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J-Horror and Toshi Densetsu (Urban Legends)

(Koji Shiraishi, 2007)

It is not the first time that I have commented, neither have I been the only one (1), on the premature death of the J-Horror. But before getting into any more details I find it necessary to clarify what it is meant by the death of this genre. Are we talking about a death at all levels of quality, production and popularity? There has certainly been a noticeable decrease of interest by foreign audiences in new J-horror productions. Perhaps a lack of interest spurred by a clear lowering of production values and an incessant repetition of narrative and visual themes.

Proof that the J-Horror is not longer favour by some sectors of foreign filmgoers has been for example this year's Fright Fest in London, which failed to include in its programme a Japanese film, not even an Asian one for that matter. Also the Toronto International Film Festival presented two (TENNEN KOKKEKO and MOGAMI NO MORI), none of them a horror feature. At the time of writing the Spanish version of this article the XVIII Semana de cine Fantástico y de Terror Donostia was only planning to project DAINIPPONJIN (Hitoshi Matsumoto) and the anime HIGHLANDER: THE SEARCH FOR VENGEANCE (Yoshiaki Kawajiri). At the very last minute a horror film was included with the title of GUINEA PIG: FLOWERS OF FLESH AND BLOOD (Hideshi Hino, 1985), hardly a new release, in its programme, I suspect as accompaniment to the exhibition that the festival organized of this Japanese manga artist. Similarly this year's edition of Sitges Film Festival featured only one work of the current J-horror, KUCHISAKE ONNA, directed by Koji Shiraishi.

The impression that one might get, judging from the low number of Japanese horror films circulating around international film festivals, is that the production of Japanese horror films has suffered a considerable slump or that the Japanese themselves have also got bored with their own product. However, the considerable success that OYAYUBI SAGASHI (Vanished) achieved last summer shows that horror films still retain a large number of fans in Japan, specially among adolescents. The success of this feature was partly due to being based on a book of the same title by Yusuke Yamada, a popular writer among junior high and high school students. Perhaps the extremely low artistic quality of recent productions (in my opinion only RINNE by Takashi Shimizu, released in January last year managed to avoid the ghostly boredom of recent years), the exhaustion of ideas and the clear localism of Japanese producers in approaching the material have prevented current J-Horror films from being line-up at foreign film festivals.

(Takuaki Hashiguchi, 2005)

As I have pointed out in my analysis of KUCHISAKE: KANNOU BYOUTOU: NURETA AKAI KUCHIBIRU, the urban legend of KUCHISAKE has served as an inspirational element for some recent films. Preceding the national release of KUCHISAKE ONNA in March this year, a DVD with the title UWASA NO SHINSOU!: KUCHISAKE ONNA (True Rumours: Slit-Mouth Woman) came out acting as a blatant gimmick to promote the film. In fact this kind of docu-drama pretending to "study" this urban legend that emerged in the 1970s was assembled by KUCHISAKE ONNA's director Koji Shiraishi himself. Earlier to this release, in September 2005, an erotic version of this myth had been released with the title of KUCHISAKE: KANNOU BYOUTOU: NURETA AKAI KUCHIBIRU (Kuchisake: Sensual Hospital Ward: Wet and Red Lips). Similarly more pseudo-documentaries dealing with the legend of Kuchisake sporting such sensationalist titles as JITSUROKU! NOROWARETA TOSHI DENSETSU ONNEN-SHOWA NO TOSHI DENSETSU SHU (True Story! Collection of Cursed Urban Legends from the Showa Era), SHIN! TOSHI DENSETSU (Shake! Urban Legends) or HONTOU NI ATTA! TOSHI DENSETSU (They really exist! Urban Legends) have added to the mini-boom of this legend. Even though these works present a hotchpotch of popular urban legends, they all agree in adding the disfigured face of Kuchisake to the front cover of their DVDs.

As it must be pretty obvious to everyone the keyword here is toshi densetsu or urban legend. That urban legends have been a source of inspiration for innumerable J-Horror films is nothing new. However, I have hardly read anything that hints at a connection between urban legends in J-Horror works, either original or based on ones already established in popular culture, the socio-cultural background in which these were made and the almost obsessive interest of Japanese society in paranormal phenomena. Furthermore, one could include this new wave of Japanese horror films in the subgenre of the toshi densetsu horror. Examples of this subgenre are RING and its story of a cursed videotape circulating among high school students, JU-ON and DARK WATER and their cursed buildings, CHAKUSHIN ARI and its deadly calls, SHIBUYA KAIDAN and its coin lockers among many other examples. All of these films and more take as their main narrative device an urban legend that has become part of popular culture or one that has been specifically created for the production of the film.

The origins of this horror boom can be found in the 1970s, a decade when rumours were spreading of a slit-mouthed woman brandishing a pair scissors and terrorizing primary school students. But also, as professor Nobutaka Inoue explains, (2) a decade when a magic and occult boom was observed amomg young men who "were displaying strong interests in divination, magical power, and occult films and comics" and how students at the middle-school level experienced "playing a game called kokkurisan, a Japanese version of the Ouija board". Furthermore, in 1974 the spoon-bender Uri Geller arrived in Japan and quickly became a TV celebrity. Later Geller himself would also discovered his Japanese counterpart Masuaki Kiyota. And even more important, in summer of 1973 the TV channel NTV started its broadcast of ANATA NO SHIRANAI SEKAI (The world you don't know), a now classic programme where its guests and talentos talked about their apparently true paranormal experiences, which were then hen dramatized. ANATA NO SHIRANAI SEKAI was presented by Iwao Niikura, who in 1968 had hosted the first programme on Japanese TV dealing with personal paranormal experiences, and the reinousha (medium) Aiko Gibo, who initiate a reinou (spiritual ability) boom (3).

(Kiyoshi Yamamoto, 2006)

Later, in the 1980s another urban legend, Toire no Hanako (Hanako, the toilet ghost) spread around primary schools at the same time as a renewed interest in Kokkuri-san was taken up by junior and high school students. At the end of that decade, beginning of the next TV stations were saturated with paranormal themed programmes featuring shinrei shashin (psychic photograph) and shinrei video (psychic video). This cultural phenomenon continues to be highly popular nowadays thanks to the commercialization of digital video and photo cameras and later camera phone able to capture photos and short videos. Thus, there has not been a lack of films which stories make use of these technological advances such as SHINREI SHASHIN KITAN (Strange Story of Psychic Photographs, Kiyoshi Yamamoto, 2006) o SHINREI SHASHIN: JUSATSU (Psychic Photographs: Cursed Deaths, Kouta Yoshida, 2006) or documentaries investigating and presenting real psychic photographs and videos such as JITSUROKU! NOROWARETA KEITAI SHASHIN 1 SHINREI MERU "CHAKUSHIN ARI" (True Story! Cursed Mobile Phone Photos 1 Psychic Messages "You've Got Mail") produced by Takashi Ohashi, and which has also seen a sequel.

The first mobile phones were being sold in 1992 at the very height of the 'pager (Pokeberu or Pocket Bell in Japanese) boom'. The pager with number display had first appeared in 1987 targeting businessman but subsequently became all the rage among koukousei or female high school students in the early 1990s. These devised a pre-SMS language code based on the combination of numbers pronounced in Japanese to create a word as for example 084 or Ohayo (good morning, 0 = "o", 8 "ha" from hachi, 4 "yo" from yon) or 39 pronounced in Japanese as "san kyuu", thank you with a Japanese accent. This new language for pagers gave way to creepier messages such as the number combination 459212 (jigoku ni iku, go to hell) or 564219 (koroshi ni iku, I'm coming to kill you) and all sort of legends about death messages which preceded the toshi densetsu featuring in CHAKUSHIN ARI (4) (5).

All these cultural and social references and their widespread popularity in Japanese society constitute the main factors in which the success of Japanese horror films at the end of the 1990s was cemented. More specifically the shinrei shashin and, to a lesser degree, the pager curse served as clear sources of inspiration to one of the most visible characteristic of the J-horror: fear of technology. Technology used by evil forces to create a circle of unending deaths is another of the themes in J-horror films as for example videotapes in RING, the Internet in KAIRO, mobile phones in CHAKUSHIN ARI o electromagnetic waves in SHIRYOHA (Dead Waves) just to cite a few examples. Hideo Nakata, director of RING, confirms this connection when he explains in an interview the relation between shinrei shashin and the distorted photographs that appeared in his film (6).

(Atsushi Shimizu, 2003)

So what path has recent J-Horror productions taken? Pretty much the same as before with most of them still relying on urban legends and fear of technology as their plot engine. OTOSHIMONO (Ghost Train), as its own website advertises is "based on the urban legend of the haunted train". KOWAI DOUYOU: OMOTE NO SHOU's sequel KOWAI DOUYOU: URA NO SHOU casts actress Megumi Yasu in the role of a sound analyst working for a TV programme. This is investigating allegations from neighbourgs who claim they have heard children voices singing lullabies from an abandoned school where years ago a group of twelve members of the school chorus had disappeared. Similarly DENSEN UTA tells the story of a song that is said to cause death whenever it is sung, especially, surprise, surprise, among female high school students, played by members of the J-pop band AK-48, many of them, as everybody knows, very keen on singing at karaoke.

And of course we cannot finish this article without mentioning the countless imitations of J-Horror classics such as CHAKUSHIN ARI or new adaptations of urban legends like Toire no Hanako and Kokkuri-san. Among the former we encounter CHAIN (Atsushi Shimizu, 2003) and its sequel CHAIN: RENSA JUSATSU (Ryuichi Honda, 2006), in which a chain of text messages terrorizes, again, students at a high school. Among the latter we can cite GAKKO NO TOSHI DENSETSU: TOIRE NO HANAKO-SAN (School Urban Legend: Toire no Hanako-san, Kouta Yoshida, 2007), KOKKURI-SAN: NIHON-BAN (Kazuyuki Sakamoto, 2005) and KOKKURI-SAN: HONTOU NI ATTA KOWAI HANASHI (Kokkuri-San: A True Scary Story, Yohei Fukuda, 2007).


  1. Nicholas Rucka, The Death of J-Horror? (return)

  2. Takato, Natsui, Folk Beliefs in Modern Japan: Introduction (return)

  3. Wikipedia Japan: Anata no Shiranai Sekai (return)

  4. Shigeru Nakayama, From PC to Mobile internet ---Overcoming the Digital Divide --- (return)

  5. Chris' Survival Horror Quest, Chris' Guide to Understanding Japanese Horror (return)

  6. Donato Totaro, The "Ring" Master: Interview With Hideo Nakata (return)

Films cited

KUCHISAKE ONNA (Dir: Koji Shiraishi, 2007)

OYAYUBI SAGASHI (Dir: Naoto Kumazawa, 2006)

UWASA NO SHINSOU!: KUCHISAKE ONNA (Dir: Koji Shiraishi, 2007)



SHIN! TOSHI DENSETSU (Dir: Mikita Tagawa, 2007)


SHINREI SHASHIN KITAN (Dir: Kiyoshi Yamamoto, 2006)

SHINREI SHASHIN JUSATSU (Dir: Kouta Yoshida, 2006)



SHIRYOHA (Dir: Yoichiro Hayama, 2005)

OTOSHIMONO (Dir: Takeshi Furusawa, 2006)

KOWAI DOUYOU: URA NO SHOU (Dir: Osamu Fukutani, 2007)

DENSEN UTA (Dir: Masato Harada, 2007)

CHAIN (Dir: Atsushi Shimizu, 2003)

CHAIN 2: RENSA JUSATSU (Dir: (Ryuichi Honda, 2006)


KOKKURI-SAN: NIHON-BAN (Dir: Kazuyuki Sakamoto, 2005)


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©Joaquín da Silva
Date of Publication: 17/12/2007