10 great Japanese ghost stories

Do films come any more frightening than these?

29 October 2020

By Katherine McLaughlin

Ring (1998)

Up until the late 1960s, yurei (ghost) films were released in the summer in Japan to tie in with traditional Buddhist Obon celebrations, or the Festival of Spirits. Religion, literature, military history, folklore, kabuki theatre and oral storytelling are all hugely influential on the Japanese ghost movie, as is the belief in animism, the idea that literally everything on earth possesses a spiritual essence. Black cats, cursed VHS tapes, apartments and even the internet haunt the protagonists of these stories, with female onryo (vengeful spectres) a predominant force in the genre.

Similar visuals emerge in prewar, postwar and the millennial J-horror yurei films, but their themes diverge to reflect the social changes or political anxieties of the time. With the shifting role of women in society, starlets such as Sumiko Suzuki moved into horror cinema with monster roles such as the bakeneko (ghost cat) in the 1930s. 

Postwar cinema examined tensions between tradition and modernity, and the impact of conflict, with themes of greed, poverty, female suffering, corruption and grief all manifesting in ghost films. Aside from a few choice titles, the appetite for paranormal activity died down in the 1970s and 80s.
In the 1990s, there was a resurgence in the popularity of supernatural tales, specifically marketed towards a YA audience. The anthology TV movie series The Haunted School boasted a list of directors that became synonymous with the J-horror boom of the 2000s. Hideo Nakata, Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Takashi Shimizu all directed their own segments, laying the groundwork for their modern spins on ghost stories laced with contemporary worries about family, technology and finances. Their work spawned multiple, long-running franchises including American remakes, reboots and spinoffs.

Here are 10 of Japan’s spookiest offerings.

Ugetsu Monogatari (1953)

Director: Kenji Mizoguchi

Ugetsu Monogatari (1953)

Kenji Mizoguchi’s reworking of Tales of Moonlight and Rain by 18th-century author Ueda Akinari won the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival. It strikes an eerie tone that skilfully blends fantasy with reality to tell a tale about the arrogance of men in times of war. Set in the midst of the 16th-century civil wars, it centres on a foolhardy farmer and potter (played by Masayuki Mori) who, blind with ambition, leaves behind his wife and child to seek fortune in the city. The war is shown to have a devastating impact on the family unit and in particular women, who the film shows being forgotten, murdered or forced into prostitution.

Legendary Japanese star Machiko Kyo makes an unforgettable entrance as an enchantress spectre, accompanied by the ominous score by acclaimed composer Fumio Hayasaka. The grounds of her ghostly mansion are given an otherworldly quality by cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa. Dreamy lakeside views and carnal pleasures tempt the farmer to be unfaithful to his wife. The film concludes with a technically remarkable and lamenting denouement that confronts the folly of greed and lust. 

The Ghost of Yotsuya (1959)

Director: Nobuo Nakagawa

The Ghost of Yotsuya (1959)

This popular onryo story, based on a kabuki play by Nanboku Tsuruya from 1825, takes inspiration from real life and boasts multiple film adaptations. In Nobuo Nakagawa’s version, Shigeru Amachi plays a ruthless ronin called Iemon who surreptitiously murders the father of Oiwa, the woman he wishes to marry. Soon after, he hits the road with Oiwa under the guise of avenging her father’s death, but instead hatches a cruel scheme that ends in betrayal and murder. 

“The fury of a maddened woman is truly the greatest horror there is,” states an opening quote, and Nakagawa makes Oiwa’s pain palpable not only in life but also in death with an extensive, grotesque body-horror sequence. Her anger is vividly realised as vengeance is served through guilt-ridden, nightmarish hallucinations and brutal swordplay. Women’s lives and fortunes were dictated by marriage in the Edo period, and the film depicts the real price of transactional relationships.

Pitfall (1962)

Director: Hiroshi Teshigahara

Pitfall (1962)

By far the sweatiest ghost story you’ll ever see, this haunting slice of social realism and existential dread evokes the spirit of Jean Cocteau and imagery of Luis Buñuel to capture the civil unrest of the era. Hiroshi Teshigahara coined his debut feature, which he adapted with Kobo Abe from the latter’s play, a “documentary fantasy”. It also takes on the form of police procedural and political critique of the exploitation of labour workers, specifically coal miners.
A vicious scheme to pit the trade unions against one another results in the murder of a single father who reanimates as a spirit, only to find his pleas to help find his killer fall on deaf ears. As this innocent victim of a cruel system wanders a literal ghost town, his cries of frustration and anguish pierce the striking landscapes, where abandoned slag heaps and mines threaten to swallow up all who enter. The film asks, “Must a man become a demon just to survive?”, and as his orphaned child wanders alone, observing ruthless injustices carried out in the name of capitalism, the outlook isn’t hopeful.

Kwaidan (1964)

Director: Masaki Kobayashi

Kwaidan (1964)

This epic, Oscar-nominated omnibus, adapted from 4 supernatural tales by Lafcadio Hearn, is a feast for the senses. Highly stylised, this was Masaki Kobayashi’s first film in colour and at the time the most expensive Japanese film to date. Hand-painted sets, heaps of dry ice and an expressive score by prolific composer Toru Takemitsu all merge to create an immersive and surreal ambience.
The opening 2 vignettes, ‘The Black Hair’ and ‘The Woman of the Snow’, feature tragic romances and broken vows. A female onryo with powerful, long hair materialises in the first, while the second reworks a classic tale about a spirit who breathes death into men. The final yarns, ‘Hoichi the Earless’ and ‘In a Cup of Tea’, both display an affection for the art of storytelling and the beauty of the written word. The first delivers a haunting ballad that attracts a ghostly army, while the closing short is a reflective Meiji-era tale referencing an unfinished story.

Kuroneko (1968)

Director: Kaneto Shindo

Kuroneko (1968)

Four years after horror classic Onibaba, writer-director Kaneto Shindo delivered another chilling film about the plight of women in times of war. Inspired by Japanese folktales and bakeneko films, it centres on a mother and daughter-in-law who are murdered by samurai, but return for vengeance as demon cats. The women spend their time seducing and sucking the blood of all samurai warriors, until they are faced with their fading humanity when the man of the house returns from war and appears on their doorstep. He’s tasked by the shogun with killing the beast who is preying on his men, and so ensues a complex study of duty and morality. 

Experimental lighting, scintillating eroticism, slow-motion wire-action sequences, beguiling performances from a gifted cast (including Shindo’s wife and muse, Nobuko Otowa) and Hikaru Hayashi’s percussive score produce a potent, lingering lyricism. A powerful salute to female strength, Kureneko also contemplates the irreversible consequences of war with a palpable sense of loss and regret. 

House (1977)

Director: Nobuhiko Obayashi

House (1977)

This experimental, haunted-house horror by Nobuhiko Obayashi is a complete hoot. The special effects, such as composite shots and superimposed imagery, are infused with an endearing childlike invention, which were actually informed by Obayashi’s daughter’s imagination. However, if you peel back its wacky surface layer, its visual motifs reveal personal grief for those lost in the atomic bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki during the Second World War.
The innocence of the generation born after the war is personified through a group of teenage girls named Gorgeous, Melody, Prof, Sweet, Kung Fu, Mac and Fantasy. They all head to the country to visit Gorgeous’s elderly aunt (played by Yoko Minamida) in her spooky mansion, a place with an insatiable appetite for human flesh, featuring inanimate objects that gobble up the young women. Obayashi mourns the loss of childhood friends by critiquing the senseless destruction of war in absurd and unique fashion. The melancholic score performed by Godiego further complements the underlying emotions.

Ring (1998)

Director: Hideo Nakata

Ring (1998)

An urban legend about a cursed VHS tape, adapted from the first novel in a trilogy written by Koji Suzuki, was the catalyst for the J-horror boom. Directed by Hideo Nakata, this modern update of the yurei known as Okiku contains iconic imagery of the drenched, straggly haired female ghost, who jaggedly crawls towards her victims. 

It’s a film that has meticulous rules: watch the creepy tape, the phone will ring, and you will die 7 days later. Nanako Matsushima plays a journalist who falls under the curse when investigating the mysterious death of a group of teenagers. She teams up with her psychic ex-husband (Hiroyuki Sanada) to save her life by following the trail of clues featured in the cursed video. They uncover the tragic tale of a young girl called Sadako (Rie Ino’o), the film concluding with heart-in-mouth terror as she climbs out of a TV set. 

Pulse (2001)

Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa

Pulse (2001)

The sound of dial-up internet opens Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s apocalyptic, techno-horror. Written at a time when the popularity of the internet was on the rise, anxieties about a shift in daily life, human interaction and the impact on mental health manifest in grim ways. This prescient, bleak chiller depicts a society slipping into despair as people disappear into their computers, becoming isolated and lonely.

Kurosawa drains the real world of colour, placing his characters in grey, oppressive environments, watching grisly images of suicide and sadness. Soon these images turn into sinister apparitions that invade the human realm and start spreading as an uncontrollable, destructive virus. The penetrating sound design and creepy score by Takefumi Haketa, combined with dark visuals of lost souls literally turning into shadows of their former selves, lay out the worst fears about a future where the internet becomes the main line of communication to the outside world.

Dark Water (2002)

Director: Hideo Nakata

Dark Water (2002)

A woman going through a nasty divorce drowns in the depths of despair in Hideo Nakata’s eerie and heartbreaking adaptation of a short story by Koji Suzuki. Yoshimi’s (Hitomi Kuroki) emotional and financial turmoil are compounded with a past trauma that comes back to haunt her in the form of spirits, mysterious wet patches and growing damp in her apartment. 

Preying on a parent’s worst fears, danger lurks just round the corner, as does a custody battle, threatening to snatch away Yoshimi’s 5-year-old daughter. As the pressures of work and motherhood build up, and with no one to turn to, panic sets in. The film strikes a disquieting mood, using unsettling scares, a labyrinthine apartment block and confusing apparitions to intensify Yoshimi’s loss of control. As her fragile state worsens, the titular watery metaphor, at first an occasional drip, turns into an overwhelming downpour of psychological dread and impending doom. 

The Grudge (2002)

Director: Takashi Shimizu

The Grudge (2002)

The family home becomes a frightening place in writer-director Takashi Shimizu’s claustrophobic horror. Shimizu has stated that butoh dance theatre inspired the look of his pale contorted ghosts, who he adorned with thick white paint to chilling effect. The striking appearance of mother and son ghosts, Kayako (Takako Fuji) and Toshio Saeki (Yuya Ozeki), are iconic in modern horror, as is the ominous staircase from which they first descend. 

Killed by a jealous husband, Kayako’s rage gathers in the place where she was murdered and curses anyone who crosses the threshold of her home, including a volunteer social worker. The vengeful spirits of the Sakei house kill indiscriminately, emitting creepy noises such as drawn out croaks and meows. The disturbing sound design amps up the tension as Shimizu leads the viewer through tortuous deaths and a residence haunted by neglect, violence and domestic terror. Shimizu plays with chronology, following Kayako as she stalks and terrorises her victims, and eventually circling back to her tragic backstory.

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