By: Sam Weinberg  | 

Arts & Culture: Film Forum Runs Japanese Horror Festival

On the outskirts of Greenwich Village on Houston Street in lower Manhattan, fans of Japanese horror, a genre affectionately dubbed “J-Horror,” got to watch some of their favorites shown at the iconic Film Forum theater. In a program co-presented with the Japan Foundation, the Film Forum’s horror festival had two dozen films spanning nearly a century of Japanese film, going from the silent experimental “A Page of Madness” from 1926 all the way through “Dark Water,” which was released in the 21st century. Many of the films, some of which classics while others little seen, were projected from 35mm film prints, which added a tremendous amount to the unique experience; watching older films projected at the Film Forum is always a wonderful opportunity, but the Japanese festival in particular made for a particularly exciting experience. 

The programming expertly switched between medieval narratives and contemporary stories, with many of the films infusing ideas from both. Some films, notably “Onibaba,” had been inspired by traditional modes of Japanese entertainment, like kabuki theater. Yet, perhaps more notably, the themes of post-nuclear horrors and tensions found great expression in many of the movies screened. The original Godzilla film from 1954, entitled “Gojira,” remains a personal favorite of mine and a prime example of this theme: many later kaiju (monster) movies have been inspired by its mechanic thrills, but Ishirō Honda’s original is both deeply thrilling and deeply moving, and it’s hard not to be taken aback by the emotional turmoil at the film’s center. (The recent “Godzilla Minus One” accomplishes similar goals as well, albeit not to the same heights.) 

Another exciting element of the festival and J-Horror as a whole is the greatness of many of the filmmakers who tried their hand at the subgenre. With the fitting exception of Ozu, many of the greatest Japanese filmmakers of all time have, in one way or another, contributed to the history of the genre, or at least made films adjacent to it. The legendary Akira Kurosowa, widely regarded as the greatest Japanese filmmaker ever, had his “Macbeth” adaptation, titled “Throne of Blood,” screened four times at the festival. (Whether or not it’s a horror movie in the classical sense is up for debate, but it certainly features elements of a classic ghost story.) Kenji Mizoguchi, whose most well-regarded films are all set in medieval Japan, directed the violent and unsettling “Ugetsu,” and Masaki Kobayashi, who is most well-known for his “Harakiri” and a 9.5-hour magnum opus “The Human Condition” (9.5 hours well-spent, truth be told), directed “Kwaidan,” an anthology film which has a title that literally means “ghost story.” 

If serious horror films from the greatest of filmmakers aren’t your speed, some of the festival’s films gleefully bask in the genre’s more ridiculous tropes. Famously, “House,” which played at the festival as well, is an absolutely glorious piece of insanity: a brief look at the trailer is all you need to get a feeling for its unique tone. The controversial Takashi Miike had his two most well-received films at the festival, “Audition” and “Ichi the Killer,” movies that are more known today for their extraordinary violence and extreme amounts of gore. And if you like your kaiju films less thoughtful and moving than “Gojira,” Honda’s “Mothra” played at the festival, too. That movie, about fairies kidnapped by an exploitative businessman and the massive feminine moth that comes to save them, doesn’t exactly have the same post-nuclear fears wrapped up in it.

Lastly, a handful of the contemporary classics that played were instrumental in bringing J-Horror to new fans at the turn of the century. Kiyoshi Kurosawa made two of the great installments in the genre with his serial killer thriller “Cure” and ghost story for the internet age with “Pulse.” Even more important for J-Horror in the West were the two Hideo Nakata pictures that screened at the festival: “Ringu,” which opened with an introduction from Samuel Jamier, the executive director of the New York Asian Film Festival, was a treat to see on the big screen, (in large part because of the Film Forum providing a press pass to this Commentator writer,) and the aforementioned “Dark Water” is widely influential as well. Both films were soon adapted into English-language remakes, highlighting the exposure of the genre in America and beyond. “Ringu” in particular is a thrilling watch in theaters: the silence of its horror is incredibly evocative, and it’s a film ripe with absolutely haunting imagery. 

When introducing “Ringu,” Jamier spoke about the proximity of the dead to the living in Japanese culture; the distances between both the alive and the deceased and the traditional modes of supernatural storytelling and its modern counterpart in film are not too far. It is with this duality that many of the films shown are in dialogue, and many Westerners are able to better appreciate the differing understandings of dying and the dead as they are portrayed in the series. Many American filmmakers and studios have produced legendary horror movies as well, but the Film Forum’s Japanese slate showcased the uniqueness of their thematic and aesthetic sensibilities.


Photo Caption: The Film Forum Theater in February.

Photo Credit: Sam Weinberg