In 1998, the Japanese horror film titled Ringu by Hideo Nakata conquered not only Asian but also American and European movie markets. Moreover, it initiated a literal epidemic of similar movies which copied the stylistics of the original version. When Hollywood bought the rights for the remake, it officially witnessed the new status of Japanese as the trendsetters in the horror genre. However, the tradition of Japanese horror did not start with Nakata’s masterpiece. It was originated in the middle of the twentieth century while Nobuo Nakagawa remains one of the most outstanding artists in that field. The director created a formula of Japanese horror finding a perfect balance between ideas and techniques of Western cinema and traditional stories and authentic motives from his native Japanese culture.


Nobuo Nakagawa was born in 1905. Since childhood, he demonstrated an interest in the movies and literature. In 1924, he successfully graduated from the commercial school in Hyogo Prefecture and started working as a film critic for the magazine titled Kinema Junpo (Sharp 175). The primary topic of Nakagawa’s column was classic American horrors of the 30s. Since 1929, he worked as an assistant at Makino Film Productions studio whose director was Masahiro Makino, and in 1934, he shot his first movie titled Sword of God of War (Sharp 175). During the Second World War, Nakagawa visited Shanghai to shoot the propaganda films and optimistic comedies. After the war, he was hired by the studio Shintoho Film Distribution Committee that was engaged in shooting action genre movies (Sharp 176). Attracted by the possibility of experiments with the style he began to specialize in horror.

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To understand Nakagawa’s significance for the film industry in general and the horror genre in particular, one needs to consider the origin of horror in Japan. The first Japanese horror movies emerged in the mid-50s. The creators of the first horror films had two essential sources of inspiration. The first was American and European gothic films that flooded Japan after World War II spreading the Western cinema techniques among young directors. The second was Kaidan, a literary genre that focuses on the stories about ghosts and the supernatural. In Japanese Kaidan ghosts rarely behave aggressively trying to terrorize their victim by the mere fact of their presence (Badley, Palmer, and Schneider 219). At the same time, the personality of the victim is not something that evokes a viewer’s sympathy but it rather reveals a person who committed a crime and now pays for it. In this context, the ghost serves as a constant reminder of evil deeds that the antagonist has committed (Badley, Palmer, and Schneider 219). Such representation partly deprives Kaidan of mysticism because even the most illogical actions can be explained with inner moral tortures of characters. However, it also creates an ambiguity that used to attract young directors.
The Japanese tendency towards the vivid representation of violence also established a significant basis for the development of horror genre in this country. One of the key features of the portrayal of violence in the Japanese cinema is its realism. Local directors thoroughly planned every scene of murder or torment and paid attention to the smallest details as can be seen in torture films (Badley, Palmer, and Schneider 223). When watching such scenes, an unprepared viewer might even think that everything is happening in reality. However, one needs to understand that violence was introduced to the Japanese art long before the birth of the film industry in Japan and movies were the next essential step in the development of this phenomenon. Therefore, Japanese audience evaluated the works of local directors less critically than Western viewers did. Moreover, the portrayal of violence in the Japanese films of that period was not a manifestation of mental perversions of filmmakers but a unique way to show the social problems that existed in the society at that time, and also to show human nature and the need for retribution for past sins. Thus, a striking and sometimes excessive image of violence was not something shocking or unacceptable for Japanese viewers. Therefore, a tendency towards cruelty, huge flow of Western movies, and literary traditions formed a foundation for the invention of Japanese horror.


Needless to say, both Kaidan and Western ideas became the two essential elements in Nakagawa’s new formula of Japanese horror film. On the one hand, he was inspired by the possibility to saturate the screen with surreal imagery of irrational, while on the other, he possessed vast knowledge about the classical American thrillers of the 30s. Nakagawa’s first horror film Black Cat Mansion or Borei Kaibyo Yashiki, created in 1958, successfully implemented both concepts in his vision of this genre. This movie consists of two acts. The first one tells a story of Dr. Kuzumi and his wife Yoriko who suffers from tuberculosis. The couple decides to move to Kyushu city to overcome the illness. After settling in an old ancestral mansion, Yoriko almost immediately begins to see the ghost of a white-haired witch and Local Buddhist priest tells spouses a sad history of this house. The second act takes the viewer a few hundred years ago and unfolds the story of a cruel and vicious Lord. This act is extremely cruel and includes numerous images of violence, thus referring to the traditional Japanese representation of cruelty that has a long history in the Japanese culture.
However, the cruel and frightening narrative constitutes only one of two crucial parts forming Black Cat Mansion uniqueness. The other one is based on Nakagawa’s technical innovations and surprising ideas. Previous screen adaptations of the classic Kaidan were static, theatrical and lifeless. However, Nakagawa rejected these aesthetics by using active camera, dynamic installations, and suspense that can be seen in Hitchcock’s movies. Moreover, a vivid combination of horror and tragedy is derived from Nakagawa’s experiments with color. Film action takes place in two different periods of time – at present and in the eighteenth century. Nakagawa made the original decision to depict the present day scenes in the black and white palette and the past ones in color. Such decision did not suggest that the past should be embellished. On the contrary, the samurai’s descendants have to pay for the sins committed by their ignorant and aggressive ancestor in the ancient times. Thus, Nakagawa’s experiments with colors, slow motion, and lighting made a significant contribution to the formula of Japanese horror.


At the same time, Black Cat Mansion continues the overall course of Japanese westernization that started in the Meiji epoch, which was a period of rapid modernization of Japanese society after the centuries of isolation. The deliberate discredit of the past in the name of progress and industrialization has been common for Japanese intellectuals of that period. Japanese film critic Ramie Tateishi (295) observes: “The transformation of Japanese society on this multitude of levels was rooted in notions of progress and development, which rhetorically signified a break from ‘tradition’ and ‘the past.’” The process of alienation from the past became even more intense after the lost war that marked the beginning of the second phase of the active Westernization of Japan. After the World War II, Nakagawa, like most representatives of his generation, suffered from a psychological trauma of the military experience. Thus, frustration, anti-militarist and anti-authoritarian attitudes were manifested in all his works. Using the revenge motive, Black Cat Mansion metaphorically expressed the idea of the moral bankruptcy of the ancestors that led to insanity and death of their descendants. Thus, Nakagawa’s movie contains an anti-samurai and anti-militarist message.
In addition, the director demonstrated excellent knowledge of European and American film classics. For example, in Black Cat Mansion episodes with the ghost, sucking of the life out of the young heroine, or giant cat’s eyes, sparkling in the dark, are direct references to the classical Western horrors. Nakagawa went further and shot his next movie The Lady Vampire in the most Westernized districts of Tokyo with appropriate clothing of characters and interiors of their apartments. In fact, only Asian appearance of the actors indicated the original country of this movie while the atmosphere and artistic techniques could easily deceive the viewer. However, such statement does not mean that the director completely rejected his native traditions. In Nakagawa’s further work Ghost Story of Yotsuya, based on the classic Japanese play of the XIX century, as well as in his most famous film Jigoku or Hell, he referred to Japanese folklore and aesthetics of Kabuki theatre. In fact, many similarities between Western and Nakagawa’s horror movies were dictated not by the tendency for imitation, but by a certain kinship between the Japanese and European stories about ghosts and their perception of the new generations.


The new formula of Japanese horror gave a significant impetus to the development of this genre. Stories about ghosts – mostly women, abandoned by lovers or brutally murdered by rapists and avenging their death – have become the dominant sub-genre of the Japanese horror film in the following twenty years (Rucka). Moreover, the mystical elements gradually began to penetrate another popular genre – samurai cinema – in the form of characters’ supernatural abilities, sorcerers, and monsters. Such elements eventually made these movies look more like fantasy than historical evidence. At the same time, the development of Japanese horror that started after the Word War II continued in further decades. The constant evolution of the genre forced the directors to search for new interesting topics added with traditional elements. With the development of special effects, films became more shocking and attracted greater attention of the viewers. Eventually, the horror genre started to experience a serious crisis associated with the change of generations and an increasing number of television viewers (Rucka). Under these conditions, old-fashioned ghost stories and technical solutions proposed by Nakagawa lost their popularity and could no longer serve as an effective means of entertainment for the audience. Japanese producers and directors associated with the horror genre started to seek for new formulas of horror stories that would please the younger audience. For example, genre palette of Japanese cinema was later replaced with extremely cruel films characterized by a strange mixture of fantasy, action, and porn (Rucka).
While the majority of people associate Japanese horror films with the latest works of Asian directors, this genre originated after the World War II, when Nobuo Nakagawa invented the formula of a successful Japanese thriller. Combining the elements of Western filming techniques with traditional violent ghost stories, he managed to establish a completely new image of Japanese cinema. Nakagawa’s first horror film titled Black Cat Mansion contained all elements of this formula combining traditional Kaidan with surprising technical solutions. Moreover, his works were an essential part of the Westernization process that received a new impetus after the war and presupposed the rejection of many past traditions in the name of rapid industrialization. In addition, Nakagawa’s movies made a significant contribution to the development of Japanese horror industry and the recent success of Ringu by Hideo Nakata proves that the elements of Nakagawa’s formula are still effective.

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