A Brief History of Japanese Horror

If you're looking to celebrate Halloween, you're likely running into one of two activity choices: going out to trick or treat, or staying in to watch a scary movie. Those of us brave enough to hunker down in our dens with the lights turned off and a scary movie in the screen know that Japanese horror is always a reliable source of scares. But did you know that the earliest (and now lost to time) Japanese horror films began in the 1920s?  Or that most stories can be traced down to an Irish folklorist who began to transcribe them? In a special guest post from Rob Buscher, we dive deep into the unknown history of Japanese horror. Rob knows his stuff- as the festival director of the Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival, a nonprofit that celebrates the Asian American and Pacific Islander experience though cinema, he's responsible for bringing films by and about Asian Americans to the Philadelphia region. Read on to learn about the origins of Japanese horror films, its connection to local folklore, and his favorite horror films to watch this Halloween.  Once notoriously difficult to find, most of these films are available to watch via the Criterion Collection. 

A collage of stills from  Onibaba .  Credit. 

A collage of stills from Onibaba. Credit. 

With Halloween just around the corner, most Americans will be watching scary movies this weekend. As an alternative to the typical slasher flick or survival horror, why not check out a few Japanese horror films instead? Here is a brief primer to help you get started.

Japanese horror is deeply rooted in the folk tales from their culture, similar to how Grimm’s Brothers and other fairy tales are the inspiration for some American and European horror. These folk tales began as oral tradition passed down from each generation to the next, and originate through the Shinto belief system that is indigenous to Japan. Like most mythologies, these stories were used to reinforce cultural norms and explain the enigmatic in a pre-scientific era. One example of this are Oni, or invisible demons, who are present throughout folk tales. Oni are said to live among people and possess magic powers that create disease and natural disasters.

Portrait of Lafcadio Hearn. Credit. 

Portrait of Lafcadio Hearn. Credit. 

A subgenre within these folk stories that deal with subjects of the occult are called yokai (ghost) stories, and are a familiar presence in Japanese popular culture. The word yokai is used as a general reference to supernatural beings, but there are several subcategories such as bakemono (shape-shifters) and yurei (vengeful spirits). One type of yurei that might be familiar to Western audiences comes from the story of Okiku, who was thrown down a well by a samurai for refusing his romantic advances. Okiku returns as a vengeful spirit and is depicted with long black hair and a gravelly whispering voice. Like Okiku, many of these yurei are female spirits seeking vengeance on the men who wronged them, seen only by the person they torment, and gradually drive them insane.

Interestingly it wasn’t until an Irish folklorist named Lafcadio Hearn began recording these stories during the last decade of the 19th century that Japanese people themselves began taking interest in them beyond the context of children’s fables or the occasional stage adaptation. Fluent in Japanese and one of the first foreigners to become integrated into Japanese society, Hearn spent years living in Japan as he compiled a series of yokai stories that were published in 1904 as Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things.

Aside from a few short films from the early 20th century that no longer exist, Japanese horror cinema got a relatively late start in the mid-1960s. Directed by Kaneto Shindo in 1964, Onibaba is widely considered the first in this genre. The plot follows a widow and her mother-in-law set during the warring states period who survive by luring unsuspecting soldiers to their deaths and selling their equipment for food. In a somewhat Twilight Zone-esque fashion, the battle mask of their last victim fuses to the old woman’s face, resulting in a series of events that lead to their mutual destruction.


The following year director Masaki Kobayashi released his horror anthology film Kwaidan, which presents a selection of stories from Hearn’s collection through a series of four unrelated vignettes. Winning Special Jury Prize at the 1965 Cannes Film Festival, Kobayashi would go on to become an influential horror director both in Japan and abroad. In Kobayashi’s approach to horror, fear manifests as a constant sense of dread that builds to a climax throughout the course of the film. Compared to his American counterparts, who use jump-scare tactics such as sudden character reactions paired with loud noises, Kobayashi’s horror is far more psychological; fear coming from what isn’t shown onscreen and for that reason leaves you thinking about the story long after the film has ended.

A scene from  Kwaidan.   Credit. 

A scene from Kwaidan. Credit. 

While the late 1960s to mid-80s were known for their increasingly campy exploitation genre of horror, a rare gem in this period is director Nobuhiko Obayashi’s 1977 Hausu. A unique blend of comedy and horror, Hausu can best be described as a slasher flick made by Japanese hippies. A high school girl brings a group of friends to visit her distant aunt who turns out to be a vampire that feeds on young women to maintain her eternal youth. Highly influential in both style and content, Obayashi’s use of experimental film technique results in a wholly surreal experience that went on to inspire generations of filmmakers in Japan and abroad.

It wasn’t until the late 1990s that Japanese horror became known colloquially as J-Horror, a term that was coined by British distribution label Tartan Video who distributed overseas content into the UK market through their Asian Extreme collection. It was this era that resulted in classics such as Hideo Nakata’s Ringu (1998), which was later adapted into the American remake called The Ring (2002). On the off chance that anyone reading this somehow escaped the cultural phenomena that was The Ring series, the plot is about a mysterious video tape that evokes an evil spirit named Sadako who kills people within seven days after watching it. Evoking a similar sense of dread as Kobayashi’s early horrors, Ringu captured the terrified imaginations of an entire generation both in the US and Japan. The character Sadako also embodies the classic image of the yurei with her long black hair and pale white skin.

A poster for the film anthology  Kwaidan . Credit. 

A poster for the film anthology Kwaidan. Credit. 

Director Kiyoshi Kurosawa (no relation to acclaimed filmmaker Akira Kurosawa) emerged from the J-Horror era with a similar style of psychological horror, but also addressed contemporary social issues within his films. Kurosawa’s 2001 film Pulse, addresses the fear of the late 1990s that the sudden mainstreaming of digital technology was going to completely change Japanese society in an irrevocable and terrible manner. Inspired in part by the Y2K era concerns, the horror element in Pulse involves yurei taking control of the internet that results in physical and mental harm to its protagonists. Similarly influenced by early folklore was Takashi Shimizu’s 2002 film Ju-on: The Grudge, in which the vengeful spirits of a woman and child possess the house in which they were murdered. Expanding the yurei image to include poltergeist-like possession of physical surroundings, this film was later remade by an American crew in 2004.

Japanese directors continue pushing the limits of this genre through the horror comedy and satirical splatter subgenres that have become popular over the past decade. Incorporating campy tokusatsu (special effects) aesthetics with over-the-top gore, popular films in this category include Yoshihiro Nishimura’s 2008 Tokyo Gore Police, 2009 Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl, and 2010 Mutant Girls Squad and Noboru Iguchi’s 2008 The Machine Girl and 2012 Dead Sushi.

As major Japanese studios began to follow the Hollywood trend of remakes, adaptations, and sequels there have been few studio horror films in the last decade. One notable exception is the 2016 film Sayako vs. Kayako that pits the two yurei from Ringu and Ju-On series against each other. While not overtly scary, the popular manga series Death Note about a magical notebook that will result in the death of any person whose name is written inside it was adapted in a trilogy of films released in 2006 and 2016 respectively. This story was also remade by Hollywood in 2017, but has been heavily criticized for its whitewashing of the characters and story.

On the independent side of production, several filmmakers are working hard to keep this genre alive. Directed by Sakichi Sato in 2005, Tokyo Zombie offers an inherently Japanese perspective on the zombie genre, focusing on the friendship between two working class martial artists. Another great indie horror is Eiji Uchida’s 2014 Dead Banging, a musical comedy horror mashup in which an all-female hardcore band embark on a tour amidst the apocalypse after adding a zombie as their backup vocalist.

As you can see, the Japanese film industry has a variety of perspectives to offer on horror ranging from subliminal psychological terror to in-your-face comedy horror, yet are all rooted in Japanese culture. Unsurprisingly Kwaidan continues to be highly impactful for filmmakers exploring the genre from a Japanese perspective, a legacy that will likely endure for generations to come.