of Japanese cinema keeps inspiring Hollywood filmmakers and giving us some of the scariest films in recent times. All of which make the typical summer releases look like a fairy tale.
1. Ringu (1998) Dir. Hideo Nakata
I had to begin the list with the masterpiece that inspired The Ring. This film, as most of J-Horror, uses the figure of the yurei, the Japanese equivalent of ghosts, who roam in the world of the living after dying a violent death, not having a proper funeral, or being attached to Earth by a strong feeling, like rage, sorrow, love, or revenge. The plot is basically the same as the Western remake: there is an urban legend about a cursed tape with a bizarre video, and by the end of it, you receive an eerie call telling you you’ve only got seven days to live. On the seventh day, the vengeful ghost of Sadako, a young girl who drowned in a well, appears and scares her victims to death, perpetuating her revenge on the living.
2. Ju-On (2002) Dir. Takashi Shimizu
This movie is divided in episodes that tell the story of the ghosts of Kayako and her son Toshio, who were murdered by Kayako's jealous husband. As a result of her murder, she curses the house where they lived. Another film that had its Hollywood remake, Ju-On is also based on the figure of the yurei and the trope of the haunted house. However, maybe the scariest thing about this movie is the fact that the ghosts’ curse isn't limited to the house. The curse is contagious. Every person involved with the dwellers of the house or with those who have met its ghosts ends up being affected by the curse as well. Also, the ghosts are scary as hell. Kayako’s screeches and her crawling, as well as Toshio's silent stalking, are the best nightmare fuel, in case you want to have sleepless night.
3. Dark Water (2002) Dir. Hideo Nakata
Another film that couldn't escape from Hollywood’s remakes is Dark Water. It is also based on the themes of the spirit world disrupting the domestic sphere. Another horror masterpiece directed by Hideo Nakata, this movie tells the story of Yoshimi, a single mother who is fighting for the custody of her daughter, Ikuko. As they move into an old apartment with an unrepairable leak from the upper floor, mysterious apparitions and events make Yoshimi realize that perhaps there is a force from beyond leaving traces of a dreadful event all over the building.
4. Kuroneko (1968) Dir. Kaneto Shindo
Going back in J-Horror history, perhaps this film is not as scary as the other ones. However, the disquieting topic it deals with makes it a film J-Horror fans must watch to understand the origins of the yurei in this genre. Kuroneko is set in Japan’s Heian period, a time in Japan’s history marked by war. After being raped and murdered by soldiers, the spirits of two women seek revenge, first charming men and then murdering them by slitting their throats. Years later, a samurai will investigate the mysterious deaths of various samurais, tracing them to these vengeful ghosts.
5. Noroi (2005) Dir. Koji Shiraishi
One of the tropes that marked the horror genre at the beginning of the twenty-first century was the “found footage” film. Although this is not the first movie belonging to this category, Noroi uses the mockumentary and found-footage motifs in a masterful way, mixing VHS recordings with fake TV footage, interviews, and research to tell the story of a paranormal investigator who allegedly disappears while making a documentary on a cursed house in a small town. Soon, in a similar fashion to Ju-On, everyone involved with the house and its inhabitants starts being haunted by evil spirits, which leads to an unstoppable series of fatal events and encounters with the other world.
Now, go watch them. Just remember not to answer any weird calls, if you don’t recognize the number…
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