The folklore roots of J-Horror and why its ghosts are women

The folklore roots of J-Horror and why its ghosts are women

We in the West have this peculiar habit of taking simple things and turning them into contrived, distinctly unsubtle and generally messy concepts. The horror film is no exception. Back in the 1950’s, before we had the idea, the Japanese horror film (‘J-horror’) was already taking shape…

J-Horror has its roots in traditional folktales, most commonly adapted from culturally-dominant ghost stories from the consecutive ‘Edo’ and ‘Meiji’ periods (1603-1912).

The ghost (or Yurei) theme is so strong in J-horror that different ghosts have distinctive names and traits. The most familiar to our western cinemas are “Zashiki-warashi” – the ghost of a dead child, “Ikiro” – a ghost that represents negative emotions in a person. “Funayurei” are specifically ghosts that have drowned and the “Yomi” represents the revenge-seeking ghost. This revenge-seeking is closely tied to the traditional Japanese cultural aspect of respect to wronged relatives and ancestors.

The origins of ghost-based storytelling started in Japanese Kabuki theatre. The character of the ghost was always painted white, as white is the colour of mourning in Japan. This carried over into ghost and horror films, with the ghost character always being represented as being extremely pale, or wearing white clothing.

Why are J-horror ghosts most often women?

Women are key to J-horror, nearly always portraying the ghost itself. This is partly because historically a Japanese woman’s role was to stay inside, and be obedient towards her husband. As a result, many of the Ikiro characters are a representation of their frustration, anger, and resentment.

Takashi Shimizu, director of The Grudge, has commented on the role of women in J-horror:

“Women had been long confined by their husbands and society and their anger and frustration had been bottled up inside. I am drawn to their deep grudge and female tenacity”.

Unlike our charming western habit of drenching everything in prosthetic blood, J-horror focuses on the psychological: Tension, suspense and fear make a J-horror more subtly atmospheric and disturbing than our version of the horror genre, which means less reliance on physical harm and bloody violence.

Hollywood has remade all manner of J-horror movies to appeal to the Western palate and wallet, including The Ring ( originally ‘Ringu’), The Grudge (‘Ju-on’), Dark Water (‘Honogurai mizu no soko kara’), and One missed Call (‘Chakushin ari’), to name a few. However, in watching the western remakes you will lose some subtlety of atmosphere, even if you gain extra minutes increased special effects and explosions.

If you’ve not seen them already, I recommend these J-horror originals:

  • Ghost Story of Yotsuya – from 1959, a classic
  • Onibaba and Kuroneko – from the 60’s, good authentic stuff
  • Kairo and Curse – late 90’s, when J-horror departed from the 70’s flirtation of a bit of ‘splatter ‘ and returned to dark and meaningful
  • Ringu and Ringu 2 – the originals of the Hollywood remake mentioned above
  • Odishon (‘Audition’) – only watch if you like a slow-burner with some truly disturbing moments

If you need some additional cultural awareness with your share of scare, grab some sushi or salted edamame and check out the following films on Halloween or any new or full moon that suits your fancy:

  • Honogurai mizu no soko kara (Dark Water)
  • Ju-on (The Grudge)
  • Chakushin ari (One Missed Call)