Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.


Geek obsession: J-horror

Why it’s daunting: The cottage industry of J-horror remakes spawned by the successful Americanization of Ringu in 2002 has both sparked an interested in J-horror—the name usually given to a continuing wave of Japanese horror films that began appearing in the mid-‘90s—and hastened its creative decline. Why bother tracing the roots of those creepy hitch-stepped specters when they’ve been so thoroughly played out in facsimiles starring Sarah Michelle Gellar (The Grudge), Kristen Bell (Pulse), Amber Tamblyn (The Grudge 2), Shannyn Sossamon (One Missed Call), and other quivering Hollywood starlets? Also: With extreme horror maestro Takeshi Miike turning out six gut-wrenching movies a year at his most prolific, who has the time and intestinal fortitude to keep up the pace?


Possible gateway: Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse.

Why: Let’s be honest: The most natural gateway (for American audiences, at least) into J-horror is The Ring, the first and still most successful translation of J-horror tropes for mainstream audience. If you liked The Ring—or if you didn’t, for that matter—you could go back and watch the Japanese original and its sequels, and keep pulling on the sweater until the whole movement unravels before you. Pulse isn’t necessarily the easiest place to start, due to a plot that slips into apocalyptic abstraction, but there are at least three good reasons to confronts its challenges:

1. Kurosawa brought early attention and legitimacy to J-horror with festival favorites like Cure and Séance, and though he’s since moved past the genre, the subtle sound and ink-stained visual effects in Pulse are a great distillation of its particular style and ambience.


2.  Beyond the scares, Kurosawa taps into both the bottomless malaise of Japanese youth and modern-day technophobia, with characters whose real selves are being obliterated by their virtual selves. They’re literally ghosts in the machine.

3. It features maybe the single scariest scene in all of J-horror—a descent into “The Forbidden Room” where the pale, mangled spirit of a missing student creeps slowly toward the camera, moving in a kind of crooked, hypnotic dance. There are no heavy shock effects on the soundtrack, but Kurosawa’s aggressive use of ambient noise and a ghostly chorus give it a more sustaining creepiness.


Next steps: It would be a cheat to include Masaki Kobayashi’s 1964 ghost-story anthology Kwaidan on a list of essential J-horror films, since the term “J-horror” is contemporary. But Kobayashi’s gorgeous quintet of folktales includes some of the same visual language. From there, it may be wise to ease into the water with other films by Kurosawa like Séance, perhaps his most straightforward chiller. It features the traditional dark, straight-haired, Kabuki-influenced spirits, but employs them to more subtle ends than those in more popular favorites like Ringu or Ju-on: The Grudge. And once you’ve properly steeled yourself, it’s time to move on to the outrageous extremes of Miike’s filmography, starting with his masterpiece Audition, a film that begins innocuously enough as a domestic melodrama about a widower looking for a new wife, only to shift on a dime into psychosexual torture porn of the highest order. Beyond Audition, Miike’s Ichi The Killer brings dark wit to scenes so shocking that promotional barf bags were handed out at festival screening, and his giddy musical The Happiness Of The Katakuris brought his appetite for surreal horror to a new comedic level.

Where not to start: The American remake of One Missed Call. It was sad enough to witness a director of Miike’s singularity regress to fairly standard-issue—if admittedly better than average—J-horror fare about a curse submitted via cell phone. But “stale” doesn’t begin to describe a remake five years after the fact, when not only the J-horror movement had lost steam but the Americanization of J-horror films had dried-up, too. Apart from The Ring, newcomers are advised to stay in Japan entirely.


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