The Cracked Guide To Old-School Japanese Horror Movies
Today on Cracked, pulp scholar Jess Nevins takes us through Japanese horror movie classics for yore. Check out his previous pieces on Varney the vampire, viking misconceptions, and America's first celebrity.
We at Cracked love Japanese horror movies, from Godzilla (1954) to Onibaba (1964) to the bizarro masterpiece that is Hausu (1977) to the wave of late-1990s and early-2000s films (Ring, Audition, Ju-On, and Dark Water) to more recent scary films (like Kisaragi Station, Ox-Head Village, and Yellow Dragon’s Village).
But you might not know that Japan has a long history of horror films predating all of these. In the 19th century, Japanese businessman Inabata Katsutaro was college classmates with French film pioneer Auguste Lumière. Inabata met with Lumière in Paris in 1896 and returned to Japan with a movie camera, fifty reels of film, and one of Lumière's technicians. Inabata began making and showing jido shashin (“moving pictures”) to eager Japanese crowds, starting in Osaka the very next year.
The Earliest Japanese Horror Films: Bake Jizo, Senrigan, and Jasei No In
As a general rule, film critics draw the starting line for Japanese horror cinema at the post-bombing-of-Hiroshima films of 1946-1954 and then Gojira, but those films were only the inheritors of what had come before.
The first Japanese horror film came soon after the debut of the jido shashin. Bake Jizo was released in 1898 -- while Japanese audiences had enjoyed horror in a variety of venues for centuries, from paintings to kabuki, Bake Jizo was the first horror film … at least, it’s supposed to be. There’s no record of its existence apart from the 1920s testimony of Bake Jizo’s cameraman. Presumably the plot of Bake Jizo is mythological – in Japanese mythology Jizo is the protector of dead children and all those trapped in Hell, a perennially promising premise.
It wasn’t until 1910 that a true horror story was filmed. Back then, Japan's interest in everything psychic was at an all-time high, namely clairvoyance (“senrigan”), spirit photography, and thoughtography, or the burning an image of one’s thoughts on to a photographic plate. Tomokichi Fukurai, an assistant professor of psychology at Tokyo University, began performing parapsychological experiments to prove that psychic abilities were real. He used two women who claimed to be psychics, one of whom was Chizuko Mifune. The test results were later shown to be fraudulent, leading to public ridicule of Mifune, who committed suicide in 1911 and decades later would provide a model for Sadako’s mother in Ring.
The first of what would later be called “kiwamono” (or films released to cash in on current events) was a horror film about the psychic experiments, Senrigan (1910). It wasn’t until 1921 that the next major horror film was released. Jasei No In (“Lust of the White Serpent”) is an erotic horror story of a dissolute son falling under the spell of a white serpent who disguises herself as a beautiful woman and seduces the wastrel. (Fortunately, the amorous snake-lady is defeated with a magic urn.)
Bad Boy Directors and Blasphemous Movies
In 1926, the horror classic Kurutta Ippeiji (“Insane Pages”) was released. Kurutta Ippeiji was made by Kinugusa Teinosuke, the bad boy auteur of early Japanese film.
He had been a film oyama (“female impersonator”) early on, but in 1922 he turned to directing films. His 1925 film Nichirin (“The Sun”) was the story of Himiko, the mythical shaman-queen of ancient Japan; Kinugusa’s portrayal of Himiko was so provocative that the severest censorship was applied to it and Kinugusa was brought up on the unprecedented charge of “national blasphemy.”
The groundbreaking Kurutta Ippeiji is about a man who enters a lunatic asylum to rescue his wife but gets snared inside the asylum by a set of nightmarish hallucinatory effects. The film saw Kinugasa experiment with Western-influenced film techniques, including jagged close-ups and the most cutting-edge visual effects of the time. Imagine how this silent movie, which remains creepy a century later, shook up audiences in the 1920s.
The Japanese King Kong and Human Tanks
In 1926 Gorira (“Gorilla”) was released. Gorira was not the first Japanese “killer ape” movie—that would be Kaibutsu (1925)—but it was the most memorable movie from that subgenre of film until Wasei Kingu Kongu (1933) was released. Gorira is about a Japanese scholar who learns yojutsu (“black magic”) from an ancient Dutch grimoire and transforms himself into a human-ape hybrid.
Gorira, like several other pre-1950 Japanese horror films, invokes the centuries-old Japanese trope of Western “science” as being both forbidden and dangerous. Eldritch Dutch, Portuguese, and Spanish tomes were portrayed as containing the deadly secrets of “science” which would endanger all Japanese if brought to light.
In 1933, the original King Kong was a global smash, and Japanese audiences loved it as much as everyone else did. So a cash-in film was made in Japan: Wasei Kingu Kongu. The film is about a penniless man who decides to prove himself to his ex-girlfriend’s wealthy father by dressing up in a gorilla suit for vaudeville theater. He is a success, but one day, in mid-performance, he sees his ex-girlfriend and her new, rich boyfriend in the audience. Enraged, the man in the gorilla suit jumps down from the stage and pursues the couple through the streets of Tokyo.
The scene in which he chases the couple through the streets, provoking panic, is the first sequence in film to show a Japanese crowd fleeing from a monster, preceding Godzilla by over twenty years. Wasei Kingu Kongu is both an entertaining comic horror short and a 1930s meta-commentary on the blockbuster popularity of King Kong -- 12 out of 10, would Kong again.
And then there's 1936's Kai-Denpa Satsujin Kosen Dai Ichi-Hen – Ningen Tanku Shutsugen (“Strange Electric Death Ray: Human Tank Emergence”). The plot of Ningen Tanku Shutsugen is something of a complicated mess, but audiences were watching for the thrills, not the plot, and in that Ningen Tanku Shutsugen delivered. The movie has a mad scientist villain, a “masked phantom” hero opposing him, and a robot “human tank” controlled with radio waves.
Also of note is 1937's Fukushu Suru Shigai (“The Corpse’s Revenge”). Fukushu draws upon the real-life story of Japanese inventor Hiraga Gennai to tell the story of a murdered samurai who is resurrected electrically by Hiraga and then hunts down and violently slaughters his killers.
In real life, Hiraga (1729-1780) was a poet, doctor, and Renaissance man – one of his creations was the Erekiteru, a generator of static electricity. He died in prison under some mystery; one reason given was that he’d killed a student in an electrical experiment. Fukushu Suru Shigai capitalizes on the cultural charge that this real-life mad scientist still had for Japanese audiences in 1937 by making a film in which the Erekiteru actually works, leading to bloody mayhem and zombie samurai thrills.
Finally, we have 1949's Enoken No Tobisuke Boken Ryoko (“Enoken: Tobisuke’s Wild Trip”). A comic fantasy film, Enoken No Tobisuke Boken Ryoko is about a puppeteer and a young boy who try to travel through the Valley of Death, which is full of poison spiders, man-eating demons, and other supernatural predators. Although obviously made for children, Enoken No Tobisuke Boken Ryoko’s scary scenes are seemingly transplanted from a much more adult film.
The Rainbow Man, and Kaiju Before Godzilla
In 1949 Niji Otoko (“The Rainbow Man”) was released. Part murder mystery, part psychedelic dream trip and nightmare, Niji Otoko is about a young man who is suspected of committing arson and murder. His school chum and her boyfriend try to help the man out by proving his innocence. Their investigation leads them to the mysterious and remote Maya house. The Maya family members who live there, however — deranged painter, “cat lady,” and an insane man researching the spectral register — do nothing to help the quest to prove the accused’s alibi, and soon people begin to fall prey to rainbow-colored hallucinations, which lead them to recite “rainbow” repeatedly until they die.
Niji Otoko's effects were created by Eiji Tsurubaya, who before the war had been employed making miniatures for war propaganda movies and who would go on to co-create Godzilla and create the Ultraman series.
And speaking of kaiju, 1949's Umi Ma Riku Wo Iku (“The Sea Monster Reaches Land”) was about a giant octopus which crawls onto an island and fights various nasty creatures. Umi is forgotten today, and gets 0 hits on a Google search, but it debuted five years before Gojira and represents paths not taken — the independent studio which made Umi could have led the way out of the Japanese studio system, and Umi itself could (had it been a success) have inspired imitators and kicked off the kaiju craze five years early. But such wasn’t meant to be.