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History has a way of shaping or influencing culture through social changes. Film, under
the social institution of mass media, is part of this culture and to be discussed in this paper is how
history played a role into shaping Japanese cinema as well as Japanese horror genre as it is today.
It began with belief in Buddhism and Shinto, traditional mythology and found its roots in theater
and evolved to its current studio system. A crucial point would be the Second World War in the
1940s. What is interesting about Japanese horror cinema is that it gives you fright and terror but
at the same time, it touches on relevant issues in Japanese society.
This paper aims to analyze how different events in Japanese history affected its cinema.
Various reflections of historical events and the different issues they come along with in the films
to be discussed later on will be taken into consideration. Two famous Japanese horror films,
Ringu or The Ring and Chakushin Ari or One Missed Call, will be analyzed.
History of Japanese Horror Cinema
The genre of horror has been around for a long time beginning with novels, the first being
Horace Walpoles 1764 novel, The Castle of Otranto.
Horror cinema is defined as, unsettling
films designed to frighten and panic, [to] cause dread and alarm, and to invoke our hidden worst
fears, often in a terrifying, shocking finale, while captivating and entertaining us at the same time
in a cathartic experience.
It began with Le Manoir Du Diable, a two-minute film by Georges
Melies in 1896.
Throughout the centuries, horror cinema has evolved but interestingly, Japanese
horror cinema is quite different from others. McRoy says that Japanese horror cinema is a
myriad of complex political, social and ecological issues, including but by no means limited to

Karina Wilson, Horror Film HistoryRoots of the Horror Genre. Retrieved from
Tim Dirks, Horror Films. Retrieved from

apprehensions over the impact of western cultural and military imperialism, and the struggle to
establish a coherent and distinctly Japanese national identity.
Sharrat goes on to say that
Japanese horror represents a view that is a rejection of social transformation long embodied in
the western horror film.
We can infer that there is tension in Japans culture to cause such
issues and to cause them to differentiate from western cinema. To be discussed later on are the
contemporary Japanese horror films and the different issues they take on.
From Theater to Film
Early Japanese cinema was theatrical and was highly influenced by traditional Japanese
dramatic forms such as Kabuki, No and Bunraku and the elements of these forms are still
apparent in contemporary Japanese cinema including the horror genre. Bunraku is puppet theatre
and involves life-size puppets each controlled by three people.
Benshi is adopted from this form
of theater and it acts as a narrator off-stage and relates the story of the film instead of onscreen
Both Bunraku and Kabuki use richly decorated costumes, the shamisen with its
emotive music and decorative makeup but the essential elements of Kabuki that are prominent in
film are the kabuki no butai or the revolving stage for scene changes, the seri or trapdoors and
the hanamichi or passageway that comes out into the auditorium.
In Kabuki, there are two main
genres that eventually also became the division of cinema. Jidaigeki were set in Kyoto and
involves an earlier time period while gendaimono were set in urban Tokyo in contemporary

Jay McRoy (ed.), Japanese Horror Cinema, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005): 1, quoted in Colette
Balmain, Introduction to Japanese Horror Film (Edinburgh, United Kingdom: Edinburgh University Press, 2008):
Christopher Sharratt, Preface, in Jay McRoy (ed.), Japanese Horror Cinema, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University
Press, 2005): xiii, quoted in Colette Balmain, Introduction to Japanese Horror Film (Edinburgh, United Kingdom:
Edinburgh University Press, 2008): 6.
Balmain, 15.
Ibid, 19.
Ibid, 16.

No utilizes music, dance and poetry and has a chorus called the jiutai that act as narrators
and the crucial moment is the transformation from human to ghost or other supernatural entity
seen with the use of masks.

It was theatrical actors who became the first stars of the silver screen. The Ghost Story of
Yotsuya, a famous Kabuki play, has been adapted to film at least thirty times with the most
famous version by Nakagawa in 1959.
Shinodams Double Suicide (1969) is based on The
Love Suicides at Amijima, a Bunraku play by Chikamatsu.
Kobayashis award-winning
Kwaidan (1964) shows Nos influences.
Also, the belief of the Japanese in Buddhism and
Shinto as well as their traditional mythology has influenced their horror films.
It was in 1897 when the first cinematograph was introduced to Japan and the screening of
the first Japanese film was shown in 1899 at Kabuki-za which is a Kabuki theater in Tokyo and
years after this, Japans studio system, which was similar to the Hollywood studio system, was
developed in the 1920s and 1930s becoming the base for Japans prolific production until the
However, the difference is the emphasis on the authority of the director instead of the
producers like in Hollywood.
Many directors picked a crew they trusted and would be
associated with them for a long time.
Founded in 1912, Nikkatsu, is the oldest film company in Japan and it divided production
between its Kyoto and Tokyo studios.
As mentioned before, this division was also seen in

Ibid, 19.
Ibid, 17.
Ibid, 15.
Ibid, 16.
Ibid, 18.
Ibid, 12.
Ibid, 13.
Ibid, 13.

theater. Nikkatsu eventually closed in 1988.
Shochiku, established by Takejiro Otani in 1920,
was originally a theater playhouse but became one of the most profitable studios and influenced
by Europe and the west, it aimed of utilizing the latest and most flourishing of the Occidental
cinema; they were the first to use actresses instead of male actors dressed as women called
onnagata and they were most associated with shomingeki in the 1930s which are issue-led
dramas about the lower middle classes.
Other studios include Toho, Daiei Studio, Shintoho
and Toei. By the 1920s Nikkatsu and Shochiku became the Big Two that would compete with
Hollywood films. Most of the films screened were domestic films, showing the strength of
Japans studio system.

Second World War and Allied Occupation
The Second World War began in 1939 with the German invasion of Poland, Britain and
France and after the December 4, 1941 attack of the Pearl Harbor, the United States declared war
on Japan and it would take two atomic bombs, the first on Hiroshima on August 6 and on
Nagasaki on the 9
to stop the war in the Pacific.
In 1945 to 1952, Japan became a colonized
power occupied by the Allied Forces which insisted on unconditional surrender and this
occupation and the trauma of defeat would largely impact the direction of Japanese cinema.

Ibid, 13.
Ibid, 13.
Ibid, 13.
Ibid, 21.
Ibid, 21.

Traditional Japanese films dealing with issues of honor, feudal loyalty and community
were largely banned in favour of a more democratic product modelled on the lines of
Hollywood cinema.

The Civil Censorship division, formed by the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers
(SCAP), listed types of film that could be made in order to ensure that Japan will never
in the future disturb the peace of the world. These regulations restricted: anything
infused with militarism, revenge, nationalism, or antiforeignism; distortion of history;
approval of racial or religious discrimination; favouring or approving feudal loyalty or
treating human life lightly; direct or indirect approval of suicide; approval or oppression
or degradation of wives; admiration of cruelty or unjust violence; antidemocratic opinion;
exploitation of children; and any opposition to the Potsdam declaration or any SCAP

Even Japans political infrastructure was changed through the abolishment of State
Shinto which placed the emperor at the center of a complex system of obligations and duties
called the ie system and this imposition of Western democratic values caused a tension between
the pre-modern and the modern, communalism and individualism, Japanese tradition and
Western democracy and this perhaps is the reason of the emergence of Japanese horror cinema
in the 1950s.
It was also in this time that Japan was the most prolific film producer in the
world with producing five hundred feature films a year.

The said conflict above between pre-modern and modern is further explained by Cazdyn
who defined the conflict in terms of a need to find a middle ground between the demands of the
collective and those of the individual:
It can now be framed between the individual and the collective, between the need to
differentiate individual wants and desires (to appeal to the ideals of democracy as well as

Ibid, 21.
Ibid, 23.
Ibid, 11-12.
Ibid, 25.

cultivate a domestic consumer market) while restricting these needs and desires to the
requirements of the collective (in order to idealize sacrifice and legitimate exploitation).

But to be clear, this tension, Balmain says that, It was not a question of abandoning
traditional Japanese values for seemingly more democratic ones, but of co-opting one in order to
re-establish the other.
This issue of giving a good impression of Japan by conforming is not
entirely new. When Admiral Perry arrived in 1853 and Japans borders opened up to the west for
the first time, the Japanese government imposed regulation of sexuality and images associated
with sex which includes customary practices such as mixed bathing so that the nation would gain
face as a modern nation based on Eurocentric morality and social mores and not give an
impression of being morally lax and primitive.
The issue of identity that also emerged due to
the westernization of Japan is not new as well.
During the Meiji Restoration, Japanese cultural identity was constructed in opposition to
the Other (not-us). The word for foreigner was ijin (a different person) and was used
mainly to refer to white foreigners because of their marked difference, from the self .
Burgess continues: Nihonjinron is formulated on the basis of evaluative comparison. It
aims to demonstrate not only that Japan (and Japanese language, culture, people) is
different (uniquely unique) from the rest of the world but also that it is superior or better.
Difference - a stark and evaluative comparison - is central to the maintenance of identity.
In Japan, this manifests itself in a sharp distinction between what it means to be a
Japanese and what it means to be a foreigner.

It cannot be sure whether one can attribute this representation of binary opposition to the
occupation of Allied Forces in post-war Japan but what can be said is that this problem of
identity is later on transferred to other aspects of Japanese culture particularly Japanese horror

Ibid, 25.
Ibid, 30-31.
Ibid, 22.
Ibid, 26-27.

Post-War Horror Cinema
Carroll says that, horror and science fiction films proliferate at times of economic and
political anxiety, in that they allow the expression of the sense of powerlessness and anxiety that
correlates with times of depression, recession, cold War strife, galloping inflation, and national
The war, according to Balmain, is the reason for the emergence of vengeful
ghosts from the pre-modern past, or indeed give birth to monsters.
It is not difficult to see
their point because of the aftermath of the war.
1.8 million dead and 680,000 missing or wounded; cities demolished; and Japans
position as a Pacific power totally destroyed. Saturation bombing raids on Tokyo and the
dropping of the atomic bomb, first on Hiroshima on 6 August 1945 and then on Nagasaki
three days later, left much of Tokyo in ruins, Nagasaki devastated and Hiroshima a
burning wasteland. Victims not immediately killed by the bombs would die slowly and
painfully, and generations to come would be effected by the fallout as the full horror of
radiation poisoning became evident.

Horror film became an avenue wherein the Japanese were able to articulate anxieties
and concerns over the changing nature of [their] society at a time of unprecedented upheaval.

What is commendable about the Japanese film is that even though it is clearly influenced
by the west, it still retained traditional elements of a presentational aesthetic.
There are
certain archetypes and images of discourse that would be prevalent in cinemas after the war.
These images are more often than not indirectly represented in films. Japanese films that touch
on the subject of the atomic bomb do so by [engaging] in a fantasy of futuristic monsters, at the

Nol Carroll, Nightmare and the Horror Film: The Symbolic Biology of Fantastic
Beings, Film Quarterly 34:3, (1981):17 quoted in Colette Balmain, Introduction to Japanese Horror Film
(Edinburgh, United Kingdom: Edinburgh University Press, 2008): 31.
Balmain, 30.
Ibid, 30.
Ibid 31.
Ibid, 25.

cost of confronting the monstrous reality of the past.
But it must be so because of the
overwhelming devastation of the country together with controversial political issues of war
responsibility, victimization, hibakusha discrimination and the censorship by the American and
Japanese authorities.

One of the defining features of modern Japanese horror cinema is the hibakusha or the
female victims of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings.
Another is the oiwa, the archetypical
Japanese wronged woman.
However Lowenstein comments that this representation of a female
victim enables a historical narrative of forgetting, where victimization replaces responsibility
for aggression.
It means that this makes us forget about Japans actions during the war by
showing that they are victims as well and this image dominated post-war Japanese cinema.
At the time, a popular way of understanding the atomic bomb was as an evil spirit or a
kind of demon that had appeared in the world in the form of a scientific creation or it may also
be seen as a switch from Japanese national aggression (coded masculine) to Japanese national
victimization (coded feminine).
Two influential films of Japanese horror that paved the way for
contemporary success of the genre are Tales of Ugetsu (1953) and Godzilla (1954). Films falling
under the monster genre are called kaijueiga and those with ghosts or avenging spirits are called
In Godzilla, the monstrous mutant reptile with its atomic breath, functions as a reminder
of the devastation caused by nuclear weapons and critiques modern technological
warfare, whilst simultaneously mourning the loss of tradition. Similarly, Tales Of Ugetsu

Adam Lowenstein, Shocking Representation: Historical Trauma, National Cinema, and the Modern Horror Film
(New York: Columbia University Press, 2005) 85
Ibid, 85.
Balmain, 7.
Ibid, 21.
Ibid, 31-32.
Lowenstein, 94.

expresses fears around modernisation, implicit within the growth of a consumer society
dictated by material desires, as embodied by the seductive female ghost.

Other iconic images of Japanese horror film including the vengeful female ghost with
long black hair; the haunted house; themes of abandonment and alienation; doomed love all of
which are framed by the ghostly aesthetics of the mise-en-scne and musical score are also
featured in these two films.
Another is the relationship between mother and child especially in
a domestic melodrama known as mother films or hahamono and in Godzilla the image of
mother or a mother figure cradling a child would become a key feature of Japanese horror
It is also noted that the father is considered bad if not absent. The beautiful but
dangerous ghost like Lady Wakasa in Tales of Ugetsu is also another iconic image. In Japanese
mythology they are called yurei and are oftentimes female and they are usually presented
dressed in white (white kimonos are used for burial in Shinto), with long unbound black
hairno legs, and hands that dangle uselessly from the wrist and they are often accompanied
by floating flames called hitodama.
This return from the dead as a vengeful ghost is the
outcome of the loss of traditional and pre-modern values.
Water is also an image in Japanese
horror cinema that is associated with pollution, impurity and the archaic maternal body.
concept of On is also a feature in Japanese horror films. This entails a necessary payment of debt
to parents or a social system that provided for you and death does not end this commitment and it
is usually the failure to fulfil of these duties that leads to emergence of a vengeful ghost.

Ebersole says that hair can also be a potential source of pollution and danger and this is also a
common feature in Japanese horror films because it is believed that hair can be possessed by

Balmain, 31-32.
Ibid, 32.
Ibid, 41.
Ibid, 47.
Ibid, 54.
Ibid, 171.
Ibid, 48.

vengeful spirits and particularly the long hair of young women is believed to be able to attract
spirits due to another belief that hair is associated with life force, sexual energy, growth and
Finally, the use of blue lighting to express isolation and alienation of a character is
also prevalent.
All of these iconic images and key features are still apparent in contemporary
Japanese horror films.
Contemporary Japanese Horror Films
Horror films, according to McRoy, allow artists an avenue through which they may
apply visual and narrative metaphors in order to engage aesthetically with a rapidly transforming
social and cultural landscape.
Long after the war and Allied occupation, Japan still faces
issues with modernity. Iles says:
[H]orror provides a more suitable metaphor for the issues facing the modern urban
individual not only in Japan but in most post-industrial, consumer-capitalist countries.
Horror represents the altercation between helpless characters and opponents endowed
with incommensurably powerful abilities, the precise details of which, while unknown,
are repulsive and terrifying. Horror represents the inchoate fears of an urban citizenry
who daily encounter strangerscountless scores of unknown people, whose motives,
desires, and potential capacity for harm remain immeasurable.

Iles goes on to say that this insecurity stems from economic prosperity the country has
experienced in the late 1980s and this unprecedented success in technology and industry has
jolted Japan and has brought on a difficulty in redefining their own position in relation to the
rest of the world because from the perspective of Self and Other, Japan has now mastered the

Gary Ebersole, Long Black Hair like a Seat Cushion: Hair Symbolism in Japanese
Popular Religion, in A. Hiltebeital and B. D. Miller (eds.), Hair: Its Power and Meaning in
Asian Cultures. (New York: New York University Press, 1998): 86, quoted in Colette Balmain, Introduction to
Japanese Horror Film (Edinburgh, United Kingdom: Edinburgh University Press, 2008): 67.
Balmain, 86.
Jay McRoy, Nightmare Japan: Contemporary Japanese Horror Cinema (New York: Rodopi, 2008) 4.
Timothy Iles, The Problem of Identity in Contemporary Japanese Horror Films. Retrieved from

Otherthe same negative power that devastated the country in 1945.
Iles problematizes
identity and further says that in Japanese society wherein communication is more often done
through email, cell phone, or text-message, identity becomes a purchasable, ultimately
disposable commodity and in this artificial reality, identity becomes artificial, doubtable and
suspicious as well.
This problem of identity together with the iconic images mentioned before
will be used to analyze two Japanese horror films.
Analysis of Ringu and Chakushin Ari
The genre these two films are under is techno-horror. Emptiness, alienation and isolation
are motifs that dominate techno-horror especially in an apocalyptic mise-en-scene and these are
used to articulate urban alienation in society.

The plot follows Reiko Asakawa, a television reporter, who is investigating an urban
myth of a cursed videotape that once watched, leads to the death of the viewer seven days later.
When her niece dies mysteriously along with her three friends, it led her to the videotape and she
along with her ex-husband, Ryuji Takayama, must find a way to stop the curse.
It is also
essential to note that Reiko is trying to balance her career and her duties to her son Yoichi.
Balmain suggests that the videotape symbolizes contemporary anxieties and that
technology is the instrument through which the past reasserts itself that is why technology in this

Balmain, 168.
Ringu, directed by Hideo Nakata (Japan: Toho Company, Ltd., 1998), DVD.

movie metaphorically and literally signifies deathloss of tradition in the face of modernity.

The motif of water is also observed in this film and as mentioned before it is associated with
impurity and chaos and the fact that many natural calamities, including tsunamis, explain the fear
of the Japanese of the destructive power of the seas which is also mentioned in the film.
Sadakos death by being thrown into a well, a source of water and her rage incarnated in the
form of the cursed video tape relates femininity, technology and death. Sadako is seen as a yurei,
a vengeful ghost, who is a wronged woman and at the same time a victim of male oppression and
maternal neglect.
What is interesting in the movie is the doubling of Shizuko/Reiko and
Sadako/Yoichi. Both mothers neglect their children and in the case of Reiko and Yoichi their
distance is not only metaphorical but literal with Reiko leaving Yoichi on his own or with his
grandfather. The neglect of Sadako by her mother eventually caused her death and eventually in
the film, Yoichi is also condemned to die by watching the videotape. Balmain also says that the
ostracisation of Shizuko and Sadako can be seen as a criticism to the importance of groupism,
which is simply being a part of a group, in modern Japanese society.
Also, the fact that the
threat of death continues shows that Iles says that in traditional horror stories, knowing the
reality of the monster and knowing its identity would help in neutralizing the power of the
However, the discovery of the identity, and even the history, of Sadako which Reiko and
Ryuji originally thought would stop the curse shows that in this case, identity isnt important.
There is even no clear connection between the victims and Sadakos demise. This shows that the

Balmain, 170.
Ibid, 174.
Ibid, 174.

threat continues. There is no way to escape the technological alienation of a post-modern, media
saturated society.

Chakushin Ari
Chakushin Ari opens with citizens of Tokyo all using their mobile phones suggesting that
it is a world of strangers and this dependence of indifference to the world outside and the
consequent breakdown of family is the position the film views technology. The film follows
Yumi Nakamura whose friends deaths by receiving a missed call on their phone made her help
Hiroshi Yamashita to find out the origin of these calls which also led to her facing her trauma
from child abuse.
The theme of child abuse, abandonment and maternal neglect is also seen in
the film. Like in Ringu, these led to the emergence of the yurei, Mimiko Mizunuma. Yumi and
Hiroshi originally thought that Marie Mizunuma is the one abusing her daughter Nanako which
is reflective of Yumis past with her own mother. Yumi becomes the key to the resolution of the
past by promising Maries corpse as well as the image of her own mother that she would be a
good girl, and cradles the corpse like a child. The laying down of the corpse to rest does not
stop the curse, however, and this implies nostalgia for the pre-modern, before the
commodification of the self and the dispersion of tradition
Mimiko is a different yurei
from Sadako. She is the result of the sort of extreme narcissistic individualism which that has
replaced the communal system of obligations of the pre-modern.
Yumi, who was abused as a
child became susceptible to possession by Mimiko as seen in the ending of the film. And in this
possession, the transformation of the abused into the abuser is seen.

Balmain, 175.
Chakushin Ari, directed by Takashi Miike (Japan: Toho Company, 2004), DVD.
Balmain, 178.
Ibid, 179.

The film also criticizes the media-saturation of Japanese society. They invade into
everyday lives but also shows the disconnection of the peopleboth the crew and the viewers
by showing how none of them truly cared for Natsumi, Yumis friend and Mimikos victim.

Isolation and abandonment are also further showed by Natsumis friends wanting to delete their
numbers from her phone.
In this film, the identity of the threat also does not stop it. It shows that the evil has
transferred from technology into a living human being signifying how technology is seen as a
source of death. The possession of Yumi also shows how easy a change in identity can happen in
modern society.
The influence of Japan has boomed what with the global hype for Japanese music, film,
games and technology. But what is best to say about the Japanese culture is how well it handled
its blows of the past. They have found a way to manage westernization and modernization and
emerged as an economically stable nation today. It is in their art that we get a glimpse of the
different issues they have overcome and are still continuing to overcome. Indeed, history has
shaped Japans culture in more ways than one.
The different representations of both traditional images in their film and iconic images
reminiscent of the aftermath of 1945 in their films prove the resilience and acceptance of Japan.
Just the same, these incorporated traditional images and the underlying issues they hold are
commendable and the fact that these are seen in horror films and not only in feature films or
historical films is admirable. Viewers should be more critical and analytical with films they

Ibid, 177.

watch as well as the directors, producers and screenplay writers of films because of the different
implications these images project.
The different American remakes of Japanese horror films and whether or not they were
able to translate the meaning of the films rather than to just inflict terror is debatable but further
research on this would prove insightful. More analyses of other Japanese horror films would also
be helpful as well as the exploration of other sub-genres of horror. Analyses of modern Japanese
theater would also be insightful to know how much it has changed and if it is as affected by
different historical events just like in horror films.


Balmain, Collette. Introduction to Japanese Horror Film. Edinburgh, United Kingdom:
Edinburgh University Press, 2008.

Carroll, Nol. Nightmare and the Horror Film: The Symbolic Biology of Fantastic
Beings, in Film Quarterly 34:3, 1981. Quoted in Balmain, Collette. Introduction to
Japanese Horror Film. Edinburgh, United Kingdom: Edinburgh University Press, 2008.

Chakushin Ari. Directed by Takashi Miike. Japan: Toho Company Ltd., 2004. DVD.

Dirks, Tim. Horror Films. Retrieved from

Ebersole, Gary. Long Black Hair like a Seat Cushion: Hair Symbolism in Japanese
Popular Religion, in A. Hiltebeital and B.D. Miller (eds.), Hair: Its Power and Meaning
in Asian Cultures. New York: New York University Press, 1998. Quoted in Balmain,
Collette. Introduction to Japanese Horror Film. Edinburgh, United Kingdom: Edinburgh
University Press, 2008.

Iles, Timothy. The Problem of Identity in Contemporary Japanese Horror Films.
Retrieved from

McRoy, Jay (ed.) Japanese Horror Cinema. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press,
2005. Quoted in Balmain, Collette. Introduction to Japanese Horror Film. Edinburgh,
United Kingdom: Edinburgh University Press, 2008.

McRoy, Jay. Nightmare Japan: Contemporary Japanese Horror Cinema. New York:
Rodopi, 2008.

Ringu. Directed by Hideo Nakata. Japan: Toho Company Ltd., 1998. DVD.

Sharratt, Christopher. Preface in McRoy, McRoy, Jay (ed.) Japanese Horror Cinema.
Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005. Quoted in Balmain, Collette. Introduction
to Japanese Horror Film. Edinburgh, United Kingdom: Edinburgh University Press,

Wilson, Karina. Horror Film HistoryRoots of the Horror Genre. Retrieved from