NOTE: This article was originally published on Gamasutra on 02/24/2016.
Following the collapse of the Japanese economy in the early 1990s which began the Lost Decade, Japan experienced another development in its mass culture that would provide a suitable metaphor for the issues facing the modern individual, and set the stage for a movie trend in its postwar rollercoaster narrative that would captivate international audiences: an explosion of horror films.
The Japanese horror (J-horror) film genre represented a stark departure from the slasher and splatter movies that defined the Western horror genre. Rather than relying on high-impact violence and graphic/gory imagery to shock viewers, J-horror focused on psychological tension-building to unsettle audiences, using the icon of Japan’s bubble economy – the teenage girl – to explore disturbing topics deeply rooted in the country’s folk religion and history.
The origins of the themes and tone of J-horror can be traced back to the Heian period (794-1185), when Japan’s oldest historical books such as theKojiki (Records of Ancient Matter), and the Nihon Shoki (The Chronicles of Japan) were compiled. These collections of records and myths described the birth of the Japanese archipelago (Kuniumi) and of the first gods(Kamiumi) through the creation myth (Tenchikaibyaku). Along with complementary works like the Konjaku Monogatarishū (Anthology of Tales from the Past), they laid the literary groundwork for Shinto and Japanese mythology/folklore. This involved several mystical entities such asbodhisattva and kami (venerated gods), yokai (strange apparitions), animals with supernatural powers like the kitsune (fox), the tanuki (a mixture of raccoon and dog) and the bakeneko (transformable cats), and the yurei (ghost).
The conception of these beliefs can be attributed to the combining of Chinese ideas of demons, Indian notions of the transmigration of souls, and the native Shinto belief in nature and animal spirits, yielding a rich assortment of creatures, all of them odd, bizarre, and contrary to human notions of what is normal.
Of all the mythical creatures comprising Japanese mythology/folklore, it is the yurei that epitomizes the popular conception of a foreboding creature. This vengeful spirit originates from a person’s reikon (soul) which, according to Japanese belief, is left in purgatory following death, waiting for the proper funeral rites to be performed so that it can join its ancestors. But if a person dies in a sudden or violent way, the reikontransforms into a yurei. The tragic fate and haunting demeanor of these spirits serve as the backbone for kaidan (ghost stories), which came into prominence during the Edo period (1603-1868), possibly for political reasons.
The regime at that time, the Tokugawa shogunate, was highly authoritarian. Women bore a lower status than men, and possessed fewer economic and political rights under Tokugawa law. This treatment of female constituents as social exiles can be attributed to the Japanese idea of groupism, i.e. how one should remain connected with their social and familial kin and conform to a specific cultural pattern. Women who did not adhere to these mores would endure hardships and severe abuse, and could be brutally murdered for their transgressions. Sometimes, these women would die without descendants or their kin knowing of their death, turning them into muenbotoke (unrelated spirits) and breaking the connection between them and the rest of society which, in turn, dooms them to an existence of loneliness.
The kaidan represented an extreme reaction to the repressed position of women in Tokugawa society, empowering them by portraying them as vengeful spirits after they have died, with the entire world of selfish, unfaithful husbands and lovers having to take cover when one of these women comes back from the other world to seek revenge on those who have wronged her. They were also inspired by the Japanese beliefs in the body and spirit comprising two separate entities, and of coexistence between the kono-yo (world of the living) and the ano-yo (world of the dead). The former belief describes the erection of two separate graves: one for the impure body and another for the soul. At the time of death, the soul of a person can become either an angered or a peaceful spirit, according to the psychological status of the person at the moment of death, with emotions such as jealousy, love or hatred engendering a very dangerous spirit. The latter belief deals with the materiality of spirits and how they can bridge the gap between the kono-yo and the ano-yo, taking on a physical form as they do so. This evokes the Japanese idea of contradictions being necessary and accepted aspects of a complete and holistic existence whose boundary between the physical and supernatural realms is penetrable, allowing both mortals and ghosts to cross between the worlds with ease. Spirits are not simply seen as enemies, but also as supernatural beings who can reside in the human world.
These beliefs form one of the major components of Japanese horror: atmospheric dread. In J-horror, the environment constitutes a critical aspect of the syntax of despair, emptiness, and isolation through which suspense is built, with horror emanating from empty and forgotten places – the ano-yo and the kono-yo. The setting of J-horror reflects that syntax through the use of drab, cool colors (e.g. green, blue) and ambient silence, creating a corrupt, dirty and eerily quiet environment that reinforces the sense of loneliness and trepidation.
1998’s Ringu (Ring) is largely responsible for popularizing the J-horror genre. It embodies many of the characteristics that defined the kaidan (ghost tale) in pre-modern Japan, including the repercussions of violently killing those who do not fit in with the conventional mores of Japanese society. The central character, Sadako, represents the vengeful woman whose ‘otherness’ and supernatural traits caused her father to throw her into a well in order to hide her difference from society. The well can be seen as a symbol of the gap connecting the ano-yo to the kono-yo. In her unsuccessful attempt to climb out of the well, the ostracized girl tried to cross this gap before dying a slow, tragic and lonely death.
Sadako fits the description of both the yurei and the muenbotoke: not only is she banished from society by her own relatives as a result of her differences, she is also denied the posthumous rites that would have spared her from the loneliness that she must endure following her separation from human bonds. Her traumatic murder intensifies her rage and thirst for revenge on the kono-yo, which she hopes to quench by implanting her spirit into a cursed videotape which kills anyone who watches it.
Despite Sadako’s vengeful role, Ringu does not portray her as a mere antagonist. Drawing from the Buddhist idea of dualism, she is presented as one of two linked forces that result in a balanced whole, with one keeping the other in check, reflecting a ‘Both/And’ mindset. Sadako is not purely an undead monster. She is a wronged revenant with unfinished business in the physical realm.
J-horror’s embracing of the equivocal makes it a uniquely tense experience. This tension is often lost in translation when the West attempts to replicate similar experiences like The Ring (2002, based on Ringu) and The Grudge (2004, based on Ju-On). These films rationalized the ambiguity of their sources, thereby reflecting Western/Judeo-Christian notions of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ that are intertwined with notions of God in opposition with Satan or the Devil. The ghosts in The Ring and The Grudge are unquestionably evil entities that need to be exterminated by the living. This establishes a tone different from the one J-horror tries to convey: that one cannot fully understand the universe, and that control cannot be gained by ‘explaining’ the supernatural.
This difference between J-horror films and their Western remakes extends beyond cultural differences. It also deals with the idea of ‘experience design’, i.e. trying to capture the core of an experience rather than focusing on ancillary details that are deemed ‘attractive’ (such as the West’s preoccupation with blood and gore). Video game designer Jesse Schell suggests focusing on the essential elements that really define the experience one wants to create, and find ways to make them part of the design. Western designers are well advised to take Schell’s ‘Lens of Essential Experience’ into consideration when attempting to convey an Eastern perspective on the supernatural.
Monolith Productions’ 2005 FPS F.E.A.R.: First Encounter Assault Recon is an example of a Western work that solidly captures the essence of Japanese horror. Originally designed as a futuristic shooter that took inspiration from Metal Gear, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, and Appleseed,F.E.A.R. puts players in the role of the Pointman, an operative of the titular organization who possesses superhuman reflexes. He is charged with containing a paranormal threat in the form of Paxton Fettel, a psychic commander who has the ability to control an entire battalion of cloned soldiers known as Replicas through telepathy. But a series of unexplained events unfolding around the player suggests that there is more behind the scenes than a telepathic rogue.
A goal of the F.E.A.R. production team was to disturb players’ imaginations, instilling the psychology of the paranormal encounter in the player in order to get under their skin. Craig Hubbard, F.E.A.R.’s lead designer and writer, describes the effect he hoped to achieve as a subtle and cerebral type of horror emphasizing suspense and the shadows. This is a stark contrast to typical Western horror games like Doom 3 which spoonfeed horror to the player. In F.E.A.R., it’s not so much about what lies ahead as it is about what should lie ahead but doesn’t. This adds an element of unpredictability, toying with expectations to produce the aura of ambiguous terror characteristic of J-horror.
F.E.A.R.’s approach to horror also influenced the game’s sound design. To heighten the feeling of uncertainty and tension, audio engineers Nathan Grigg and James Ackley adopted a minimalist and unorthodox approach to ambient sound effects and how they were triggered. They used cheap equipment to record sounds that aren’t scary on their own, but become so in the eerie context of the game. In addition, they structured music around individual scenes as to ratchet up the tension and keep players from recognizing the formula and not being scared anymore. This approach fosters an oppressive atmosphere that can crescendo at any moment, made all the more potent by being framed, far more often than not, by ma.
Ma (substantial silence) is an important tool of J-horror employed by F.E.A.R. to instill dread. In the game’s most isolated environments, such as the water treatment facility, the player’s footsteps are the only sounds that can be heard. Trudging through the dank locale, pockets of noise (knocked soda cans, scurrying rats) begin to break the silence, building the tension. Foreign radio chatter suddenly alerts the player to incoming danger.
Fearsome visuals also play a key role in F.E.A.R. Much of the game’s paranormal chaos appears in the form of a ghostly little girl. Alma Wade, whose given name means ‘soul’ in Spanish and Portuguese and is derived from Alma Mobley in Peter Straub’s novel Ghost Story, haunts the player at various points throughout their adventure. Aside from her red dress (yureiusually wear white dresses, which signify ritual purity in Shinto), Alma closely resembles J-horror entities like Yoko from Seance, and Mitsuko Kawai from Dark Water. According to Hubbard, Alma is thematically inspired by Sadako from Ring (the novel from which Ringu was adapted), who was raped by a smallpox-infected doctor and then murdered, becoming a viral ghost who spreads disease to her victims. Hubbard admits that creepy little girls have been freaking him out since The Shining, and that Alma was born out of a tradition of eerie, faceless female ghosts and not as an answer to any specific movie character.
For F.E.A.R., Hubbard adapted the disease concept from Ring into the plot twist of Alma being a literal and figurative toxic secret buried underground, seeping out and poisoning the game environment. This idea of a tragic secret that refuses to stay buried was inspired by two of Hubbard’s real-life experiences. The first was the Waste Isolation Pilot Plan (WIPP), a nuclear storage facility near his childhood home in Southern New Mexico, which haunted Hubbard’s imagination due to concerns about radioactive material leaking from the site and polluting the groundwater. The second was the smog monster Hedorah, from the 1971 film Godzilla vs. Hedorah, which impressed the young Hubbard with its ability to spread pollution and reduce the landscape to an uninhabitable wasteland. In a similar way, Alma’s corrosive rage intensifies the effects of the chemicals that leak out of the underground facility in F.E.A.R., leading to the abandonment of the district which the player visits in the game.
Alma’s backstory and psychic powers are also inspired by J-horror ghosts and yurei. As a child, Alma was gifted with psychic powers, but suffered from nightmares that were made worse by the negative emotions of the people around her. Because of her powers, Alma began to be experimented on by the Armacham Technology Corporation (ATC), the game’s antagonist, which tried to unlock her abilities through painful electroshock therapy and isolation, an analogy to the ostracizing of Japanese women who did not conform to social mores. Her forced ‘recruitment’ into parapsychological experiments is reminiscent of the suffering that the titular character in the classic anime feature Akira (1986) had to endure. Hubbard confirms that Akira was a huge influence on Alma Wade.
Throughout the game, Alma makes use of her psychic abilities to trigger supernatural phenomena. Some of her powers, such as the ability to project horrifying visions into a person’s mind and transport people to an alternate dimension called the Almaverse are reminiscent of the nensha (projected thermography) that Sadako used in Ringu to burn disturbing images into a videotape. Telepathic scenes of bloody hallways and blank spaces engulfed in flames blur the line between the real and the imaginary, highlighting the dualistic philosophy underlying F.E.A.R.
Throughout the game, Alma is an omnipresent menace. Sometimes the player dies if they get too close. In other encounters, she vanishes in a blink of an eye, or turns to ash if the player makes physical contact, leaving uncertainty as to whether or not she constitutes a real threat. Is Alma physically real, or does she simply exist as a frightening but harmless apparition in the minds of those who see her? The game doesn’t give a clear answer, but encourages the player to piece out Alma’s true and mysterious nature by exploring claustrophobic levels and collecting information from phone messages and computer terminals. But even without visual evidence of Alma’s presence, indistinct whispers and a soft giggle give players the sensation that they are being stalked, made all the more terrifying when juxtaposed with the eerie silence that pervades the game’s atmosphere.
F.E.A.R.’s less-is-more approach to tension captures the essence of Japanese horror, allowing Alma to linger, permeate and haunt players, essentially ‘baking’ her into their minds. This, along with the player’s inability to kill Alma, ensures constant anxiety throughout the adventure. There’s no need to startle players with cheap effects. They’re already terrified.
F.E.A.R. embodies the mystery and sense of psychological vulnerability of J-horror classics like Kairo and Dark Water. Using suggestion rather than literal representation, the game creates a mental conflict between what participants thought they experienced and what actually unfolded. F.E.A.R. succeeds in conveying its namesake emotion through its understanding and borrowing of the thematic elements that have made Japanese horror an international sensation.