Five Japanese Horror Films for a Haunted Halloween

Five Japanese Horror Films for a Haunted Halloween

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Three ghostly women from Japanese horror films in kimono with outstretched arms layered on top of each other.
In the mood for the eerie world of Japanese horror this haunting season? Look no further than these five classic films.

October marks the witching season in much of the English-speaking world. Japan, too, has taken on the Halloween spirit of late; more pumpkins and skeletons occupy retail spaces, and faux cobwebs spread over shop walls with each year that passes. The government of Shibuya, aware of the impending throngs of thousands of costumed revelers that annually descend on the Tokyo ward during the season, is currently going all-out trying to keep Halloween partiers away. (A major about-face since embracing the grassroots partying as recently as 2019). So, as a chill pervades the air, and the leaves in the mountains begin to change, why not get in the haunting mood with some ghostly Japanese horror classics?

Historically, autumn wasn’t the primary season for Japanese horror flicks. Rather, it was later summer that saw theater marquees plastered in film titles that promised a frightful time. This is the Obon season; Japan had been celebrating the Obon holiday for hundreds of years before Americans belatedly introduced the word Harōin (ハロウィン) into the Japanese vocabulary. The holiday is a homecoming for the ancestral dead, when people return to their hometowns to welcome departed spirits back for a visit. As a period when the worlds of the living and the dead commingle, the Obon season is naturally a bit spooky. The Japanese film industry saw a chance for some thematic seasonal synergy, and August became prime horror flick time.

The movies listed here form a strong jumping-off point for those interested in the Japanese horror genre. Really, though, these five movies, originating from a span of three decades, are more representative of the classic idea of kaidan (怪談) than what we might consider modern horror theater. Literally meaning “strange tales,” kaidan “…are stories broadly modeled as tales of the supernatural, which are sometimes surrealistic and may strike us as strange, weird, and frightening.” [1] Essentially, they’re Japanese ghost stories.

100 Tales of Fright

Women in kimono tormented by ghosts in an ukiyo-e painting themed around kaidan.
One Hundred Stories of Demons and Spirits by Kitagawa Utamaro. Early 19th century.

The telling of such tales has ancient roots in Japan, and was often the purview of traveling priests and merchants. When the civil strife of the Warring States Period ended with the creation of the central Tokugawa Shogunate in the early 1600s, the archipelago experienced a stability it hadn’t known for a century and a half.

The ravages of war and its attendant horrors were no longer a daily worry. Such traumatic concepts could now be made the object of curiosity and fascination. People would gather to tell ghost stories – often associated with the previous centuries of war, or with supernatural dangers. Some events, called hyakumonogatanri kaiaidankai (百物語怪談会), would see storytellers attempt to present over 100 ghost stories in a single sitting. (Like a samurai-centric version of the “Bloody Mary” urban legend, it was believed that 100 stories being told would bring about some supernatural event.)

The publishing boom of the Tokugawa era, and the high literacy rates in the samurai capital of Edo, led to a flood of horror stories hitting the shelves. The tradition of horror novels led naturally to horror cinema upon the advent of the Japanese film industry some hundreds of years later. And so, we have Japanese horror, which, while deriving stylistic and structural aspects from Hollywood horror flicks, is just as much based in the language, tropes, and visuals of kaidan stories, books, and noh and kabuki plays as anything else.

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In the mood for the eerie world of Japanese horror this haunting season? Look no further than these five classic films. Films discussed in this video: Ugetsu (1953) Dir. Mizoguchi Kenji Obibaba (1964) Dir. Shindo Kaneto Kwaidan (1964) Dir. Kobayashi Masaki Kuroneko (1968) Dir. Shindo Kaneto House / Hausu (1977) Dir.

Watch a video version of this article on our YouTube channel.

Our Journey into the Realm of the Uncanny

Scholar Noriko T. Reider, writing about kaidan, noted the following quote from a Buddhist priest of the mid-17th century regarding the rituals involving the 100 tales:

“On a dark night, one puts a light on an andon [paper-covered lamp stand]. The paper for the andon should be pale colored. One hundred wicks are placed in the lamp, and every time a tale is told, one wick is pulled out. Gradually the room becomes darker and darker. The pale color of the andon flickers in the room, and the atmosphere becomes ghostly. If stories continue to be told, it is claimed that a horrible and mysterious thing will happen without fail.”

Asai Ryoi, Otogi Boko. Quoted in Reider, 2000.

We only have five films detailing tales of the uncanny and otherworldly in this list, not one hundred. Still, if you watch these movies, you may well find yourself being drawn into that sense of eerieness, of being in that state between wakefulness and dreams. Whether Halloween or Obon, it’s always worth a little dip into the filmic realms men were not meant to tread.

(Note: As of this writing, you can stream all five films included here on The Criterion Channel. Unseen Japan is not associated with Criterion – but we do appreciate them.)

#1: Ugetsu (1953)

A woman in Japanese peasants garb steers a boat through the fog in the film Ugetsu.
A chilling, desperate boat ride across Lake Biwa in Ugestu (1953).

We begin our spooky journey with a ghost story more beautiful than frightening. Legendary director Mizoguchi Kenji’s Ugetsu (雨月物語, Ugetsu Monogatari) is considered a classic of world cinema, and helped introduce that world to Japanese film in the 1950s. The film won the Silver Lion Award at the 1953 Venice Film Festival, a major get for a Japanese film of its era. Given its celebrated status, it’s a good start when approaching Japanese ghost stories on screen – if not a very scary one.

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Like many great Japanese horror films, this one adapts folklore from a more distant past. In this case, it combines elements from two ghost stories found in the Edo-era book of the same name. (For good measure, it throws in a complimentary subplot influenced by the 19th-century French author and playwright Guy de Maupassant.) Two couples in a rural village attempt to move up in the world during a time of great instability; the Azuchi-Momoyama era, in which the final battles of Japan’s century-and-a-half of constant feudal war were playing out. One husband, a potter, seeks wealth by selling his wares. The other man seeks to rise in station by becoming a samurai. Their wives stand by their side but try to temper their overreaching ambitions. As war surrounds them, the families are drawn into tragedy – and into the boundaries between the living and the dead.

There’s something about samurai-era Japan that makes it a perfect setting for a ghost story. We’ll see time and again in this list how the finer aspects of Japanese traditional culture – the hard lines of exquisite kimono, the angular, minimalistic grandeur of traditional architecture, the way shadows play off walls lit by oil and wick – work to give a historical setting a natural sense of the otherworldly. In Ugetsu, the abodes of ghosts exist in a less defined boundary than in some other horror films. Nonetheless, boundaries do exist. Boundaries are a major aspect of traditional Japanese architecture, with symbolic gatehouses (mon) or vermillion shrine gates (torii) separating the world of the spiritual and the mundane at religious sites. The sliding wooden doors leading into the palace of a fallen noblewoman feel intrinsically liminal, and Ugestu plays off of these symbolic and literal gateways.

Mizoguchi’s Ghostly Women

Women, both noble and common, are at the heart of this movie. In fact, director Mizoguchi is noted for using the travails of women in Japan as his most persistent theme. Noted scholar of Japanese film Donald Richie wrote that “the director’s major theme… is women: their position, or lack of it; their difference from men; their relations with men; and the intricate relationship between women and love. Ugestu presents this theme in its perfected form.” [1]

(This sets him apart from his contemporary, Kurosawa Akira, who had a harder time writing women.)

Japanese folklore often portrays women, betrayed or hurt in life, as becoming vengeful ghosts (onryo) upon death. But the ghosts herein aren’t quite so vicious. (Nonetheless, being in the presence of ghosts has a distinctly ill effect on the living.) The desires and motivations of our ghosts here are understandable and sympathetic – and this won’t be the last time we encounter such ghosts on our journey today.

These ghosts are the result of war, and of the ambitions of men. Both our male protagonists seek to rise in station by taking advantage of the state of civil war; an inherently precarious task. Both believe this is what is best for their families. In seeking too hastily, they essentially abandon the women in whose benefit they claim to be acting. When our protagonist, potter Genjūrō, is given a chance to rise from cowering peasant to master of a noble house, he quickly gives in to the temptation. Status is the motivator, but also what causes so much ruin.

Is any of this scary? Not in an otherworldly sense, no. But it does portray the darkness and the danger inherent in the human soul. It also shows just how much can be lost when ambition overtakes familial bonds. As a gentler introduction to Japanese ghosts, Ugetsu is hard to beat.

#2: Onibaba (1964)

A ghostly figure in kimono and a demonic noh mask emerges from the tall grass in the film Onibaba.
The titular demon hag herself in Onibaba (1964).

A white demon, a fantastical oni in a Noh theater mask, looms out of a darkened thicket, blades of tall grass whipping in all directions. This moment, theatrical and chilling, is one of the great images in Japanese film. It is set within a moody horror film in which the grimy reality of human suffering is more a source of fright than is the supernatural – although the supernatural still plays its role. This is independent film legend Shindo Kaneto’s Onibaba.

Shindo was a disciple of Mizoguchi, and would hold him in high regard his entire life. (In 1975, he would immortalize his mentor via a two-hour-plus-long documentary titled Kenji Mizoguchi: The Life of a Film Director.) Shindo didn’t just learn filmmaking from Mizoguchi; he also took on many of the director’s pet themes as his own. Chief among these is the treatment of women in Japanese society – Shindo would focus on this more than any other topic throughout his career.

The entirety of the action in Onibaba takes place within the choking clostaphobia of a never-ending sea of tall susuki grass. Here, samurai stragglers from unseen battles wander in, hoping to find a refuge or escape. Instead, the samurai are picked off by an older woman and her daughter-in-law, ragged peasants reduced to murder to make ends meet in wartime. Their son and husband, respective to the two women, has been dragged off to war. The two women live in a small thatch hutch, itself lost amongst the grasses. Stolen armor and weapons are fenced to a threadbare blacksmith living in a nearby cave. The bodies of those the armor is stolen from are hurled down a deep, circular pit, a visual like a portal to hell itself.

When a neighbor, dragged off to war with the protagonist’s son, returns to the thicket, his presence ignites the central conflict of the film. The younger woman is drawn to the man, and they engage in a torrid affair. For the older woman, angry that the man returned without her son, the issue of main concern is rather her livelihood; if her younger partner is drawn away, she’ll be left alone, unable to carry out her murderous lifestyle solo. Survival and sexual passion become the twin themes of the film, lost within the cloak of the high grass. The older woman knows that only the threat of the supernatural may now save her.

The Horrors of Bare Survival

A close up of a ghostly figure in a noh mask in the film Onibaba.
A hannya noh mask, a classical Japanese image of fright. Onibaba (1964).

Other direct connections to Ugetsu are to be found here. We see how wars waged by distant samurai lords affect peasants, to whom the casus belli means very little. Such commoners are brutalized by war, but also seek to profit from it. In both films, samurai armor represents a way for a peasant to profit. The only way for peasants to obtain such valuables, however, is by deceit and violence; they must hide in the shadows, and strike down any samurai unlucky enough to leave an opening. The lower classes need to resort to their own form of brutality if they wish to survive.

Bur Onibaba is a vastly grittier film than Ugetsu. It portrays not just the vanities and follies of man (and woman), but the dirty, mud-cacked lower depths of the human soul. Humans come off as barely better than beasts, slinking through the desolation of the high grasses, willing to do anything and everything to survive. These are humans at their most feral. The old woman, protagonist of the film (played by Otowa Nobuko, Shindo’s muse and eventual wife), makes this clear when speaking to a samurai who claims he wears a demon mask to prevent injury to his handsome visage: “I’ve never seen anything truly beautiful in this world, not since the day I was born.”

Passion and Jealousy

Sexuality and horror tend to go hand in hand, irrespective of culture and location. Most of the films on this list deal with the boundary between passion, romance, violence, and karmic retribution. But the passion seen in Onibaba, dirty and grimy as it is, is also breathless. French film writer Elena Lazic identifies the sexuality seen in the film as highly contemporary, its depiction far from the traditional moralizing seen in more conservative-minded horror.

“…Viewers will no doubt see a reflection of the reality of the 1960s and the sexual revolution that was underway in many parts of the world when Onibaba was released. The older woman’s assumption that Hachi [the neighbor returned from war] wants to marry the younger woman echoes the expectations of an older generation, challenged by a more emancipated youth… She does not simply stand for the conservatism of an older generation; rather, Shindo suggests that behind her adherence to these beliefs is a repression of her own sexual desire and a fear of loneliness—in short, a need for intimacy.” [2]

With it’s preoccupation on sex, the movie verges on the pink film genre of the era, but thematically and visually, it’s something more. Onibaba has one of the most memorably eerie atmospheres of any Japanese film I’ve seen. It’s frightening and fascinating. We see echoes of similar ideas throughout these five movies – the horrors of war, memories of devastation brought on by a century and more of samurai civil strife. Ghosts abound in these devastated lands. But the simplicity of Onibaba‘s setting – on the periphery of war, in the shadows far beyond society – grants us a starkly memorable film unlike any other.

#3: Kwaidan (1964)

A Buddhist acolyte has Japanese and Sanskrit characters drawn onto his face via ink brush in the film Kwaidan.
The young biwa player Hoichi prepares to face the ghosts of the past in Kwaidan (1964).

Premiering a mere month after Onibaba was perhaps the most paradigmatic Japanese yokai film of them all: Kobayashi Masaaki’s Kwaidan. As horror films vested in the traditional imagery of Japanese horror, they could hardly be further apart in tone. Where Onibaba is brutal and grimy, Kwaidan is manicured and resplendent. It’s one of the most beautiful films of its era, a masterwork of color and set design. In an era of deconstruction, it represents a faithfulness to old forms – a surprise, given it came from one of Japan’s most rebellious directors.

I’ve already written about Kwaidan at length, so I’ll spare some detail here now. Nonetheless, it still bears inclusion in this list. An anthology film featuring four stories based on local folklore as recorded by OG Japanophile Lafcadio Hearn (1850 – 1904), Kwaidan is the ideal introduction to Japanese ghost stories. The viewer is treated to so many of the great standbys here: vengeful ghosts of a woman betrayed; the icey grip of the Yukionna, the Snow Lady, demonstrating the perils of falling in love with the supernatural; the ghosts of wars long past, and the dangers of interacting with the dead; the incomprehensible nature of the plane that lies beyond.

As with most of these movies, the mood is more eerie than outright frightening. The imagery, however, is like to stick with you long after the credits roll. These four stories vary in quality, but at over three hours, Kwaidan gives you the best bang for your yokai buck – especially with the incredible third tale, “Hoichi the Earless”. The uncontested centerpiece of Kwaidan, this story is a tour de force, moving from a visually magnificent recreation of the naval Battle of Dan-no-Ura to the most haunting images of the four ghost stories. “Hoichi” is worth the price of admission alone.

Learn more about Kwaidan (1964) in our video focusing on the anthology film.

#4: Kuroneko (1968)

A woman in see-through kimono stands with arms outstretched in the film Kuroneko.
A vengeful spirit revels in her revived flesh in Shindo Kento’s Kuroneko (1968).

For our next entry, we catch up with director Shindo Kento four years on from Onibaba.

If you want to see the extent to which black and white can be used to provide a sense of the otherworldly, look no further than this tale of ghostly vengeance. Kuroneko (黒猫, “Black Cat”, 1968) swims in deep blacks, much of its visuals being more of shadow and limited streaks of light than not. Easily seen as a companion piece to Onibaba, this film replaces the constraining high grasses of that film for the eirie shadowlands of a deep bamboo thicket. The hard right lines of Japanese architecture meld into the darkness, the slight curve of the bamboo reaching through the frame. Silence reigns, broken only by the wind through the rustling bamboo leaves. And in the darkness, a cat cries out.

Kuroneko continues with Shindo’s themes of women’s victimization and empowerment. The film opens on such victimization, earning this one a strong content warning. The scene in question is unflinching, but not, I think, gratuitous. 

Sometime in the distant Japanese past. A hush lies over the countryside, as bedraggled samurai emerge from a thicket and invade a thatched farmhouse. Inside, they find a woman and her daughter-in-law. A scene of violation occurs, with the samurai both engaging in and watching on with glee. The men leave, lighting the farmhouse on fire as they do. Amongst the smoke of the resulting rubble, a black cat comes upon the bodies of the two women.

Sometime later, samurai near the Rashomon gate in Kyoto begin encountering a lone noblewoman at night. She lures them back to her shadowy villa amongst the bamboo. There, another, older noblewoman lies in wait. Together, the two ghostly women enact their revenge – now in the form of bakeneko, monstrous ghost cats.

Gintoki, a samurai returned from war in the north, is tasked with defeating the murderous ghosts. But he is more connected to this tale than he yet realizes.

Masculine Brutality

A woman in white kimono leads a man on horseback through a misty bamboo thicket in the film Kuroneko.
A samurai on horseback is led to his doom in Kuroneko (1968).

This film follows a long precedent in Japan of accepting the existence of antagonizing otherworldly spirits. Like in many such tales, including those we’ve discussed here, the barrier between the realm of the living and the dead is a nebulous one. And yet, in Kuroneko, the true source of evil is not the ghosts, but the samurai who wronged them while still living. These men are upjumped brutes, for whom war has allowed a change in station, but led only to a thin veneer of civility. Beneath this lies a base, rapacious nature. They glory in their ability to use violence to take all they desire.

Comparatively, the ghostly women are spiritually corrupted, but sympathetic. Such is the nature of this sort of apparition – an onryo. Onryo are the vengeful ghosts of those wronged in life. Playing a major role in Japanese folklore, onryo are often victimized women. Placating an onryo is often necessary to stop their rampages – enshrining them and assuaging their rightful rage.

The Veneer of Samurai Civility

Kuroneko is also a film focused on class. The samurai are men who have experienced upward mobility as a result of being drafted into battle. While this has improved their station, it has not improved their inner selves. Upwards mobility even affects our main character, Gintoki, played by the renowned kabuki actor Nakamura Kichiemon II. We first meet him as he’s engaged in a desperate last stand during a northern incursion into the land of the indigenous Emishi people. Forcibly drafted into the samurai military, he’s disheveled, his body caked in the dirt. He’s trying desperately to stay alive, running more than fighting as he’s tracked down by a massive Emishi warrior baring a spiked club. Only luck allows him to come out on top.

For these samurai, clothing seems to make the man. Donning his samurai armor, Gintoki transforms from an uncouth, wild man, barely distinguishable from the purposely “savage” appearing Emishi he battled in Japan’s far north, into a staid samurai, taciturn and pensive.

Film critic Sado Takao made a fine point about director Shindo – that, as someone from a farmer background, he carried with him the hatred of the samurai class. “In Japan, samurai are usually portrayed as heroes. Almost always noble. But Shindo? He always showed them as worthless cretins.”

(Interesting here is the portrayal of the Emishi warrior. The Emishi are believed to have been an indigenous people who lived in the northern Tohoku region, beyond the borders of the early Japanese state. As the imperial court, based out of Kyoto, engaging in its state-building, it conquered the lands of the Emishi, either outright eliminating or assimilating them into Japanese civilization. The Emishi here is shown as a hulking, powerful wild man, bearing a beard like those seen on the still-extant indigenous Ainu people. For all this film’s portrayal of class struggle, this indigenous character is still a mere barbarous stand-in.)

A ragged man with long hair stands in front of a Kyoto wall and lifts up the detached head, clearly a dummy, of a man with a long beard in the film Kuroneko.
Gintoki bears aloft the head of his defeated Emishi enemy. Kuroneko (1968).

An Exquisitely Eerie Mood

While perhaps not as wholely memorable as Onibaba, Kuroneko has a wonderfully surrealistic first half. The visuals in the portions of this film set within the darkened bamboo are among the best I’ve seen in black-and-white film. Combine that with intriguing social themes and the classic Japanese horror features of vengeful wraiths and powerful animal spirits, and you have something very worthy of a Halloween season watch.

#5: House (1977)

The head of a teenaged girl with long hair floats in front of a illustrated blue background of tortured souls in the film House.
One of our seven heroines in the land of the supernatural. Just one of the numerous memorable images from Obayashi Nobuhiko’s House (1977).

Is there any Japanese movie that more perfectly embodies “cult film” than Obayashi Nobuhiko’s psychedelic, utterly ridiculous comedy-horror House? Few works of cinema can abroach the sheer what-the-f*%$ery of this strangely beguiling series of half-hilarious, half-startling images. Buried beneath all the on-screen effects that an amateur auteur turned TV commercial maven could ever hope to muster is a horror story that’s very Japanese – and very, very 1970s.

The story begins as a classic kids-in-a-haunted-house-style tale. Seven teenage girls – each with only a blunt moniker denoting their primary characteristic (Gorgeous, Kung Fu, Prof, Melody, etc.) – visit the protagonist’s aunt’s semi-gothic mansion in the countryside. The shadow of the war years (only a few decades past) hovers over the house. The aunt was engaged to a pilot who disappeared during combat, and she now lives the life of a spinster. Her only company is a white cat, creepy paintings of whom covers the house’s walls. As the girls settle into the house, eerie things begin happening – and one by one, the house starts to devour the girls.

Psychadelic Fever Dream

The plot provides some structure, but it isn’t the main feature here. More important are the visuals and constant series of effects gags, all of which give the film the sense of a fever dream you saw once when sick with the flu in 4th grade.

Director Obayashi was tasked by the studio to make a film “like Jaws” – that is, violent, flashy, and able to bring young people to the theaters. (The 1970s was a real dead zone for the type of film that interested young people, who mostly stayed home to watch TV.) Obayashi thought a child’s mind could better come up with the sort of unexpected imagery that would make for an exciting theatergoing experience. So, he asked his young daughter Chigumi to tell him about what she found scary. Her ideas – a girl’s reflection in the mirror attacking her, killer futon mattresses, a detached head pulled up from a well – became the core gags the film revolves around.

Obayashi purposefully made a film that is all artifice. He never allows the House to stray into feelings of realism. With garish matte backgrounds, animated visual effects, and a storybook color scheme, House is truly a horror film drawn directly from a child’s mind. The strange fixations, jumps in logic, and tonal shifts all stem from childhood thinking. It’s something unlike anything else.

Yokai At Its Core

A woman in white kimono and elaborate hair with arms outstretched and a maniacal look on her face in the film House.
An onryo makes yet another appearance on this list. Or is it a kaibyo? House (1977).

Undergirding all the spectacle and silliness is something older; once again, we get to encounter a bakeneko, a ghost cat. The screaming red cat now so associated with posters from House is one of the film’s main motifs. (Though usually in white form.) The cat seems to share a persona with the aunt, herself another onryo, angry at the world that left her behind. Ghostly appliances fly about like yokai on parade in some horror ukiyo-e scroll.

There’s some wartime trauma theming, too. Director Obayashi was from Hiroshima; all his childhood friends, he says, died in the atomic bombings. He’s on record as stating that the aunt’s malice towards young unwed girls stems from anger at those who live in peacetime; such girls remain unaware of the precariousness of the peaceful life they’ve lived thus far. The ghosts of the past reside in House, ready to give the unwary of the present a lesson in chaos and horror.

You’ll likely come away from House with other thoughts on your mind, however. Like, “Did I really just see that?” If you’re a fan of the experiment, of camp, of visual flair, of 1970s filmmaking, or of horror, you’ll be glad that you did.

References:

[1] Reider, Noriko T. (2000). The Appeal of “Kaidan”, Tales of the Strange. Asian Folklore Studies, 59(2), 265–283.

[2] Richie, Donald. (2001). A Hundred Years of Japanese Film. Kodansha USA. 130

[3] Lazic, Elena. (Oct. 5th, 2021). Onibaba: Masks and Faces. Criterion.com.

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Noah Oskow

Serving as current UJ Editor-in-Chief, Noah Oskow is a professional Japanese translator and interpreter who holds a BA in East Asian Languages and Cultures. He has lived, studied, and worked in Japan for nearly seven years, including two years studying at Sophia University in Tokyo and four years teaching English on the JET Program in rural Fukushima Prefecture. His experiences with language learning and historical and cultural studies as well as his extensive experience in world travel have led to appearances at speaking events, popular podcasts, and in the mass media. Noah most recently completed his Master's Degree in Global Studies at the University of Vienna in Austria.

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