Kwaidan (1964)

An anthology of four short films based on the popular supernatural tales of Lafcadio Hearn. The first film “The Black Hair” tells the story of a former retainer brought low by the death of his lord. After leaving his wife and marrying another woman he begins to regret his new life and returns to his old home to find that things are not as he expects. The second story “The Woman of the Snow” tells the tale of a couple of woodcutters trapped in a blizzard. The older man is killed by a mysterious pale woman who takes pity on the younger man allowing him to live if he swears not to tell another what he has seen. In the next tale “Hoichi the Earless” the spirits of an ancient battle visit a blind biwa player who is led to the spirit world to play for them. The final story “In a Cup of Tea” tells of a man who is troubled by spirits after seeing a face appear in his cup.

The four stories contained in “Kwaidan” are connected by a common theme of the supernatural, though they cut directly between each with no common characters. It is therefore more akin to watching four short films than a single narrative. The film respects the source material of the Lafcadio Hearn book, which provides a great base. Each of the paranormal tales builds to a twist ending or an inexplicable occurrence and with a short running time none of them outstay their welcome. Director Masaki Kobayashi does a great job of bringing the stories to life. There is a sense of theatre to the film with amazing sets and painted backgrounds giving the impression that these are retellings of ancient legends. However, this does nothing to lessen the impact of the drama with good acting and sound design along with the set decoration creating an impressive atmosphere of dread. There is also an interesting use of light, with blues and reds used to great effect. It is a perfect blend of theatre techniques with the medium of film.

Intriguing supernatural stories that are brought to the screen in timelessly beautiful versions. Many of the stories warn of the danger of spirits or focus on the horror of death. I would highly recommend this for fans of folklore and ghost stories. The design elements, music and acting perfectly capture the eerie atmosphere of Hearn’s tales.

The Curse (2005)

The film begins with a voice-over explaining that Masafumi Kobayashi, a famous paranormal investigator, died shortly after completing a documentary on a mysterious case. The following film takes the form of a found footage documentary, following Kobayashi as he investigates peculiar occurrences that may have a supernatural explanation. Looking at telepathic children, disappearances, a blood rite, an ancient demon, and other unusual happenings, Kobayashi soon finds himself getting dangerously close to the heart of the mystery.

The found footage style of the film works well, with certain television personalities playing themselves, and a choppy, cut-up style that adds to a sense of disorientation. It sprinkles in clues as events unfold and keeps the audience watching closely for anything that might help them establish connections between events. Seemingly unrelated or insignificant details are briefly glimpsed and then later return with a moment of revelation. For the most part the film relies on building tension with a series of simple effects, such as rope being knotted by someone in their sleep, or somebody standing stock still and groaning. Most of the gore is reserved for the later portion of the film. The horror aspect relies on you finding the idea of restless spirits, demons, or telepathy, plausible. However, even without that there is a solid central mystery being unravelled that will hold attention.

“The Curse” is a solid, if slightly generic, horror fare. The idea of ghosts or spirits returning from the afterlife is a common feature but given an interesting twist here with the realism of the documentary style. The film creates a believable set-up by introducing you to the investigator and also including fairly mundane interviews along with the more eerie occurrences.

Ju-on: The Grudge (2002)

Home-carer Rika is assigned to an old lady, Sachie, in suburban Tokyo. On arriving at the house she finds the lady motionless and soon becomes aware of an evil presence in the house. She finds a deathly pale young boy, Toshio and later witnesses a dark figure hovering above Sachie. The film then cuts back to show the events of Sachie’s son and his wife, who died under mysterious circumstances. It seems there is a curse on this house brought about by an earlier murder of a mother at the hands of her husband. The house is now haunted by the ghosts of Kayako, the mother, and Toshio, her young son who went missing and those who enter are destined to be haunted and killed by the curse. The detective who investigated the original case, Toyama, is brought back to try to explain. And his daughter Izumi who sneaked into the house with her classmates also becomes a victim.

The story unfolds through a number of chapters detailing the various experiences of the characters, Rika, Hitomi (Sachie’s daughter), Toyama and Izumi as well as other minor characters. This chaptered approach keeps the film moving along, feeling more like a compilation of short stories building on a central idea. It can be hard to work out who is who and what order the stories are taking place as the time-line is non-linear. The film is not as scary as it’s reputation might lead you to believe, instead building an air of quiet unease and growing terror. The scares are largely one of a kind, i.e. either Kayako or Toshio being glimpsed in the background, or appearing suddenly.  It is very well shot and the music really adds to the sense of creeping dread. It is a great example of how to direct low-budget horror, as most of the fear is produced through very simple camera movements or positioning.

This film is a cinematographic representation of an old-fashioned ghost story. From the look of Kayako and her son -pale white, lank black hair and white-less eyes -to scenes which are reminiscent of old Kabuki theatre (people being pulled backwards off-stage) it is  interesting as a glimpse at a traditional ghost story being modernised and set in a claustrophobic suburban house.

Ringu (1998)

The film opens on two high-school girls sharing ghost stories about a cursed videotape. Rumour has it that those who watch the videotape receive a call soon after and are told by a mysterious voice that they will die in one week. One of the girls admits to having seen the tape with three others a week before. When they all die unexpectedly on the same day a reporter, Reiko Asakawa, begins to follow the case of the cursed tape. When she watches the tape herself the phonecall comes shortly after and she must race to discover the secret of the tape in order to prevent her own death.

With a simple plot and small cast of characters the film builds a believable mythology surrounding the cursed tape and the audience is drawn into the story immediately. From the eerie opening violin stings the score is enjoyable and adds a lot to the character of the film. Although the film is regarded as a horror, it is more of a mystery thriller with horror elements than flat-out terrifying. Director Hideo Nakata does a fantastic job of creating tension and the film is strongest when it relies on subtle camera angles or eerie situations.

A well-made ghost story which uses minimal gore but a great deal of atmosphere and suspense. This is worth a watch as it has become one of the most famous horror films of all time, and the character of the ghost, Sadako, is perhaps one of the best known characters in Japanese film.

Based on the book by Koji Suzuki.