Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Our Top Ten Favorite Japanese Horror Films

While Akira Kurosawa's "Rashomon" was widely dubbed "The film that introduced the world to Japanese cinema" during the 20th-century it could easily be argued that films like Kiyoshi Kurosawa's "Kairo (Pulse)", Hideo Nakata's "Ringu" and Takashi Shimizu's "Ju-On" were the films that introduced a whole new generation to Japanese cinema in the 21st-century. At the start of the new millennium audiences had already been haunted, stalked and dismembered by a gallery of boogie men from Leatherface to Freddy Krueger and frankly the standard scares were getting a bit stale. In an attempt to devise new ways to keep people sleeping with the light on Hollywood turned East and found inspiration in the atmospheric and exotic horror being produced in Japan. The major studios started buying up the distribution and remake rights for a wide variety of films from a diverse group of filmmaker like the names mentioned above, but also more "extreme" directors like Takashi Miike, Shinya Tsukamoto and Sion Sono. The work of this loose group was was dubbed "J-Horror" and for a few years it was the hottest thing in genre filmmaking. Unfortunately we live in hyper-accelerated and fickle times and once the best horror from Japan had been bought up and recycled studio execs were left picking over whatever sub par product was left and the hot new sub-genre quickly fizzled out.

Regardless of the fact that J-Horror has gone past its sell-by-date that burst of attention at the start of the decade opened doors for a wide variety of not only Japanese but Asian films in general to make their way West and horror fans now have a whole new crop of cinema classics that can join "The Exorcist", "The Shining" and "Night of the Living Dead" in the pantheon of fear. To honour the genre that got so many of you interested in Japanese cinema in the first place we at the Toronto J-Film Pow-Wow wanted to pull together our list of Top Ten Favorite Japanese Horror Films from across the history of Japanese cinema. Proceed at your own risk...

10. Uzumaki - Higuchinsky (2000)

"Uzumaki" falls on our list of Top Ten Horror films for many of the same reasons we chose it as one of our top Manga adaptations. It's cartoonish qualities - whether it be the oh-so-disturbing gruesome scenes after several deaths or the hundreds of little spirals found tucked in corners throughout the film - add a great deal to the unsettling atmosphere. You will likely end up asking yourself "did I just see that?" more than once during the film and this greatly helps in creating an environment in which you expect that just about anything can happen. The spiral patterns in a small village slowly but surely begin to overwhelm the residents who have become obsessed with them and eventually drive them to insane and usually suicidal acts. Sometimes they are driven to become part of the spiral (you may approach your washing machine a bit differently after seeing this film) and other times death finds them as they try to elude the twisting vortexes. One of the silliest and least serious of our list due to the surreal nature of its events, you never forget that this is indeed a horror film. If the wince-inducing deaths don't do it, then you should at least be terrified of the idea of the story: what if everything and everyone around you was going completely insane...and you had no way out? BT

9. Splatter: Naked Blood - Hisayasu Sato (1995)

Japanese horror isn't all about gloomy atmosphere, curses, grudges and scary ghost girls. Gore hounds got plenty of raw flesh and gristle to sink their teeth into with films like Takashi Miike's "Ichi the Killer", Shozin Fukui's "Rubber's Lover" and Katsuya Matsumura's "All Night Long" trilogy, but one of the most nauseating of the "Extreme" sub-genre of J-Horror ended up coming from the world of erotic pinku eiga. Filmmaker Hisayasu Sato, who along with Kazuhiro Sano, Toshiki Sato and Takahisa Zeze formed what was dubbed as the "Four Devils" of pink cinema, started his career in the mid-80s with pink films with titles like "Wife Collector" and "Lolita Vibrator Torture", but as the 80s gave way to the 90s so did the usual bondage and schoolgirl fantasies. With films like 1988's "Survey Map of a Paradise Lost" and 1994's "Love - Zero = Infinity" Sato began to explore darker, almost David Cronenberg-esque territory. This would come to a pinnacle in 1995 with his V-Cinema horror masterpiece "Splatter: Naked Blood". Comedian Sado Abe stars as Eiji the brilliant son of a chemist who is working on what he believes is the ultimate painkiller, a drug that will literally transform sensations of pain into blissful pleasure, but when he secretly doses a trio of young women undergoing drug trials for a new birth control method the results are disastrous. There are some very graphic and very disturbing sequences in "Splatter: Naked Blood" involving self-mutilation and self-cannibalism that could make even hardened gore fans a bit quesy, but what makes Sato's exploration of medical ethics and how we control, or don't control, our bodies and most base desires is the artistry and skill brought to telling this macabre story. We know that Eiji's experiments will come to no good, and Sato knows that we know, and like a doctor who soothes his patient by calmly insisting that the next injection, the next cut won't hurt at all (but of course it does) Sato uses quiet, static sequences that lull us into a false sense of security so that the final blood soaked crescendo of the film leaves us feeling that much more visually assaulted. CM

8. Onibaba - Kaneto Shindo (1964)

Kaneto Shindo has had one of the longest and most prolific careers in Japanese cinema directing 43 films and writing scripts for 154 in 68 years and he doesn't seem to be slowing down. The now 97-year-old director recently made his 44th film, "Hana wa chiredomo" from his wheelchair (!), but despite his many, many films that ranged over every genre imaginable he is probably best known for his 1964 erotic horror film "Onibaba" ("Demon Woman"). Combining an old Buddhist folktale about a mask that frightens women into attending prayers and one of the most chaotic periods in Japan's history he paints a truly frightening picture of what happens when societal control has all but disappeared. During the 14-century the country has nearly been destroyed by two warring Imperial courts, both claiming to be the legitimate rulers of Japan. There is no food, no safety, and no rule. In a desolate wilderness by the banks of a river a middle-aged woman (Nobuko Otowa) and her daughter-in-law (Jitsuko Yoshimura) have been reduced to living like savages, stalking lost and injured samurai and killing them for their valuables and food then dumping their corpses into a pitch black pit; but when their neighbour (Kei Sato) returns from battle with the news that the daughter's husband has been killed causes the alliance between the two women to unravel as they vie for this young man's attention. "Onibaba" isn't designed to suddenly jolt the audience with fear, but instead its billowing fields of susuki grass, ambient and haunting score by Hikaru Hayashi and the almost supernatural eroticism of both Otowa and Yoshimura seep into the viewer, leaving them alternately terrified and aroused. While its symbolism of a womb/grave-like hole and animalistic women may make some female viewers bristle "Onibaba" is one of Japan's most unique and unsettling horror films. CM

7. Jigoku - Nobuo Nakagawa (1960)

"Jigoku" is both the "Citizen Kane" and the "Heaven’s Gate" of Japanese horror films. Way ahead of its time, it pretty much ended the career of Nobuo Nakagawa, and helped to bankrupt Shintoho studio, which had resorted to making low budget, exploitation films during the 1950’s. Nakagawa had experimented with the combination of traditional ghost stories, or kaidan geki with Buddhist depictions of hell, breaking down the boundaries of what constituted a traditional horror film, but it was with "Jigoku" that he drove these cinematic experiments to their limits, creating a tale that is both brutally graphic and brutally nihilistic. It was extreme not only in its content, but also in its narrative and chaotic, fractured cinematic presentation. It not only influenced the graphic depiction of violence we’ve become so accustomed to experiencing, thanks to the likes of Takashi Miike and Sion Sono, but its uncompromising look at our existence and its fatalistic tone evokes the films of Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Nagisa Oshima. Even the sudden shift in tone, switching from a ghost tale to a journey through hell seems a precursor to the dramatic narrative shift in Miike’s "Audition". Like Orson Welles before him, Nobuo Nakagawa never knew what kind of influence he made on future generations of filmmakers. He’s known as the god-father of Japanese horror for a reason. He made a small ripple in the pond while at the height of his career that over time grew into a tsunami. Over several decades, it swept over the entire horror genre, leaving nothing but a nihilistic abyss in its wake. "Jigoku" is just as original, bold and uncompromising as it was 40 years ago, and that’s no easy feat considering the level of violence depicted in films today. MH

6. House - Nobuhiko Obayashi (1977)

Horror movies aren't just about gut-wrenching fear and copious gore, they're also fun and Nobuhiko Obayashi's 1977 debut feature "House" is probably the most fun and entertaining Japanese horror film around. When Oshare (Kimiko Ikegami) and her five school girl friends, Fanta, Gari, Sweet, Melody and Kung Fu (cool names, huh?), have their summer vacation plans ruined Oshare comes to the rescue by proposing that they go to her aunt's huge, rambling mansion in the country. Once they get there though the girls are plagued by strange visions, Oshare's aunt goes from being stuck in a wheelchair to sneaking around the house and then one by one the friends come to some truly grisly ends. While the formula of a group of nubile young women in tight t-shirts and short shorts getting killed and mutilated by a crazed maniac has been perfected through a million and one slasher films I can guarantee you that you've never seen this classic scenario played out like this. Obayashi started his career in the nascent Japanese experimental film scene with other director like Yoichi Takabayashi, Takahiko Iimura, Masao Adachi and American film scholar Donald Richie. Moving onto directing commercials he then took every trick he'd learned about filmmaking (and I mean everything) and incorporated into "House" creating one of the most phantasmagoric and trippy horror films committed to celluloid. Split screen and wild montage, motion capture and 2d animation, flesh-eating pianos and persian cats projectile vomiting blood, this is but a sampling of the insanity that awaits anyone who enters Obayashi's "House". Fans of Dario Argento's "Suspiria" or "The Bird with the Crystal Plumage" will go nuts for this one... that is if they can track it down. Apparently the Criterion Collection bought the rights to "House" years ago, but have yet to release it. CM

5. Kairo - Kiyoshi Kurosawa (2001)

Possibly the creepiest film ever, Kiyoshi Kurosawa's "Kairo" (known as "Pulse" in North America) chronicles a scenario of the breakdown of human communication and is a dark, relentlessly depressing and hopeless vision of the future. The central plot element is that the dead seem to be spilling back into this world in the form of a variety of ghostly images. The story is a framework on which Kurosawa can hang his set pieces but also build an interesting commentary on the growing disconnectedness of Japanese society. It works on you slowly, gets under your skin and frequently has something lurking in the background. All this helps create an environment you can't shake until days after you've seen the film. As for the scary stuff, it's all about the atmosphere. With small shifts in mood, you're not likely to jump out of your seat (though there are a couple of jarring moments), but you may notice about halfway through that you're curled up in a ball on it. As well, Kurosawa knows that sound is an essential component to being frightened and he pairs his unforgettable images with eerie moans, almost inaudible low rumbling and, worst of all, occasionally no sound at all. It's a stylistic difference that seems to separate him and many of his fellow Japanese filmmakers from their Hollywood counterparts. It's called subtlety. BT

4. Ugetsu - Kenji Mizoguchi (1953)

People don’t usually think of "Ugetsu" as a straight-out horror film, and for good reason. This Kenji Mizoguchi masterwork isn’t immediately concerned with scaring its audience, instead focusing, as usual for the director, on the harsh injustices of the world. It tells the tale of an ambitious pottery merchant, his friend who aspires to become a samurai and both men’s wives as they struggle for survival in the midst of civil unrest. Though that hardly sounds like a horror premise, the tone of the film eventually becomes more mysterious and ominous until, before you know it, you find yourself, like the main characters, in completely unexpected territory. When he finally gets down to it, Mizoguchi creates what is undeniably the perfect atmosphere for a ghost story, complete with clouds of mist, moonlight shimmering on watery surfaces and a strange woman clad in a white kimono who isn’t quite what she seems. What a treat this must have been for foreign audiences who first saw it following its release in 1953, for it both joined the charge of Japanese cinema alongside "Rashômon" into the West and introduced a whole new way of utilizing horror elements. Under the capable guidance of Mizoguchi and famed cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa, the film’s treatment of the supernatural is eerily beautiful and quietly chilling. However, far more terrible is Mizoguchi’s portrayal of humanity, depicting people as creatures of greed, cruelty and needless suffering. "Ugetsu" doesn’t provoke fear so much as slow-creeping disquiet; its lasting effect a cold realization of how the follies of men reverberate not only in life, but the afterlife as well. With its original approach and immaculate quality, it signifies an artistic high point that other horror films too seldom aspire to, let alone achieve. MSC

3. Audition - Takashi Miike (1999)

One of Takashi Miike’s best-known and most celebrated films, "Audition" is ranked high among the Japanese horror classics. However, unlike many of its counterparts, it doesn’t resort to pale, long-haired ghosts or jump-in-your-seat shocks. Most of it doesn’t even look like a horror movie as it follows Aoyama (musician and actor Ryo Ishibashi), a lonely widower who resolves to start looking for a new would-be bride. With the help of his fellow film producer friend, he arranges an audition of a variety of young women for him to choose from. In the process, he discovers – and is smitten by – the seemingly perfect Asami (Eihi Shiina). This setup, though laden with undertones of voyeurism and dishonesty, is innocent enough, and Aoyama is portrayed as a good man who means well. His progress with Asami becomes, for a time, the sole focus of the film and, consequently, its audience as the two get to know each other through the familiar, touchingly awkward first steps of puppy love. However, as much as you find yourself hoping for a happy outcome for Aoyama, you can’t ignore the hints of suspicion and foreboding that crop up in the form of Asami’s confessions about her troubled past and Aoyama’s friend’s own findings surrounding the young woman. Cunningly and patiently, Miike builds the suspense throughout "Audition", gradually shifting from the romantic melodrama it originally appeared as to an intriguing mystery as Aoyama takes it upon himself to investigate Asami to its final reel, in which, I will only say, the director pulls off one of his most effective and notorious sequences in his wide, colorful body of work. Standing as jack-of-all-trades Miike’s successful foray into Hitchcock territory tinted with his signature brand of extremism, "Audition" is diabolically compelling and fully deserves its reputation as one of the most genuinely scary films ever made. MSC

2. Kwaidan - Masaki Kobayashi (1965)

This 1965 Cannes award winner (Special Jury Prize) is an anthology of four ghost stories originally transcribed by author Lafcadio Hearn and was a huge influence on J-Horror films via its look, its use of sound and its deliberate approach to instilling a sense of dread. These are not benevolent ghosts were talking about in any of these stories - grudges are held, vengeance is sought and compromise is not a discussion point. If a second chance is given, it's only to serve a ghost's own selfish desires. For example, in lead off story "The Black Hair", vengeance is exacted by having the victim toyed with mentally. It may also be one of the earliest appearances of that long dark female hair that seems to have a mind of its own. Like many of the other Japanese horror films of the 50-60s, the spooky factor of these stories is heightened by a soundtrack punctuated by creaks, snaps and sudden crashes along with periods of dead silence. This may also be one of the most beautiful horror films ever made, particularly in the second story "The Woman In The Snow" where the painted backgrounds contain a rainbow of colours and literally watch over the main character. The centerpiece of the film is the hour-long third story "Hoichi The Earless" in which a musician is constantly summoned to play for numerous ghosts. His attempt to avoid their requests ends with horrific consequences. This is horror as art and it allows the dread to linger a great deal longer. BT

1. Ringu - Hideo Nakata (1998)

If Nobuo Nakagawa caused a ripple that slowly formed a tsunami of influence, then Hideo Nakata was the earthquake that in an instant sent shockwaves across the country. No horror film has had the kind of influence that "Ringu" has had, and in such a short period of time. Based on a book that’s more of a psychic detective story than a kaidan geki, Nakata took what could have turned out to be trashy pulp, and did exactly what his predecessor Nakagawa did, infusing it with classic kaidan geki sensibilities, leaving us with a tale that is driven by a suffocating atmosphere, an impending sense of doom, and a mysterious black cassette tape. It’s use of technology as the basis for the seeds of our destruction, as well as the resurrection of the yurei, the pale, long haired spirits that have now become typical, even in Hollywood fare, have had an effect from modern Japanese directors like Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Takashi Shimizu, as well as numerous international filmmakers. And that’s the brilliance of what Nakata did. He made one of the most influential horror films ever made. While I doubt it was intention, it was still created with an infusion of Japanese and Western sensibilities, right down to the Cronenberg inspired finale, in which Sadako emerges from the TV set. Despite what your opinions of J-horror are, and it’s now typical and commonplace motifs that have lost all sense of real terror, "Ringu" was the original creation that perfectly balanced modern horror storytelling techniques, with the unsettling nature of the yurei and the nihilistic tendencies of Nobuo Nakagawa. And nothing makes the film more unsettling that watching it on an old, unlabeled cassette tape on a CRT television set, wondering what will happen when Sadako finally emerges. MH


Shannon the Movie Moxie said...

Awesome list guys! Although I've only seen Kairo and Ringu, many of the other films are on my 'to see' list although some might be a little too scary.

I'm definitily going to pocket this list away for future reference.

trertertertertert said...

a lot of the subliminal stuff you're talking about (i.e. spirals) and the unsettling qualities are also found in another lesser known Japanese film Fudge 44

kawaiigirl1990 said...