A woman in white clothes stands with long disheveled black hair covering her face.

Film Forum’s Japanese Horror Fest celebrates nightmare fuel

Japan's best films in their history of horror are finding new audiences years later

Still frame from "Ringu."

Courtesy of Japanese Horror Festival

Words by Andy Crump

Common wisdom holds that movie theaters are busiest on weekend evenings. Imagine film programmer Akinaru Rokkaku’s surprise, then, over packed weeknight screenings at the century-spanning Japanese Horror festival, in the books after its March 1-14 series run. Celebrated New York City movie house Film Forum held and co-presented the event with The Japan Foundation, New York; even in a city known for vast cultural diversity, a 25-picture lineup comprising horror Japanese-language films dating as far back as 1926, and as recently as 2002, would seem to play to a pretty niche audience. 

But Rokkaku’s observations through that two-week period clashed against perception and expectation alike. “It’s a Tuesday,” Rokkaku, The Japan Foundation’s program director of Arts & Cultural Exchange, told JoySauce in a phone conversation. “But there are already a couple of sold out screenings. So far this series is going so well.” One sample day’s screenings: Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan (1964); Kaneto Shindō’s Kuroneko (1968); and a pair of Kiyoshi Kurosawa films, Cure (1997) and Pulse (2001). (The Japan Foundation supplied the prints for all but Kuroneko.)

A hand wielding a paintbrush writes Japanese kanji characters all over a person's face.

Still frame from "Kwaidan."

Courtesy of Japanese Horror Festival

For those well-versed in Japanese horror cinema, that quartet comprises two stone-cold masterpieces plus two undisputed Y2K-era bangers. Seeing them play in a theater, Kwaidan and Kuroneko in particular, is a rare gift. Viewers whose understanding of Japanese horror extends only as far as, say, The Ring or The Grudgenot necessarily their original incarnations, either, but possibly their American studio remakes insteadlack that familiarity. “I went to the opening screening of [Kaneto Shindō’s] Onibaba on Friday, and I introduced the film, and I was very surprised,” Rokkaku says. “When I asked the audience, ‘How many of you are going to see Onibaba for the first time?’ 80 or 90 percent of the audience raised their hands.”

Both period-defining and genre-shaping, Onibaba fits into the same hallowed company as Kuroneko and Kwaidan; it’s a gateway film, one of the foundational Japanese horror productions for admirers of Japanese and genre cinema alike. It defies prediction that so few people in one room, attending a festival devoted to Japan’s greatest horror films, had seen it. But if Rokkaku’s survey results are astonishing, they’re also encouraging: A flock of New York moviegoers came out for their first go-round with Onibaba, a movie turning 60 years young this fall. Curiosity, it seems, or perhaps general interest in going out to the movies, is enough of a force to compel people out of their homes, away from their streaming services, and into a shared space where they have the privilege of watching all-timers in Japan’s horror tradition, or frankly any culture’s horror tradition.

A person wearing a demon mask holds their hands to their head in a frenzied pose, tilting to the right.

Still frame from "Onibaba."

Courtesy of Japanese Horror Festival

Tristan Pollack, a staffer at Film Forum, noted a certain zest among audiences seated for the surreal and discomfiting 1966 psychological film The Face of Another, directed by Hiroshi TeshigaharaPollack’s late grandfather. “The audience was enthusiastic,” says Pollack, who introduced the picture for its Saturday, March 2 screening. “The film really speaks for itself, so I tried not to give away any analysis or plot, but instead focused on contextualizing it to my grandfather's background, which I think was a helpful guide for first-time viewers.” 

Whether for longtime horror devotees, aficionados of Japanese cinema writ large, or the yearling crowd uninitiated in either, that context is critical. The Japanese Horror festival captured 76 years of terror in the country’s cinema, starting with a DCP (Digital Cinema Package) restoration of Teinosuke Kinugasa’s A Page of Madness, and concluding with a DCP restoration of Hideo Nakata’s Dark Water; the absence from the lineup of titles released in the intervening 22 years is palpable. 

It’s not as if Japan hasn’t produced a single horror movie from 2002 until today. There’s Kōji Shiraishi’s TekeTeke and Grotesque, as well as Yoshihiro Nishimura and Naoyuki Tomomatsu’s gore film Vampire Girl and Frankenstein Girl, each released in 2009); 2023 was graced by Yusuke Ishida’s Zom 100: Bucket List of the Dead, and Ken'ichi Ugana’s delightfully gonzo Visitors - Complete Edition. Horror remains active in the country’s cinema, even if these films (and others) failed to find audiences overseas.

A young woman stares at a television screen filled with static with an alarmed expression.

Still frame from "Ringu."

Courtesy of Japanese Horror Festival

But since Japan’s early 2000s horror wave, the genre has lost favor with audiences and filmmakers alike, according to Rokkaku. “I don't think there are directors focusing on horror titles right now in Japan like Nakata, Takashi Shimizu, Miike, Kurosawa,” he explains. “I don't think there are promising young directors who are dedicated to the genre.” Pollack shares Rokkaku’s sentiments on horror’s status in contemporary Japanese film hierarchy, too, pointing out that the preoccupations in the nation’s cinema fall far outside the likes of the onryō (vengeful ghosts) of Ju-On: The Grudge or The Ring or Kuroneko, demons central to films like Onibaba, or even serial killers, as in Cure.

“I think that film is always evolving in every country and we never know which direction it will go,” Pollack says. “I believe that family dramas, psychological dramas, and some other genres have preoccupied the current generation of filmmaking in Japan.  But I can't say for certain.” Dramas are the country’s primary export, best represented by Hirokazu Kore-eda (Shoplifters, Broker, After Life, Monster) and Ryusuke Hamaguchi (Happy Hour, Drive My Car, the upcoming Evil Does Not Exist). Fair’s fair: These are master filmmakers with celebrated bodies of work, proxies for the current style and tastes prevalent in Japan.

A woman's back is to the camera. She is in a restroom, looking at where a large X is written on the wall with dark liquid.

Still frame from "Cure."

Courtesy of Japanese Horror Festival

Signs of a changing tide pop up here and there. Takashi Yamazaki’s Godzilla Minus One, the second recalibration after Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi’s Shin Godzilla of the King of All Monster’s superhero image embraced by American studios throughout the 2010s to now, turned into a sleeper hit after its December 2023 release; a $100 million worldwide gross took box office pundits by surprise, capped off by a Best Visual Effects win at this year’s Academy Awards. Kaiju films walk a line where horror butts against science fiction, but both of these films are certainly horrifying. There’s nothing like a colossal thunder lizard nuking Tokyo to strike terror into viewers all over the world. 

The age of the average attendee at the Japanese Horror festival is encouraging, too; Rokkaku tracked people in their 20s and 30s at screenings, and educating them on Japanese horror cinema’s past might stir interest in its future. That requires films like Zom 100: Bucket List of the Dead to find audiences abroad, a task easier said than done given that platforms willing to stream thema’la Netflixdo a terrible job curating and promoting them; like so many wonderful movies that play their service, Zom 100: Bucket List of the Dead is a victim of the combination of algorithms and the absence of word of mouth. Overcoming this specific obstacle is, to Rokkaku, key to reigniting enthusiasm for horror back in Japan.

A woman is about to bite down on a disconnected cat's paw.

Still frame from "Kuroneko."

Courtesy of Japanese Horror Festival

“Spreading more words about the horrors overseas may prompt more young filmmakers to create horror films,” Rokkaku says. Maybe that means releasing U.S. horror films in Japanese theaters, too. American cinema is wrapped up in a horror renaissance at the moment; if Japan’s next generation of directors see them for themselves, and if the horror films they’re already shooting make it in front of their intended audiences, we might just see the country’s next wave of horror roll across the Pacific as The Ring and Ju-On did more than two decades ago, and add to that grand canon of spirits and haunts comprising its horror’s legacy.

Published on April 8, 2024

Words by Andy Crump

Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers movies, beer, music, fatherhood, and way too many other subjects for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours: Paste Magazine, Inverse, The New York Times, Hop Culture, Polygon, and Men's Health, plus more. You can follow him on Bluesky and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65 percent craft beer.