Whether they come crawling out of television screens or slither malevolently from gloomy bedroom closets, Japanese ghosts are emerging to haunt movie audiences around the world.
The Japanese-directed horror film “The Ring Two” grabbed the top spot at U.S. movie theatres last weekend, following a pattern set by “The Ring,” and “The Grudge,” two remakes of Japanese horror films that have racked up spooky successes at the box office.
“Dark Water,” yet another Japanese horror remake, is set for release later in the year.
Takashige Ichise, producer of several of the eerie films that started a horror boom in Japan in the late 1990s and have translated into big bucks at the international box office, is confident of the reason for their appeal.
“Japanese horror is scarier than American horror,” he said in an interview. “Japanese films show ghosts coming into people’s everyday lives. When the audience goes home, in the elevator, in the bath, wherever they are, they will still feel afraid,” he added. “That eerie feeling lasts.”
Joe Drake, President of Mandate Pictures and executive producer on “The Grudge,” sees the Japanese style as an attractive novelty.
Aesthetic“There is a whole other aesthetic to Japanese horror that is different than anything you see in the world,” he said.
“It just naturally creates suspense. It’s a feeling of isolation. For a non-Japanese audience, there is something about that, that is incredibly new and fresh.”
Chilling in atmosphere, but relatively free of violence, Japanese horror has little in common with the “slasher” style of U.S. films like “Nightmare on Elm Street.”
“You don’t see much blood being spilled,” said Mark Schilling, Tokyo-based film critic and author of a book on Japanese film. “That’s not the point. The point is to scare people to death -- that’s where the horror comes from.”
The character lurking in a darkened room in a Japanese horror film, is less likely to be a masked, knife-wielding man than the vengeful spirit of a woman, or even a child.
“Precisely because the opponent is something so apparently weak, people have no way of fighting it,” said Kiyoshi Kurosawa, a writer and director of several well-received independent horror films, who is currently working on a new project for Ichise.
“If you know you are going to be attacked, you can do something to protect yourself. But the attack never comes,” he added.
There is plenty of material for the film industry to draw upon: Japan has a long tradition of ghost stories known as “kaidan” that were told in summer to send a chill up the listener’s spine and help beat the heat.
Modern edgeA newer seam of urban myths and popular horror novels, notably those by Koji Suzuki, author of both “The Ring” and “Dark Water,” has added a chilling modern edge, with plots about haunted videotapes, computers and mobile phones.
Cultural differences aside, one of the beauties of the horror genre for backers is that it is inexpensive and therefore low-risk to make.
“You don’t need stars or flashy effects. It’s a good genre for experimentation, such as trying out a new director,” said Ichise.
That pioneering mood has helped two Japanese directors become the first in decades to direct Hollywood movies, with lucrative results.
Takashi Shimizu’s U.S. version of his popular Japanese haunted house film, “The Grudge,” has earned nearly $180 million worldwide since its Halloween release on a production budget of just $10 million.
Hideo Nakata’s “The Ring Two,” a new English-language film based on the concept of his Japanese “Ring” films pulled in an impressive $36 million when it opened in the U.S. last weekend.
Nakata has also just accepted an offer to direct another horror film, “The Eye,” this time to be produced by Tom Cruise, the Hollywood Reporter said.
With the Japan boom going from strength to strength, domestic producers and directors are dubious about whether the international spotlight will be good for the domestic movie business.
“It is good in the sense that there will be more business chances for the Japanese film industry,” said Ichise. “But, just like in baseball, there is a danger that all the talented people will go to the United States. The pay is tens of times what they would get here,” he added.