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“I think that Japanese culture is one of the very few cultures left that is its own entity. They’re just so traditional and so specific in their ways.It’s kind of untouched. It’s not Americanized.”

-Toni Collette

It’s Friday evening. Laura is finally pleased that the whole family will spend time together watching movies. John brought two great horror movies they have not seen yet and the 10-year-old twin,  Kate and Jim are very excited about the family’s journey into the land of fear. There is a big bowl full of fresh, homemade pop corns and Coca Cola for everyone. But, the question is which movie will be first on repertoar? Laura reads titles and synopsis and she is not sure that those japanese horror movies will keep attention. Marebito and Noroi.The first one follows the story about weird man Masuoka who finds an alternate dimension beneath Tokyo. The another one, Noroi comes out with japanese paranormal experiences. After Laura’s complaint about John’s choices for the home cinema, the happy family decides to give a chance to japanese horror production, for the first time. When the last movie has been seen, they all were scared, shocked, disturbed and ready to deal with nightmares. They expected everything but not the real fear. They watched so many horror movies and not any of those ever made them feel uncomfortable in their own house, scared to death. If someone could measure the blood  race in the veins of the  Family Scott, one would probably think they will die from the adrenaline boom. That is the effect of horror movies directed in Japan and made by Japanese.

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I have always been fascinated by Japanese culture and Japanese people. They are so far away from all of us but not only geographically but spiritually too. The Western world is so opened in everything, so demystified and so cheap in all attempts to be something special. The Japanese world is the part of far eastern culture, veiled folklore and hidden tradition. The Japanese people do not need to express what they think because they are used to keep their emotional stress inside. While Westerners are loud and do not resist to express the anger or frustrations, the Japanese hide their concerns, troubles and bad dreams. They cover them with polite smile and bow their heads like they do not want to burden you. They are so contemplative community that doesn’t surprise the level of myths about them as well as the mysteries that fly around them. Japan is like the island in the mist, beautiful and undiscovered and it will be big secret to all of us for many years. Even if we see all from Japan, we will never reach the deepest parts of Japanese soul.

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The Japanese horror movies are known as J-horror movies and they have an exceptional rating worldwide. First of all, they do not have commercial background as American scary movies. Second,  their story telling is deeper and more qualitative as we can see in American style. The Japanese way of narrating the horror is almost like a dark reality crawling into your room, under your bed, getting you after all. It is enough to recall the memories on some of the famous movies signed by Japanese directors. Who can forget ever the RINGU, creepy curse-caster Sadako, little girl who comes to you moving in very weird way? Later, the US version was the RING but the feeling has never been the same. There is one another movie which has been very popular for years. I am talking here about AUDITION, when dangerous widower seeks for new wives.Whoever didn’t watch JU-ON or the GRUDGE must do it because that is a cult film, the story beyond the story. American attempt to make the glorious master piece has failed because the Japanese scary sister has been brilliant without any doubts.


Why Japanese make good horror films? It is not about budget or ideas. It is about depth they do have in their lives but also about the subculture resistance to the wind of change. They can not say in public what they do not like or do not want because their pain is locked inside them. However, they can speak through the movies, connecting present with the past and giving the chance to the future to speak. Actually, one science writer said that perfectly forThe  National Geographic:“Since then I think horror movies have begun tapping into the unease many Japanese feel as the ills of the (outside) world have encroached on Japanese life.For instance, Japan is no longer the fantastically safe country it famously once was, and the slumping economy has destabilized the notion of lifelong job security.As a result, their movies deal more with the breakdown of reality, of families, and of the mind.The world has become a much scarier and more irrational place in the last few years.These films, on a subconscious level, are about dealing with the unexplained.”


What does it mean?It means that Japanese people have fear from the reality as it is now so they express that fear in form of the movie, scary movie which shapes their imagination but still speaks about their inner anxiety and all real nightmares they have  from the changes they can’t control. In japanese films, we can see the high quality of psychological approach, the struggles of the soul and the black moments of the heart. It is not only leashed monster who is chopping  everything and everyone  like it is in mostly of American scary movies but it is rather one attractive mixture of dangerous mythology, undefined religion, controlled eroticism, disordered personality, and typical human attributes in its worst:revenge, torture, fear, hatred, fanaticism, egoism and pain.


The Japanese director of production will not just take some cheap characters to play around with axes and knives, killing without any order. He will make the atmosphere of the film, the sensation of the place and time, he will lead as slowly into the story and he will leave  us there alone. For some movie fans, this is not enough or this is too much. They want bloody actions on the primitive levels and they can not accept the evolutionary higher levels of japanese portrait of fear. The Japanese horror movie production offers horror alive. You watch it and you feel it happens around you. I believe this is the perfection of their art, Japanese virtue of saying what is  unsaid and showing what is unseen. When we find ourselves lost in millions of segments of Japanese story, we are forced to think not only to digest. Because, Japanese people think what will happen next, not only in the movie but in the real life they live.


Japan is a land of contrasts. The successful combination of traditional and high-tech, the dream beyond the dream. People we can see there are one of the most hard working people of the world and when they sit down and watch the movie, in the evening, they analyze again the fears they are facing with. Maybe not from the girl who is coming to get them from the dark deep water but they do have fears from criminals who can’t be caught and prosecuted. When they feel the anger from the RINGU, they actually experience the known taste of revenge in the Japanese society, what has not been portrayed enough in the western universe. The Japanese horror is good because it is collecting the real cries of the souls, afraid to face with the destiny they do not want.

As Japanese sometimes say:” KOKORO NO KIZU WA FUKAMARU BAKARI -The pain in my heart just gets worse.” 





  1. As always, Sarah, your articles are both well written and a joy to read!

    It was very nice how you eased into the subject by first introducing the Scott family, and how excited they were to watch a Japanese horror movie. In so doing, you got us, the readers, to delve into the rest of your article without feeling it! Amazing!

    To Sarah’s point, non-American movies in general tend to be deeper in thoughts and with less action than the American counterparts. Herein, Sarah specifically discusses the impact of the Japanese culture on its movies, as the Japanese people get to express themselves through their movies, which is something they cannot do openly on a daily basis, as it’s not part of the culture.

    This is also true of non-horror European movies such as French and Italian movies, for example, which are very profound and reflect societal problems and how they try to approach them. The ending of many of those movies are not happy endings as is the case in American movies.

    Again, through your writing, you have made it so appealing to go visit Japan, just as much as you have with Cairo and Moscow in your previous articles!

    Thank you, yet again, Sarah for your enticing writing!


  2. I lived in the Nipponese archipelago for many years (Hokkaido), and I witnessed how a mono-cultural society pulsates inwardly when it isolates itself from extraneous influences that attempt to penetrate the deepest depths of the Nipponese psyche (e.g. North American synthetic cultural aspects). The Nipponese elite unified, stratified and modernized the people and the country, from the late-19th century through to 1945, when the US-military implemented its occupation period. However, this global outward appearance has never eradicated what Sarah’s article articulates about the psyche of the people.

    The horror tale I am most fond of from the catalogue of traditional Nipponese Literature is 雪女 (Yuki-Onna, Snow Woman). She is a popular figure in Nipponese manga, film and animation, also. Some legends state that Yuki-onna, being associated with winter and snowstorms, is the spirit of someone who perished in the snow. She is at the same time beautiful and serene, but ruthless in killing unsuspecting mortals. Sometimes, she is simply satisfied to see a victim die. Other times, she is more vampiric, draining her victims’ blood or life force. Occasionally, she takes on a succubus-like manner, preying on weak-willed men to drain or freeze them through sex or a kiss.

    Ghost stories have an ancient origin in Nipponese Literature; dating back to at least The Heian Era (794–1185 CE). Konjaku Monogatarishū written during that time featured a number of ghost stories from India, China and Japan. Kabuki and Noh (forms of traditional Nipponese theatre) often depict horror tales of revenge and ghastly appearances; many of which have been used as source material for films.

    Kaidan (怪談) is a Nipponese word consisting of two kanji: 怪 (kai) meaning ‘strange, mysterious, rare or bewitching apparition’ and 談 (dan) meaning ‘discourse’ or ‘recited narrative’. In its broadest sense, Kaidan refers to any ghost story or horror story, but it has an old-fashioned ring to it that carries the connotation of Edo Era (1603-1868) folktales. The term is no longer as widely used in the language as it once was: Japanese horror books and films (e.g. Ju-on and Ring) would more likely be labeled by the katakana horā (ホラー , horror). Kaidan is only used if the author/director wishes to specifically bring an old-fashioned air into the story.

    I grew up with various English ghost tales and so on, and there are many parallels with the Nipponese progenitors; in the context of why people are drawn to tales of murder that lead to revenge or some form of justice. Also, many people curse when they want something unpleasant to occur to someone: this is a human trait found in many civilisations, including East Asian and Western European societies. What Sarah’s article demonstrates about the difference in the Nipponese people is how their visual cultural history has influenced how they perceive horror, in its most explicit forms. They are a visual people and the graphic aspects of the horror films are intrinsic to some 2,000 years of cultural evolution. It is deeply embedded within the national psyche.


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