J-Horror and Japanese Folklore: The Image of the Onryo [OWLS Blog Tour August 2020: Folklore]

This month’s OWLS topic was inspired by the name of Taylor Swift’s new album, Folklore. Yet rather than using her conceptual definition of what “folklore” means, we are going to use its original meaning: we are going to explore the traditions and cultures of a specific group and community within pop cultural texts.

Whether you’ve watched a Japanese horror movie (also known as J-Horror) or not, I’m pretty sure you know of or have heard of the characters of Sadako and Kayako from Ringu (The Ring) and Ju-On (The Grudge) respectively. In Japanese folklore, both Sadako and Kayako would be considered Onryo (think of the classic ghostly figure of a Japanese woman with long, black hair and a white dress, like the featured image of Sadako). In Japanese folklore, Onryo are vengeful spirits who were wronged in their lives (mostly by men) and come back to exact vengeance on those that wronged them or who unfortunately come into contact with them. As we’ll see later, both Sadako and Kayako were wronged in their respective lives and came back as Onryo and despite exacting revenge on the men that killed them, their curse lives on to haunt those that come into contact with them.

Ringu tells the story of a reporter, Reiko, who is investigating a series of mysterious deaths surrounding a mysterious video tape, one of the victims being her niece. The legend goes that whoever watches this cursed video tape dies in 7 days. After watching the cursed video tape, Reiko discovers that the curse is indeed real as she sees Sadako’s reflection on the TV and receives a phone call telling her that she only has 7 days to live. Intent on solving the mystery behind the curse in order to lift it, she asks her ex-husband, Ryuji, to help her with the investigation. They soon discover that Sadako was the daughter of a famous psychic and ESP researcher. After she was born, her mother committed suicide due to being called a “fraud” and her father’s reputation was ruined. Blaming Sadako for his bad luck, he throws her down a well and leaves her to die there. Reiko and Ryuji eventually find the well Sadako’s corpse is in and tries to appease it in the hopes of lifting the curse. The curse is seemingly lifted as Reiko doesn’t die after 7 days. However, Ryuji dies at the hands of Sadako after seeing her come out of his TV. It is then revealed that the reason why Reiko survived is because she made a copy of the cursed video tape for Ryuji during their investigation, thereby passing the curse onto him. This, then, creates an endless cycle of violence that allows Sadako’s curse to live on.

The infamous scene of Sadako coming out of the TV to kill Ryuji

Ju-On, on the other hand, is an interesting take on the classic “haunted house” genre of horror films. The film takes place through a series of episodes with different characters who are all linked to the curse in some way. The overarching plot of Ju-On is this: a woman, Kayako, and her son, Toshio, are murdered by her husband after he suspects her of cheating on him (which is not true). Wronged due to her untimely death, Kayako comes back as an onryo to take vengeance on her husband and kills him. However, her death puts a curse on her house and whoever sets foot inside the house, or even comes into contact with someone who is cursed, eventually dies at the hands of Kayako.

Kayako from Ju-On

As you can see, there are quite a few similarities between the two films and why both Sadako and Kayako can be considered onryo. Firstly, they both have long, black hair and wear white robes, second they were both killed by men and third they kill anyone that comes into contact with their curse. What I find interesting in both movies is the way the victims die. While there are times when the deaths in Ju-On are gruesome, for the most part, you never see how Sadako and Kayako’s victims actually die. It is mostly suggested that they died from fear rather than being brutally killed like in American horror movies. I find this interesting, though, because even though the deaths they inflict on others is a way for them to show the pain they experienced, they don’t brutally kill them the same way they were killed in their respective lives.

Sadako’s victims are often found with their mouths wide open from fear

In general, I find J-Horror interesting in the way it not only handles folklore and applies it to a modern context, but also how it addresses various taboo topics, mainly sex and violence. For example, Ju-On deals with domestic violence while Ringu deals with Japanese society’s anxiety when it comes to technological change (which is actually still prevalent today because many companies still use fax machines). While some of the meanings may be lost to Western audiences who watch these films, it still helps us to get a deeper understanding of Japanese culture and insight into some of the issues that still plague society. If you have the time (and strong stomach), I highly recommend that you watch these movies and if you would like any other J-Horror suggestions, please feel free to contact me!

If you enjoyed reading this post, be sure to check out Jack from Animated Observations’ post on the 27th as well as Takuto from Takuto’s Anime Cafe’s post from the 20th. For a full list of bloggers taking part in this month’s blog tour, please check out the OWLS Bloggers page.

5 thoughts on “J-Horror and Japanese Folklore: The Image of the Onryo [OWLS Blog Tour August 2020: Folklore]

Add yours

  1. Nice post. I would definitely say that Japan has been a front runner when it comes to modern technology horror. Even though Ju-on is about a haunted house, they still try to scare using modern technology like creepy sounds on the phone, security camera, fax machine etc. But J-horror seems to have a bit less of this nowadays. I guess it’s gotten less trendy.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I love horror in general, but there is a special place in my heart for J-Horror. In most of the western horror I’ve seen someone always survives through either luck or by “solving” the problem–whereas in J-horror once you get caught up in the horror there is rarely a way out.

    I liked the point you made at the end of your post where you talked about J-horror being a means to address social/cultural issues and I’d be really interested to read another post focusing more on that! All in all this was a fun read!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! I noticed too that once you get caught up in the horror, just when you thought you’ve escaped it, you realize there’s no stopping it. I think it’s got to do with the Shinto-Buddhist belief that the spirit world and the living world are connected to one another

      Liked by 1 person

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