'Scary stories' from Japan make you look smart and creepy on movie night

Ken Hardin spotlights three "ghost" movies that express the patient and thoughtful storytelling typical of great Japanese cinema.

If you are a fan of horror films, it serves no purpose to say that you should really check out Ringu (1998) by Japanese filmmaker Hideo Nakata or the Ju-on series of projects by Takashi Shimizu. If somehow you haven't seen them, correct this oversight immediately.

Ringu and Ju-on were sensations that set off a new wave of interest in Japanese ghost films, labeled "kowai hanashi," or "scary stories," by contemporary fans. As you might expect, the knock-offs (including those by Nakata and Shimizu) largely don't stand up to the early films in the movement, although Nakata's Dark Water (2002) is a creepy watch, and the Ju-on theatrical release in 2003 is the high point in that series. Kairo, or Pulse (2001), by Kiyoshi Kurosawa is good for a few jolts, as well.

And then came the U.S. remakes, which with the exception of The Ring (2002), brought a different brand of horror to filmgoers. The kind that comes from blowing $9.50 to watch 90 minutes of crap.

I note that these films are part of a "new wave" of Japanese ghost movies, which have a long and rich history in that nation's cinematic tradition. Revered films, including Kenji Mizoguchi's Ugetsu and Akira Kurosawa's Throne of Blood, feature spectral messengers sporting creepy white makeup and imposing dire fate on the living. In Japanese culture, you really don't ever want to run into a ghost -- whatever caused their spirits to be tortured, they are looking to pass that hurt onto you. Casper don't live in Osaka.

Thanks to our friends / overlords at The Criterion Collection, most of the great Japanese ghost films from the high tide of the 1960s are now available for home viewing. I use the term "ghost" liberally here -- not all of these films feature the souls of the dead haunting the living here on the mortal plane, but they all express the patient and thoughtful storytelling typical of great Japanese cinema. And they all are haunting, if not packed with a barrage of "boo" moments that contemporary fans have come to expect.

Here are quick synopses of three great movies you should definitely check out.

Jigoku (1960, directed by Nobuo Nakagawa): Let me lead off with praise for the film that is broadly considered to have introduced the world to contemporary standards of cinematic gore -- but in an artful way. Literally translated "Hell," Jigoku follows the descent of an otherwise "good" guy into the torments of the damned after he makes the really bad call to flee the scene of a car accident. The film's third act, equal parts Dante and stuff nobody had ever seen before, changed how filmmakers viewed explicit violence. This movie might bring you a new appreciation of how gore can be thought-provoking and not just gut-wrenching.

Here's the cinematic trailer for Jigoku, which is pretty tame for those of you who might be worried.

Onibaba (1964, directed by Kaneto Shindo): Really more of a feudal noir film than a ghost story, Onibaba (literally, "Demon Hag," from folklore), tells the story of a mother and her daughter-in-law who survive the brutality of civil war by killing injured samurai and selling their weapons on the black market. The women's already debased existence is further complicated by erotic tensions, and then there's that demonic mask that can really screw up your day. The film was shot in a grass swamp, and its imagery is simply breathtaking.

You can get an idea of how lavish this film is from its trailer (the trailer is NSFW).

Kwaidan (1965, directed by Masaki Kobayashi): This retelling of four traditional tales (the title literally translates "ghost story," and is still used today to evoke an old-timey yarn) is not going to scare anyone who has been able to sit through Ringu. It is, however, one of the most achingly beautiful films ever made. The use of skewed camera angles and asynchronous sounds in the finale of "The Black Hair" actually tops the same device in The Haunting (1963) if you can imagine that, and it can been found repeatedly in the works of Sam Raimi and other contemporary directors. The battle re-enactment in "Hoichi the Earless" simply has to been seen to be believed.

You can get a glimpse here, in the trailer.

This is just a sample of the great wealth of literate, spooky films that the Japanese have contributed to world cinema. The next time it's your turn to pick a movie with your art-house movie geek friends, go to this well. You can't lose.

By Ken Hardin

Ken Hardin is a freelance writer and business analyst with more than two decades in technology media and product development. Before founding his own consultancy, Clarity Answers LLC, Ken was a member of the start-up team and an executive with TechRe...