Broken Spirits, Broken Promises, and Broken Traditions: A J-Horror Retrospective

Drop the term “J-Horror” into the average filmgoers’ discussions and the examples most likely to come back include Takashi Miike’s ’99 dating caveat Audition, or perhaps Hideo Nakata’s Ringu adaptation. Less likely, but just as deserving of praise, are the pre-1980 contributions to the Japanese horror pantheon. As it happens, three of them are currently accessible on HBO Max for all ghostly needs: 1964 monochrome nightmare Onibaba, the sweeping anthology Kwaidan of the same year, and the impossible-to-encapsulate 1977 festival of madness, House.

In any culture, the horror genre has roots in the regional lore. Onibaba’s origins come from an old Shinto Buddhist tale about a woman who wears a mask to frighten but finds she cannot remove it. Kaneto Shindo’s 1964 iteration retains the old story but infuses the narrative with socioeconomic critique and new images of grotesquery, influenced by 20th century Japanese history. The synopsis goes that in medieval Japan, a war is on, and somewhere in its windblown reed fields, a destitute older woman and her daughter-in-law, who are given no other names, make ends meet by killing lost samurai who wander into their overwhelming reed fields, dumping their bodies into a pit, and selling their possessions for food.  This is all their world presents to them from day to day— the duo kill, eat, and sleep only. A neighbor’s return from battle launches raised tensions among the trio, where lust and desperation, and eventually a demon mask, mix to build to a devastating conclusion. 

The core arc of the movie belongs to the older woman (Nobuko Otowa), who begins in a macabre position. Shindo presents her as a cold-blooded murderer, not only killing samurai but relishing in it, as these men represent the draft, the war, and everything that took her son away from her. Even when she slaughters these warriors, she must taffy-pull decent compensation for their belongings from the uncaring merchant Ushi (Taiji Tonoyama). This is 14th century Japan, and these women have no means to survive without men. They may be able to kill under the cover of the reeds, but the same reeds render these women invisible to the world; without a man, they are effectively cut off. 

It’s here that Shindo layers economic tut-tutting on to the fable—women may have to do terrible things to survive, but the director wants it on the record that it’s larger, male-dominated systems that perpetuate the horrors. The neighbor’s lust for the younger woman and pride in his own ego, the older woman’s rage and jealousy, and the daughter’s eroticism all swirl into a primal frenzy of emotion, underlined by Hikaru Hayashi’s percussive, insistent score. But despite the lofty messages, Shindo works in tandem with cinematographer Kiyomi Kuroda to distill every image into a big-screen translation of two core emotions: lust (including bloodlust) and the simple, dogged determination to endure. Sporting third-act lyricism that takes the movie firmly into horror territory, Onibaba is a stellar nightmare whose suggestions of the supernatural belie very human transgressions.

Adapted for the screen by Yoko Mizuki, Kwaidan is based on assorted Japanese folk tales from Lafcadio Hearn’s works, an oral tradition that finds a strong marriage with director Masaki Kobayashi’s distinct visual flourishes and myth-making camerawork. Over four segments and a whopping three-hour runtime (a runtime cut down to 125 minutes for the U.S. premiere, eliminating a whole segment, “The Woman of the Snow”), Kobayashi crafts one of the most ornately designed ghost story collections ever made, largely concerning itself with promises made and broken. 

The first segment is “The Black Hair,” about a swordsman (Rentarō Mikuni) who leaves his devoted wife (Michiyo Aratama) to advance his station in life. It doesn’t pan out, and his return home years later is where the black hair and the horror elements make their mark. At one point focused on a rotting house, the segment features the first of an array of efficient, atmospheric set pieces that compete easily with those of any Hammer or Amicus production. Kobayashi layers a thick blanket of frost onto the proceedings with the second segment, “The Woman of the Snow,” which might look familiar to fans of the “Lover’s Vow” segment of John Harrison’s 1980 anthology Tales From the Darkside. In fact, the story of a monstrous woman was adapted from the same Hearn collection, Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things

The third segment is the most ambitious; “Hoichi the Earless” achieves the epic sense of legend that its star crafts in his recitation of a historical Japanese sea battle within the Tale of the Heike. Hoichi (Katsuo Nakamura), a blind monk, is known for recounting the battle of Dan-no-ura between two warring samurai clans in an elaborate, multi-part solo performance. One night, the monk is summoned by a gruff, semi-transparent samurai to his lord’s manor to execute a classical recitation of the Heike tale for what the audience (but not Hoichi) sees is a platoon of phantoms. Boasting elaborate, theatrically choreographed skirmishes and composer Toru Takemitsu’s elegiac score, the pomp and grandeur of the armed conflict rivals that of any American production at the time, and adds the natural hyperviolence of war to its supernatural bits, creating a horror segment more ceremonial than any of the others. A bonus appearance by Akira Kurosawa regular Takashi Shimura as a priest puts the cherry on top, and the film’s final segment, “In A Cup of Tea,” brings the whole production to a perfectly bizarre end that might as well be located inside the Twilight Zone. Each of these tales carries its own vibe—some have plucky comedy reliefs, others are shot with pensive wide shots and hauntingly slow pans of the landscape—but all have an unsettling, compelling, staying power long after the credits have rolled.

With two films so reverent towards their spirit worlds, the addition of House to the discussion seems like an unorthodox one, but there’s nothing normal about Nobuhiko Obayashi’s warped ’77 funhouse horror. It’s central path has been trodden before, in Kaneto Shindo’s 1968 Black Cat and various iterations of kaibyō eiga (cat horror), itself derived from the country’s folklore. House has a schoolgirl traveling with her six classmates to her aunt’s rural home, which proceeds to eat them. That’s the simplest explanation, but within the movie’s crisp eighty-eight minute runtime there lies a flesh-eating piano, decapitated heads biting buttocks, a magic refrigerator, and conflicting continuity from one chamber of the house to the next, like the layout of The Shining’s Overlook Hotel. The film seems less a wild story from an eccentric filmmaker and more of a capsule gift sent from another planet. 

It was first conceptualized by Obayashi, who asked his adolescent daughter for examples of what frightened her (among her answers: her fingers hurt after piano practice, as if the ivory keys were chewing on her) and incredibly, Toho gave the film the greenlight– no one was watching samurai or kaiju movies anymore, why not take a chance on the odd new voice? The studio attached Obayashi to direct after his dedicated campaign to promote the movie. For all of its strange visual language, House is most clearly a love letter from a father to a daughter, carrying fears from one generation to the next but reluctant to place those fears on the youth. After all, they never had to live with the burden of the Bomb. Her aunt’s husband died in the war, remnants of Hiroshima and Nagasaki pepper the plot, and the titular house manifests those horrors, setting the stage for a phantasmagoric clash of generations. It feels like a movie that plays during the fugue-state interim as you toss and turn on the couch, working through a nasty flu. Was the experience real? Less of a linear story and more a flurry of feverish imagery, House essays a distinct, demented evolution of the classic haunted house picture, and remains a firm fixture at the temple of cult horror.

Onibaba,” “Kwaidan,” and “House” are now streaming on HBO Max.

Anya Stanley is a film critic, author, and a columnist at 'Fangoria' Magazine. Her chapter on the irreligious work of H.P. Lovecraft was published last year in 'Scared Sacred: Idolatry, Religion, and Worship in the Horror Film' by House of Leaves Publishing. Further work can be found at her website and @BookishPlinko on Twitter.

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