Before jumping into my discussion of Asian horror cinema, I wanted to briefly discuss the director of Kwaidan: Masaki Kobayashi. Along with Yasujiro Ozu (Late Spring , Tokyo Story , Good Morning , and Floating Weeds ), Akira Kurosawa (Rashomon , Seven Samurai , Yojimbo , and Ran ), Kenji Mizoguchi (Ugetsu  and Sansho the Bailiff ), and Seijun Suzuki (Youth of the Beast , Story of a Prostitute , Tokyo Drifter , and Branded to Kill ), Kobayashi remains one of the powerful cinematic auteurs that helped shape Japanese cinema in the post-WWII years. Like Kurosawa, Kobayashi often adopted the samurai genre to his own purposes and infused the popular genre with his own poetic visuals and philosophical meditations. His films have often never been seen in the United States, and the Criterion Collection remains responsible for the four films of his that are available on DVD in the U.S. A pacifist, Kobayashi’s films often interrogate and criticize political power, war, and violence. Before Kwaidan, he created a nine-hour, three-part film entitled The Human Condition (1959-61) that depicts the life of a young, Japanese pacifist as he struggles in the imperialistic, fascist world of WWII-era Japan. Kobayashi continued to interrogate the nature of power and the military in Harakiri (or Seppeku ). The film concerns a ronin (a samurai without a master) in seventeenth-century Japan who arrives at the house of a feudal lord and requests to commit seppeku (a form of ritual suicide that was part of the samurai code) on his property. Harakiri is a scathing indictment of Japanese feudalism and the often absurd and cruel notion of honor that upheld the feudal system and the samurai way of life. But, more generally, Harakiri enacts a dramatically brutalizing critique of the military and its modes of conduct as well as a heartbreaking look at the marginalized individuals who struggle along the edges of society when power vacuums develop. Kobayashi would continue to explore such political themes in subsequent films like Samurai Rebellion (1967), and his combination of a distinctive aesthetic and political undertones mark Kobayashi as one of the great masters of Japanese cinema.
The history of Asian horror goes back much further than twentieth-century cinema. The history of Asian horror cinema stretches back for decades, but the past three decades have witnessed it blossoming into a truly original, influential, and damn scary force in global horror industry. Because Japan has one of the most developed and famous cinematic histories of eastern Asian, this post and its sequel will focus mostly on Japanese horror films, but it will take time to mention the Asian horror and transgressive cinema that has begun proliferating over the last two decades in countries as diverse as Japan, China, Taiwan, Thailand, Vietnam, and South Korea. The origins of Japanese horror cinema can be traced back centuries to the kaidan (or kwaidan) genre that began to develop in the Edo Period (1603-1868). These tales developed the figure of the yurei (a Japanese ghost), which continues to be a distinctly Japanese version of ghosts in contemporary Asian horror cinema. The yurei are generally spirits that have been kept from a peaceful afterlife. They are most often female and generally appear in white garments with long, black, often unkempt hair. The kaidan genre became famous in the United States with the publication of Lafcadio Hearn’s Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things (1903), which served as the basis for the Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan.
Japanese cinema began to develop its own distinctive brand of horror in the 1950s and 60s. Along with Kwaidan, the 1950s and 60s saw the production of four other highly influential and groundbreaking Japanese horror films: Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu (1953), Nabuo Nakagawa’s Jigoku (1960), Kaneta Shindo’s Onibaba (1964), and Teruo Ishii’s Horrors of Malformed Men (1969). Generally regarded as one of the great masterworks of Japanese cinema, Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu concerns two men who attempt to profit from their pottery business during wartime and their wives who are left behind in their absence. The two make large sums of money, but their hometown is attacked by soldiers while they are away. Eventually, the film’s realism gives way to depict evil spirits, exorcism, etc. A beautiful, meditative look at identity, power, greed, and social hierarchy that is as emotionally moving as it is politically charged, Ugetsu remains a masterful example of kaidan cinema.
Nabuo Kakagawa’s Jigoku, which literally translates as “Hell,” relates the fable-like tale of a young man who unknowingly befriends the devil in human form. The devil draws in not just the young man but his girlfriend, her family, and others as well into a web of adultery, gluttony, drunkenness, murder, and deceit. Then, the film shifts from a realistic depiction of the characters in contemporary Japan to a surrealistic, nightmarish, brutal, and gory descent into Hell with all its various tortures. Drawing upon surrealism and expressionism, Jigoku remains a truly disturbing and original portrayal of humanity, its inherently sinful nature, and the punishments we imagine for ourselves.
Set in fourteenth-century Japan, Onibaba also represents a blend of stark realism and fantastic horror reminiscent of the fairy tale genre. Onibaba concerns a woman and her daughter-in-law, whose husband has gone off to war and never returned, who kill passing samurai, rob them of their armor and possessions, and dispose of their bodies in a deep pit. From one of these samurai, the mother-in-law steals a demon mask, which begins to haunt the two women. The title Onibaba literally means “demon woman,” and the film features the appearance of said demon in its second half. Onibaba is tale about the marginalized and the poverty stricken—it depicts the effects of war on the lower class women whose lives are devastated by the loss of the men in their family. Onibaba examines how crime results from poverty and how poverty can turn decent, normal people into cruel, heartless demons.
In 1969, Teruo Ishii released his controversial blend of horror and erotica entitled Horrors of Malformed Men, an example of Ero Guro (the erotic-grotesque), which itself is a subgenre of the Japanese Pink Film. A pink film is a theatrically real eased, Japanese, softcore pornographic film that came to dominate the Japanese film marketplace in the 1970s and 80s. The film concerns a man who escapes from a mental hospital and attempts to discover and recall his past. When he arrives at the coast, he discovers that a man who looks exactly like him is being buried. He ends up taking the corpse’s place and faking a return from the dead. The dead man’s wife and mistress then begin pursuing him sexually. Murders begin to occur around him, and he finally takes a boat to a remote island where his deformed father is building some sort of nightmarish utopiia. He discovers his father to be a mad dictator of the island who holds women and deformed individuals captive. He tortures, debases, even surgically alters people to make them into monstrosities. Featuring copious sex and nudity, outrageous and disturbing monstrosities, and brutality, Horrors of Malformed Men remains a bizarre, surrealistic, and shocking piece of horror cinema that is unlike anything else.
Japan continued to produce highly original and stylish horror films in the 1970s, which saw the release of one of the most bizarre horror films in cinematic history: Nobuhiko Obayashi’s Hausu (or House ). Hausu concerns a schoolgirl who takes a group of her friends to spend the summer at her aunt’s house. The girls soon encounter supernatural phenomena and discover that the house is basically a living entity itself. Slowly, the girls are devoured by the house in some of the most surrealistic and strange death scenes ever. Hausu feels like it is the bastard, hybrid offspring of a drunken encounter between a traditional haunted house film and drug trip cinema like The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour (1967), The Monkees’ Head (1968), or television shows like H.R. Pufnstuf (1969-72). Even ardent fans of bizarro cinema will find Hausu to be a surprisingly mind-bending and often inexplicable film.
In the 1970s, one of Japan’s most controversial and transgressive directors created two of his masterpieces that could be classified as horror films: Empire of Passion (1978) and In the Realm of the Senses (1976). Empire of Passion concerns a wife and her young lover who decide to murder her husband and throw his body in a well. Featuring copious sex that stretched the boundaries of censorship, Empire of Passion depicts the haunting that intrudes upon the couple’s paradise of passion. Beautiful, savage, erotic, and stylish, Empire of Passion was Oshima’s only real kaidan, and it remains a hallmark of the genre. But Oshima attained truly scandalous notoriety two years earlier with the release of his almost pornographic In the Realm of the Senses. The film, which concerns a man who leaves his family to begin an affair with a prostitute, features graphic, unsimulated sex and had to be listed as a French production because of Japan’s censorship laws. Based on a true story, In the Realm of the Senses depicts the couple’s all-consuming dedication to their ever-escalating affair. They engage in ever more daring forms of sexual experimentation culminating in a brutal castration scene. Unrelentingly erotic and unnerving, In the Realm of the Senses continues to test the boundary between art and pornography to this day. While not a ghost story, the film remains a classic example of transgressive and horrific Japanese cinema. Oshima’s films always featured tales of prostitutes, murderers, criminals, rebels, etc. as ways of conveying Oshima’s radical political ideals. And his films continue to demonstrate how genre films can be used to critique socio-political issues.
The films listed here helped not only shape the modern Japanese horror film but also Japanese cinema in general. In my next post, I will look at Asian horror cinema from the 80s to the present. I will look at the bizarrely disturbing films of the 80s as well as the birth of the present generation of Asian horror films.