Halloween is coming up quick, and you may be looking for something special to watch. If you grew up in the West, then for Halloween you probably watched the Universal Classic Monsters or Hammer Horror, JOHN CARPENTER’S HALLOWEEN, and the endless slew of slasher flicks. However: May I suggest you take a look at an alternative list that is just as disturbing, shocking, and just plain scary? You will be glad you did, because there is something creepy and unnerving brewing in the East.
Lots of movie fans love the classics, and Japan is no exception. For fans of traditional ghost stories, my first recommendation is UGETSU MONOGATARI (TALES OF MOONLIGHT AND RAIN), that is based on a book of ghost stories by Ueda Akinari. The movie is directed by Kenji Mizoguchi, who is one of the big three of the golden age of Japanese cinema. along with Ozu and Kurosawa. UGETSU is a period piece, set in the Azuchi-Momoyama era, about a potter who leaves his family and is placed under the spell of an evil spirit who leads him to the Kutsuki Mansion, where something is waiting. To find out what it is, you will just have to watch it.
For the horror movie anthology fan, I recommend KWAIDAN, based on the supernatural stories of Lafcadio Hearn. Directed by Masaki Kobasyahi, KWAIDAN is made up of four tales that all have the typical ironic twist — however, the stories in KWAIDAN are anything but typical. My own personal favorite is “The Woman in the Snow,” about a woodcutter whose mentor is killed by a ghost during a savage snowstorm that still haunts him years later.
My last entry for classic J-Horror is KURONEKO (Black Cat in a Bamboo Grove). Directed by Kaneto Shindo, KURONEKO is set in Japan’s famous Heian era, the same era thay produced the literary masterpiece The Tale of Genji. KURONEKO is about a woman and her daughter-in-law who are wronged and who return as ghosts to seek revenge. The vengeful ghost is a common character in J-Horror, and KURONEKO is a great example of how well it plays out.
Now for some ’70s horror with a Japanese twist: The beautifully crafted and visually stunning HOUSE by Nobuhiko Obayashi. Conceived from a plot from Obayashi’s daughter, HOUSE is about a fun-loving group of girls who leave school for summer vacation to travel to the country for a good time. Little do they know what awaits them, as strange things happen inside the house of the aunt of one of the girls. A weird and sinister cat sets in motion some of the strangest scenes ever, with tight editing and colors that leap from the screen in 3-D. HOUSE is not your typical haunted house movie — there is nothing typical about it. I saw it for free at Eckerd College, with a diverse group that ranged from foreign film fans to horror and anime fans, and it worked all acros that diverse group. I was so stunned after seeing it that I bought the Blu-Ray on the release date. Everyone at your Halloween party will love HOUSE.
In the 1980s, six shocking experimental films called the GUINEA PIG series were made to show off the talents of special effect artists. The most famous one is Part 2: Flowers of Flesh and Blood, about a samurai who kidnaps a woman and bring her home to dismember her. This was so shocking that Charlie Sheen thought it was real and called the FBI. So for the gorehounds out there, watch the GUINEA PIG movies.
In the 1990s, J-Horror was ready to conqueror the US. I was studying Japanese at USF and living in an apartment, close to campus, with Japanese roommates. Originally a TV series, my roommate’s mother would mail the tapes to him, so we would watch RINGU on Friday nights. Then after the drama was a hit in Japan, the movies came out, and eventually that led to the American remake, THE RING. A year later, I was studying at a Japanese college near Osaka, and THE RING was everywhere. I remember seeing a scary RING themed ride at a local arcade. The first two RING movies are great — I do prefer the original Japanese movies. The simple yet effective story of what happens if you watch a cursed tape and the eerie story of the woman, Sadako, will please mystery and horror fans.
My favorite J-Horror series is JU-ON and JU-ON 2. Together they are the perfect examples of the wronged, vengeful ghosts that are not just out to frighten you when you see them, but determined to kill you. Just like THE RING, JU-ON was remade for Western audiences as THE GRUDGE. However, I find the Japanese version scarier, and a lot more fun to watch.
JU-ON is about a housewife who is brutally murdered and sticks around inside the house for anyone foolish enough to walk in. You don’t want to spend the night here. Nothing can save you from the power of this cursed spirit.
Finally, I would like to end with the TOMIE series, with up to nine movies, making TOMIE the go-to movie for lovers of franchise horror. TOMIE is about a pretty girl who drives everyone who falls in love with her insane. This results in Tomie dying, but she has the power to regenerate herself, and what makes it scary is every time she regenerates, Tomie copies herself — it is unknown how many copies are out there and waiting for you. TOMIE is based on a manga by Junji Ito and it even has an anthology TV series. I recommend starting with the first one, about the police investigating the murder of a schoolgirl. This results in several students and teachers going insane and committing suicide. To find out what happens next, watch TOMIE and then the eight sequels, and see that true terror is found in the Far East.