Why Japanese horror is different; Ju-On director, Takashi Shimizu

16 mins read

Feature by Matt S.

Horror is a product of culture. How that manifests might be different from one example of the genre to the next, however. It might be because the work is tapping into deep seated fears that are a combination of biological responses to perceived threats – the fight-or-flight mechanic – as well as the cultural behaviours that are developed into us from a young age. Or, it might simply be a response by the artists to something that has been terrifying the community at that point in time.

Related reading: Our interview with the other half of the creative team that brought us NightCry, Hifumi Kono.

For example, it’s hardly surprising that the slasher film genre in America developed the way it has, when you consider that it was a reaction to the sexual liberation and drugs experiences that the teenagers through the 70s, 80s and 90s were heavily involved with. Western culture, being quite conservative and puritan, reacted to this social “threat”, and the horror films reflected a desire for punishment towards youngsters that broke those social taboos.

Or, going back even further, Dracula reflected an extreme conservatism towards sexuality of Victorian England at the time: “The concept of “evil” incorporated with aggressive sexual behaviours and sexual temptations very much plays into the evil and appalling behaviours of Dracula. The beliefs of Stoker’s generation magnified the already obscene tendencies of the character himself, adversely creating a shock-factor amongst the Victorian audience, making an epic contribution to the controversial views of sex and sexuality within the society.” More specifically, the character of Dracula represented a fear that Stoker saw in himself.

By all accounts, Stoker had powerful feelings for the famous actor, Henry Irving, and in Dracula we can see an outlet for that emotion; among other things, the novel is Stoker’s way of investigating topics around homosexuality. This is most clear when Stoker sexualises the act of the vampire drinking blood, and then has Dracula attack a woman, night after night, as the men than complete blood transfusions from themselves to keep her alive. This way, Stoker was able to safely explore the idea of men sharing fluids, while doing so in the context of something that was appropriate to the Victorian England understanding of eroticism and the kind of fears that that aroused.

The Shock Labyrinth

One of the masters of Japanese horror, Takashi Shimizu, director of a number of well-known horror films, including Ju-On and Tormented, as well as the recent NightCry video game, certainly produces a different kind of horror to what we see in the likes of Friday the 13th and Dracula. Shimizu’s films are very Japanese, and focus on a very Japanese sense of horror. By his own admission, this means that a lot of his work won’t ever be able to resonate outside of its homeland.

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Oddly, Shimizu said, the idea that his work, and the work of many other Japanese artists, is too culturally exclusive to find an audience outside of Japan, is one shared by too many people within his homeland. And though there is certainly merit in that perspective at times, at other times it’s an unnecessary burden that Japanese artists put on themselves.

“I cannot deny that some of my projects were ‘too Japanese,’” Shimizu said. “But to think of things this way I find to be a defeatist mentality. It’s like there’s an inferiority complex built in that asks ‘how is it possible for Japanese people/ culture to stand against the world?’ We see this a lot in Japan.

“So, before thinking something that I do is ‘too Japanese,’ we need to consider the Japanese mindset after prostrating ourselves to the United States when we surrendered at the end of World War 2. This unconditional surrender made us strong in the end, but the resulting mental scars are still an existing problem that affects our culture.”

Takeshi Shimizu

With film festivals and digital distribution making film a far more global art form than it has ever been before, it is becoming increasingly important for ‘foreign’ film industries – including Japan, to be able to find global audiences. It is going to be interesting to see how the tension between a nation’s culture, and its artist’s desire to create works that appeal to a wider audience, will play out, and the horror genre, with its close connection to culture. For Japanese filmmakers, that is an especially delicate balance to tread, though the international success of Ju-On, Dark Water and The Ring suggests that it’s an challenge that can be overcome.

So, what is Japanese horror?

Japanese horror, exemplified in films such as The Ring, Shimazu’s Ju-On, and games like Fatal Frame (or Project Zero), have a distinctively different tone to horror in the west. The stories are more personal, tragic, sad, and the tone more melancholic than tense. Jump scares are relatively rare, and the works tend to be more slow burners – the build up to the true revelations take time, and are all the more shocking for it.

According to Shimizu, Japanese horror is best represented by their dream-like qualities.

“They’re like fantasies,” he said. “Horror is about how you use fiction and figurative expressions, through which you ask social issues, human instincts and origins.

But genuine horror is very different thing to the more primitive and basic fear, which people often assume is the essence of horror, according to Shimazu. “There is a ‘fear’ that anyone is able to recognise and easily understand. This ‘fear’ is important in horror films, but I’m always determined to take in the ‘fear’ that comes from things such as the ugliness and terrors of humans and society, and combine it with more genuinely horrific concepts; things like guilt and immorality.


“Humans are the only species that can purposely savour ‘fear’ in a simulated experience for the sake of entertainment. We laugh at jump scares, even though that contradicts our natural behaviours to live peacefully and healthy,” he added. Effectively this fear, while momentarily shocking, isn’t really that scary at all. It’s fun, and transient, and any sense of atmosphere or thought is gone the moment the film is over. Shimizu’s goals as a film maker have always been to do much more than simply tap into fear.

“The greatest enemy is yourself, and the enemy of humans is indeed humans. But just portraying the basic terrors and anxiety with direct representation of a reality as a horror isn’t interesting at all.”

Instead, Shimazu aims for a more abstract, dreamlike reflection on social perceptions and behaviours. Taken from the Japanese culture, Shimizu likes to explore and deconstruct the Japanese sense of modesty through his films.

“Most Japanese people fall under the principle of ‘finding aesthetic value in modesty,’” Shimizu said. “It is splendid to see politeness, and respect the manners and one another’s feelings. But at the same time I am absolutely shocked to see that because they hold their personal opinions within them so much, the Japanese also struggle to communicate through their hearts, honestly, with one another. They become paranoid from overloading worry, and some members of society end up using that modesty as an excuse to evade responsibility.

“It gives me a headache to see adults in society worry only about how they look in the public eye, as they make a fool out of anyone younger, and paint themselves with lies to hide their shame to the point that they don’t know what they look like to begin with.”


Shimazu’s approach to horror, then, is to place a mirror in front of audiences; not just to expose the darker side of the human condition, but to challenge the balances that they have in society and the way they present themselves in the context of their society.

The differences between East and West

Where the differences between Japanese and western horror are is in the culturally appropriate way of tapping into those social anxieties, according to Shimizu, another primary difference is that western horror – especially that which comes from North America, is very concerned with the fragility of the human body – physical violence, therefore, has a great impact.

But in most Asian cultures, such as China, Japan, Korea, Philippines and Thailand, there’s a greater anxiety bound in the fragility of the mind. Indirect or mental violence tends to have a greater impact in these cultures, because the idea of an incomplete life has a deep resonance.

“In Asia, people tend to be more sensitive to things that they can perceive as being real enough,” Shimizu said. “Being able to think ‘it’s not a big surprise to see such a tormented soul turn into a monster,’ through a tragic/ cruel story, and that has impact on us as a result.

“But our monsters are different and come from different places. Consider this: all Asian cultures have a word for ‘demon,’ but this is a very different thing to the Christian concept of ‘demon.’

Ju-On game

“Actually, one of the western horror films that I am most awed with is The Exorcist, because that film was able to make people of all cultures frightened by the scenario, even though many of them wouldn’t have had an understanding of the kind of monster that those demons were.

“So for some of the greatest horror films, I suppose there is a common sense in the way humans, on a base level, feel, that allows them to share tragedy equally, regardless of their culture or religion.”

On making games

NightCry is not the first game project that Shimizu has worked on. Previously, he directed the Ju-On game developed on the Nintendo Wii. Almost universally panned, the game was actually very worthwhile – it’s almost a “walking simulator” before that term was devised, in that it focuses much more on the experience than offering “gameplay,” and exploration and frights were the focus of the adventure.

Primitive as it looked on the Wii, it was also a creative exercise, and Shimizu’s involvement ensured that it remained true to the Ju-On take on horror. NightCry, however, is a far more ambitious project.

“I like working on games, as there is a freedom with how to design the story,” Shimizu said. “The user can interact with it. This capability is, of course, a more troublesome task for the creators, but it’s fun at the same time.


“I also like that games allow us to do things that films wouldn’t. Due to finance, time, or the physical performance itself, it’s possible to do visual things with games that are just not possible in film.

Related reading: Harvard’s review of NightCry.

“I do believe that both games and films should evolved together, however,” Shimizu said. “The two media should make the best use of each other’s advantages.”

Despite being such a fan of the creative opportunities that games open up, Shimizu has no intention on shifting his entire career to the field.

“I will not persist with games,” Shimizu said. “However, if people from the game industry call me, and if it’s a fresh experience and something I can actually help with, then I’ll definitely want to join the project as much as possible.”

– Matt S. 
Find me on Twitter: @digitallydownld

This is the bio under which all legacy DigitallyDownloaded.net articles are published (as in the 12,000-odd, before we moved to the new Website and platform). This is not a member of the DDNet Team. Please see the article's text for byline attribution.

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