The history of cinema in Japan spans more than a century, with their first successful film released in 1897. By the next year, the Japanese produced two of the first ghost movies ever made. These silent black and white films were called “Bake Jizo” (Jizo the Spook) and “Shinin No Sosei” (Resurrection of a Corpse.) Given their history plus ancient folklore and superstitions, it is no surprise that some of the world’s most haunting movies come from this land of mystery and the rising sun.
Iowa City Public Library has an excellent collection of Japanese films, including both classic and new titles. Most are shelved together in the green labeled foreign movies section (look for the category “Japanese.”) There you can find several fantastic ghost movies, including:
Kwaidan (1965) Directed by Masaki Koboyashi. One of the most arresting films I’ve ever seen, this portmanteau (“ghost story”) movie is based on four separate stories from Lafcadio Hearn’s wonderful 1918 book, Japanese Fairy Tales. Though the eerie stories are unrelated, they are linked by a strong sense of ghosts and fear of the supernatural. The movie’s expressionistic color cinematography and set designs are breathtaking. Especially in the full scale reenactment by ghosts of a tragic, ancient sea battle set to music sung by a blind musician character called Ho-ichi, the Earless. My favorite story of the set is “Yuki-onna” (“The Woman in the Snow”), in which a demon snow woman falls for a freezing traveler she would normally kill only to have him betray her secret after their marriage.
Onibaba=Demon Woman (1964) In this tale, an impoverished mother and her daughter-in-law eke out a lonely, desperate existence in the susuki grass wastelands of feudal Japan. In order to survive, they are forced to murder the various lost samurai who pass by during the long civil war and sell their belongings for grain, dumping their corpses down a deep, dark hole. Exquisite black and white imagery will strike viewers as well as the women’s horrific punishment for first stealing and then wearing a haunted demonic mask.
Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams (1990) This film has eight unique sections which are all based on real dreams of Kurosawa, its director, at different stages of his life. All are unusual for their use of magical realism and several have scenarios that are more fantastic than horrific. Two segments are specifically about ghosts. “The Blizzard” is about a desperate band of mountaineers lost in a terrifyingly fierce and supernaturally driven snowstorm. Sure enough, another Yuki-onna demon woman tries to convince them drop to the ground and sleep so that she can suck their warm breath away to death. The other nightmarish vignette is called “The Tunnel” and concerns a defeated Japanese officer who is haunted by his entire platoon of soldiers waiting for further orders since dying at his command.
Other haunting Japanese films include the following interesting titles. Check them out soon and be sure to turn the lights down low!
Ugetsu (1953) – Set in 16th century Japan, this film focuses on an ambitious potter haunted by a beautiful yet tragic ghost and a foolish farmer who yearns to become a samurai.
Suna No Onna = Woman in the Dunes (1964) – This is more an existentialist film than traditional horror, but the surreal landscape and storyline make it troubling and a visual masterpiece.
Ju-On = The Grudge (2003) Revenge and curses from the spirit world have never been more creepy!
Ringu = The Ring (1998) Beware watching those unsolicited videos – for it might be your demise shown on the TV next!