The early 2000s were a vital time period of transition for the horror genre. Just as the post-Scream slasher boom was winding down and audiences were losing their interest in such features, J-horror exploded in popularity. Characterized by the ghostly figure of a woman with long black hair and atmospheric, tech-based terrors, these movies started with humble beginnings as up-and-coming Japanese filmmakers set out to make a mark through the indie scene. As a rise in the use of surveillance footage and the wide web of the Internet spread, fears around these new types of technologies could then be harnessed and transfigured into terrifying spookshows. The J-Horror Virus collects all sorts of creatives—from directors to writers and even some of the actors—in a fascinating dissection of everything audiences would grow to love from this thriving subgenre.
My own personal fascination with J-horror stemmed from 2002’s masterful American remake of The Ring, starring Naomi Watts and directed by Gore Verbinski. Ghost-girl Samara haunted my nightmares, and the only way forward was to explore the origins of this exciting wave of horror. Thanks to Netflix’s DVD-by-mail service (remember that?), I was gifted access to innumerable, undeniably great Japanese originals that years later led me on a path to this stellar documentary. From 2001’s Suicide Club (my personal favorite) to the entire Ringu and Ju-On franchises, Netflix became my J-horror mecha; subsequently, I was thrilled that The J-Horror Virus covers so many of these movies I grew attached to over the years. It would have been easy to just chat about the big franchises on merely a surface level, but directing duo Sarah Appleton and Jasper Sharp actually explore niche titles, outside influences, contrasting opinions, and even dissect why we love these movies so much. Honestly, what more could one desire from such a project?
Bookended by opening and ending bumpers made to emulate that now-legendary cursed videotape, The J-Horror Virus sets itself apart from other similar talking-head docs by way of the actual content. These Japanese filmmakers have incredible insight into the intent, including what initially made these movies unlike any others from various countries. Vengeful spirits and the viral nature of legends transforming into curses are a constant thread tying them together. Multiple waves, signaled by both Ringu and Ju-On, ignited the hype machine even further. Perhaps it may be not-so-surprising to hear of The Exorcist inspirations, but learning about Japanese urban legends and the creepy normality of its culture’s “ghost photography” is undeniably fascinating. While many of those involved share stories and opinions, Sadako actress Rie Ino’o divulging that she would breastfeed her newborn baby in between takes on Ring 2 still in costume as the nasty waterlogged villain was among the best.
One interesting point made here involves the treatment of ghosts in J-horror. Western audiences may be accustomed to ghosts physically touching and striking the protagonists, yet in most J-horror, this is all but forbidden. A focus on creeping dread rather than gory slasher violence perhaps spoke to audiences at the time in a way that seemed more appealing. In reflecting back on one’s own mortality, the grounded nature of this subgenre and the conclusions it often makes regarding life after death are particularly enticing.
When discussing the lasting legacy of J-horror, The J-Horror Virus posits that this type of moviemaking has spread far and wide. Modern American films like It Follows take inspiration from movies of this ilk; between big franchise continuations and newer originals, in Japan, the subgenre is as big as ever. Any filmmaker can bring J-horror sensibilities into their moviemaking. A major takeaway is that, like the virus of a cursed videotape, J-horror will continue to spread far and wide.
The J-Horror Virus screened at 2023’s FrightFest.