Archive for the Japanese Horror Category


Posted in 1960s Horror, 1970s Movies, 2013, Giant Monsters, Godzilla, Japanese Horror, Quick Cuts with tags , , , , , on July 19, 2013 by knifefighter

Featuring: Michael Arruda, L.L. Soares, Mark Onspaugh, and Colleen Wanglund

pacificrim MICHAEL ARRUDA:  With the release of PACIFIC RIM (2013), giant monsters are back in the movies.  Of course, for years, the market on giant monster movies was cornered by Toho Pictures, Inc.  Toho, of course, was responsible for introducing Godzilla to the world, among others, including Mothra, Rodan, and King Ghidorah.

L.L. SOARES:  Don’t forget my favorite Minya, who is also sometimes called Manilla. He can blow giant smoke rings you know!

ARRUDA:  He even talks in GODZILLA’S REVENGE (1969)!

Minya, son of Godzilla. But is Godzilla his mommy or his daddy?

Minya, son of Godzilla. But is Godzilla his mommy or his daddy?

SOARES: Exactly!

ARRUDA: Tonight on QUICK CUTS we ask our panel of Cinema Knife Fighters, What’s your favorite Japanese giant monster movie and why?

SOARES:  My favorite Japanese giant monster movie is and always will be WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS (1966). It was originally meant to be a sequel to FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD (1965), strangely enough, but any connection is lost in the English translation. Featuring two monsters created from the same genetic material, Sanda is brown and lives in the mountains and is basically a gentle giant, while Gaira is green and lives in the sea and loves to eat people and spit out their clothes! When Gaira threatens to destroy Japan, Sanda steps in to protect the human race. I loved this movie the first time ever saw it, as a kid, and it still remains my favorite Japanese giant monster movie.


COLLEEN WANGLUND:  My favorite Japanese kaiju film is Ishiro Honda’s original 1954 flick GODZILLA.  Godzilla was a metaphor for nuclear weapons and still holds up as a recognizable symbol of destruction.  And even though Godzilla represents carnage, mayhem and annihilation, he is still sympathetic.

The American version of GODZILLA (1954) had footage edited down and the insertion of Raymond Burr. Find the uncut Japanese version (called GOJIRA) instead.

The American version of GODZILLA (1954) had footage edited down and the insertion of Raymond Burr. Find the uncut Japanese version (called GOJIRA) instead.

ARRUDA:  I didn’t find him too sympathetic in that first movie.  I found him terrifying.  The first GODZILLA movie still scares me.

SOARES:  Wimp! But you’re right, Colleen, that’s a great one, too. The one that started it all for Japanese giant monsters! It’s also a very solid movie in its own right, and was rightly included in the esteemed Criterion Collection a couple of years ago.

ARRUDA:  It’s a very dark movie, and I think a lot of people don’t realize this because of the way the Godzilla series went during the 1960s and 1970s, with Godzilla becoming almost a supermonster superhero.  But that first film is intense, and nothing like the sequels which came after it, at least through the 1970s, anyway.

MARK ONSPAUGH:  Michael – my favorite giant monster (other than King Kong) is actually British… It’s Gorgo! I love it because the monster they capture is a baby, and his MOTHER comes looking for him.

ARRUDA:  A monster’s best friend is his mother—. (CUE PSYCHO music.)

ONSPAUGH:  And the monsters win… Game, set and match for Gorgo and his mommy.

ARRUDA:  I like GORGO (1961) a lot too.  It has neat special effects, a decent story, and is also significant because strangely there aren’t any female roles in this one, other than Gorgo’s mom, of course.  This one’s for the guys, I guess.

gorgoSOARES: I liked GORGO a lot, too. The same British company that made that one also made a King Kong ripoff called KONGA (1961, as well), which wasn’t as good as GORGO, but it  featured the legendary Michael Gough as its mad scientist villain.,

ARRUDA: You’re right.  KONGA isn’t as good as GORGO, as the giant ape doesn’t really appear until the end.  It’s worth watching only to see Michael Gough overact as the dastardly evil scientist.

As for me, I love Godzilla, but like you. Mark, I’m partial to KING KONG, so my favorite Japanese giant monster movies would be Toho’s two forays into Kong territory, KING KONG VS. GODZILLA (1960) and KING KONG ESCAPES (1968).  Neither one of these two films is all that great, especially for hardcore Kong fans, but they remain for me very guilty pleasures.

kk-g-3Of course, Godzilla enjoyed a resurgence in the 1990s and 2000s, as Toho made a bunch of Godzilla movies that highlighted a seriousness not found in the Godzilla movies of old.  While this didn’t always translate into better movies, and while the man-in-suit special effects remained on the goofy side, Godzilla enjoyed some of his best moments during these two decades, and the King of the Monsters certainly was far scarier here than in his silly movies from the 1960s and 1970s.  

My favorite film from this new series is GODZILLA, MOTHRA, AND KING GHIDORAH:  GIANT MONSTERS ALL-OUT ATTACK (2001), affectionately known as GMK, which in spite of its silly title, is a really good movie.  It’s my pick for the best Godzilla movie in the entire series.

SOARES: I totally agree with you about the newer Japanese Godzilla movies. They’re not all great, but overall they have a much higher quality level than the movies we grew up on as kids. And some of them even have cooler monsters than we had in the old days. I really got into these flicks when they first started popping up in the U.S. in the 90s, and my favorite is probably GODZILLA VS. BIOLLANTE (1989), which is interesting because the monster is actually a giant flower (!). It’s a hybrid of Godzilla’s DNA mixed with some kind of rose, and the result is a monster that is unlike anything that came before it. I just thought it was completely unique. I also really like another hybrid creature, Space Godzilla, which is the result of Godzilla’s DNA ending up in outer space (it’s a long story), which giant crystals on his back instead of spikes and more fearsome looking teeth, Space Godzilla was another formidable foe, and can be found in GODZILLA VS. SPACE GODZILLA (1994).

godzilla-vs-biollante-dvd-english-new-upgrade-0620ARRUDA: So, that’s our take on Japanese giant monster movies.  What’s your favorite?

Thanks for reading everybody!


© Copyright 2013 by Michael Arruda, L.L. Soares, Mark Onspaugh and Colleen Wanglund


The Geisha of Gore Looks At: JU-ON 2

Posted in 2011, Asian Horror, Colleen Wanglund Reviews, Geisha of Gore Reviews, Ghost Movies, Haunted Houses, Japanese Cinema, Japanese Horror with tags , , , , , , , , , , on June 15, 2011 by knifefighter

By Colleen Wanglund, the Geisha of Gore

In Part One of this article (click here), I talked about JU-ON: THE CURSE and THE CURSE 2 (both from 2000), the first two features in the JU-ON franchise.  To recap, THE CURSE and THE CURSE 2 were based on two shorts written and directed by Takashi Shimizu and were direct-to-video releases.  Ju-on translates to “curse” or “grudge” in English.  It is explained that when someone dies violently and with feelings of anger or hatred, a curse is born.  The ghost of the dead is the fulfiller of that curse.  The movies are comprised of a series of vignettes involving victims of the curse, but the common thread through all is a single house.  Kayako and her son Toshio were violently murdered in that house by Kayako’s husband, Takeo Saeki, and now their ghosts fulfill the curse through anyone who comes into contact with the house, no matter how brief or inconsequential that contact is.

In JU-ON: THE GRUDGE (2003) Shimizu continues the original formula of telling the story through multiple vignettes.  The movie begins with Rika, a young social worker who has gone to the Tokunaga home to look in on an old woman named Sachie.  Hmmm, can you guess where they live?  Rika finds Sachie catatonic and home alone.  The house is a mess, so Rika begins cleaning up.  She finds a photo of a family with the wife’s face removed; she hears a noise from upstairs and goes to investigate.  Rika finds a cat and a little boy hiding in a closet, so she calls and reports it to social services.  When Rika goes to check on Sachie, she finds a black shadow hovering over the old woman; Rika faints in the corner of the room.

The movie now moves to Katsuya, who is the son of Sachie, and his wife Kazumi.  Kazumi reminds Katsuya as he’s leaving for work, that his sister Hitomi will be over for dinner.  Later we see Kazumi startled awake from a nap by a sound that she at first believes to be Sachie.  When Kazumi goes to investigate, she sees a cat on the stairs and small arms grab the cat.  Later when Katsuya returns home he finds Kazumi in an almost catatonic state…..then he sees the ghost of Toshio.  Hitomi arrives and finds Katsuya mumbling and incoherent.  When she asks about Kazumi, Katsuya makes Hitomi leave the house.  The focus of the story now switches to Hitomi.  While getting ready to leave work, she stops in the restroom where she gets a disturbing phone call from her brother.  Then she sees a shadow emerge from one of the stalls, so she bolts.  She asks the building’s security to check it out.  Hitomi watches the security camera and sees an extremely disturbing sight, so she leaves for home.   Once there, a series of disturbing events leads up to Hitomi’s encounter with Kayako.

The next vignette switches back to Rika.  Having not returned to the center she works out of, her boss has gone looking for her.  He ends up calling the police, who cannot seem to find the owners of the house.  While the police search for the Tokunagas, they uncover evidence that shows multiple missing persons over the years from the same house.  This is where the timeline for JU-ON: THE GRUDGE is established.  The police contact retired detective Toyama who is the only person left from a previous case tied to the house….the murders of Kayako and Toshio.  He is shown the files and a videotape from a building where one of the missing people worked (can you guess who?).  Toyama is convinced that it is the house that’s evil, so he attempts to do something about it.  While there, he sees a high school girl race out and hears the screams of others upstairs.  Toyama is attacked in the house but manages to escape.

The story now moves to Izumi, a high school girl whose three friends have gone missing.  Izumi feels guilt for her friends’ disappearance because she was with them poking around in a supposedly haunted house (if you read my column JU-ON Part One then this will be an “aha” moment for you).  Izumi has begun displaying some odd behavior….she’s covered her windows in newspaper and insists that her friends’ spirits are looking in at her.  What is also disturbing are photos taken of Izumi and her missing friends have the eyes blacked out.  Izumi has a dream about her dead father and wakes up only to find her friends have come for her.  This particular vignette ties in to the last one in a very spooky way.

The final vignette brings us back to Rika sometime after her experience in the house.  She receives a phone call from her friend Mariko who is on a home visit of a student who has never shown up for class.  When Mariko tells Rika the name of the student, Rika realizes Mariko is in danger and rushes to help her.  Rika arrives at the Saeki house just in time to find Mariko being dragged into the attic by the ghost of Kayako.  Unfortunately for Rika, there will be no escape this time from her fate as a victim of the grudge.  The movie closes with a series of creepy shots of empty streets littered with missing person’s posters.

JU-ON: THE GRUDGE 2 (2004) follows in the same non-linear vein as its three predecessors, with six different vignettes telling how the grudge passes from person to person.  The difference here is the story seems to be more focused around a single event in the house.  A television show on haunted houses has set up at the Saeki house because of its history.  Horror movie actress Kyoko is appearing as a special guest.  The first vignette tells about Kyoko after her appearance on the shoot.  Kyoko and her fiancé Masashi hit a cat in the road and then have a very bad accident caused by Toshio.  Masashi is in a coma and Kyoko has lost her baby (the conversation between the two prior to the accident is about when Kyoko will tell her agent).  Sometime after the accident we see Kyoko on a movie set and two of the extras are Chiharu and Hiromi, the two friends who visited Izumi in JU-ON: THE GRUDGE.  Kyoko then goes to the doctor, who tells her that she is three and a half months pregnant.  In shock, Kyoko goes back to her mother’s home where, after some time spent in her room, Kyoko finds her mother dead.

The movie’s story now moves to Tomoka, the reporter/host of the show (which is called “Heart-Stopping Backgrounds”).  This vignette moves between shots of Tomoka rehearsing her lines, meeting with her friend Megumi, who works as a make-up artist on the show, and some disturbing experiences in her apartment.  Tomoka has been hearing strange noises at about the same time every night and has asked her boyfriend Nori to come by.  They hear the sounds and are both unnerved by them.  The scene then moves to the shoot at the Saeki house.  Nori receives a strange phone call, hearing the familiar death rattle of Kayako.  He goes to Tomoka’s apartment and sees her, but then gets a phone call from Tomoka asking where he is.  The call is cut off and Nori has a meeting with Kayako.  Tomoka arrives home to discover what has become of Nori….and it ain’t pretty.

The next vignette follows Megumi and her experience with a mysterious stain in the Saeki house that somehow appears in the make-up room back at the show’s office building.  It seems as if Megumi has met her fate.  We are also shown quickly that Keisuke, the show’s director has found Kayako’s journal at the house, as well as a letter addressed to the Tokunagas (from THE GRUDGE).  Which brings us to Keisuke’s part in the story.  Masashi has woken from his coma, but is still unresponsive. Keisuke has gone to meet with Kyoko at the hospital where he tells her of Megumi’s disappearance, as well as the fate of Tomoka and the rest of the television crew who were at the Saeki house that fateful day.  He drives Kyoko home and they see Megumi enter the house.  Megumi appears inside and leaves behind Kayako’s journal….and a familiar stain on the floor.  Kyoko goes back to the Saeki house where she sees Chiharu trying to get out.  Is it a vision of some sort?

This next part of the film deals with Chiharu’s story but it is differently from the other vignettes.  Chiharu’s experiences with the Saeki house seem to happen during nightmares.  Is she actually in the house or is she merely dreaming?  We see her banging on the front door begging for help to be let out.  At one point she gets out of the house, but appears to wake from a dream while sitting on a bus (the one that carried the extras to the shoot).  The entire vignette jumps back and forth between reality and nightmare, ultimately bring us to Chiharu’s fate.

The final part of JU-ON: THE GRUDGE 2 begins with Keisuke arriving at the Saeki house after the door has slammed shut on Chiharu.  He enters the house and finds Kyoko unconscious, so he takes her to the hospital.  It appears Kyoko has gone into labor and is giving birth….but to what? All in the room are now dead and Kyoko picks up what appears to be a crying baby wrapped in a bloody blanket.  Years later Kyoko is seen walking across a bridge with a little girl, carrying Kayako’s journal.  It seems as though the curse has been reborn.

As I’ve said, JU-ON: THE GRUDGE and THE GRUDGE 2 were given theatrical release and they did very well.  The entire series has been quite popular both in Japan and outside the country.  The movies’ scares are more atmospheric than gory, though we do see the physical manifestations of the ghosts, as well as seeing Kayako in her beaten and bloody state.  Though the stories are told in a non-linear fashion, certain events overlap, keeping the continuity of the story as a whole.

Personally, I love the JU-ON series.  I think they are suitably creepy without having to give too much away.  I also like the fact that there is no happy ending….to any of the films.  The curse or grudge will continue to go on with no end in sight.  There is no way to stop it; the curse is inescapable.  That’s pretty damn bleak, in my opinion.  That bleakness is made powerfully clear in the final shots of JU-ON: THE GRUDGE with the empty streets and posters of the missing.  Is this a foretelling of the future?  Takashi Shimizu is an excellent storyteller and created some amazing films on some very low budgets.

As to the character of Kayako, she has been played by Takako Fuji in all four films, the original short “Katasumi” and in two of the American movies.  She has said that she would continue to play the role for as long as Shimizu wanted her.  She is a trained dancer, ballerina and contortionist….which explains a lot of her movements as Kayako.

JU-ON: THE GRUDGE was remade by Columbia Pictures in 2004 as THE GRUDGE with Takashi Shimizu once again as the director.  However the script was rewritten by Stephen Susco and while it follows the same non-linear approach as the original, many aspects, including characters and the ending, were changed.  THE GRUDGE 2 (2006) is not a remake of JU-ON: THE GRUDGE 2 but was also directed by Takashi Shimizu and written by Susco.  There is THE GRUDGE 3 (2009) but Shimizu had nothing to do with this direct-to-video release, though he does get a screenwriting credit because of the original JU-ON series.  I have not seen the American GRUDGE 2 or GRUDGE 3, but I did see THE GRUDGE and didn’t care for it.  For me the story was taken out of its cultural context and I didn’t like the changes made.  But then I’m not a fan of remakes in general.  I can count on one hand how many remakes I’ve actually liked.

As for the entire Japanese JU-ON series, see them all, if you can.  They really are a great bit of filmmaking and a lot of fun to watch.

© Copyright 2011 by Colleen Wanglund


Posted in 2011, Asian Horror, Colleen Wanglund Reviews, Geisha of Gore Reviews, Japanese Horror, VIOLENCE!, Zombies with tags , , , , , on May 18, 2011 by knifefighter

Movie Review by Colleen Wanglund, the Geisha of Gore

Yoshihiro Nishimura has done it again folks! In his first solo directorial outing since TOKYO GORE POLICE (2008), Nishimura has delivered another blood-soaked splatterific gore fest courtesy of Sushi Typhoon. For those who don’t know, Sushi Typhoon is the brainchild of Yoshinori Chiba for Nikkatsu Studios. On April 28 my daughter and I attended the New York premiere of HELLDRIVER (2010) at the Japan Society. The version we got to see was the Director’s Cut…..sixteen extra minutes that won’t be in the general release. The event, co-sponsored by Subway Cinema, was for charity with proceeds going to the Japan Earthquake Relief Fund which was established in the wake of the earthquake/tsunami/nuclear disaster that occurred in March. Following the screening, there was a Q & A with guests Nishimura and Eihi Shiina (AUDITION {1999}, TOKYO GORE POLICE {2008})—the movie’s Zombie Queen—along with a party that featured the Brooklyn death metal band Vaura, some delicious food, and plenty of Sapporo….and I got one as soon as I could to get to the bar.

Okay, now on to the movie!

Kika (Yumiko Hara) is a teenage girl viciously abused by her psychotic mother Rikka (Eihi Shiina) and Uncle Yasushi (Kentaro Kishi). Kika storms off after witnessing Rikka and Uncle feasting on her father’s legs. Yes, Rikka and Uncle are cannibals….this is one seriously twisted family. Rikka goes after Kika and during the mother/daughter showdown a meteor strikes Rikka dead center in the chest, leaving quite a hole in her anatomy. Enraged, Rikka rips the still-beating heart out of Kika’s chest and sticks it in the hole, where it attaches itself. Rikka is then taken over by a starfish-shaped creature and the newly born zombie spews an ash-like substance into the air, infecting the inhabitants of the surrounding area and creating more zombies.

Miraculously, Kika survives and is taken to a hospital where even the doctor (Marc Walkow doing his best not to butcher his Japanese) is amazed at the girl’s survival. Cut to scenes of Tokyo—chaos ensues in the wake of the encroaching apocalypse. Refugees have flooded the city and food and shelter are at a premium. People are eating all manner of things and one particular gaijin is aggravated to all hell (Norman England). A militarized wall has been erected separating the human south from the zombie north and politicians and regular folk alike are debating the status of the zombie population.

Some time has passed and Kika has been dumped at the wall that splits Japan in two. She is discovered by Taku (Yurei Yanagi) and his companion No Name, or Nanashi (Mizuki Kusuki). Kika is now equipped with a mechanical heart that also powers one of the most badass weapons I’ve ever seen in a movie, a chainsaw samurai sword! Seriously, I want one of my own. Taku takes Kika back to the orphanage, explaining that money is tight so he does what he can. This includes sneaking into the zombie territory to acquire something that the Yakuza will pay top dollar for. Swept up in a raid, the three companions are given a choice—“volunteer” to go on a mission to destroy the Zombie Queen or….well, die.

Our “volunteers” are dropped into the zombie zone and are immediately attacked by zombies. A former cop decked out like a cowboy (Kazuki Namioka) comes to their aid driving a truck that’s ready for battle. He takes the group to what looks like a bizarre club. Seems they’re trying to establish their own society behind that wall. There are human survivors that the zombies have rounded up and among them is No Name’s sister. And who runs this zombie establishment, you might ask? None other than zombie Uncle. Fights break out and the blood spray is plentiful. I mean, that IS what you see a Nishimura film for, right? There’s even a chase scene involving a very imaginative vehicle. When our little band of misfits finally reaches their destination they’re in for a big surprise….and I mean BIG! The only complaint I have is that the opening scenes of Kika rescuing some poor sap from the zombies after he falls off the wall don’t fit with the rest of the movie once it’s run all of the way through. It’s still a really fun sequence, though.

HELLDRIVER is one heck of a good movie. It’s just what I expect from Nishimura’s movies—gore, comedy, and plenty of carnage to go around. The characters are just as outrageous as the makeup effects, which are phenomenal. Yumiko Hara is beautiful as the damaged teenage protagonist Kika, displaying a believable strength and tenacity in the character. The gore-geous Eihi Shiina plays Rikka, both before and after her transformation into the Zombie Queen, with wicked glee. And I can’t say enough about Kentaro Kishi who seems to relish playing the very demented Uncle Yasushi. There are also appearances by Nishimura regulars Cay Izumi as a pregnant zombie (and as Yumiko Hara’s stand-in for some bizarre pole-dancing), Asami as a wall guard and director Takashi Shimizu (JU-ON series, MAREBITO [2004], REINCARNATION [2005]) as a man looking for his zombified wife. Director Iguchi Noboru also makes a brief appearance but I won’t spoil it by telling you what it is.

In addition to being the director of HELLDRIVER, Yoshihiro Nishimura is the screenwriter (along with Daichi Nagisa), editor, character designer and special makeup effects supervisor. Even with all of those jobs on his plate he managed to film the movie in only two weeks! Along with special effects makeup artist Taiga Ishino and visual effects artist Tsuyoshi Kazuno, Nishimura created some beautiful and unique zombies. Unlike the usual shamblers of Western zombie fare, Nishimura’s zombies have distinct expressions and facial features, as well as markedly colorful and psychedelic costumes. The “horns” on the zombies’ heads are a nod to the annual Yubari Fantastic Fest which is where HELLDRIVER had its first screening. The small town of Yubari in Hokkaido is known for its expensive melons—I’m talking fruit, people—and the horns are identical to the stems of the melons. There’s also a giant melon marking the Yubari Fantastic Fest in the movie.

HELLDRIVER is a revenge road movie and it’s chock full of social and political satire. The zombies aren’t just swarming the northern part of Japan looking for food, they are establishing their own culture with the Zombie Queen as their monarch. The humans in the southern part of the country are arguing over and protesting for or against “zombie rights”. We see a Catholic priest advocating for inclusion of the zombies—they were human once—even hiding a few in Tokyo. There is a sub-plot involving a government coup with Prime Minister Hatoda (Minoru Torihada) going so far as holding a press conference in front of the wall (which doesn’t go very well) while his potential successor Osawa (Guadalcanal Taka) is pushing for the outright annihilation of the zombies. I loved the public service announcement about the dangers of the zombies and the laws put in place by the government…it was hilarious!

The Geisha of Gore and director Yoshihiro Nishimura ham it up at the New York premiere of HELLDRIVER.

What I also saw in HELLDRIVER is the subtext of family—both those related to us by blood and those people who come into our lives by chance and become family. Rikka, Uncle and Kika are a family—as messed up as they are. No Name is searching for his sister, and there are a brother (Takumi Saito) and sister (Asami) among the wall guards. People are searching for their family members even though they might be zombies and Kika becomes part of another family when Taku takes her into the orphanage, no questions asked. Yosihiro Nishimura even has his daughter playing a zombie!

The special effects are, as usual, over-the-top and fantastic to see. Nishimura took great care in his character design and it shows. While most of the gore acts as a comedic device, there were a few times where it felt, to me at least, a bit darker than Nishimura tends to go. In a scene where Uncle has No-name’s sister tied to a chair in a room of the club, Nishimura takes a stab at the phenomenon of cutting among young Japanese women. While he’s done this in all of his movies, it was always intentional in-your-face satire whereas in HELLDRIVER he seemed to employ a more subtle and seemingly more serious jab with just a lingering shot of the girl’s arm covered in red scars. I also felt the manner in which the sister is attacked by Uncle has a darker and more sinister feel than what I’m used to.

There’s another scene where the priest going on about “zombie rights” brings someone to a room where he’s been hiding zombies. The door opens and a group of zombies in a darkened room turn to face the humans and something that may be food is thrown in to distract them. While the placards the zombies wear with their names on them are funny this is another case where I felt the humor was overshadowed by a more serious quality. I’ve always loved the comedic aspect of Nishimura’s horror, but I liked the more serious and sinister aspects. It adds a new depth to his splatter-comedy style and I hope it continues. It throws an uncomfortable curve at the viewer…and horror should have some measure of discomfort for its viewers.

As I’ve said I took my daughter with me and she’s not the biggest fan of this type of film. She thought character development was lacking, with some characters just being flat. Darlene is mixed on the special effects with some of it looking good and some of it cheesy, but she did like the originality Nishimura employed for the zombies. She also thought the story was thin and some of the scenes went on too long. She gives it two stars out of five….she liked MUTANT GIRLS SQUAD (2009) better. Other than that she had a good time. Darlene isn’t the fan girl geek that I am. And she insisted I add her opinion of HELLDRIVER and she usually gets what she wants out of me.

(from l to r) Yoshihiro Nishimura, Colleen's daughter Darlene and Eihi Shiina

Prior to the film, announcements were made regarding the lineup for the New York Asian Film Festival and the overlapping Japan Cuts series in July…and I can’t wait to go! HELLDRIVER was then introduced by Marc Walkow of Subway Cinema, Nishimura and the film’s star Eihi Shiina. In the intro Nishimura stressed that HELLDRIVER was made almost a year ago and in no way was any kind of statement about the disaster in Japan. It was a bit bizarre to see that some aspects of the movie’s storyline mirror the aftermath of the earthquake….location and destruction, mostly, but some of the politics as well. There was a Q & A session after the movie, which began with Nishimura wearing his trademark fundoshi (that’s a traditional Japanese undergarment for men) making his way along a row of seats while swinging a zombie baby over his head by its umbilical cord. I can’t make this stuff up, people. He was joined on-stage by Marc Walkow, also in a fundoshi, and Eihi Shiina, who remained fully clothed—much to the chagrin of most of the men in attendance, I imagine. There were questions about HELLDRIVER but quite a few fans wanted to ask Ms. Shiina about AUDITION and many held up DVD copies of the Takashi Miike masterpiece. She even gave a quick re-enactment of sorts of the famous “kiri, kiri, kiri” from AUDITION’s torture scene.

Afterward the theater emptied out into the lobby where there was plenty of food and Sapporo. Autographs were signed and pictures were taken. I was thrilled to finally get to meet Eihi Shiina, and she signed my DVD of AUDITION! This was her first trip to New York and to the United States. It was very cool to meet Nishimura again and see Marc, and of course I enjoyed a nice night hanging out with my daughter Darlene.

I must thank my friend Norman England, who did the English subtitling for HELLDRIVER, and Marc Walkow for their help….and huge thanks to Norman for the use of one of his set photos.

© Copyright 2011 by Colleen Wanglund

HELLDRIVER behind-the-scenes set photo © copyright - Sushi Typhoon/Nikkatsu Studios

JU-ON (Part 1)

Posted in 2011, Asian Horror, Colleen Wanglund Reviews, Geisha of Gore Reviews, Ghost Movies, Haunted Houses, Japanese Horror with tags , , , , , , , , on April 20, 2011 by knifefighter

The Geisha of Gore Takes a Look At JU-ON (THE CURSE)
Part 1 of 2, by Colleen Wanglund

After a lull of almost two decades (with the exception of some splatter films), Japanese horror movies made a major come-back in the 1990s with films such as the classic ghost story, RINGU (1998). Another one of these movies was JU-ON (2000) and it would have a lasting impact on Japan’s (and America’s) horror movie business. JU-ON began as two stories, “Katasumi” and “4444444444” shown as part of a television movie called GAKKO NO KAIDAN G (1998). Both stories were written and directed by then-unknown Takashi Shimizu. Including these stories, there have been a total of seven—count ‘em—JU-ON movies to date. That doesn’t even include the three American versions and a video game! That’s one hell of a franchise, to say the least!

Okay from the beginning. JU-ON translates to the “curse” or “grudge” in English. It is explained that when someone dies violently and feeling anger or hatred, a curse is born. The ghost of the dead is the fulfiller of that curse. In “Katasumi,” the curse, in the form of a female ghost, takes the lives of two school girls, Kanna and Hisako, while they are at their school feeding the rabbits. “4444444444” is about Kanna’s brother Tsuyoshi. While going to meet his girlfriend Mizuho, he finds a cell phone with the repeated number 4. In Japanese the number four (shi) is a homophone of the kanji character for death or demon (shinigami). The curse appears as the ghost of a young boy and kills Tsuyoshi, whose body disappears.

In 2000, Takashi Shimizu wrote and directed the full-length feature JU-ON: THE CURSE and it was a direct-to-video release. The movie follows the curse through a series of vignettes, taking the viewer through a time-line of events that seem to center around a single house. JU-ON: THE CURSE opens with a grade school teacher Kobayashi talking to his pregnant wife about a student of his, Toshio Saeki, who hasn’t been to school in a few days. After school the next day Kobayashi goes to Toshio’s home to see about the boy and talk to his parents. He finds Toshio home alone and looking as though he’d been beaten; the house is a mess and the child’s parents aren’t around. Kobayashi stays with the boy, calling his wife to tell her what’s happened and that he’ll be home late. Toshio has disappeared and Kobayashi finds him upstairs drawing pictures of cats. While looking around, Kobayashi enters a room where he finds the diary of Kayako, Toshio’s mother. It seems as though Kayako was a disturbed woman.

The movie moves into the next vignette about Yuki, who is tutoring Kanna. Kanna’s family, including her brother Tsuyoshi, is now living in the Saeki house….and yes it’s the same Kanna from “Katasumi”. After Kanna leaves to go feed the rabbits at school with her friend Hisako (can you guess where this goes?),Yuki is disturbed by the sound of cats. A cat actually enters Kanna’s room and chases Yuki into the closet where she discovers an entrance to the attic. Yuki pokes her head into the space only to be confronted by the ghost of Kayako. Assume what you will.

The movie’s time-line now moves to Mizuho, Tsuyoshi’s girlfriend…..first seen in the original story “4444444444”. She is waiting for Tsuyoshi at school but cannot find him—although she sees that his bike and book bag are sitting outside the building. Mizuho also finds a phone, but is called into the building by a teacher. While left alone in the teacher’s room, the phone that Mizuho found begins ringing and the same repeat of the number 4 is displayed. We also see that the ghost of Toshio is in the room with her. The vignette ends with the assumption that Mizuho has become another victim of the curse, much like Tsuyoshi.

JU-ON now moves to the fate of Kanna. Detectives Yoshikawa and Kamio are at the coroner’s office where they are told the body under the sheet was found ripped apart and mixed with some rabbit DNA. The coroner also tells the detectives that a human jaw was found at the site, but it didn’t belong to the body. The scene moves back to the house with Kanna’s mother returning home and looking for her children. Unfortunately for mom, she finds Kanna…..more victims of the curse.

The movie now picks back up with the story of the teacher Kobayashi at the Saeki home with Toshio. Kobayashi has found the attic access in the closet and takes a closer look. What he finds is the body of Kayako. He grabs Toshio to leave the house when he gets a phone call from Toshio’s father, Takeo. Takeo informs Kobayashi of the fate of Kobayashi’s pregnant wife and it isn’t good, as we see Takeo in a phone booth covered in blood. It is now Kobayashi’s turn to become the victim of the curse with Kayako bearing down on him. The vignette ends with Takeo meeting his own fate at the hands of the curse he created.

The next and final vignette is about Kyoko, a sort of medium who is called by her brother to look at a house he is trying to sell. There have been rumors about the house and he just wants some good luck so he can get it sold. Kyoko and her brother arrive at the house and guess what? That’s right, it’s the Saeki house. Upon entering the house Kyoko learns that the last owners suffered multiple tragedies and the lone survivor is in a hospital. Kyoko can sense much more going on in the house and knows how dangerous it is. She gives her brother strict instructions on how to treat any prospective buyers and promptly leaves. Kyoko later finds out her brother sold the house. She goes to see the house and spots the woman in the front window….but something about her isn’t right. Kyoko realizes the woman she sees is possessed by Kayako.

JU-ON: THE CURSE 2 was also written and directed by Takashi Shimizu in 2000 and was a direct-to-video release. The first vignette is the footage of Kobayashi at the Saeki house from the first movie but it is edited down a bit from the first. The second vignette is also from the first movie, this one about Kyoko, except it is expanded upon with Kyoko going to check on her nephew. Her brother the realtor asked her to check on his son because Tatsuya (the brother) had noticed his son acting differently since moving into the new apartment. We see Kyoko’s nephew Nobuyuki watching television in the apartment when the picture goes to static. The apartment seems familiar because it was the same apartment that Kobayashi and his wife lived in years before. After Kyoko arrives she and Nobuyuki find themselves watching the murder of Kobayashi’s wife by Takeo Saeki.

The next vignette begins with the woman who bought the Saeki house from Tatsuya receiving a package in the mail. It is the picture drawn by Toshio of his parents and Kayako’s diary. Her expression changes, and while her husband complains about his runny eggs, she hits him from behind with the frying pan. The scene switches to Tatsuya discussing with his parents what to do about Kyoko’s condition. It seems she is in a sort-of catatonic state since seeing the replay of murder at the apartment. Nobuyuki doesn’t seem all there himself. Tatsuya leaves and goes to the Saeki house to check on the new owners of the house, the Kitadas. Mrs. Kitada greets him at the door and tells him everything is fine. When Tatsuya spots the picture, Mrs. Kitada “becomes” Kayako and Toshio is sitting on the couch. We assume Tatsuya never leaves the house. Back at Tatsuya’s house, the curse rears its ugly head with Kyoko possessed by Kayako. No one there gets out alive.

The movie’s time-line now moves back to Detective Kamio and his investigation of the death at the school of Hiseko and Kanna’s family. It seems the other detective working the case, Yoshikawa, has lost his mind. Kamio goes to see his old partner but goes away empty handed. Back at the station a woman has come to see Kamio. It is Kayako….the curse has found yet another victim.

Now we move to Nobuyuki who is at school cleaning a classroom with a few other students. The assumption here is that Nobuyuki was not home when his grandparents died. Nobuyuki turns to find an empty classroom as he runs from Kayako climbing through the window. The boy becomes the next victim of the deadly curse. The final shot of the vignette is of many Kayakos standing in the rain and making a now-familiar clicking sound.

The movie ends with some high school girls sneaking into the Saeki house which now stands empty with a “For Sale” sign out front. The girls hear a noise from upstairs….and the movie ends.

JU-ON: THE CURSE and JU-ON: THE CURSE 2 are not—I repeat not—the movies that were remade in America as THE GRUDGE (2003) and THE GRUDGE 2 (2006). They are two other movies that I will deal with in “JU-ON Part Two” in June. THE CURSE and THE CURSE 2 weren’t even released in America.

Both movies are well-written, with an original storyline. Shimizu also did wonders with directing, as both were low-budget films. CURSE and CURSE 2 rely heavily on atmosphere and the imagination of the viewer and it does make for some scary tension. I enjoy the way the story of the CURSE moves around from one vignette to another and slowly weaves together into one solid time-line. I think it was a brilliant move on Shimizu’s part. As I’ve said before, the ghost is a very powerful icon in Japanese horror and can invoke some scary and unsettling imagery. The Japanese believe that the spirits of the dead must be appeased to keep them happy. If a person’s dead ancestors aren’t happy, they can affect that person’s life with some very bad luck. The ghost is the corporeal manifestation of that bad luck. In CURSE and CURSE 2, the basis for the curse is the death of an individual—Kayako, and to a lesser degree Toshio—while in the throes of anger or resentment. Kayako was violently murdered and that death has manifested itself as a never-ending curse. It cannot be escaped by anyone who comes into contact with it, no matter how inconsequential that contact may be. That’s pretty damn scary in my book. Takashi Shimizu is an amazing storyteller and if you can get your hands on these little-seen gems, I think you’d be quite pleased. Again, not to be confused with American film, THE GRUDGE.

© Copyright 2011 by Colleen Wanglund

The Geisha of Gore Looks at Two Classic Films by Nobuo Nakagawa

Posted in 2011, Classic Films, Colleen Wanglund Reviews, Geisha of Gore Reviews, Ghost Movies, Japanese Horror, The Afterlife, Visions of Hell with tags , , , , , , , , on March 16, 2011 by knifefighter

Classic Japanese Horror: Two Classic Films by Nobuo Nakagawa
By Colleen Wanglund, the Geisha of Gore

Nobuo Nakagawa is probably one of the most famous film directors you’re not watching. Nakagawa was a prolific Japanese filmmaker who directed almost forty movies between 1938 and 1982 (he died in 1984). He is a genius of the horror genre and considered by many to be the father of Japanese horror. Nakagawa is known for such movies as SNAKE WOMAN’S CURSE (1968), THE DEPTHS (aka THE GHOST OF KISANE {1957}) and VAMPIRE MOTH (1956) which is thought to be the first vampire movie in Japanese cinema. The movie which seems to get the most praise and recognition is Nakagawa’s JIGOKU from 1960.

JIGOKU was released in America under the title THE SINNERS OF HELL. The movie was remade in 1970 and again in 1999 under the title JAPANESE HELL by Teruo Ishii (HORRORS OF MALFORMED MEN {1969}), a well-known cult film director in his own right. Nakagawa’s version stars Shigeru Amachi as Shiro, a theology student who has just gotten engaged to his professor’s daughter Yukiko (Utako Mitsuya) when his friend Tamura (Yoichi Numata) shows up. Tamura offers Shiro a ride and a drink to celebrate his engagement, but while driving they hit a drunk in the road and leave him to die. Tamura is one nasty a-hole. Unfortunately the drunk was a leader of a gang and his mother who saw the car’s license plate number vows revenge. Shiro is horrified by his friend’s lack of remorse and decides to go to the police and confess. Tamura tries to stop him by telling Shiro that it won’t matter who was driving, that Shiro will lose everything.

Shiro goes back to his apartment to consider his next move but Yukiko is waiting for him there. He tells Yukiko what has happened, after interrupting her as she was about to tell Shiro something. Shiro insists they take a cab to the station but during the ride there is an accident and Yukiko dies. With his life spiraling out of control, Shiro goes home to see his parents, after receiving word from his father that his mother is seriously ill. While there he discovers his father has a mistress who is stealing money from the residents of the nursing home Shiro’s parents own. Shiro also meets the daughter of one of the residents, Sachiko (played by Utako Mitsuya, in a dual role) who is a dead ringer for the dead Yukiko. Shiro has also discovered that Tamura has followed him home, but so has the mother and girlfriend of the dead gangster killed in the hit-and-run accident. Things just go from bad to worse for Shiro, as well for the people around him.

JIGOKU is a beautiful film that is well-written and flawlessly directed with a minimalist quality. Nakagawa wanted to make something different from the ghost stories of the time and he certainly did that with JIGOKU. A somber mood runs effortlessly throughout the film, never deviating from its surreal and horrifying conclusion. At the time of its 1960 release in Japan, JIGOKU was received with shock and outrage as it contained very graphic images of the torments of Hell. The character of Tamura is a bit of an enigma as you’re not quite sure what to make of him. He is diabolical and without a conscience. What’s also so disturbing about Tamura is that he seems to appear out of nowhere and knows everyone’s darkest secrets. Is he human or a demon?

Jigoku literally translates to “hell” and the movie’s final third is a dark and horrifying depiction of Hell based on the teachings of Buddhism. Including traditions from other Japanese folklore and religions, this Hell consists of eight levels of fire and eight levels of ice. A soul’s punishment is determined by the type of sins committed while alive and can consist of anything from carrying the pain of those you have hurt, to being flayed alive. It is shots of live flaying and beheadings that lands JIGOKU a place in the splatter sub-genre and is believed to be one of the first examples of Japanese splatter horror. What is so scary about this is the belief that all souls must spend some time in Hell before moving on to Heaven and eventually reincarnation. As Shiro moves through the levels of Hell he witnesses the torments being suffered by those he knew in life. He witnesses eyes being gouged out and bodies cut to pieces, as well as hearing the never-ending screams of the sinners. Shiro is also being followed by Tamura, who tries to tempt him at every turn. Shiro is determined to prove that he is not a bad person and has a conscience. This last third of JIGOKU is quite intense and frightening. It’s almost uncomfortable to watch, but that is what a good horror movie should do—make the viewer uncomfortable.

Most of the extras in the scenes of Hell are butoh dancers. Butoh is a form of dance combining traditional and modern elements and was founded by Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno. Created out of the chaos of post-World War II Japan, most of the movements involve the distortion of the body. The form is primal, manic and at times sexually provocative. It was exactly what Nakagawa wanted for his denizens of Hell. Their movements capture the torment delivered to them. Hijikata also used butoh when he co-starred in Teruo Ishii’s HORRORS OF MALFORMED MEN (1969).

* * *

TOKAIDO YOTSUYA KAIDAN (THE GHOST OF YOTSUYA {1959}) is based on the most famous Japanese ghost story of all time, which was written by Nanboku Tsuruya in 1815 for Japan’s Kabuki Theater. Iemon Tamiya (Shigeru Amachi, who also starred in JIGOKU) is a ronin, a masterless samurai who has been refused the hand of Iwa (Katsuko Wakasugi), the woman he loves, by her father. Usually a samurai becomes a ronin when his master is killed—it is then up to the ronin to avenge his master’s death and then commit ritual suicide. Iemon is not one of those devoted samurai. Enraged by Iwa’s father’s refusal, Iemon kills the father along with another man. Naosuke (Shuntaro Emi), a servant and the only witness, tells Iemon he will help him hide his crime. They tell Iwa and Yomoshichi (Ryuzaburo Nakamura),the young man Iwa is betrothed to, that another man attacked and killed their fathers. Iemon ultimately marries Iwa and vows to avenge her father’s murder. While on a pilgrimage to pray at a shrine, Iemon and Naosuke stab Yomoshichi and throw him over a waterfall. They then tell Iwa and Sode (Noriko Kitazawa), Iwa’s sister, that the same man who killed the girls’ father has also killed Yomoshichi.

Some time has passed and Iemon and Iwa are living in Edo (Tokyo) and they have had a son. Naosuke and Sode are also in Edo, but neither of the sisters knows this. Naosuke has been promising Sode that he will avenge her father’s death. Sode has promised to marry Naosuke when the task is completed. Iemon and Iwa are poor, and he has grown tired of Iwa asking when he will avenge her father’s death. Iemon meets the daughter of a wealthy samurai and wishes to marry her; but he is already married. Oh, that pesky wife just getting in the way. Naosuke devises a plan to get rid of Iwa and clear the way for Iemon’s marriage. Iwa is poisoned and dies, but not before the poison has disfigured her face. Iwa knows she is dying and why, so she takes her son to the grave with her. Her body is disposed of and Iemon marries his new bride. Out of grief and betrayal Iwa’s spirit haunts Iemon and it affects everything he has lied, schemed and murdered to attain. Iwa has vowed revenge and she will have it.

TOKAIDO YOTSUYA KAIDAN is not the first film adaptation of the original play but it is the most faithful, following the story almost exactly as it was first written. It is a beautifully directed movie with a suitable dark atmosphere throughout. The sisters are very sympathetic characters and Iemon and Naosuke are truly villainous. The special effects are fantastic with Iwa’s face becoming “monstrous” after drinking the poison and her ghostly image is very scary, appearing quite often to sabotage Iemon’s plans. Nakagawa seemed to have taken inspiration for the filming of TOKAIDO YOTSUYA KAIDAN from early Hammer Studios films. This was a low-budget movie but it certainly doesn’t look it. TOKAIDO YOTSUYA KAIDAN is a movie for the horror purist and fans of good old-fashioned ghost stories. What also stands out is the story itself (both the original and this movie) is based on two real-life murders that took place during the samurai period in which it is set. The first crime involved two servants who murdered their masters and the other involved a samurai who murdered his concubine after learning she was having an affair. The story also takes place during a time when women were seen as merely possessions and they suffered greatly. The ghost represents the spiritual power of the woman, allowing her to take revenge for her bad treatment (come on, now, I’ve told you this before).

Both JIGOKU and TOKAIDO YOTSUYA KAIDAN are excellent movies from Nakagawa and if you get the chance to see them, you really should. They are each beautiful, dark and haunting in their own ways and great examples of early Japanese horror cinema.

© Copyright 2011 by Colleen Wanglund


Posted in 2006, CKF On the Edge, Controverisal Films, Extreme Movies, Japanese Horror, LL Soares Reviews, Takashi Miike Films, Television with tags , , , , , , , , on March 10, 2011 by knifefighter

IMPRINT (2006) (An unaired episode of the Showtime series MASTERS OF HORROR)
DVD Review by L.L. Soares

I was pretty excited when the cable channel Showtime began showing their MASTERS OF HORROR series in 2006. The idea behind the show was great. Take some top-notch, and mostly A-List, horror directors and let them push the envelope and go further than past anthology shows. The result, however, was a mixed bag. Although I’d say that, in Season One at least, there were more interesting or downright good episodes than there were clunkers. (Season Two was another thing entirely)

Looking back on the first season, the one thing that struck me most is how Showtime reneged on their original concept. They shied away from truly subversive cinema by first censoring Dario Argento’s episode JENIFER (cutting an oral sex scene gone awry) and then refusing to air Takeshi Miike’s installment, IMPRINT.

Some of my favorite episodes of the season were John Carpenter’s stellar outing CIGARETTE BURNS, John Landis’s return to form in DEER WOMAN (a perfect blend of humor and horror that harkened back to his AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON from 1981) and Argento’s aforementioned, and totally twisted, mini-masterpiece JENIFER.

But after seeing Miike’s banned episode, I found IMPRINT to be easily the best of the bunch.

This wasn’t really much of a surprise. Miike’s film AUDITION (1999) is in my top 10 of best horror movies of all time, and he directs IMPRINT with the same kind of disturbed poetry that permeates his best work.

Billy Drago, the quirky, intense actor who has appeared in everything from B movies like the Chuck Norris flick HERO AND THE TERROR (1988) and Alexandre Aja’s remake of HILLS HAVE EYES from 2006 (as Papa Jupiter) to television shows over the years, from T.J. HOOKER to CHARMED, plays Christopher, an American who begins the episode taking an eerie late night boat ride, on a river full of corpses, to an island in 1890s Japan. He has searched all over the country for the beautiful Komomo (Michie Ito), his one true love, who he promised he would one day rescue and take away from her life of prostitution.

The island is full of prostitutes, and while Komomo is not there, Christopher is forced to choose someone else for the night. With dozens of women reaching out for him from behind barred windows, he chooses an isolated woman at the back of the room (Youki Kudoh), who it turns out is disfigured.

When he is alone with his choice, the woman sees right through him and knows that he pines for someone else. She gets him to talk about Komomo and his plans to find her, and then reveals that she knew his great love. The prostitute then goes on to tell him the story of how his beloved Komomo met her horrific end.

At first she tells him a story of how Komomo was the only one on the island to be nice to her, and how the other prostitutes hated Komomo because of her beauty. When the Madame’s jade ring is stolen, and Komomo is framed for the theft, the other women take great glee in finally having an excuse to punish the girl who is prettier and thinks she is better than they are. They all bring her to a punishment room, where they wait eagerly for Komomo’s comeuppance. What happens next is a long, drawn-out torture scene involving at first burning incense and then long vicious needles applied to fingernails and gums, which was probably a big part of Showtime’s reluctance to air the episode.

Once the disfigured prostitute’s story is over, however, Christopher knows that she is not telling the entire truth, and demands that she tells him everything. This results in her telling the story twice more, about her own childhood and about how she met Komomo, and Komomo’s torture and death. Each time, the story changes slightly. The structure of the episode is similar to the classic Japanese film RASHOMON (1950), except that instead of telling the story from several characters’ point of view, IMPRINT tells us multiple versions of the same story from one person.

I do not want to give too much away, but, as the story gets more horrific with each telling, we start getting into such taboo areas as incest and abortion (probably the number one reason why this episode did not air on American TV). Throughout, there is a strong surreal quality to the proceedings that make us feel as if we’re drifting through a nightmare, up to the ending which is completely bizarre, yet effective.

I thought the lead actors were all good, even Drago whose character is a little over the top. Drago’s performance worked for me, however, because its oddness added to the nightmarish tone.

Miike is a director who does not shy away from shocking images and truly disturbing subject matter, but he is also a visual poet, and there is as much beauty and strong use of color in IMPRINT as there is repulsive and terrifying imagery.

While I did think IMPRINT was a strong, disturbing film, and am not surprised by Showtime’s timidity in not showing this episode, I do not agree with their decision at all. IMPRINT is a very powerful episode and Miike is a true artist. Since horror is supposed to push our buttons, Miike succeeds in proving that he is a true Master of the genre. If it had caused more controversy by being aired, then it would have simply confirmed the promise of the series. A premium cable channel that claims to offer true freedom for filmmakers needs to stick to its guns. But I guess keeping subscribers from possibly jumping ship is the true bottom line.

I suppose we should be thankful that IMPRINT saw the light of day at all, and that we’re able to watch it on DVD (the DVD came out after Season One was over. But I find it supremely ironic that the one episode they didn’t show on television was the crown jewel of the bunch.

Directed by: Takashi Miike
Screenplay by: DaisukeTengan (based on the novel by Shimako Iwai)
Billy Drago, Youki Kudoh, Michie Ito, Toshie Negishi and Shimako Iwai
Cinematography by:
Toyomichi Kurita
Special Effects by:
Yuuichi Matsui

© Copyright 2011 by L.L. Soares

(Note: A slightly different version of this article was first published on the Australian movie website DVD RESURRECTIONS in 2006)


Posted in 2011, Asian Horror, Colleen Wanglund Reviews, Geisha of Gore Reviews, Ghost Movies, Japanese Horror with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 23, 2011 by knifefighter

The Vengeful Feminine
A Look at Female Ghosts in Asian Horror
By Colleen Wanglund, The Geisha of Gore

The female ghost is a major icon in Asian horror films. It’s as much an icon in Asia, particularly Southeast Asia, as zombies or vampires are in Western horror movies. Even to Western audiences, the female Asian ghost is one of the most recognizable characters in horror movies. She rampages through schools, homes and towns bringing death to anyone unfortunate enough to be in her way. Asian movies like RINGU (1998), JU-ON (2000), SHUTTER (2004), EPITAPH (2007), and ACACIA (2003), and American remakes—THE RING (2002), THE GRUDGE (2002), and SHUTTER (2008) all have the requisite female ghost. Her appearance is generally the same—long black hair usually covering her face and a white dress or gown. Where does she come from? What is her significance?

The ghost in Asian culture, most notably China, Japan and Korea, dates back centuries. The Chinese have a very long history of ancestor worship and there is a long list of various types and classes of ghost. In Korea, the first documented ghost story dates back to the Three Kingdoms period (57 BC—668 AD) and, in Japan, female ghosts were seen in literature dating to the feudal period (1185 AD—1868 AD). While coming from three different cultures, there are many similarities to the ghost stories. All three countries have very specific rituals for dealing with the dead, to ensure the eternal happiness of the spirit of the departed. If those rituals aren’t observed, the spirit will come back to haunt the living. Ghosts are also the product of spirits succumbing to strong negative emotions that keep them here in the corporeal world.

Aside from the long-standing tradition and fear of a restless spirit coming back to haunt the living, the modern ghost story has social and political meanings as well. While women in the West have become, for the most part, equal with men thanks to the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s, that has not happened in Asian cultures where women are still viewed as being inferior to men. Women in Asia tend to be more reserved and are expected to be submissive to their husbands. Even highly successful women across Asia are considered failures if they haven’t married by the age of 25. The ghost is not a symbol of women’s oppression. Rather it is a symbol of women overcoming that oppression. It represents the destroying of the traditional patriarchal society. The modern ghost story is hardly the first in Asia to express social and political anxieties.

In 15th-century Korea, a series of novellas were banned because they depicted strong-minded, independent female ghosts who had a strong sense of identity—an absolute no-no. The spirits were believed to have stayed in the human realm because of an unwillingness to conform to societal standards of the time. The ruling class feared this and made the ghost stories illegal. In feudal Japan, the country was ruled in pieces by various shogun and their samurais who fought for control of territory. It is believed that in most ghost stories from this period the female ghost represents Japan itself, and she is returning for revenge on the men who are tearing her apart. The stories gave moral as well as political warnings. These constant battles for control between the shoguns lasted for about 700 years. There is more to this horror icon than just some scares. She represents real social and political issues that have existed and still exist.

The biggest similarity and most recognizable aspect of the female ghost is her appearance. No matter what Southeast Asian country the movie comes from, the ghost looks the same—long black hair, hidden face, white dress/gown. The white clothing is traditional funeral garb for the dead, so this is why they are almost always in white. The hair is a little more complex. The simplest explanation is that this is how the ghost was depicted in Kabuki Theater. The black wig let the audience know immediately who the character was. In fact the long hair has much deeper meanings. In folklore, the hair was believed to have a magical quality to it, representing the spiritual essence of the person. Women typically wore their hair up while alive, mostly for practical reasons, and it was let down while preparing the body for the funeral. This may have released that powerful energy enabling a wronged woman to come back and seek revenge. Women, while being seen as physically weaker than men, are also perceived as being spiritually stronger than men, thus the reason for (mostly) female ghosts. The weak woman who was abused in life can now exact her revenge in death. Long hair is also believed to represent the power of female sexuality, which gives these ghosts incredible power after death, even though they were powerless in life.

The hair is also seen as some sort of organic mask, covering the face and thus obliterating any past identity or personality of the woman the ghost may have been. The ghost is driven by very definite feelings, but she has lost what made her human. There is no compassion, love or remorse. But is the female ghost just a faceless spirit with almost no connection to its lost humanity, or is the ghost a compassionate villain? While the ghosts are generally driven by negative emotions and the need for revenge, those emotions come from a pain that a female audience can understand. While fearing the ghost we can also sympathize with the reasons for its rampage. We can even pity her at times. She represents pain, rejection, betrayal and loss—feelings the female audience can surely empathize with. In a much broader sense, the female ghost also represents the social and political anxieties of the patriarchal societies that have spawned them. The repression of women still exists in countries like Japan and Korea—modern countries where you wouldn’t expect this kind of repression to exist. There is a fear in these patriarchal societies of what would happen if women escaped these bonds.

One thing to keep in mind is that these female ghosts don’t usually hurt the men who hurt them in life. They hurt others who either are related to the object of their revenge or who just happen to get in the way. In the Korean movie PHONE (2002), a young woman is having an affair with a married man and goes missing. People who have her phone number since her disappearance have died in horrible accidents and the man’s daughter is possessed, but the man himself is left untouched by the presumed ghost of the girl. In JU-ON (2000), from Japan, a woman is murdered by her husband. Her ghost then curses everyone who comes near with death, even though they have no connection to the woman or her husband. The ghosts are not hurting the men who hurt them, but others. In this sense, the representation is not that the patriarchal society will be destroyed, but the traditions that allowed it to exist in the first place. If women become the equals of men, society won’t fall apart, but the traditions of the subservient wife, the male-dominated business world, and even male-dominated politics, would fall away. Men hold all of the power in these societies and they fear losing it.

Interestingly enough, the reasons are slightly different in Indonesia. The ghost story in Indonesia is a relatively new phenomenon and is believed to be directly influenced by the movies of Japan and Korea. The political climate there has been in flux over the last decade or so, and women as well as men have taken to the streets in protest. However, the representation of the female ghost in Indonesia is more of a statement on the victimization of women as a whole. The movies themselves attempt to create a dialogue about the violence perpetrated against women when new governments do nothing to protect them or change the existing patriarchal structure. In the movie VICTIM (2009), a young woman is hired by the police to play the victims in crime-scene reenactments. The young woman says a prayer for the woman she is portraying, but over time the ghosts of these crime victims begin to overwhelm her with cries of vengeance. It is recognized that women are disproportionately victimized in Indonesia, but successive governments have failed to do anything about it. What’s ironic is that a majority of the filmmakers who use the female ghost as an analogy are men, whether it’s in Indonesia or Japan.

The female ghost is symbolic of women gaining an equal footing in a repressive society. Women have slowly been gaining ground, in that they can go to universities and can get good jobs, but there still exists a stigma for a young woman who is not married. The film industry generally reflects what is happening in society. Asian horror is merely reflecting the woman’s rising stature, as well as the fear of men who are reluctant to break with tradition. These particular ghost stories have a vagueness to them that isn’t necessarily seen in Western horror. There is no need for an explanation as to how or why the ghost is doing what it’s doing. This usually reflects the fact that there is no explanation for the existence of the patriarchal society—it just is. There is also not necessarily a finish to the rampage at the end of the movie. This is probably because there is no one who can say what will happen when these societies fall and make way for a more equal society. This is part of the fear—the unknown.

So the next time you see an Asian horror film or an American remake don’t roll your eyes at the prospect of another ghost. Cheer for her instead. The Asian female ghost is a true feminist.

© Copyright 2011 by Colleen Wanglund