electronic journal of contemporary japanese studies

Book Review 3 in 2010
First Published in ejcjs on 10 March 2010

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Fear on Film

Japanese Horror Cinema


Timothy Iles

Associate Professor
Department of Pacific and Asian Studies
University of Victoria

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Balmain, Colette (2008) Introduction to Japanese Horror Film, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, paperback, xi, 214 pages, ISBN 978-0-7486-2475-1

In the decade following the release of Nakata Hideo's immensely influential Ringu (The Ring, 1998), Japanese horror has held an ascendant position in world cinema. Ringu spawned countless international imitators, three sequels, a television series, and even a minor publishing industry in works devoted to the phenomenon of so-called 'J-horror' and its artistic, aesthetic, and social implications. It brought Japanese cinema in general to new audiences around the world, and demonstrated the potential for the popular success of Japanese films, beyond the art house or festival circuit—it also reminded international audiences that there is indeed a 'popular' Japanese film industry not centred around animation, and that Japan did not stop producing interesting and relevant works of cinematic art with the passings of Mizoguchi, Ozu, Kurosawa, and, more recently, Imamura. Ringu, however, in some respects gave international audiences the impression that it sprang fully-formed from Nakata's fevered brow (by way of Suzuki Kōji's original novel, of course), without precedent in Japanese film. Naturally, this impression is as false as it is naïve. It is also not especially difficult to correct. The process of its correction may take many forms, one of which is Colette Balmain's welcome Introduction to Japanese Horror Film, which uses historical contextualisation to present a useful overview of innovation and directions of development in J-horror.

Despite its title the book is ambitious in its scope. It moves briskly through nine chapters in two parts, with Introduction and Conclusion, covering the origins of the horror film and various sub-genres within its contemporary manifestations. These range from gothic ghost stories, beginning, Balmain points out, with Mizoguchi's Ugetsu monogatari (Ugetsu, 1953), to monster, or daikaijū, films such as Honda's Gojira (Godzilla, 1954), and more recent zombie, slasher, and 'techno-horror' films such as Miike Takashi's Chakushin ari (One Missed Call, 2003), itself inspired in many ways by Ahn Byeong-ki's Pon (Phone, 2002), which, in turn, was inspired by Ringu. Along the way, Balmain intelligently and insightfully discusses such issues as gender relations, family violence, consumerism, and dystopias of urban alienation. Balmain focusses on analytical close readings of the films she introduces, while placing them into solid critical and historical contexts. In this way, her text offers the reader entry into the study of Japan itself. This is a definite strength of this work, but at the same time it creates a number of problems. These do not derail the book, but they do warrant mention.

Fundamentally, the problems centre around the issue of sources. Balmain herself is not a scholar of Japan and so her realisation of the need for historical and cultural sensitivity for a full understanding of Japanese horror films is all the more admirable. However, because of this, she is reliant on material in English, either originally so or in translation. Some of the material from which she draws is extremely helpful, and furthers her analyses and interpretations immensely. Other material however stands in the way, especially material speaking about the Japanese language and its effects on self-conception or perception. The reader knowledgeable of Japan will pause in places. This is unfortunate, because Balmain's basic argument is sound.

One other issue with the book is the quality of its prose, which feels rushed, almost breathless, as Balmain moves quickly from example to example. The style is one which layers research upon research and citation upon citation—erudite, undeniably, but the reader looks for a moment's respite to absorb and assimilate the wealth of information. Balmain wants, naturally enough, to paint a comprehensive picture, but in so doing she betrays the goal she has given herself here, to introduce, rather to present thoroughly. In situating these films within as rich a context as possible, Balmain has given herself an enormous task, which she has tried to accomplish in a limited space. The book could easily be twice its length and still need more to reach its goals. Twice the length, in fact, would help Balmain fill in some of the gaps over which her argument skips in places, and would strengthen an already persuasive presentation. Given that this is, after all, an introduction, perhaps it is reasonable to allow Balmain the time to come to a second volume.

Some scholars may point out the inaccuracies in parts of Balmain's presentation. These are significant, but not beyond what could be repaired in a second edition (in all honesty, though, some of these should not have crept into the first). Errors and inaccuracies occur with a certain frequency in Balmain's first chapter, wherein she sets a historical stage for the Japanese film industry and the emergence of horror as a genre. These are unfortunate and spring, again, predominantly from Balmain's lack of academic training in the study of Japan itself. In places they detract from the presentation, but by no means negate it. Indeed, Balmain deserves credit for realising that horror (defined here very loosely as a fascination with the 'other world') has provided fertile material for Japanese entertainment for hundreds of years. What this study lacks in precision (in places) it certainly compensates for in energy. Balmain gives us a rapid overview of the development of Japanese theatre and its interconnections with early cinema techniques, stories, and producers that is useful for contextualising some of the conventions of early silent film, and their transformations with the coming of sound and increasing influence from developments in world (especially American) film. In later chapters, however, wherein Balmain focusses more specifically on her readings of the films she discusses, her work gains in strength and confidence. It is clear that Balmain has a great eye for cinematic narrative, and an awareness of the cultural depths which inform Japanese film.

Taken as a whole, Balmain's central premise is an intriguing one, her argument in general is sound, her research is adequate to support her task, and her analyses of the films she has chosen—as well as those choices themselves—are all quite persuasive. While this volume is too brief to be an exhaustive examination of horror in Japanese cinema, after all, it does not present itself as such. Rather, it aims to be an introduction to a rich and varied genre in one branch of world cinema, a branch that continues to bear strange and fascinating fruit. Balmain's study sets the stage for further enquiries into Japanese horror, and does so with an undeniable passion for its subject. Scholars and spectators of world cinema coming to Japanese horror will find much to whet their appetites here, and will take away a solid grounding in the roots of this particular genre, presented accessibly and sincerely throughout.

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About the Author

Timothy Iles is Associate Professor of Japanese Studies at the University of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, where he teaches Japanese culture, cinema, and language. He has an MA from the University of British Columbia in Modern Japanese Literature, and a PhD from the University of Toronto, also in Modern Japanese Literature. He has taught courses on Japanese literature, theatre, culture, and cinema in Canada and the United States, and has published articles on those subjects. He is also author of Abe Kobo: an Exploration of his Prose, Drama, and Theatre (Fuccecio: European Press Academic Publishers, 2000), and The Crisis of Identity in Contemporary Japanese Film (Brill, 2008).

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Copyright: Timothy Iles.
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