Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Fourth Annual October is Spookey Month: Japanese ghosts!

Halloween is the time for ghost stories, right? Well, in Japan, I believe that time is actually late summer, around the O-Bon holidays. But for our purposes, October is prime ghost time. I'm no expert on Japan or Japanese culture by any means, but I have watched a lot of Japanese horror stories on TV, enough to know Japanese horror is pretty different from what we're used to in North America and possibly Europe. Japanese ghost lore differs from what I grew up with as well. How?

Well, read this article and you'll know as much about it as I do.  When I read it, my main concern was in identifying what category Sadako of Ringu and Kayako of Ju-on fame fall into.  I've come to the conclusion they're both of the onryo, female ghosts who were abused in life.

There are two things about Japanese ghosts that really disturb me.  One is their behavior is often completely bizarre, and the other is they often turn up uninvited to your house. 

As we see in the Ringu and Ju-on films, onryo tend to crawl along the ground, but in other horror shorts, they perform extremely strange movements or inexplicable rituals before they strike.  In one short film I've watched several times, a group of ghosts in a Japanese inn loudly eat uncooked rice and swing their long, black Sadako-like hair to and fro before they do whatever it is they do to the protagonist, a high school girl unfortunate enough to wake up among her sleeping classmates to witness this bizarre spectacle.  When you sleep alone on a futon right after watching this, you're bound to have some crazy dreams of your own.  Stories like these seem to operate more on the logic of dreams than that of the waking world.  Even if that old stand-by revenge is the ghost's ultimate motive, the specific event emphasize the alien, even arbitrary, behavior of ghosts.  After all, as supernatural beings they exist outside life as we know it, so why should they be bound by familiar social mores or ?events set in motion, proceed along paths that are entirely strange to me when I'm awake and rational, but feel very familiar in times I've woken in the middle of the night from some frightening dream.

And unlike poltergeists or other Western-style ghosts, confined to a specific place such as a haunted house or a graveyard, a few Japanese ghosts have a tendency to roam around freely, and even show up uninvited to your house or apartment.  There's another short where a ghost keeps ringing the doorbell at a modern, well-lit apartment before letting herself in.  Other Japanese ghost tales are geographical in nature (Hanako in the toilet, the haunted inn the main character in Banana Yoshimoto's Hard-Boiled visits, the Miyazaki house in Ju-on just to name two), but you can never be sure the ghosts are going to stay where they belong.  So after experiencing this kind of horror, which appears to violate the rules we ex-pats have learned growing up, you can't comfort yourself with the old "If you hadn't visited the hotel/house/abandoned mental hospital, you'd have been just fine" story logic found in Western horror.

That's why if you're tired of slashers and "found footage" poltergeist flicks, you should spend some time on YouTube watching Japanese horror shorts, which you can find in the dozens.  The original Ju-on short about two girls meeting disaster while feeding rabbits at their school is probably still available there.  It's exactly what I'm talking about-- frightening because of its mix of the banal and the strange.

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