I indulged in my 100th Japanese horror movie: EXTE: HAIR EXTENSIONS (2007). Shion Sono’s film dealt with the subject matter of many a Japanese horror, most Asian horror for that matter, a pissed off ghost out for revenge. This time, a young woman had been kidnapped, scavenged for body parts, and had her precious hair shaved off – and when her hair is used as extensions for others, well, the person doesn’t live too long afterwards. Although it had some fine acting and creepy moments (if you have a hair phobia, you’re totally screwed), the Sam Raimi-esque hokey comedy put a damper on the proceedings, as well as some questionable special effects. Sadly, lucky 100 earned a mere two stars. Oh, well.
This does not change the fact, however, that several of my favorite horrors are from Japan, especially those from Takashi Miike, who is one of my all-time favorite directors. Miike works fast and isn’t afraid to take chances or deliver crazed moments to make you wince and cringe. And the one thing I’ve learned from watching his films over the years to keep on my toes and take nothing for granted.
Now, here’s the list of the best Japanese horror you can rent or buy:
PERFECT BLUE (1998)
This is Satoshi Kon’s well received and animated horror thriller. A renowned director and writer, Kon also brought MILLENNIUM ACTRESS (2001) and the trippy PAPRIKA (2006) to screens around the world. Unfortunately, we lost him to pancreatic cancer in 2010. However, PERFECT BLUE has that special something that would have made Hitchcock proud. Just follow the young pop singer turned actress and see what happens when the world crashes around her.
ÔDISHON (AUDITION) (1999)
For international audiences, this one put Miike on the map – forever. After all, his film is a bit deceptive, like the dying light of the day where darkness eventually smothers all things. Then again, that’s what Shigeharu gets for holding fake auditions for a movie when he’s actually looking for little Ms. Right. Not a smart move. Thankfully, Daisuke Tengan’s script (based on Ryû Murakami’s novel) leaves us in a twisted story full of great characters, and a climax that will leave you cringing for days.
BLOOD: THE LAST VAMPIRE (2000)
This is not Chris Nahon’s pathetic and campy, live action 2009 version, but Hiroyuki Kitakubo’s fantastic animated feature. In this action tale, Saya enters a school on an American airbase during the Vietnam War to route some vampires – and that’s no easy thing when she’s outnumbered and has a sword of questionable worth. The art from the animation department is as detailed as it is amazing, and ranks up there with the ultra-phenomenal work of GHOST IN THE SHELL (1995).
BIJITA Q (VISITOR Q) (2001)
Another vibrant and captivating tale from Miike, this one involves a dysfunctional family that befriends a dysfunctional man, and abuse and control weave together to deliver everything from playing with the dead, to a child brutalizing a parent, and to a woman who can shoot her breast milk ten feet or more. Oddly, the black comedy elements and off-kilter quirkiness only makes the movie darker and far more foreboding. Along with AUDITION, add it to your list of most disturbing films.
THE RING (Japan/United States, 2002)
If you didn’t realize the American remake of the original classic was a Japanese co-production, well, I hadn’t either. In this version, the brilliant Naomi Watts unravels a mystery as to why a videotape kills the viewer seven days later. Special effects make-up artist Rick Baker was on hand to truly blow our minds, and Ehren Krueger’s story adaptation kept us guessing while the suspense continued to climb. Unlike the over-hyped original, this one won’t put you to sleep – not that you’d want to.
Another wonderful romp from Miike, we follow a criminal on a journey to find his missing brother. This may sound simple, but we are brought into a labyrinthine world that is askew on every level. At first viewing, I remember thinking how much this reminded me of a David Lynch film – only to discover that this is exactly what Miike had in mind. And oh, what a homage! Consider it a crime/horror/fantasy/comedy/drama/romance – and more. If you love the road less traveled, with one hell of an eccentric plot, as well as riveting characters, this one’s for you.
YOGEN (Premonition) (2004)
Don’t be fooled by the title or its implications. This is not some trite and cliché ridden tale about some questionable sixth sense or intuitive feelings. Sure, that’s part of the story, but where other movies fall short, Norio Tsuruta takes us on an intriguing journey that leaves a father trying to save his family with only one way out. The atmosphere alone is enough to unsettle and engross, and Hiroshi Mikami’s acting will have you far too emotionally connected to let the story go.
As for old-time horror…
An anthology of four Gothic tales, director Masaki Kobayashi delivers a mood and abstract visuals that earned the film an Oscar nomination. However, the final tale in the quadrology truly stands out. “Hoichi the Earless” involves a young, blind biwa, a singer/musician who plays a traditional stringed instrument, and what he endures when he enters a mysterious village. The creep factor is high, the atmosphere captivating, and the stories intriguing. Thing of it as CREEPSHOW (1982) without the silliness.
I’ve found Japanese horror to be thrilling and exotic, though recent movies seem to rely on too much comedy business for my liking. And I must admit, the overly saturated ghost theme is wearing thin. Yes, I know vengeful spirits are a mainstay of Japanese horror cinema due to cultural importance, but I long for a vibrant tale that can rival the impressive narrative of THE RING.
But before you hit play, make certain to bypass any horrendous dubbing whether it be English, Spanish, French or something else. Choose the subtitle option to be entranced by the language, and to let the genuine emotion of the characters shine through.
I’m not sure what the next J-horror will have in store, but I’m so looking forward to more from Miike and company.