Look who’s be­hind you!

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - TELEVISION -

Hal­lowe’en just isn’t what it was. Plas­tic pitch­forks, su­per­mar­ket pump­kins, and small chil­dren at the door, stum­bling their way through bad jokes in hopes of get­ting a hand­out. Where did all the ter­ror go?

Put your­self, in­stead, by an old stone well, at night. All of a sud­den, a fig­ure slith­ers out. Long, mat­ted hair cov­ers her face, drip­ping muddy well-wa­ter on to her gown. You don’t know her, but she knows you – and what you’ve done. And with un­nat­u­ral pur­pose and speed, she’s com­ing for you.

Sadako Ya­ma­mura, the mur­der­ous ap­pari­tion at the heart of the 1998 film Ringu (or Ring), is cred­ited with launch­ing a hor­ror boom both in her na­tive Ja­pan and the West in the 2000s. It didn’t re­quire an in­flated body-count or bud­get-bust­ing spe­cial ef­fects. In­stead, Ring did some­thing very sim­ple: it took au­di­ences numbed by en­ter­tain­ment-over­load and taught us how to be truly, pro­foundly afraid again.

This su­per­nat­u­ral back-to-ba­sics drew on a cen­turies-long tra­di­tion in Ja­pan that leaves Western ghosts look­ing tame by com­par­i­son. The lat­ter seem sad, tremu­lous, trapped – rat­tling their chains, wait­ing for a help­ing hand into the af­ter­life. Or, like Dick­ens’s Christ­mas ghosts, they show us how to change our ways. There’s a safety net of sorts, wo­ven from Chris­tian cul­tural threads: hu­man be­ings mat­ter in the grand scheme of things; di­vine jus­tice may be ob­scure to us, but it’s ul­ti­mately benev­o­lent.

Not so in Ja­pan. The ghost in Ring does not need your help. She is not here to of­fer lifestyle ad­vice. And she is not be­holden to some higher power with a soft spot for hu­man­ity. Killed and thrown into a well, she has been pow­ered back into this world for re­venge.

Most Ja­panese ghosts, or yūrei (“faint spirit”), are fe­male: con­jured up by sto­ry­tellers who as­so­ci­ated women with emo­tional in­ten­sity, fear­fully long mem­o­ries, and the power to sum­mon spir­its. From the mid-500s, these sto­ries be­gan to be re­shaped as a means of com­mu­ni­cat­ing Bud­dhist ba­sics – you reap what you sow – to the mea­grely ed­u­cated.

As a con­se­quence, wraithly wrath in Ja­pan is no mere per­sonal ec­cen­tric­ity, of a sort where “calm down, dear” might con­ceiv­ably do the trick. It comes di­rect from the en­gine room of the uni­verse: cause and ef­fect, crime and pun­ish­ment. It is re­lent­less, non-ne­go­tiable.

Nowhere is this more thrillingly on dis­play than in the great­est ghost story in all of kabuki, Ja­pan’s clas­si­cal the­atre. First pro­duced in 1825, and in­spired by real-life mur­ders, Yot­suya Kaidan tells of a woman called Oiwa, who suf­fers ter­ri­ble wrongs, among them the gift of a poi­soned face cream. Her ghost is un­mis­tak­able: a dis­fig­ured face, one eye droop­ing down her cheek. Comb­ing her hair in front of the mir­ror – an erotic act in Ja­panese cul­ture – whole clumps at a time fall out. (A stage­hand would sur­rep­ti­tiously throw ex­tra hair on to the stage.) Two of the great mas­ters of Ja­panese wood­block art, Hoku­sai and Ku­niyoshi, de­picted Oiwa tor­ment­ing her hus­band, to the point where even his en­emy took pity, and put him to the sword.

Ja­panese ghosts are all about un­fin­ished busi­ness. But it isn’t al­ways bloody busi­ness. One folk story, with countless vari­a­tions, fea­tures a woman buy­ing sweets in a shop, silently plac­ing a dried-up leaf in the pay­ment jar. Con­fused, the shop­keeper de­cides to fol­low her, end­ing at a grave­yard where the woman dis­ap­pears over a patch of earth. Turn­ing to leave, he hears the sound of cry­ing un­der the soil.

He digs with his hands, and dis­cov­ers the body of the woman with her arms around a liv­ing baby. His cus­tomer was an ubume: the ghost of a woman who has died giv­ing birth, and who re­turns to look after her child.

Here is one of the most com­pelling things about Ja­panese ghosts. If they were all shrieky, blood-crazed killers, bore­dom would soon set in. In­stead, we find ten­der­ness too, along with sad­ness, and even com­edy. The next life

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