Japanese horror

Japanese horror (also known as J-Horror) is horror fiction arising from popular culture in Japan, generally noted for its unique thematic and conventional treatment of the horror genre differing from the traditional Western representation of horror.[1] Mediums in which Japanese horror fiction is showcased include literature, anime and film, video games, and artwork. Japanese horror tends to focus on psychological horror, tension building (suspense), and supernatural horror, particularly involving ghosts (yūrei) and poltergeists.[2] Other Japanese horror fiction contains themes of folk religion such as possession, exorcism, shamanism, precognition, and yōkai.[2]


The origins of Japanese horror can be traced back to the ghost story and horror classics of the Edo period and the Meiji period, which were known as Kaidan, literally translated to strange story.[3] Elements of these popular folktales have been worked into the stories of modern films, especially in the traditional nature of the Japanese ghost and Yōkai.[3] The term Yōkai was first used to refer to any supernatural phenomenon and was brought to common use by the Meiji period scholar Inoue Enryo.[4] Later, the term Yōkai evolved to refer to vengeful states Shinto Gods would morph into when disrespected or neglected by people living around their shrines.[5] Over time, Shinto Gods were not the only ones able to morph into Yōkai, but this ability to transform came to be applied to all beings who have an untamed energy surrounding them, referred to as Mononoke.[6]

Throughout time, Kaidan has come to refer to early ghost stories in Japanese literature, dating back to at least the Heian period (794–1185).[7] Kaidan stories became popular in Japan during this period after the invention of printing technologies, allowing the spread of the written stories.[8] Notable early Kaidan stories include Otogi Boko by Asai Ryoi, Inga Monogatari by Suzuki Shojo, and Otogi Monogatari by Ogita Ansei.[8]

Kabuki and Noh, forms of traditional Japanese theater, often depict horror tales of revenge and ghastly appearances.[8] One difference between these two forms of theater is Noh is formal and targeted for upperclassmen while Kabuki is interactive and seen as "the theater of the people."[8] The subject matter often portrayed in original Noh theater include vengeful spirits, demon plays, stories of death, and others.[8] Many of the storylines of these traditional plays have inspired modern horror depictions, and these stories have been used as source material for Japanese horror films.[8] In fact, Kabuki was a major subject of early Japanese films, and Kabuki gradually was woven into the framework of the modern horror films seen today.[8] For example, the physical description of Sadako in Koji Suzuki's Ring is taken from what was seen in Noh and Kabuki theater performances.[3]

Evolution of Japanese Horror Cinema

After the bombing of Hiroshima, Japanese horror cinema would mainly consist of vengeful ghosts and monsters, such as Godzilla.[9] The post war era is also when the horror genre rose to prominence in Japan.[9] The first major Japanese horror film, often seen as the first in the genre, is Onibaba directed by Kaneto Shindo in 1964.[10] The film is categorized as a historical horror drama where a woman and her mother-in-law attempt to survive during a civil war.[10] Like many early Japanese horror films, elements are drawn largely from traditional Kabuki and Noh theater.[9] Onibaba also shows heavy influence from World War 2.[9] Shindo himself revealed the make-up used in the unmasking scene was inspired by photos he had seen of mutilated victims of the atomic bombings.[9] In 1965, the genre was expanded when an anthology film comprising four stories, each based upon traditional ghost stories, was released named Kwaidan, directed by Masaki Kobayashi.[10] Similar to Onibaba, Kwaidan weaves elements of Noh theater into the story.[9] This anthology uses elements of psychological horror rather than jump scare tactics common in Western horror films.[10] Additionally, Kwaidan showcases one commonality seen in various Japanese horror films being the recurring imagery of the woman with long, unkempt hair falling over her face.[11] Examples of other films created after Kwaidan weaving this motif into the story are Ring (1998), The Grudge (2004), and Exte (2007).[11] This imagery was directly taken from a traditional Japanese folklore tale similar to the Medusa.[11]

In contemporary Japanese horror films, a dominant feature is haunted houses and the break-up of nuclear families.[12] Additionally, monstrous mothers become a major theme, not just in films but in Japanese horror novels as well.[12][13] Kiyoshi Kurosawa's film Sweet Home provides the basis for the contemporary haunted house film and also served as an inspiration to the Resident Evil games.[12] Japanese culture has seen increased focus on family life, where loyalty to superiors has been de-emphasized.[12] From this, any act of dissolving a family was seen as horrifying, making it a topic of particular interest in Japanese horror media.[12]


Notable films

Notable directors

Anime and manga

Certain popular Japanese horror films are based on manga, including Tomie, Uzumaki, and Yogen.

Video games


Since the early 2000s, several of the more popular Japanese horror films have been remade. Ring (1998) was one of the first to be remade in America as The Ring, and later The Ring Two (although this sequel bears almost no similarity to the original Japanese sequel). Other notable examples include The Grudge (2004), Dark Water (2005), and One Missed Call (2008)

With the exception of The Ring, most American remakes of Japanese horror films have received negative reviews (although The Grudge received mixed reviews).[19][20][21] One Missed Call has received the worst reception of all, having earned the Moldy Tomato Award at Rotten Tomatoes for garnering a 0% critical approval rating. The Grudge 4 was announced in 2011, but no news has surfaced since. Similarly, The Ring 3D was reportedly green-lit by Paramount in 2010,[22] and it was reported in 2016 that the film would be renamed Rings and released in early 2017.

Many of the original directors who created these Asian horror films have gone on to direct the American remakes. For example, Hideo Nakata, director of Ring, directed the remake The Ring Two; and Takashi Shimizu, director of the original Ju-on, directed the remake The Grudge as well as its sequel, The Grudge 2.

Several other Asian countries have also remade Japanese horror films. For example, South Korea created their own version of the Japanese horror classic Ring, titled The Ring Virus.

In 2007, Los Angeles-based writer-director Jason Cuadrado released the film Tales from the Dead, a horror film in four parts that Cuadrado filmed in the United States with a cast of Japanese actors speaking their native language.

Zombie fiction

In addition to psychological J-horror, there are also numerous Japanese works of zombie fiction. One of the earliest Japanese zombie films with considerable gore and violence was Battle Girl: The Living Dead in Tokyo Bay (1991) directed by Kazuo Komizu.[23] However, unlike Western zombie films at the time, Battle Girl: The Living Dead in Tokyo Bay neglected to bring in a notable response nationally from the box office.[24] It was not until the release of two 1996 Japanese zombie games, Capcom's Resident Evil and Sega's The House of the Dead, whose success sparked an international craze for zombie media, that many filmmakers began to capitalize on zombie films.[25][23][24] In addition to featuring George Romero's classic slow zombies, The House of the Dead also introduced a new type of zombie: the fast-running zombie.[26]

According to Kim Newman in the book Nightmare Movies (2011), the "zombie revival began in the Far East" during the late 1990s, largely inspired by two Japanese zombie games released in 1996: Resident Evil, which started the Resident Evil video game series, and Sega's arcade shooter House of the Dead. The success of these two 1996 zombie games inspired a wave of Asian zombie films, such as the zombie comedy Bio Zombie (1998) and action film Versus (2000).[23] The zombie films released after Resident Evil were influenced by zombie video games, which inspired them to dwell more on the action compared to older George Romero films.[27]

The zombie revival which began in the Far East eventually went global following the worldwide success of the Japanese zombie games Resident Evil and The House of the Dead.[23] They sparked a revival of the zombie genre in popular culture, leading to a renewed global interest in zombie films during the early 2000s.[28] In addition to being adapted into the Resident Evil and House of the Dead films from 2002 onwards, the original video games themselves also inspired zombie films such as 28 Days Later (2002)[29] and Shaun of the Dead (2004),[30] leading to the revival of zombie films during the 2000s.[28][29][31] In 2013, George Romero said it was the video games Resident Evil and House of the Dead "more than anything else" that popularised his zombie concept in early 21st century popular culture.[32][33] The fast-running zombies introduced in The House of the Dead games also began appearing in zombie films during the 2000s, including the Resident Evil and House of the Dead films, 28 Days Later, and the 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake.[26]

The low-budget Japanese zombie comedy One Cut of the Dead (2017) became a sleeper hit in Japan, and it made box office history by earning over a thousand times its budget.[34] One Cut of the Dead also received worldwide acclaim, with Rotten Tomatoes stating it "reanimates the moribund zombie genre with a refreshing blend of formal daring and clever satire."[35]

See also


  1. Balmain, Colette (2008). Introduction to Japanese Horror Film. George Square, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. ISBN 9780748624751.
  2. "A Brief History of Japanese Horror". rikumo journal. Retrieved 2019-11-09.
  3. Johnson, Adam J. (2015). "The Evolution of Yōkai in Relationship to the Japanese Horror Genre". Master Theses: 1–116.
  4. Papp, Zilia (October 29, 2010). Traditional Monster Imagery in Manga, Anime, and Cinema. Brill. p. 38. ISBN 9789004212602. Retrieved October 16, 2019.
  5. Papp, Zilia (October 29, 2010). Traditional Monster Imagery in Manga, Anime, and Cinema. Brill. p. 39. ISBN 9789004212602. Retrieved October 16, 2019.
  6. Papp, Zilia (October 29, 2010). Traditional Monster Imagery in Manga, Anime, and Cinema. Brill. p. 40. ISBN 9789004212602. Retrieved October 16, 2019.
  7. Finch, Travis. Haunted Boundaries: Ghost Stories in Isolationist Japan. Florida Atlantic University. p. 1.
  8. Petty, John E. "Stage and Scream: The Influence of Traditional Japanese Theater, Culture, and Aesthetics on Japan's Cinema of the Fantastic". University of North Texas. Retrieved January 11, 2019.
  9. Balmain, Colette (2008). Introduction to Japanese Horror Film. George Square, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. ISBN 9780748624751.
  10. "A Brief History of Japanese Horror". rikumo journal. Retrieved 2019-11-09.
  11. Byrne, James (July 2014). "Wigs and Rings: Cross-Cultural Exchange in the South Korean and Japanese Horror Film". Journal of Japanese & Korean Cinema. Volume 6: pp. 184–201 via EBSCOhost.CS1 maint: extra text (link)
  12. Balmain, Colette (2008). Introduction to Japanese Horror Film. George Square, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. ISBN 9780748624751.
  13. Dumas, Raechel (2018). "Monstrous Motherhood and Evolutionary Horror in Contemporary Japanese Science Fiction". Science Fiction Studies. 45: 24–47 via EBSCOhost.
  14. Smith, Gary A. "Japan's Bloodthirsty Trilogy". Vampire Films of the 1970s: Dracula to Blacula and Every Fang Between. pp. 84–88.
  15. Galbraith IV, Stuart (1996). The Japanese Filmography: 1900 through 1994. McFarland. page 197.
  16. Galbraith,Stuart (1994). Japanese Fantasy, Science Fiction and Horror Films. McFarland and Co., Inc. p. 317.
  17. http://www.tcm.turner.com/tcmdb/title/557389/Tokaido-Yotsuya-kaidan/
  18. Galbraith IV, Stuart (1996). The Japanese Filmography: 1900 through 1994. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland. ISBN 0-7864-0032-3. p. 382.
  19. "The Ring". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 2014-07-29.
  20. The Grudge at Metacritic
  21. One Missed Call at Metacritic
  22. "Paramount to Make The Ring 3D". /Film. April 26, 2010. Retrieved September 24, 2013.
  23. Newman, Kim (2011). Nightmare Movies: Horror on Screen Since the 1960s. A&C Black. p. 559. ISBN 9781408805039.
  24. Murphy, Kayleigh; Ryan, Mark. "Undead yakuza: the Japanese zombie movie, cultural resonance, and generic conventions". The Supernatural Revamped: From Timeworn Legends to 21st Century Chic.
  25. Kay, Glenn (2008). Zombie Movies: The Ultimate Guide. Chicago Review Press. p. 184. ISBN 9781569766835.
  26. Levin, Josh (2007-12-19). "How did movie zombies get so fast?". Slate.com. Retrieved 2013-11-05.
  27. Newman, Kim (2011). Nightmare Movies: Horror on Screen Since the 1960s. A&C Black. p. 560. ISBN 9781408805039.
  28. Barber, Nicholas (21 October 2014). "Why are zombies still so popular?". BBC. Retrieved 31 May 2019.
  29. Hasan, Zaki (April 10, 2015). "INTERVIEW: Director Alex Garland on Ex Machina". Huffington Post. Retrieved June 21, 2018.
  30. "12 Killer Facts About Shaun of the Dead". Mental Floss. 23 January 2016. Retrieved 31 May 2019.
  31. "How '28 Days Later' Changed the Horror Genre". The Hollywood Reporter. 29 June 2018. Retrieved 31 May 2019.
  32. Weedon, Paul (17 July 2017). "George A. Romero (interview)". Paul Weedon. Retrieved 2 June 2019.
  33. Diver, Mike (17 July 2017). "Gaming's Greatest, Romero-Worthy Zombies". Vice. Retrieved 2 June 2019.
  34. Nguyen, Hanh (31 December 2018). "'One Cut of the Dead': A Bootleg of the Japanese Zombie Comedy Mysteriously Appeared on Amazon". IndieWire. Retrieved 2 March 2019.
  35. "One Cut of the Dead (Kamera o tomeru na!) (2017)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 2 March 2019.

Further reading

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