Cinema/TV, Film Notes

FrightFest review – The J-Horror Virus (2023)

FrightFest review – The J-Horror Virus (2023)

A look at a boom in a particular type of Japanese horror film – which earned its J-Horror label – that was a nineties and noughties sort of thing, though it has roots in Japanese pop culture going back to the much-remade Ghost Story of Yotsuya and even Western precedents in The Woman in Black.  Filmmakers Sarah Appleton and Jasper Sharp dedicate the film to the late writer Denis Meikle, who was one of the first to track the field by following its flagship franchise with The Ring Companion.  They score the interviews needed to tell the story – filmmakers Takeshi Shimizu, Norio Tsuruta, Kyoshi Kurosawa, Joji Iida, Masayuki Ochiai, Shinya Tsukomoto, icons Takako Fuji (Sadako from Ring) and Rie Ino’o (Kayako from The Grudge) plus critics/historians Sharp and Tom Mes – and go for a subtle sense of the almost shared world of J-Horror (there was, of course, a Sadako vs Kayako movie about what happens to people who watch the Ring video in the Grudge house) by putting most of the interviewees in the kind of dark, prosaic, interstitial, modern spaces haunted in the cycle … Tsukamoto is found in a concrete stairwell, Kurosawa in a low-lit screening room, and only Sharp is propping up a bar.

Without the usual hey-we-went-to-Japan B-roll, and with very clever use of emblematic, sometimes tiny snippets from a wide range of films with a very similar look and much repeated imagery (wet hair, ghost women crawling at you, depopulated urban spaces, haunted technology) this is a documentary that builds up a mosaic portrait of its subject genre.  It does something suprisingly rare in film documentaries – and perhaps not possible outside Japan – in that a lot of the creatives talk interestingly and politely about each other’s work, while hinting at rivalries and differences of artistic opinion (this is a field which yielded multiple mutually irreconcilable direct sequels to Ring) that may have contributed to the mushroom growth but also the eventual fadeaway of the form.  It’s respectful even about the spread of the virus – via J-Horror like films from other Asian territories (Phone, The Eye, Shutter, etc) and then through American remakes which still draw heavily on Japanese talent as well as Japanese aesthetics.  By the end of the boom, J-Horror didn’t go away – the key franchises all have several reboots – and the style became one distinct mode of filmmaking which was added to the repetoire of worldwide horror (as conveyed by a clip from It Follows).

Here’s the FrightFest listing.


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