J-Horror Ghosts

“Punishment is what you are after, huh?” (Akiko Yada, “Pyrokinesis”)

The current J-Horror image of the pale-faced but essentially youthful female ghost with long hair can be traced back to films such as Michio Yamamoto’s “Yureiyashiki no kyofu: Chi o suu ningyoo” ("Bloodsucking Doll," 1970) in which Yukiko Kobayashi played a vampire “Yuko Nonomura” whose appearance may have served as a model for “Ringu’s” “Sadako,” as well as images of vengeful female spirits in traditional stories such as “Okiku’s Well” as enacted in Kabuki and visualized by 19th Century ukiyo-e print master Tsukioka Yoshitoshi.  Other general cultural influences may include the masks and formal plot structures of Noh that also accord special prominence to portrayals of female vengeance for wrongs suffered at the hands of males, as well as the early 20th Century horror fiction of Taro Hirai.  Writing under the pen name of Edogawa Rampo, Hirai was influenced by the works of both Edgar Allan Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle to produce enduringly popular mysteries blending the bizarre with suspense.

Bloodsucking Doll
The “Ring” films – as distinct from related television productions – originated with Hideo Nakata’s highly successful 1998 screen adaptation of Koji Suzuki’s 1991 novel “Ringu.”  Hiroshi Takahashi’s screenplay departed from the novel in several important ways.  By erasing the literary “Sadako’s” ambiguous gender status, deleting elements of sexual assault, and feminizing the character of the investigating protagonist, the feature film script established connections with the female vengeance spirits of traditional stories as well as cultural shifts in the narrative representation of female characters.
The Ring, Juon
In “Ringu,” Nanako Matsushima plays the character of “Reiko Asakawa,” a divorced mother who encounters rumors of a videotape that kills its viewers exactly one week after watching it unless it is passed on to another victim.  After viewing the tape herself, “Reiko” teams up with her ex-husband “Ryuji” (Hiroyuki Sanada) to use their skills as investigative reporters to unearth the mystery and save herself.  They trace the origins of the murky videotaped images to a remote island community, where a girl “Sadako” (Rie Inou) was thrown into a well by her father.  It is her vengeful spirit that is embodied in the videotape, and “Reiko’s” discovery of the apparent crime seems to save her but not her ex-husband.  In one of the defining scenes of contemporary J-Horror, “Ryuji” is confronted by the spirit of “Sadako” who emerges from the well, crawls across the ground toward the imagined position of the camera, then through the screen onto his living room floor.  As architect of the prototypical screen attack on the privileged remove of the act of film watching, Alfred Hitchcock would presumably have approved of this ultimate assault on the audience.  If “Ryuji’s” viewing screen is so unexpectedly permeable, might the audience’s own be, also?
Dark Water, St. John's Wort
“Ringu” and successor films such as Takashi Shimizu’s “Ju-on” (“The Grudge,” 2003) have enjoyed global appeal that may, perhaps, be attributable to their blending of traditional genre elements such as imperiled female protagonists, mysterious places and the spiritual legacy of past crimes with aspects of contemporary everyday life such as watching videotapes or other daily routines in ordinary homes.  The residence of “Ju-on” is a small, urban dwelling.  The horrifying spaces are small closets, an attic or a plain flight of stairs.  These, and the tiny cheap apartment of Hideo Nakata’s “Honogurai mizu no soko kara” (“Dark Water,” 2002) are far removed from the traditional decrepit gothic mansion that establishes the mise-en-scene of Shimoyama Ten’s “Otogiriso” (“St. John’s Wort,” 2001).  The co-mingling of traditional generic themes with ordinary life may be a hallmark of postmodern cultural expression.  Now, in a universally connected postmodern world, even your cell phone might, absurdly, kill you as suggested by Takashi Miike’s “Chakushin ari” (“One Missed Call,” 2003).  Higuchinsky’s “Uzumaki” (“Spiral,” 2000) and Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s “Kairo” (“Pulse,” 2001) have been among the more critically acclaimed titles inspired by “Ringu” and continue its contagion theme, while “Ju-on” may have been the most profitable.
Suicide Manual, Ghost System
Further “Ringu”-inspired works include the three direct sequels, Toshikazu Nagae’s “Gosuto shisutemu” (“Ghost System,” 2002) involving a hidden technology that re-animates the spirit of a schoolgirl murdered by her boyfriend, Toshiyuki Mizutani’s “Isola: Tajuu jinkaku shôjo” (“Isola:  Multiple Personality Girl,” 2000) with its corrupted female innocent possessing uncanny powers, a sequel to “Ju-on,” Osamu Fukutani’s “Jisatsu manyuaru” (“The Suicide Manual,” 2003) and its sequel in which a mysterious DVD instigates suicide, Kei Horie’s “Shibuya kaidan” (“The Locker,” 2003) and its sequel involving a female spirit in a coin locker, Kôji Shiraishi’s V-movie “Ju-rei” (2004), and Renpei Tsukamoto’s “Chakushin ari 2” (“One Missed Call 2,” 2005).  These films continue to draw on various themes of Japanese culture and legends – such as vengeance and avoidance of contamination – to indirectly examine some of the defining tensions of everyday life.