Film buffs may have just recently celebrated Halloween season by revisiting their traditional Western horror favorites with emphasis on festive frights, spooky monsters and jump scares, but just because store decorations and general attention has made a decided turn toward the North Pole doesn’t mean there are not still horror itches to scratch. Those looking to extend that Halloween feeling and sharpen their cinematic horror chops with some gloomier, moodier fare might want to look toward the Land of the Rising Sun. Japanese film is full of films that rely more on tone and mood rather than ready-made scares. These are harsh morality tales full of vengeful ghosts and angry demons, providing the audience with anxiety that patiently heats to a boiling point. They are classic Kabuki- and Noh-inspired mood pieces that provide prime nightmare stock through stark, unforgettable visuals that straddle the line between reality and madness. “Classic” is the key word here—we’re talking about pre 1970s work, so don’t expect any creepy little girls coming out of TVs. Here are five great classic Japanese horror films, in chronological order.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari goes to Japan and drags some early 20th century surrealism and German expressionism along for the ride in this trippy art house horror oddity. Even though Teinosuke Kinugasa is credited as the director, this claustrophobic tale of a slow descent into insanity was the brainchild of an art group called Shinkankakuha, roughly translated as The School of New Perceptions. Their name does justice to their work, since A Page of Madness stands out as one of the most unique and creative films in horror history. Even though there’s quite a lot of dialogue, the team chose not to use any intertitles, leaving the audience to mostly figure out the narrative. The plot features a janitor (Masao Inoune) who works at a women’s sanitarium in order to keep an eye on his wife who’s committed there. As his environment causes him to slowly lose his grip on reality, he fantasizes about a better life for him and his wife that will never come. The final ten minutes, which sees the janitor increasingly desperate to find any semblance of happiness and normalcy in a world that doesn’t allow any, is especially creepy thanks to the use of some chilling masks. Full of fear-filled close-ups and manic intercutting, the visual style incorporates traditional, symmetrical production design with stark and angled German expressionist lighting.
Traditional Kabuki and Noh theater are full of ghost stories that are meant to serve as morality tales, cautioning the audience not to act the way the anti-hero protagonist in the play did, lest they incur the wrath of angry spirits seeking just revenge. Based on a famous Kabuki play, The Ghost of Yotsuya is a prime entry point to this world, since it serves a streamlined story of earthly wrongdoing followed by otherworldly vengeance without much filler or attempts at modernizing the form. In chronicling the inevitable downfall of a greedy ronin (Shigeru Amachi) who poisons his wife (Katsuko Wakasugi) in order to marry a richer woman, only to be driven mad by the ghosts of those he wronged, director Nobuo Nakagawa mostly sticks to static long shots that showcase the entire stage, as if from the point-of-view of a Kabuki theater audience. As the ronin begins to suffer from surprisingly-gory-for-its-time visions, Nakagawa adopts a more intimate visual approach, pushing the camera closer to let the audience feel the rising dread within the ronin’s mind as he realizes that his soul is doomed. This is as close to straight, unvarnished, Kabuki horror as you will get.
Having had his fill of strictly traditional Japanese horror a year previously with The Ghost of Yotsuya, director Nobuo Nakagawa lets loose with this batshit crazy, hyper violent—even by today’s standards—tonally loose and visually experimental cautionary tale that comes literally from hell. Just how fast and loose Nakagawa will be playing with tone and narrative expectation becomes clear from the opening credits, a jazzy Bond-style intro with dancing naked women. What follows is the exact opposite of that which the credits promise, as the story settles on a well-meaning student (Shigeru Amachi) increasingly involved in heinous crimes after being convinced to cover up a hit-and-run. The horde of seemingly random shady characters Nakagawa stuffs into the first hour of the script is by design, since their convoluted deaths pulls us into the second half of the film, taking place literally in hell as we witness these wrongdoers suffer for their sins. There’s an aura of pompous fire and brimstone preaching about the end result of wickedness, but my take is that Nakagawa used the surface morality of the story as an excuse to linger on some shocking graphic violence—people being skinned alive, burned and impaled in great detail, impressive gorehound bait for a movie from 1960—and visual experimentation that captures some unsettling nightmare logic. The moments of sincere, unintentionally funny melodrama only add to the audience unease inflicted by such loose tonal connective tissue. The hell section is so full of crimsons and greens that flood the frames, that it’s hard not to wonder if the Giallo masters of the 1970s took notes. Jigoku is prime nightmare fuel.
During feudal medieval times in Kyoto, it’s a dog-eat-dog world where everyone has to fend for themselves; the weak starve and die, while the strong take advantage of the weak to survive. Soon, any remnant of humanity is so removed through desperate acts of robbery and murder, that the dog-eat-dog metaphor becomes a reality. That’s where we meet a mother-daughter team (Nobuko Otowa and Jitsuko Yoshimura) who fend off starvation by finishing off wounded samurai and selling their gear for food. At the beginning of director Kaneto Shindo’s masterful dark fable on dehumanization, the mother and daughter already act like stray animals, barely getting by in their tiny hut in the middle of an isolated field. With the arrival of the opportunist Hachi (Kei Sato), the rift between mother and daughter widens, as the daughter gives in to her basest urges and humps Hachi’s brains out while the mother festers with so much sexual frustration that she resorts to Evil Dead-style tree fucking. (At least in this case, the act is consensual.) The arrival of a lost samurai wearing a supernatural mask seems to give the mother the ultimate solution to break up the young couple, but it turns out to be the final step in her transformation into a soulless beast. Shindo alternates between long shots of fields full of isolation as far as the eye can see, and extreme close-ups of characters lit with stark, low-angle lighting to emphasize their ulterior motives. A character-based horror with a slow, inexorable terror that envelops the audience, Onibaba is a true genre classic.
It’s interesting that the most internationally known works by director Kaneto Shindo, whose career is mostly full of dramas, are two of his rare horror outings, Onibaba and Kuroneko. Yet there’s a reason why those two titles stand out within the genre, as Shindo’s experience with dramas allow him to extract more depth and nuance out of characters that are usually archetypes for the traditional genre elements to move the plot forward. Kuroneko is about a mother-daughter team of ghosts (Nobuko Otowa and Kiwako Taichi) who lure lost samurai into their dimension to kill them as vengeance for being raped and killed by their kind. The premise sounds like typical genre fodder, but the empathy that Shindo finds in the ghosts turns the rules upside down, asking us to sympathize with the supernatural killers while extracting the horror out of the vicious acts of the living. Stuffed with an isolating, gloomy mood full of fog and darkness, Kuroneko is a drama-horror experience unlike any other.