Japan's Must-Read Magazine

Ghoul Power

"The curse of one who dies in the grip of a powerful rage. It gathers and takes effect in the places that person was alive."
– Ju-on (2003)

In the beginning, there was the man – salaryman, to give him his modern monicker. Over the centuries he’s been a samurai, a suitor, a priest, a farmer, a potter, a university professor; you name it, the man’s done it (and done it well, I might add). He’s lord of his castle, to invoke another little islander, and woe betide anyone who stands in his way.

Especially womankind. Women, coquettish little minxes that they are, ought to know their place. This is a man’s world. James "Geroppa" Brown said so. It must be true. But, at the risk of descending into a mudpool of well-worn lyrics, it wouldn’t be nothin’ without a woman or a girl. And, boy, do these J-girls know it.

It’s said that the saddest sight in Japan is a widower. While a widow is more than capable of getting on with things (heck, more often than not she can’t wait for him to pop his sorry clogs), a widower is a truly pitiful thing. After a lifetime of being propped up, waited on, bank rolled and bedded on demand, he’s no idea how to take the next step. He’s lost. He owes it all to her. It’s regretful, it really is. If only he’d taken the chance to thank her while she was still around.

Which is exactly what she’s thinking, too. If she could have her time over, she’d come back as a chopstick and ram herself up his mouldy nose. Regrets? It’s too late for that. She’s angry. In fact, she’s more than angry. She’s vengeful, and – as any good movie buff knows – there aint no emotion the Japanese do better than vengeance.

Onry? (?? – resentful spirit) are not the sole property of the female species. There are plenty of examples of men who’ve found their true calling in the middle realm. It’s just that Japanese women have always done it so much better, as anyone who’s ever crossed a beleagured OL will know. The doe-eyed innocence is all front. Beneath that pink and preposterous exterior lies a wrath that could melt the (apparently sizeable) balls of Saigo Takamori. Without wishing to generalize, approximately 50% of the Japanese population is made up of onry? in waiting. It’s that simple.

And they look the part, too. Traditionally, a well-groomed onry? will have lengthy black hair, unusually round eyes (wildly staring, preferably) and a snow-white gown. The ensemble is nothing short of virginal, and it’s surely no coincidence that it shares a lot with the traditional notion of Japanese beauty.

(For the sake of equality, it should be noted here that there have been many fine examples of male onryou enjoying a similar getup – Rentaro Mikuni as the wayward husband in Kwaidan (1964) springs immediately to mind. But the overall effect tends to emasculate rather than empower. Freddie Mercury enjoyed dressing up in women’s clothing, too, and – while occasionally scary – he wasn’t exactly the world’s most masculine guy, now, was he.)

Thanks to the phenomenal popularity of J-Horror directors Hideo Nakata, Takashi Miike, Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Takashi Shimizu, the image of the vengeful, white-clad female has, since the nineties, become as iconic in horror cinema as that of the projectile-vommiting, spinning head. However, the image is not a recent development. Onry? have strong links with shinto beliefs, suggesting that they have existed in the public consciousness since Amaterasu kicked the whole thing off, back at the dawn of time. As with folklore the world over, ghosts have been at the heart of horror culture for as long as there’s been a campfire to gather around, and the images have inevitably crept out of the villages, onto the page, into the theater and – in Japan’s case – out through the woodblocks.

Early spirits that maintain a powerful influence to this day include Okiku of Himeji Castle, whose watery grave provided a cocoon from which to unleash her repetitive and grizzly fury, as well as an uncomfortably familiar canvas for Hideo Nakata’s 1998 masterpiece, Ringu. Okiku has been brought to stage or screen on at least five different occasions, most recently as part of Fuji TV’s Kaidan Hyaku Shosetsu (2002). She also had a profound influence on the revered ukiyoe artist, Hokusai (amongst others). Have a look at his Okiku the Ghost and then go back to Nakata’s Ringu. Notice anything similar?

If Okiku’s story seems over-exposed, meet Oiwa (AKA the Yotsuya ghost). Oiwa had the terrible misfortune of being married to Iemon, an entirely self-serving git who bungled an attempt to kill her so that he could marry into prosperity. She died, of course, but not before being horribly disfigured by the poison he’d given her. Apparently underwhelmed by the gruesome demise he’d so far brought upon his wife, Iemon then crucified her to a door and chucked her into the nearest river. Deservedly so, she returned to haunt him, most notably from a lantern (the subject of many famous ukiyoe prints) and from beneath his new bride’s veil on their wedding day (he raises the veil to find Oiwa’s disfigured mush looming back at him – cool!).

Oiwa’s story, or Yotusya Kaidan as it is better known, is surely the most remade film in movie history. Over 30 versions are thought to have existed, many lost during wartime. Horror movies became popular during the post-war era, largely due to the ban on samurai flicks imposed by the occupying forces, and it was not uncommon to find Yotsuya Kaidan the subject of at least two major films in the same year. The most celebrated edition – Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan (1959), directed by Nobuo Nakagawa – stared Kazuo Wakasuga as the ill-treated Oiwa. Once again, influence washes across the modern screen, with Ringu‘s Sadako baring more than a passing resemblance to the deformed and vengeful Oiwa, both capable of unleashing themselves from the least likely of places.

In 1904, Yakumo Koizumi (Lafcadio Hearn to his Friday night drinking buddies) noted that the tale of Yuki Onna (Woman of the Snow) had first been relayed to him by a farmer in the Musashi Province. Hearn believed that his retelling was the first in print in any language, giving creedence to the notion that onry? as we known them predate anything the artists have conjured. The spirit, dressed all in white with beautiful but terrifying eyes, is – to a T – the onry? that we now cower from. Indeed, her depiction in Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan (a movie based on Hearn’s tales) is as near to the fearful wenches of the J-Horror boom as can be possible. Keiko Kishi’s ethereal performance as the ice maiden is by turns both beautiful and chilling, never short of mezmerizing. Coupled with a soundtrack that slices into your soul and unleashes a blizzard, her portrayal gathers everything up so completely that, for a Japanese audience at least, the likes of Sadako and Kayako (Ringu and Ju-on respectively) need only hover onscreen for a split second for the accumulated cultural knowledge to kick in and overwhelm. Most unnerving of all are Kobayashi’s surrealist sets, depicting a universe dominated by a series of all-seeing eyes and womanly lips. The suggestion seems to be that none of us are safe; that we are all being watched by a manevolant, female force. It may have appeared to be a man’s world, but that’s as far as the illusion went.

It’s difficult to say which of the modern depictions of onry? is better known, but few would argue that Sadako Yamamura did more to promote the J-Horror franchise than any of her counterparts. Hideo Nakata’s horrifying creation first hit our screens (and then pushed her way through them) in 1998, though she’d already stared in a popular novel (and subsequent TV production) by Koji Suzuki as early as 1991. Her effect on western audiences was, in part, a reaction to high-tech Hollywood productions that relied more on synthesized shocks than decent storytelling. That Ringu and Sixth Sense achieved a similar level of critical success is no coincidence. Released within a year of one another, audiences were taken completely by surprise – and all on the smallest of budgets.

But Sadako did more than just shake up the horror movie industry. Onry? ever-after will be thankful for the powers she opened up to them. Straying from from both the novel (the male reporter became female, while Sadako lost a pair of rather distressing testicles) and traditional tropes, Nakata created an onry? with a vengeance that knew no bounds. Sure, she had her reasons for having built up a bit of a temper, but her vengeance reached further than a single man. Like Kobayashi’s watchful universe, Sadako had the power to reach anybody she liked. That her chosen medium happened to be television only brought the all-seeing eye down from the sky and into your living room. Truly terrifying.

With the grudge redefined, onry? stock reached an all-time high. Takashi Miike’s Asami (Audition, 1999) seemed to have it in for men in general, especially those who chose not to, "love her enough". Although not entirely supernatural, she wore the clothes and walked the walk – beautiful on the outside but as gnarled as they get, once the blinds were down. If Sadako was the most freakish thing western audiences had seen in a good while, then Asami was the most shocking. Her vomit-obsessed lunacy provoked record-busting walkouts when she first appeared at the Cannes Film Festival in 2000.

Of course, no onry? overview would be complete without The Grudge Mistress herself, Kayako Saeki. Arguably the last great character before the J-Horror genre petered out into endless repetition, Kayako is well on the way to competing with Oiwa as the most portrayed spirit in cinematic history. By the time Ju-on: The Grudge 3 and its Hollywood remake come out in 2008, Kayako will have graced the screen in various forms no less than 9 times (all played by the too-cute-to-be-a-vengeful-spirit actress, Takako Fuji).

The specter of a possibly adulterous wife, Kayako picks up where Sadako left off and continues the onry? assault on anybody and anything that gets in her way. As Jay McRoy notes in his collection of essays, Japanese Horror Cinema (2005), the grudge extends to society in general, including those that would leave an elderly woman to wallow in her own faeces, and, "shirking social workers and inept law-enforcement officers." Most worrisome of all, she’s removed the international boundaries – Bill Pullman being the first victim of her 2004 outing.

Quite where all this leaves the male species is anyone’s guess. Keep in mind that we do have non-transvestite onry? of our own, but whether they prove dependable when it comes down to it is highly debatable. Ju-on‘s Toshio is a fairly formidable force, though being a dead child, his developmental future looks bleak. Our other well-documented hope opted to take the form of a hairy tree, as Emily Millar will further explain elsewhere on this site. Not a demon I’d bet against the likes of Sadako.

All we can do in the meantime is sit tight, check the salt piles outside our doors, and remember that the modern onry? is likely to inhabit the place you’d usually find solice. She’s there between your fingers as you cover your eyes. She’s hidden in the bedclothes as you dive for cover. And whatever you do, don’t turn on your TV.

Postscript: Foolishly, I brought this article to an end at about 11:30pm, understandably on edge given the nature of my research. As I lay back on my futon, the TV in the next room turned on. Completely freaked, I searched for the remote control, imagining that I may have kicked it as I got into bed. I finally found it in the kitchen, a room I’d not been in all evening. I hardly slept a wink all night. My three-year-old son has since started mentioning the person who strokes his head by the closet door…

How to Make Your Own Onry?

Part of Ringu‘s enduring appeal is the scary-shit-on-a-budget factor. With Halloween upon us, here’s how to build your own onry?.

1. Take one ordinary Japanese girl. For real before-and-after contrast, find a real cutie.

2. Cover J-girl with a white sheet. We used a futon blanket, but for real chills use your grandmother’s burial gown.

3. Comb hair over the forehead and down below the chin, et voila! One sadistic killer to go.