Japanese Horror in New York

Kaneto Shindo’s Onibaba (1964)

In 2010, Guillermo del Toro recalled seeing Kaneto Shindo’s Onibaba (1964) and Kuroneko (1968) when he was ten: “They did some serious damage to my psyche. Both are perfect fables rooted in Japanese folklore but distinctly modern in their approach to violence and sexuality.” Tomorrow evening in New York, Akinaru Rokkaku and Shun Inoue of the Japan Foundation will introduce a screening of Onibaba, officially kicking off Japanese Horror, Film Forum’s two-week series featuring two dozen films, many of them screening from rare 35 mm prints.

On Saturday, Tristan Teshigahara Pollack, the grandson of Hiroshi Teshigahara, will introduce The Face of Another (1966), one of four collaborations between Teshigahara, novelist Kobo Abe, and composer Toru Takemitsu. Tatsuya Nakadai (Yojimbo) stars as a disfigured man who agrees to an experimental face transplant. “Teshigahara’s best work, including The Face of Another,” wrote James Quandt in 2007, “was a masterful amalgam of high international modernism—his sixties films have affinities with Antonioni, Bergman, and Resnais—and traditional Japanese fine arts.”

“When’s the last time you were surprised by a silent film?” asked Michael Atkinson in a 2017 essay for the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. “Impressed, dazzled, yes, but genuinely surprised?” There’s “no amount of buckling up that can prepare a well-versed silent cinephile for the utter unheralded weirdness of Teinosuke Kinugasa’s A Page of Madness.” Sunday afternoon’s screening of this 1926 oddity will be accompanied live by Steve Sterner on piano.

After the Sunday evening screening of Godzilla (1954), Film Forum repertory artistic director Bruce Goldstein will present a comparison between Ishiro Honda’s original and the Americanized “Raymond Burr” version. “Like King Kong, Moby Dick, or the shark in Jaws, Godzilla is a nexus of threats and associations,” wrote J. Hoberman in 2012. “Ultimately, Honda’s movie belongs with Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima mon amour (1959), Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964), and Bruce Conner’s Crossroads (1976) as a daring attempt to fashion a terrible poetry from the mind-melting horror of atomic warfare.”

Along with Honda’s Mothra (1961), other films from the period include two classics that always reward a revisit, Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu (1953) and Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (1957). But there are also lesser known curiosities such as Mitsuo Murayama’s The Invisible Man vs. The Human Fly (1957), which Diabolique’s Keith Allison calls “pure drive-in teen movie material, right down to the cheap titillation of its cabaret numbers and the endearingly ludicrous special effects.”

Of the dozens of adaptations of the kabuki play Yotsuya Kaidan, first performed in 1825, Film Forum is presenting two made in 1959, Kenji Misumi’s Yotsuya Kaidan and Nobuo Nakagawa’s The Ghost of Yotsuya. In 2006, Chuck Stephens called Nakagawa’s Jigoku (1960) a “genre-­busting Japanese masterpiece about the infernal desires that forever tempt us during our mortal existence here on earth and the afterlife agonies awaiting those who succumb.”

The four ghost stories Masaki Kobayashi tells in Kwaidan (1964) cling “to memory like an unshakable dream,” wrote Geoffrey O’Brien in 2015, “a glimpse into some alternate zone where light falls differently on faces, time moves by a different measure, and terror blends disturbingly with beauty.” Yasuzo Masumura’s Blind Beast (1969) is “one of the most fascinatingly freakish of all the big screen adaptations of the works of Japanese mystery writer Edogawa Rampo,” wrote Jasper Sharp at Midnight Eye in 2001.

The series offers two films by Teruo Ishii, Horrors of Malformed Men (1969), another Rampo adaptation, and Blind Woman’s Curse (1970), which Jordan M. Smith, writing for Ioncinema, describes as “equal parts yakuza revenge picture, sexualized exploitation romp, bakeneko (or ghost cat horror flick), and absurd comedy.” Reviewing Horrors of Malformed Men, Screen Slate’s Jon Dieringer notes that Rampo is “associated with the rather self-explanatory cultural movement ero-guro-nansensu, or ‘erotic grotesque nonsense.’ It’s that quality that Ishii leans on, churning out a ‘laugh to keep from vomiting’ kind of film that is fairly described as transgressively avant-garde . . . As a cinematic rendering of the gothic, fetishistic, horrific, and sublime—erotic, grotesque nonsense—it is unparalleled.”

Few so-called cult classics have a greater number of devotees than Nobuhiko Obayashi’s House (1977), a trippy meme generator about seven schoolgirls meeting their demise, one by one, in a creaky old house. “It’s just super fun and almost like Dada,” says Hari Nef. “It just makes you laugh when you’re probably not supposed to and makes you scream when you’re probably supposed to be laughing.” When a new restoration of Masahiro Shinoda’s Demon Pond (1979) premiered in Cannes in 2021, Manon Ruffel noted that the kabuki adaptation is “enhanced by the audacious and exalted style of one of the wolves of the rebel generation of Japanese cinema of the 1960s, which makes for a work of stunning richness.”

The series skips over the 1980s and early ’90s to land in the heyday of J-horror, a rage that swept through theaters around the world in the late ’90s and early 2000s. Three major directors of the wave are represented by two films each. There is, of course, Hideo Nakata’s Ringu (1998), copresented by the New York Asian Film Festival, but also Dark Water (2002), which the Observer’s Mark Kermode found to be “a far more ‘grown up’ film than Ring. Comparisons with Nic Roeg’s Don’t Look Now are inevitable, although Nakata’s reference points are harder to pin down, seemingly ranging from Kaneto Shindo’s Onibaba to Roman Polanski’s The Tenant. Ultimately, this is a tragic love story, littered with fragments of surreal phantasmagoria, but bound together by a recognizable domestic situation. Like all great horror films, Dark Water can scare you when it wants to, but it’s the undercurrent of sadness and longing which continues to haunt.”

Takashi Miike is “such a compelling filmmaker that he makes it hard to turn away from the unspeakable,” wrote Kevin Thomas in the Los Angeles Times in 2001. “While he packs a major jolt for horror fans, Audition [1999] is actually carrying a critique of the lingering subordinate status of women in Asian society to its horrendous, hideous extreme.” Audition is “a diabolically adroit piece of filmmaking that goes even further than the films of Italy’s excruciatingly macabre Dario Argento.” Ichi the Killer (2001), “unhinged even for Takashi Miike,” writes Chuck Bowen for Slant, “suggests a bloody and ejaculate-stained Rorschach inkblot.”

Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse (2001), “in addition to being the gold standard of J-horror ghost stories, strikes me as uniquely attuned to the real fears people have about the tech-driven world,” wrote Scott Tobias when he inducted the film into his New Cult Canon. But it was with the “tense and atmospheric” Cure (1997), “the film that won him international attention and set the pattern for his subsequent career,” as Chris Fujiwara notes, that Kurosawa brought “a sense of the contradictions within Japanese society and a confident understanding of how they can be addressed within genre cinema.”

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