J-Horror: The Beginners Guide
Updated: Apr 11, 2020
Anyone that knows me is probably sick of me talking about Japanese Horror films by now but I do so for a good reason! If you’ve kept up to date with my work for a while, you’ll know that last September I wrote my first and only J-Horror focused post which was Japanese Horror vs. Hollywood Adaptations – A Comparison which was pretty much written with only the basics in mind. I have since watched many more Japanese horror films and read a lot on them including academic sources, original novels and articles on the subject.
But why so much research? My fascination for the genre piqued around a year ago and since then I’ve grown more and more curious, so much so that I’ve decided to base my final year dissertation at University on J-Horror. Whenever the topic comes up a lot of people have asked me where to start if they were to get into the genre and what films would I suggest. So here it all is, in one post!
As always I will be discussing plot points so here is your SPOILER WARNING.
DISCLAIMER: Different people find different things scary. So although these films aren’t too scary to me, they could be to you so please be aware of potential graphic elements in trailers/photos.
Ringu / Ring (1998)
I thought I’d begin with a pretty famous one. If you’re looking to get into the Japanese Horror film scene then I suggest starting with the one that wasn’t necessarily the first, however it was the one that started the craze and popularised the genre to the rest of the world outside of Japan in the late 90s, early 2000s. Ringu or Ring was directed by Hideo Nakata and is based on the thriller novel series Ring by Japanese author Koji Suzuki. If you’ve read my previous J-Horror post or can simply put two and two together; you’ll already know that the film was adapted into a Hollywood film back into 2002, which spawned 3 sequels and was even adapted into a Korean version too. That’s along with the countless Japanese Ring sequels. Ringu follows the story of Reiko Asakawa, an investigative journalist whose niece has suddenly died, along with 3 of her friends, all of unexplained circumstances. Reiko begins to investigate into her niece’s death and finds out about an urban legend which is circulating around local teenagers. The legend tells of a haunted tape which, if watched causes you to die in exactly 7 days. Reiko attempts to track the tape down and watches it. She now has 7 days to uncover the truth as well as find a way to survive once her 7 days are up. Ringu was my introduction into the genre and is still one of my favourite film series.
Battle Royale (2000)
Prepare yourself, this one’s a shocker. As the trailer mentions, this is a pretty controversial film. As well as causing waves upon it’s initial release in Japan for obvious reasons, the film didn’t reach North American shores for another 11 years due to controversies. However, This film isn’t half as bad as it was originally made out to be. Perhaps as a child of the new millennium I have been desensitised to violence and gore however compared to the likes of the Saw franchise or the Hostel films, Battle Royale is child’s play (pun not intended). The shock element comes from the film’s general premise which sees a group of 15-16 year old students who after resisting any adult with authority are selected to take part in the BR act in order to teach them and others a lesson. The teens are subject to fight it out on an deserted island where it is literally kill or be killed. Sounds pretty severe, I know but it really isn’t that bad. It may even sound familiar? Many comparisons have been made to The Hunger Games’ series. Most of the gore/violence is presented in an over the top fashion – similarly to the likes of Kill Bill – where limbs fly off at high velocities, blood will spray like a sprinkler, you get the idea. What all of this means is Battle Royale is enjoyable if you are able to deal with OTT violence.
Ju On: The Grudge (2002)
In a similar vein to Ringu, Ju On: The Grudge is another very famous J-Horror film which has spawned many western remakes and sequels. Ju-On: The Grudge, like Ringu and many others on this list focuses on the threat of the onryō – a form of Japanese ghost which quite literally, has a grudge – usually the ghost is a woman with long black hair who was wronged during their life and died withholding a lot of anger or jealousy inside of them, therefore they come back to wreak havoc on the living. Ju-On: The Grudge tells the story of Kayako who is brutally murdered along with her son by her husband. Considering that Kayako was murdered through a great rage she comes back as an onryō, and a scary one at that! Since the 3 were murdered in their family home there is now a curse upon that house, therefore any new tenants of the property, any guests or any ghost hunters who enter the threshold of the house will be haunted by Kayako and Toshio. It’s naive of you to think that the house stops them though, although the curse technically belongs to the house; Kayako and Toshio can appear anywhere including the inside of a fax machine, inside a developing photograph and even unexpectedly in your bed sheets!
Honogurai Mizu no soko kara / Dark Water (2002)
Another collaboration between director Hideo Nakata and author Koji Suzuki comes Honogurai Mizu no soko kara / Dark Water. Dark Water is based on the short story by Suzuki that appears in the short story collection of the same name. The film focuses on single mother Yoshimi who is in the middle of divorcing her husband. The pair have a child together, Ikuko who primarily lives with Yoshimi. The pair move into a run down apartment which is pretty dank and miserable, there is a leak that drips from the ceiling into Yoshimi’s bedroom which worsens each day. One evening, Yoshimi takes Ikuko up onto the apartment block’s roof to light sparklers. Once up there, Ikuko is mesmerised by a red satchel that appears near the water tank on the roof. Strange occurrences begin to happen to the pair including the bag continually resurfacing around Yoshimi and Ikuko’s apartment no matter how many times Yoshimi tries to dispose of it. The rest of the film plays out as a mystery thriller with Yoshimi trying to find out the source of the leak, the reason the bag is so significant as well as trying to keep full custody of her daughter. This is a good film to start with if you are a bit of a scary cat as nothing too spooky or jumpy really happens in this film just the odd inanimate object moving by itself! Once again this film got an american adaptation.
Chakushin Ari / One Missed Call (2003)
Chances are you’ve probably heard of One Missed Call, whether it’s the Japanese version or the Hollywood remake. The Japanese film actually has 3 films in the series and the American series has 2 which means it had a pretty successful original run. The film follows the story of a University student named Yumi, whilst out at a singles party, her friend Yoko receives a voicemail apparently from herself which is dated 2 days in the future. The pair listen to the voicemail and recognise Yoko’s voice, then hear what sounds like Yoko’s life coming to a gruesome end. 2 days have passed since the incident and Yumi receives a call from Yoko who says exactly what she said in the voicemail two days prior, fulfilling the voicemail prophecy. Yoko’s phone then makes a call to somebody in her contact list, passing on the curse. Similar to Ring and Dark Water, Yumi must find the source of the curse and find a way to stop it as it wipes out everybody in her friendship group. I really enjoyed One Missed Call as it is actually really spooky! The ringtone that plays each time a character receives the cursed phone call doesn’t seem spooky at first but now every time I hear it, I get nervous! Definitely worth a try as well as the sequel, One Missed Call 2 (2005).
Kairo / Pulse (2001)
Another pretty famous J-Horror film in this list is Kairo/Pulse. This film was also adapted for western audiences and even got 2 American sequels. Kairo is kind of similar to Ringu and One Missed Call with the threat coming from some kind of spirit residing inside of technology. This time; the internet. The film follows 2 different story lines that both connect towards the end of the film. The first introduced Michi, a plant shop assistant who hasn't seen Taguchi, another employee in a few days. After much speculation, Michi visits Taguchi to find that he is acting strange and that it has something to do with a computer disk he was working on. Parallel to this, economics student Ryosuke has just connected to the internet in his home for the first time. His internet browser then begins opening web pages on it's own accord and displaying disturbing images to Ryosuke. Mostly, of people alone and acting strange in dark rooms. Ryosuke seeks advice from computer science graduate Harue who attempts to uncover the mystery behind the site. It can be a bit difficult to get your head around this film and may take a couple of viewings to totally understand but It’s a good one to watch if you’re a fan of the films I’ve previously mentioned themes.
Ju-On: The Grudge 2
Here is one of many of The Grudge sequels. Similar to the other Grudge films, in this sequel the story is broken up into several smaller chunks of story which all link up somehow. The main story line follows Kyoko; a movie actress who is known for appearing in horror movies. After appearing in an episode of a reality TV show where a crew investigate haunted houses, Kyoko and her husband are in a car crash caused by none other than the young boy in the first Ju On film, Toshio. Unbeknown to Kyoko, the haunted house in which the show was filmed in was the same house that Kayako, her husband and her son Toshio were killed in previously. Therefore Kyoko, the camera crew and the other actors are all now burdened with the curse. The film then tells each person’s haunting from their perspective. This is a very good sequel that is almost, if not as good as the original and is worth watching for the scene with the haunted wig alone!
Yogen / Premonition (2004)
If you’ve ever seen a film in the Final Destination series, this is kind of… almost… sort of… not really like that. After spending time away on holiday husband Hideki, wife Ayaka and their daughter Nana are in the car driving back to Tokyo. With Ayaka driving and singing with Nana, University professor Hideki is busy making notes on a laptop for work. He asks Ayaka to pull over at a phonebooth so he is able to upload some files. Once inside the phonebooth he notes a scrap of paper flickering in the wind, the newspaper reads of a story dated a minute from the present of a car crash that kills a young girl. Ayaka joins Hideki at the booth to see if he’s okay as the upload is taking a while. In a split second a truck comes along and wipes out the family’s car, killing Nana inside. The traumatised couple spend the rest of the film attempting to figure out where this prediction making newspaper has come from and what they can do to stop it’s predictions coming true.
Sadako vs Kayako (2016)
You’ve heard of Freddy vs Jason (2003), well now it’s time for J-Horror’s most influential ghosts – Sadako of the Ringu series and Kayako from the Ju On series – to go head to head. The film follows similar tropes to both the original films with university student Yuri watching the cursed video tape, causing Sadako to haunt her and high schooler Suzuka who after moving next door to the Saeki House, becomes plagued with Kayako's curse. Both girls relentlessly haunted by Sadako and Kayako and accidentally get their closest friends and family involved too with dire consequences. It is then suggested that they get help from Keizo; a man with psychic abilities who suggests that the girls lure the two ghosts together so they can battle it out, which he hopes will destroy them both and save Yuri and Suzuka. This film is a favourite of mine purely for the fan service, getting to see two of your favourite J-Horror staples on screen together is pretty special.
I’m going to finish up there but I still have so many I wanted to add/so many I still have to watch and experience myself! If you are inspired to look into the genre after reading this blog post then let me know, I’m always eager to discuss J-Horror!
Find more of my Japanese movie posts right here as well as nerdoutwordout.com