By WILLIAM J. WRIGHT
Director Takashi Shimizu took the horror genre by storm with the release of 2002’s Ju-On: The Grudge, further cementing the worldwide fascination with Japanese horror that began with Hideo Nakata’s Ringu in 1998. A ghostly tale of guilt and revenge, Ju-On resonated with horror fans throughout the Far East and beyond As Hollywood scrambled to remake seemingly every horror property coming out of Asia with varying results, Shimizu was afforded the rare opportunity to reimagine his worldwide hit for a Western audience thanks to Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert, the legendary team behind Evil Dead. The Grudge, starring Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s Sarah Michelle Gellar, was released in 2004 to tremendous box office success. Shimizu would return for one more entry in the rebooted series before returning his focus to film in his home country.
In 2019, Shimizu released his most original and terrifying film since the original Ju-On. HOWLING VILLAGE, the first installment of the 49-year-old director’s Village Trilogy, followed by 2021’s Suicide Forest Village, is a creepy blend of Japanese folklore and urban legends that combines the complexity of familial relationships with the supernatural. Ahead of HOWLING VILLAGE’s long-awaited North American Blu-ray release, Takashi Shimizu took some time out from directing the upcoming final film in the trilogy to talk to Rue Morgue about the movie that launched the series and the ongoing impact of Asian horror.
For those of us unfamiliar with Japanese folklore and urban legends, can you tell us a bit about the story of Inunaki Village on which HOWLING VILLAGE is based?
In the south of Japan, the stage is set in the old Inunaki tunnel that actually exists in Inunaki Yama [Mountain], Fukuoka Prefecture, which is located in Kyushu, and it is the beginning of the matter.
Here, in December 1988, a cruel and tragic incident occurred in which a 20-year-old man was assaulted and burned to death by 19-year-old boys and abandoned in a tunnel. There are various stories as to the origin of the name of Inunaki Mountain, but one includes a dog that the hunter was carrying in Inunaki Mountain that barked violently, so he was shot dead, but the dog was actually crying to protect the hunter from a snake that was approaching overhead. The hunter regretted this, abandoned his gun, became a priest, and built a memorial to the dog there.
Due to the above circumstances, young people come to test their courage, and it is a place that has come to be called a famous psychic spot so that anyone in the local area knows it. Even after that, the young people were constantly visiting, and as the Internet era began, more stories and tail fins were attached – various ghost stories and urban legends were born, “There is a phantom village that has been erased from history beyond the tunnel. If you take a step forward, you will be attacked by the villagers and you will never be able to return.” The scary legend of Inunaki Village was born. What scared me more than anything else [was] when I first visited this old Inunaki tunnel to research the movie and write the script, I hired a local driver who lived in the area, and this driver was the criminal boys’ classmate at the time of the incident in 1988, which was such a coincidence. When I asked about his age and things at that time, it was definitely perfect. He told me in detail about what happened at the time of the incident, scary rumors up to the present, and called a familiar person who had a ghost experience to let me talk to him.
What drew you to this particular legend and why did you think it would make good subject matter for a horror film?
At first, producer Mr. Kii said, “Do you know Howling Village? With that rumor, can you make a movie?” And I answered, “I’ll think about it.” It was the starting point.
Most of the rumors on the Internet are uncertain, and I was able to take the form of a fake documentary that asks the truth as a reality, but there are also directors who demonstrate better skills than myself with that method. There are also some that have already posted videos like assault reports on YouTube, so in order for me to work as a director, I tailored it with an original story based on existing places and rumors. I thought that it should be a play, so I thoroughly investigated the rumors of suspicious villages scattered all over Japan in addition to the Inunaki tunnel and Inunaki village, and the history of the isolated villages that actually existed once.
What are the challenges of working from such a well-known story? How did you develop the script?
If you look into the historical villages you’ll see there are so many small villages and villages that can’t be listed here. Some of them are miserable. Unreasonable treatment and discriminatory conventions for the people at that time who were abandoned from the country and the surroundings. At that time, the poem written before the script was later in the play. It led to the nursery rhyme “Futashicharo.” This song contains a meaning unique in Japanese, so I think it’s difficult to understand with English subtitles.
It’s famous as an urban legend, but since all of them are rumors and creative writings, they are superficial and are just episodes such as “where and how I was scared like this” or “I came across such a suspicious event.” The times are different, and I can’t see the detailed background. Therefore, in order to make a horror movie that includes a sense of entertainment, the audience who watch it, and the younger generation now feels, “Isn’t it happening to my own?” I needed a bold approach. Therefore, I introduced the story of a bloodline affected over several generations of parents and children.
As I mentioned earlier, the first plot I wrote investigated all about real-life villages, was all about past events, and how should I connect them to the modern generation? I was worried. When I wrote down the events that transcended the generations I wanted to talk about, I couldn’t talk about them all in one movie, and I ended up with a family tree that was too difficult for the audience to understand while watching. One screenwriter who I worked with before, Mr. Daisuke Hosaka, I asked for help. I asked him to read the background history, bloodline stories and family trees I had written so far, and to go to Inunaki tunnel with him.
When we actually went to see the place and interviewed the people around us, we realized that for the people of Fukuoka Prefecture, where the tunnel is located, it is a “horrible place” that is still handed down and is not a horror of the past.
What to do if you are based on modern youth and families? I spent weeks talking with Mr. Hosaka. He quickly cut and rewrote the parts that seemed unnecessary, and that became the prototype, and finally the relationship diagram, characters, and story that were close to the current shape were completed.
How do you hope audiences outside of Japan will react to the film?
Even in Japan, people living in Fukuoka Prefecture near the tunnel and people living in other places such as Tokyo have different levels of reality that they feel close to, so for foreigners, it may be perceived as a story of people and bloodlines which are not related to them. But as depicted in this work, the villages are hidden from history while being persecuted by the country and others, and the people who lived there.
Historical facts and dramas of sadness and grudge must be found in every country in the world. If the negative emotions of those who once lived and those who died were inherited by our DNA living now, and lived happily without knowing their bloodlines and roots? In that way, after watching the movie, I hope that you will feel the fear of bloodlines that no one in the world can escape. Your family and blood must also contain the unimaginable sins and invaded spirituality of ancestors.
The film has some very unsettling sequences (an apparent suicide from a cell phone tower early in the film and scene involving a phone booth are especially disturbing). What were some of the challenges you faced shooting HOWLING VILLAGE’s more horrific scenes?
It was the same in Japan and the United States, but even though the producer said, “A horror scene once every few minutes,” I didn’t want to make a movie that was just a horror push. I wanted an emotional line that would be different. However, I thought that it was important to express horror in rapid succession like The Grudge, which I made enthusiastically when I was young, saying, “It’s okay to have a horror movie that just pushes fear!” I was careful about it.
Jumping from the radio tower is an idea that I proposed to the scriptwriter, Mr. Hosaka. It is a delusion that I wanted to make it look like there was nothing tall around me, and suddenly the person I was calling would fall in front of me in an impossible place. In the screen, you can only see it from just above the frame, but at the time of shooting, I actually dropped the actress who played the role of Akina (Rinka Ôtani), who was hung upside down by a wire connected to a crane, from a dozen meters above. How can you create a realistic shock while ensuring safety? I think that the atmosphere and the reaction in front of me can’t be produced by synthesis or CGI. By the way, she will appear in all of the Village Trilogy that started with this work, so please look forward to it!
The payphone scene was certainly tough. In the mid-winter canyon bridge, in the freezing cold, we brought a custom-made aquarium the same size as the telephone booth to the site. The actors who actually played the role entered the aquarium-shaped box from the top – because water cannot leak, so they entered from above with a stepladder – and exited repeatedly. Because we used hot water, the burden on the actors was lighter than I expected, but the steam coming out of the top of the box had to be removed with CGI.
How has your approach to horror changed since your early work on such films as Ju-On, and how does HOWLING VILLAGE represent your evolution as a horror filmmaker?
I feel that the number of horror works that do not simply incite aggressive fear is increasing. There are dramas based on the negative emotions of human beings, fear of having a theme that tests family love and bonds, and cool horror with a more sensuous approach and artistic depiction – for example, works by Ari Aster and A Quiet Place. However, in Japan and other Asian countries, I feel that no novel evolution has been achieved since The Ring and The Grudge from 20 years ago. At that time, a horror boom occurred in Japan, and directors, creators, and companies who did not have a horror-like sense all started planning horror, and a phenomenon of crude random production occurred, and somehow similar crude imitation occurred. The number of mono-works increased, and it overflowed in the streets. In the end, we lost the chance to disseminate a horror culture that makes the most of our own culture and sensibility to the world, without discovering and nurturing new talent.
The Japanese government has also turned its attention to the evolution of anime works, and the number of Japanese anime works that can hit the world with excitement is increasing, but in horror, it has converged with a transient boom. It’s sad.
The number of horror works that depict horror using the Internet and SNS is increasing, but I feel that I have not come across such a powerful one that will make a decisive hit. Voices of concern about the current state of horror have been raised not only by me but also by producers and actresses who love horror. Just the other day, in Japan, Kadokawa, who produced the movie Ring, will take the lead in holding a video contest called the “Japan Horror Award.” The purpose is to recruit independent horror video works, by both professional and amateur [filmmakers], and to discover new horror talents who can take on the role of the present. I am participating as the chairman of the juries.
After watching the film, it seems that there are many more stories that could be told specifically about HOWLING VILLAGE. Do you have any plans for a direct sequel outside of the trilogy or to otherwise revisit the movie’s setting?
At one point, there was a producer who wanted to plan [another film], but it was not a sequel connected to the same line. But the second film, Suicide Forest Village, depicts the story of another village. The story of the horror that attacks sisters is unfolding in a different form from HOWLING VILLAGE, so if you like it, please take a look. Also, in fact, we’ve just finished shooting the third one the other day. The English title has not been decided yet, but there are some common characters that appear in all of the trilogy, and we are preparing a fun and unique story, so please look forward to the trilogy!
How do you account for the ongoing popularity of Japanese horror in the West? What are your thoughts on the appropriation of Japanese-style horror by Western filmmakers?
Not limited to the United States, I see a number of foreign works that are reminiscent of the depictions I have expressed in Ju-On and The Grudge. Basically, I am happy and honored. But some of them feel like “I’m just imitating without any ingenuity,” so [those films] only make me laugh! You should put in some original ideas!
I remember being ambushed and called out by director James Wan at the entrance of a party venue when I was in LA ahead of the release of The Grudge in 2004. At that time, it must have been right before the release of Saw, but it was just after I had seen Saw and I was writing a recommendation comment for the release in Japan, so it was a coincidence and I was surprised. “I want to make a psychic horror like Director Shimizu!” he said. He was excited with a loud voice, but his success after that is well known. I see it every time a new work arrives, and I think that a wonderful horror talent has blossomed.
I can’t afford to lose. It’s an exaggeration, but as long as I can live, I want to continue making works enjoyed by many people.
As a fan of ’80s American horror franchises like A Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th, would you ever consider writing/directing a sequel or reboot featuring a horror icon like Freddy or Jason? How would you approach such a project?
Regarding the modeling of characteristic characters, Japanese culture is good at it in animation, but in horror, nothing stands out after Sadako from Ring and Toshio from Ju-On. It may be the same worldwide. I feel a little sad without the strong horror icons like Jason, Freddy, and Chucky that swept the ’80s and ’90s. The reason is at the time the horror genre was not as popular [in Japan] as it is now, and the distribution rights were cheap, and along with the rental video culture on VHS, young people simply enjoyed seeking excitement while being obedient and prejudiced by some adults. Socially, I feel that it is undeniable that the excitement of horror is due to discrimination and prejudice, so it is a complicated feeling.
The Grudge seems to have made a reboot work earlier, but I haven’t seen it. In the near future, I would like to recreate a further Ju-On in the same view of the world with my own hands, and I already have a plan.
What can you tell us about your upcoming projects?
There are several projects. I’m all about finishing the third part of the Village Trilogy, which I just finished shooting the other day. Netflix’s Homunculus, which has already been released, is not horror, but please take a look!
HOWLING VILLAGE, now in limited release at select theaters in North America, makes its VOD premiere on August 17 and comes to Blu-ray from Epic Pictures/Dread Presents on September 14th.