Yesterday, the University of Chicago’s Doc Films screened the Japanese cult item House, an “incredibly odd Japanese horror feature [that’s] like a Hello Kitty backpack stuffed with bloody human viscera,” writes J.R. Jones, quite accurately and, uh, poetically. (If you’ve never seen the film and missed Doc’s screening, the DVD is available via Criterion; you’ll understand pretty quickly what Jones is getting at there.) Japanese horror, often referred to simply as J-horror, has a long and rich history dating all the way back to the silent era. Films in the genre range from allegorical and contemplative to grotesque and ultraviolent, but common threads of social commentary, folkloric narrative, and dark humor bind even the most disparate works. You can see my five favorite below.
5. Onibaba (dir. Kaneto Shindo, 1964) Classic J-horror films often based their stories on classic folklore or historical events. Jigoku (1960), Kuroneko (1968), and Kwaidan (1964) are each staples of the era, but my favorite is the feminist polemic Onibaba, a moody period piece that’s more chilling than frightening and equally effective as a sort of erotic drama.
4. Audition (dir. Takashi Miike, 1999) The seismic impact of this horrifying and gory brain bender gave Miike the unwarranted reputation of being a horror director, a dismissive claim that fails to recognize the diversity of his filmography. All bickering aside, Audition is watershed not only for Miike, but J-horror as a whole, a cerebral, methodical, and subversively inventive character piece meticulously designed to churn stomachs.
3. Marebito (dir. Takashi Shimizu, 2004) Shimizu, best known for directing the Ju-On series and its American counterpoint The Grudge, draws inspiration from Fritz Lang, H.P. Lovecraft, and schizophrenic postwar science fiction writer Richard Sharpe Shaver to create this inspired and disturbing look at myth and folklore in contemporary Japan. Deeply ambiguous and brimming with unsettling imagery, Marebito is the rare horror film that deserves to be called “nightmarish.”
2. Suicide Circle [aka Suicide Club] (dir. Sion Sono, 2001) Sono is just finally starting to catch on with American audiences (local distributors Olive Films released his movies Himizu and Guilty of Romance to wide acclaim), and this troubling yet compulsively watchable feature is the best place to start if you’re still unfamiliar. An unabashed stylist with a zest for human depravity, Sono’s surveys of contemporary Japanese society are fiercely satirical and altogether irreverent, marked by his disregard for proper taste and unique ability to illustrate harsh truths by way of exploitation sleaze.
1. A Page of Madness (dir. Teinosuke Kinugasa, 1926) A virtual goulash of early art-cinema techniques, this silent chiller is J-horror’s ground zero. With superlative style, Kinugasa unfurls a story of profound loss and human horror, using abstract camerawork and Eisensteinian montage to visualize his characters’ inner turmoil. A Page of Madness was a project by the School of New Perceptions, an avant-garde collective who disavowed naturalism in art, and the film’s expressionistic aesthetic predates even The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari‘s, a true marvel considering, as Jonathan Rosenbaum notes in his capsule, that the director had no knowledge of the German style before making this.