[Content warning: this article contains pictures with body horror and discussion of sensitive subject matter in the paragraphs about anime.]
Nobody does horror like Japan. From the pure nightmare fuel that is the Japanese horror film industry to therapy-inducing anime and manga to video games that’ll have too you terrified to ever look through a camera’s viewfinder again, the land of the rising sun has the market of darkness, blood, and evil covered. And their urban legends will have you checking bathrooms for strange children, and rethinking your decision to respond in kind to a mysterious woman you meet upon a misty cobblestone path at night when she asks you, “Am I pretty?” Legends such as the Kuchisake Onna (The Slit-Mouthed Woman).
Easily one of the most famous of urban legends (and one of my favorite cosplays I’ve done, so I’m biased), the Kuchisake Onna appears as a beautiful woman sporting a white surgical mask over her face, and is often depicted wearing a long, almost trench-like coat. While she has been known for approaching just men walking alone late at night, certain legends tell of her approaching other women and even young children. She will walk up to her victim and ask a variation of the question, “Am I pretty/Do you think I’m beautiful?”
If the person she asks replies “Yes,” the Kuchisake Onna will remove the mask over her mouth, revealing her horribly disfigured mouth carved open from ear-to-ear in a feat that would make even The Joker envious. She will then repeat her question; and it’s a complete catch-22: if the victim replies “Yes,” the Kuchisake Onna will kill them using the same, large pair of shears her own jealous husband used to carve her mouth open (to make her less attractive to other men). Answering “No” will produce the same outcome. The only way to escape is by replying: “You’re so-so;” this will confuse the Kuchisake Onna long enough for you to escape.
The movie itself (Kuchisake-onna) is absolutely chilling, and is definitely worth adding to your horror collection. (Fun fact: the Mortal Kombat character Mileena is based off of this legend; however, unlike her predecessor, Mileena herself has a mouth full of razor-sharp teeth with which she mauls, dismembers, and eats her opponent in addition to weilding two daggers.)
Though I may have to recheck my figures, even my legitimately dysgraphia-having self can safely say all great American horror movies are, like, ninety-sevenish percent homages (read: shameless ripoffs) to Japanese horror movies. The Grudge, The Ring, and One Missed Call are just a few of more widely known series. Admittedly, I’ve never seen The Ring (either the Japanese original or American remake), however, I did make the questionable life decision to watch the original One Missed Call (Chakushin Ari), and The Grudge series. It goes without saying which versions left me with therapy bills I can’t afford to pay.
The driving forces behind the Japanese horror genre are the deeply troubling psychological aspects of their various entertainment, which is what makes them so powerful and terrifying. Their use of children is a big factor also: instant horror, just add children. As a general rule, children simply make everything creepier, however the gloves come off entirely when children and horror are explored outside of traditional film. While there’s only so much creators can put in a movie, any and all boundaries are shattered entirely in regards to the limitless possibilities found within the realms of manga and anime. Especially in the case of manga (particularity in the case of translations outside of Japan); the censorship is far less prominent (if at all existent), and can push the tropes and contents to even the furthest of graphic extremes. (Side-eyes Higurashi: When They Cry and Shadow Star Narutaru with disgust)
A great example of this is my favorite horror anime and manga series, Elfen Lied. You’re captivated entirely from the first, somber chord of its cinematic opening theme song, “Lilium” (which was heavily inspired by the famous Gustav Klimt artwork, “The Kiss”).
The viewer is then immediately plunged into the bloodsoaked first five minutes of the first episode, which, at one point, had been ranked the most graphic/bloody first five minutes of any existent anime at the time. It’s a beautiful, psychologically unbalancing series that’s one big, gory trigger warning in itself, as both the anime and manga include the graphically depicted themes of rape, childhood sexual/psychological/physical abuse, eugenics, cousin incest, a puppy being bludgeoned by a flowerpot by children, those same children being brutality being ripped limb from bloody limb by another child, and ultimately, every, horrific trope of trauma you can and can’t even begin to believe.
The same can be said of Deadman Wonderland. Don’t be fooled by its disarming and outwardly cute appearance:
It had me absolutely seduced from the minute I heard the haunting (instrumental) version of the anime’s opening theme song, “One Reason,” and I was completely captivated by the dances performed.
Combined with the gritty and dark art, seamless animation, and a disturbing(ly) engaging plot, it’s very easy to understand why it’s one of the most popular and known series worldwide. Like Elfen Lied, you’re plunged into a horrifying opening that depicts a group of middle-schoolers viciously being slaughtered and sprayed across their classroom by a maniacally-smiling non-human psychopath. Their only surviving classmate is wrongfully convicted the slaughter. On top of the unfathomable shock of witnessing his best friend, classmates, and romantic interest cut down before him, he now has to cope with being tossed in Deadman Wonderland, a twisted, circus-like reform facility where the inmates kill one another (or are killed via the detonation collar around their necks) as part of a sick game of pure sport, as well as their lives (Battle Royale, anyone? Hunger Games enthusiasts, please hold your peace.)).
Video games are certainly no stranger to the unholy genre of Japanese horror. Two personal favorites of mine are the Silent Hill and Fatal Frame franchises. However, the crown goes to Fatal Frame for overall terror factor. It isn’t just the engaging gameplay or the heartstopping jumpscares encounters as the player navigates the game through the literal lens of the Camera Obscura (which allows you to see ghosts and other horrors) — it’s the ancient Japanese lore which serves as a basis for many storylines in the game’s frightening history.
Happy Halloween everyone! Good luck sleeping for the next eighty years.