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An Alternate History of Horror XVIII: Onryō

By Ryan Fleming.

Onryō; Japan's spirits of vengeance.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

This is, I am given to understand, the preantepenultimate article in this series. If, like me, you have to stop and count on your fingers to work that out, I can tell you that it means there’s only a few goodies left in this glorious horror-fest.

With that in mind, I hand over to the star of the show, Ryan Fleming.


The conversation around films is, like much of popular culture, centred on those films made within the United States. At times, this can seem doubly so for genre films, and especially horror. There’s almost a sneering attitude where of course those cultured filmmakers in other countries wouldn’t make films in such a cheap, tawdry, American genre. Such attitudes miss out on a lot of great horror films made outside the US, but there have been times in history when such films have dominated the genre.

There are multiple examples since film became a medium unto itself. The German horror films of the 1920s were far more influential in the long-run than their US counterparts. From the late 1950s to the early 1970s, the UK’s Hammer Film Productions set the standard for Gothic horror in glorious Technicolor. These are both Western countries, but at the turn of the Millennium it seemed that the centre of gravity in defining horror films had moved to the East.

Though a boom commonly associated with films made in Japan, the 2000s brought an increase in attention to horror films produced throughout East Asia. As ever, these films did not appear from a vacuum, but were an evolution of what was already being produced in those countries. Long before the beginning of the boom in the 1990s, Japan had already created one of the most enduring characters in film history, and in a horror film as well!

Godzilla made his debut in the 1954 film of the same name, originally as an allegory for the destructive power of nuclear weapons. Inspired by both the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the far more recent radioactive contamination of the fishing vessel Daigo Fukuryū Maru from the US Castle Bravo test at Bikini Atoll, Japan was in a unique position to make a metaphor from these new weapons of destruction. The oddity was that the audience started rooting for the monster.

Day of the Western Sunrise. Documentary presented at the Hobnobben Film Festival in 2019. The Daigo Fukuryū Maru (Lucky Dragon 5)

Picture courtesy Hobnobben Film Festival.

Despite being a stand-in for the very real destruction experienced by most of the audience, Japanese theatre goers found Godzilla to be a sympathetic character. This response was the start of a transition for the character and for the Japanese kaiju films to focus more on their giant monsters as antiheroes.

This was not without precedent globally, as the title character of King Kong (1933) had always been treated with some measure of sympathy. It took until 1964 and Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster for Godzilla to evolve into the antihero of his series.

That instalment also introduced Godzilla’s arch-enemy in the shape of the titular tri-cranial dragon. The next few instalments were targeted towards younger audiences, even introducing a cute offspring for Godzilla in the appropriately named Son of Godzilla (1967). Since then, whether in Japanese or American films, Godzilla has walked a line between destructive force of nature and anthropomorphic babyface hero as individual films needed.

This held true for competing kaiju like Saiei’s Gamera. As such, the films are perhaps better regarded as blends of action, fantasy, and science fiction than horror. Had the original intent of Godzilla struck more of a chord with the audience, then perhaps the trajectory of horror films produced in Japan would have been radically different to what we would enjoy later.

The same year that Godzilla began his face turn in earnest, another specifically Japanese film genre would cross over into horror. Jidaigeki films are period dramas set during different periods in Japanese history, most commonly the Edo period. Onibaba was an exception, set during the Ōnin War that began the country’s Sengoku period. An exception beyond that of setting was the way that it blended jidaigeki setting with themes pulled from a Buddhist parable that in film would be considered horror. To that end, it has defied strict genre classification.

The face turned baby-faced hero. A sympathetic destructive force of nature.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The same year saw the release of Kwaidan, a more straightforward horror anthology of Japanese ghost stories adapted from Lafcadio Hearn’s early 20th Century collections. It was a massive critical success in its original release, winning numerous awards in Japan as well as a Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival and a nomination for Best Foreign Language Film at the US Academy Awards.

Both films use elements from Noh theatre in their presentation, but only Kwaidan made use of what would later become the most enduring image of Japanese horror – said image being that of a woman with long, unkempt hair masking her face. It is drawn from Noh and Kabuki theatres, where it had been used to represent onryō, a vengeful ghost. As in the ghost story Yotsuya Kaidan.

Before that image came to dominate Japanese, as well as global, horror cinema, there were a few more directions that Japanese horror could have taken during the 1970s and 1980s. Following the success of Jaws (1975), Toho – the studio behind not only the Godzilla kaiju films but also many of Akira Kurosawa’s acclaimed jidaigeki – wished for Nobuhiko Obayashi to develop a similar script.

Obayashi was an experimental filmmaker whose most well-known works were similarly avant-garde television adverts that featured well-known western stars. Toho only planned for Obayashi to write the script and intended for one of their directors on staff to actually direct the picture.

Every director at Toho turned down the script, fearing it would harm their careers. Obayashi offered to direct it himself, but the fact that he was not a staff member put the script into turnaround for two years.

Whilst it was in turnaround, a radio drama was developed based on the script that became successful, and it was only after this that Toho allowed Obayashi to direct his own script. The end result, a horror comedy with mostly amateur actors and intentionally unrealistic special effects, performed admirably at the Japanese box office, but the few critics that reviewed it slaughtered the film. It has since achieved cult status for the same reasons critics at the time dismissed it.

Had a director at Toho been willing to take the film on after its radio version proved a success, the resulting film would have lacked a lot of Obayashi’s experimental touches and been more comprehensible to a wider audience. It might not have had the same breakthrough in the West as the titles of the 1990s and 2000s, but it would have altered the trajectory of Japanese horror to where those works would be entering a very different market. Not exclusively in cinema.

Sweet Home (1989) was a later Toho haunted house picture that was released in conjuction with and followed by a role-playing video game for Famicom (called the Nintendo Entertainment System outside of Japan). That video game would later be a major inspiration for Resident Evil (1996) and might not have been around to make that inspiration if Japanese audiences had become burned out on haunted house films had House had led to a boom in them.

Before Resident Evil had even begun development as a remake of Sweet Home, Koji Suzuki’s Ring (1991) hit bookshelves in Japan. It was successful enough to warrant multiple sequels, starting with Spiral (1995). That same year saw the first filmed adaptation of the first novel, as a television film which aired on Fuji TV in August. That version would fall into obscurity following Hideo Nakata’s 1998 theatrical release, released as Ringu in North America. Whilst many of the prior Japanese horror films were either based on folk tales or inspired by Japanese experiences during and following the Second World War, Ring was unabashedly modern. The traditional onryō was given the postmodern vessel of a video cassette. Nakata’s film was enormously successful, being one of the top ten grossing films in Japan for the year. In international releases, it actually beat Hollywood imports such as The Matrix (1999) in Hong Kong. Its greatest influence was arguably felt in the US, where after two decades of the increasingly stale slasher subgenre with little else, Ring was a breath of fresh air.

Its US release in 1999 coincided with another innovative new take on horror, but Ring opened the floodgates for what was soon being called J-Horror specifically referring to Japanese films, or the New Asian Horror more generally.

The new interest in the West for Japanese horror films was felt immediately. The 1999 Vancouver International Film Festival, held in October, saw screenings of Ring, Ring 2 (1999), Shikoku (1999), Gemini (1999), and Audition (1999). That last, directed by Takashi Miike and adapted from Ryu Murakami’s 1997 novel of the same name, was also screened at the 2000 Rotterdam International Film Festival where it won the jury prize for best in show.

Takashi Miike at the 2023 Tokyo International Film Festival.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The contrast between the slow-moving, almost comic, majority of the film and its shocking climax has been cited as influential on many subsequent films. It has been cited as an influence on the likes of Saw (2004), The Devil’s Rejects (2005), and Wolf Creek (2005). Director Eli Roth has stated its direct inspiration for his film Hostel (2005). Miike even made a cameo in Roth’s film. Unlike the ‘torture porn’ it inspired, Audition was made all the more effective by restraint and misdirection. However, its success was not enough for Miike to be able to secure enough financing to adapt Murakami’s Coin Locker Babies (1980). That same novel has also failed to be adapted several times from a screenplay by Sean Lennon, son of John Lennon and Yoko Ono.

Sean Lennon, 2015.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The paths opened by Ring continued into the new century. 2002 saw the release of, amongst others, Ju-On: The Grudge and Dark Water. The former was a much more experimental picture than many of its contemporaries, with writer/director Takashi Shimizu opting for a nonlinear narrative that seems almost to play out as an anthology, with the individual events forming their own vignettes. Those aspects drew criticism but, aside from the Ring series, it was perhaps the most successful of the boom in global interest in Japanese horror films, spawning sequels, prequels, sidequels, and, of course, an American remake.

Dark Water, in comparison, went for a more linear and straightforward narrative, despite in fact being based on a short story collection by Ring author Koji Suzuki. Dark Water made less than half at the box office what Ju-On made. Had their fortunes been reversed, it is possible that further stories from the Dark Water collection might have been adapted. Although one (Adrift) did make it to film, as the 2006 German-produced, English language thriller which was branded as a sequel to Open Water (2003) when that film proved a success – Open Water 2: Adrift. Though Dark Water, like Ju-On and like Ring, saw an American remake.

The US release of Ring, at a time when Hollywood horror films had grown stagnant again after a brief resurgence, blazed a path for other Japanese horror films like Audition, Ju-On: The Grudge, and Dark Water to find an international audience. That path was not just blazed for horror films, since action-thrillers like Battle Royale (2000) and crime dramas like Ichi the Killer (2001) also saw wide international attention. Nor was it exclusively for Japanese films.

Much as the success of Hammer films led Gothic horror productions from countries like Italy, Spain, and West Germany enjoying greater popularity, so to did the success of Ringu lead to a greater interest in the West of horror films produced in other East Asian countries. Foremost after Japan was the horror output of South Korea, but Hong Kong (home to the third largest motion picture industry in the world after Hollywood and Bollywood) also saw similar films released during the same era such as The Eye (2002).

Unlike Japan, South Korea had few examples of horror films before the 1990s. It was only after censorship was relaxed following the end of the dictatorships that had governed for decades. For some reason, despite the critics of horror believing the genre to have no redeeming social value, authoritarian regimes never allow horror films.

Authoritarianism hangs heavy over Whispering Corridors (1998), one of the most prominent South Korean horror films soon after censorship laws were relaxed. It was successful in its original release and spawned five sequels, but did not manage the same success in the West as those that followed in the wake of Ring. The first of these was, ironically, a remake of Ring for the South Korean market called The Ring Virus (1999).

The remake was a result of laws preventing the import of Japanese media to South Korea, enshrined in law following the decades of Japanese occupation of Korea. The ban was partially lifted three months after The Ring Virus was released, but it is interesting to consider how the South Korean horror genre might have developed if they had to remake successful Japanese films. Those later South Korean films developed their own distinct themes from the largely supernatural Japanese output.

A Tale of Two Sisters (2003) had its origins in a Korean folktale and combined horror with psychological and straight dramatic themes. It became the first South Korean film to be screened in American theatres. R-Point (2004) mixed supernatural horror with a war film in a story that followed a squad of South Korean Army soldiers during the Vietnam War. The Host (2006) mixed a monster movie with satirical elements to become the highest grossing South Korean film in history to that point. It also served as an introduction to the works of Bing Joon-ho for Western audiences, years before he would win the Academy Award for Best Director for Parasite (2019), which also won Best Picture at the same awards and the Palme d’Or at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival.

Train to Busan (2016) came long after the first boom, but combined action elements with a zombie apocalypse horror. That particular horror subgenre had grown stale in the West some time before 2016, but that is a tale for another day. Akin to Battle Royale and Ichi the Killer, the general interest in films produced in the region also might have given Oldboy (2003), an action-thriller, the attention it deserved upon its original release, including winning the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2004.

The success of these films led, perhaps inevitably, to Hollywood believing that they could make their own versions that would be more successful with added Americans. The first of these was The Ring (2002), directed by Gore Verbinski and starring Naomi Watts. Alone amongst the American remakes it has some merits of its own thanks to the atmosphere, Verbinski’s direction, and Watt’s performance.

What followed bore none of what made that first remake a worthwhile endeavour. That includes the sequels The Ring Two (2005) and Rings (2017), the latter spending some time in development hell after being originally announced as The Ring 3-D for a 2010 release. Moving into 3-D for a second sequel is never a healthy sign for a film series.

The Grudge (2004) came next, which bizarrely kept the Japanese setting (The Ring at least transplanted the action to the Pacific Northwest) with Western actors and being directed by Ju-On director Takashi Shimizu comes across as the original but with added white people. Dark Water was remade in 2005; Pulse (2006) was a remake of Kairo (2001); One Missed Call (2008) adapted the 2003 Japanese film of the same name. Hong Kong’s The Eye had a 2008 US remake; the same year that saw a remake of the 2004 Thai film Shutter; A Tale of Two Sisters was remade as The Uninvited (2009); and Oldboy was remade by American director Spike Lee in 2013.

Those are only the remakes that made it to production. Many, many more horror films from Japan or South Korea were mooted for American remakes that never came to pass. The Host was long considered for an American remake that never materialised, and the US version of Oldboy spent almost a decade in development. Oddly, however, it seems no-one in Hollywood ever considered making R-Point, despite its Vietnam War setting arguably making it the most thematically similar to many Hollywood films.

Despite the myriad Hollywood remakes and otherwise aping of their themes, Ring ushered in a new style of horror films from countries like Japan and South Korea for fans globally. That Ring’s release coincided with Hollywood horror films being in a period of doldrums was, as with The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), increased the audience demand for similar pictures. These introduced audiences in the West to films they might not have seen otherwise and brought acclaim to filmmakers from those countries that reverberates today.

There is something else, made in the US, that could have filled the gaps left by those doldrums. Ring’s release actually coincided with the first run of this American film. And films aping the American production did eventually come to dominate the horror scene, though only after remakes overtook imports. That other film during the summer of 1999 was The Blair Witch Project, but it, its predecessors, and its progeny are our tale for our next article.

That these films were released subtitled and not dubbed was itself something of a step forward. Though the Godzilla films had been popular in the US in past decades, these were usually dubbed in English. Indeed, Ring was released in the US less than two decades after Mad Max (1979) had all its Australian English dialogue redubbed into American English for its US release. It speaks to the notion that for people to enjoy films not in their native language, distributors should worry about giving them films that are enjoyable rather than populated by people that sound like them.

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Ryan Fleming is the author of Reid in Braid, published by SLP.

There is also SLP’s own Horror anthology, Travellers in an Antique Land (edited Katherine Foy).

SFP has an anthology of ghost (and similar) stories, Ghost Written.


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