Japanese horror movies tend to have a distinct style -- a deliberate pace, with quiet terror, often featuring morality tales and tales of vengeance either based on traditional Japanese stories or rooted in general Japanese cultural mythology (particularly when it comes to ghosts). That said, there is a significant undercurrent of graphic exploitation in Japanese genre films as well, showcasing shocking violence and sexual depravity.
Early Japanese "horror" films could just as accurately be deemed "supernatural dramas." The quiet, haunting tone of movies like Ugetsu (1953) -- often considered the first Japanese horror movie -- and the influential, folk tale-inspired anthology Kwaidan (1964) foreshadowed the rebirth of Japanese ghost stories in the '90s. Tales of the spirit world like these ("kwaidan" literally translating to "ghost story") recur throughout the history of Japanese horror cinema. This high-minded, genteel fare also instilled traditional morals, punishing greed in Ugetsu and extolling a variety of virtues in Kwaidan -- including loyalty, faith and determination.
Onibaba (1964) is also a morality tale, warning against the extremes of jealousy and passion, but its frank sexuality -- including extensive nudity -- and portrayal of violence sets it apart from Ugetsu and Kwaidan as a more edgy work. It's widely considered today to be the high point of early Japanese horror.
During this time, Nobuo Nakagawa directed a series of horror films, including The Ghosts of Kasane Swamp (1957), The Mansion of the Ghost Cat (1958) and The Ghost of Yotsuya (1959), but his most highly regarded work is Jigoku (1960). Like Onibaba, Jigoku has a distinct edge -- a nasty streak as it were -- but even though it predated Onibaba by four years, Jigoku went far beyond anything seen in the later film. Jigoku, which translates as "Hell," tells the tale of a man whose life is spiraling down to Hell, both figuratively and literally. It culminates in a tour of the various circles of the underworld, featuring imagery as graphic and gory as that which would cause a stir in the US in films like Dawn of the Dead almost 20 years later.
On the flip side, during this time, Japan also produced more lighthearted monster movies that fell in line with American sci-fi and horror of the '50s. The mutated beasts in Godzilla (1954), Gamera (1965) and Attack of the Mushroom People (1963) reflected the post-war nuclear age, putting a campy spin on the country's deadly serious first-hand encounters with atomic energy during World War II.
By the late '60s, Japanese horror cinema, like that of the Western world, took on an edge that reflected the tumultuous world view of the time. Increasingly graphic displays of violence, sexuality, sadism and depravity in film became more commonplace.
Japan developed its own brand of exploitation film, based largely around sexual fetishes. "Pink films" were (and still are) essentially soft-core pornography, but depending on the style, horror elements could be thrown in. Films like Horrors of Malformed Men and Blind Beast (both 1969), for instance, melded eroticism with grotesque imagery (in Malformed's case, people with deformities; in Beast's case, violent sadomasochism) to form a so-called "ero guro" sub-genre.
A subtly different sub-genre that emerged during this time was "pinky violence." Pinky violence juxtaposed explicit sexual content with graphic violence, usually aimed at women. Many of the films took place in locations with a captive, all-female population -- prisons, schools, convents -- where physical and sexual abuse would occur. Female Prisoner 701: Scorpion (1972) was the first in a popular series that utilized the prison setting.
As the '80s dawned, boundaries were pushed even further. Another type of pink film became fashionable: "splatter eros." Combining the extreme gore of "splatter films," popularized in the US and Italy, with highly sexual content, splatter eros fare like Entrails of a Virgin (1986) tested the boundaries of taste with scenes of rape, mutilation, murder and misogyny.
Even without the erotic content, though, some Japanese horror of that era proved too extreme. The borderline snuff movie series Guinea Pig (1985), for instance, aimed to recreate scenes of torture and murder as realistically as possible and was subsequently banned. Similarly brutal was the revenge flick All Night Long (1992), which spawned several sequels. Evil Dead Trap (1988) also had splatter ties and also proved popular, leading to a pair of sequels.
That said, Japan has had its share of more restrained, American-styled horror, such as the slasher The Guard from Underground (1992) and the Evil Dead-ish horror-comedy Hiruko the Goblin (1991).
By the late '90s, the graphic approach to horror had died down somewhat in Japan and was replaced by a return to the ghost stories of the '50s. Films like Ring (1998), the Tomie series, Dark Water (2002), Ju-on: The Grudge (2003) and One Missed Call (2003) focused on creating atmosphere for scares rather than extreme violence and gore. The malevolent forces in these films were traditional Japanese spirits, or "yûrei": pale, stringy-haired female ghosts, often crawling or walking with awkward, stilted movements and sometimes emitting a guttural, croaking noise.
While this yûrei image was well-known in Japan, the US found it fresh and original. As such, American remakes The Ring and The Grudge struck box office gold in 2002 and 2004, respectively. American versions of Pulse, Dark Water and One Missed Call, not to mention sequels to The Ring and The Grudge soon hit the big screen, and although they might have flooded the market, it's evident that the Japanese were producing the most influential horror movies of the first part of the 21st century.