FrightFest 2023 - Interview with Sarah Appleton and Jasper Sharp directors of The J-Horror Virus

A chat about one of the strongest and strangest horror genres

James Whittington
August 25, 2023

One of the best things about FrightFest is that you can expand your horror cinema knowledge with the wide range of documentaries on show. One of the best ones this year is The J-Horror Virus from Sarah Appleton and Jasper Sharp. We chatted to them ahead of the world premiere.

NYX: Sarah, you were behind the acclaimed documentary The Found Footage Phenomenon, was it a difficult choice for your next project?

SA: Yeah actually it is difficult to decide not only what audiences might respond to, but also what is possible within our skillsets. When it came to deciding on The J-Horror Virus, Jasper had a lot of contacts in the Japanese industry from his many years as a film critic - notably with his work on Midnight Eye with Tom Mes - he had accumulated a rapport with many Japanese directors who don’t speak much English. This combined with my skills structuring, producing and editing documentaries seemed like an obvious choice because not many other documentarians or horror producers would have the same level of access to non-English speaking directors of this calibre. So in that sense it seemed almost a shame not to combine our skills for this doc.  

JS: Of course, there are a lot of parallels with the development of J-horror and the history of the found footage genre too...

NYX: How did you go about planning this documentary, how much pre-knowledge did you have and how long did it take to have a shooting schedule in place?

SA: Jasper had a lot of prior knowledge of the films’ histories and their production context in Japan, whereas I knew all the films from watching them as a child when they came out. I saw a lot of the films which weren’t released in the West because my dad, Denis Meikle, was writing his book The Ring Companion when I was a kid, so we watched everything. It took a while to organise the shoots because in Japan everything happens slower.. I am not sure why, I just remember Jasper always saying they take their time in Japan, you can’t rush them! So we ended up planning around two shoots a month from summer 2022 – when Japan was still not letting in international tourists – until January 2023 when they had finally opened their borders again after the pandemic.

JS: When Tom Mes and I set up Midnight Eye back in 1999, the first website in the english language to focus on exclusively on Japanese cinema, it was just a little prior to the J-horror boom really hitting audiences outside of Japan, so we were at an interesting vantage point to see this phenomenon go global. For example, I was living in Japan at the time The Ring remake played at Tokyo Film Festival, the Shimizu’s Ju-On: The Grudge came out literally a couple of months after, then it’s sequel, then the remake was shot in Tokyo little over a year later. We ended up covering a lot of these films on Midnight Eye, including ones that weren’t released outside of Japan, so had a really good idea of what position these films occupied in the wider landscape of Japanese film production.

There were many books and articles coming out in the West around this time that attempted to explore where these films and their unique themes and aesthetics had come from, and seemed to posit them belonging to some sort of end point of a tradition that began in the 1950s, notably with arthouse films like Kenji Mizoguchi’s  Ugetsu (1953) or Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan (1964). I’ve been researching and writing about Japanese films for about 25 years now, and it struck me this was a very limiting way of thinking, as there were versions of the old classic kabuki ghost stories like Ghost of Kwaidan being made almost as soon as cinema started in Japan, not to mention a tradition of 1930s ghost cat movies. And now of course the J-horror boom has effectively been over for over a decade, but there are still horror movies being made in Japan that take a very different tack. So I thought it important that we look at the J-horror wave as more a blip, a sub-genre of Japanese horror forged by a select group of filmmakers who all knew and worked together in various capacities, and the term should certainly not be used as synomous with Japanese horror.

The most important thing for us was to actually delve right into the heart of where and how it happened, by getting these filmmakers to tell their own stories, to talk about what sort of environment they came up with these films and what kind of social of cultural elements they were responding to. And I’d met and interviewed a number of them before and was familiar with their work, both in J-horror and other genres.

NYX: There’s a lot of history to cover in the running time but you pack so much in, did you have to cut much out of the final version?

JS: Yeah, quite a bit. As a writer, my tendency is to go deep and exhaustive. As an editor, Sarah’s job is to chip away at the footage and find the narrative. Books and documentaries are two very different things. You can’t cover everything or give equal attention to each and every film.

What might be surprising to viewers is how much we cover before eventually getting to Hideo Nakata’s international breakthrough with Ring. This is because all our interviewees were understandably focussed on the beginnings of the genre, how certain films in the video market led to them taking their ideas into television and later feature films. If there is less attention to the later films produced in the 2000s as part of the J-Horror Theatre series, it’s because they are the end of the cycle, there was less development there, and the filmmakers had less to say about them. I’m happy that’s the case, because we do get to cover in some depth a lot of early video titles that aren’t familiar outside of Japan and really get an idea of how things evolved from the point of view of the filmmakers, where they were getting their inspiration from etc.

NYX: Do you speak Japanese?

JS: My spoken Japanese is rusty, as I don’t spend a lot of time in the country these days, but reading and writing is ok. I’m used to corresponding in Japanese either programming for film festivals or liaising with people to organising shoots, or writing out questions in Japanese, and could help in the edit as I could follow what the interviewees were saying.

NYX: Kiyoshi Kurosawa, for me anyway, seems to be key into the forming of the sub-genre yet seems so modest, what was he like to chat to?

SA: Tom Mes conducted all of our interviews in Japan and he has known Kurosawa for many years. That’s the thing, it’s difficult to generalise, but it seems that Japanese filmmakers will be supportive if they trust you already and I fully believe we had access to Kurosawa because of Tom’s prior history with him. I’m not sure he would have sat for just anybody. We held a cast and crew screening in Tokyo in February 2023 in person but sadly Kurosawa didn’t make it, so I still have not met him in person. He seems lovely though and very thoughtful.

JS: Tom in particular covered the films of Kurosawa from the very beginnings of Midnight Eye and it’s been really interesting to see how his career has evolved. He has a totally different way of looking at cinema from most, and he’s very good at articulating his own approach and philosophy of filmmaking. I can never get tired of listening to Kurosawa talking about cinema.

NYX: Why do you think the original Ring and JuOn: The Grudge movies had such an impact on US and UK audiences?

JS: My own personal recollection at the time is that by the late 90s, American horror had sort of gone mainstream, with films like Scream reaching far wider audiences than they ever did in the previous decades, but these films weren’t doing anything new – they just added a tongue-in-cheek level of postmodern irony to things, but were still predicated on playing to audience expectations for short-sharp-shock jump scares. Ring was a lot more austere, slower-paced and measured, and played things totally straight. It didn’t patronise the audience, but the way shots were framed, in long-take long shots, and the way the narrative unfolded like a mystery film, it really encouraged viewers to work with it. It’s not a surprise, I think, that something like The Blair Witch Project (1998) came out of exactly this same context.

But Ring was totally refreshing. I loved those uncanny details that sort of linger in the background or on the edges of the frame, and the parts of the story that are never really spelt out. Even more so Cure, which is just an amazing film, if not strictly J-horror – I can’t imagine this ever getting remade as the style is so inextricably linked with the content.  Ju-On also had that marvellous fragmentary narrative too, where you really have to work with the film to get the most out of it.

NYX: In my opinion, I feel Hollywood remakes lack the atmosphere of the originals, would you agree?

SA: Personally I think the Hollywood remakes can be terrifying in their own way. Yes they do lack some of the ominous J-Horror vibes for sure, but they still stand out from other Hollywood horrors in their own space as well. I think people are actually generally quite harsh about the remakes but Gore Verbinski’s The Ring (2002) is terrifying and I have no doubt it is why so many other J-Horror films managed to make it across the pond as well.

JS: I think Gore Verbinski’s The Ring (2002) works well in its own right. Even if it lacks that certain enigmatic character of the original, I believe it did up the ante for Hollywood horror in that it opted for a more intelligent character driven mystery narrative. Walter Salles’ remake of Dark Water (2005) is another I’ve got a lot of time for, as I think it transferred that ominous atmospheric set-up of the original really well to an American setting. Others, like The Grudge remakes, I’ve less time for, as they seem to be taking everything that was special about the originals and just reprising the films’ best bits in an already familiar horror style. They didn’t really bring anything new to the table.

NYX: Do you think this sub-genre will come back into vogue?

JS: I think it had pretty much run its course by the time things petered out in the mid-2000s with the Taka Ichise J-Horror Theater productions like Premonition (2004) and Reincarnation (2005), and perhaps this documentary shows that the style and tropes of J-horror were already fully formed by the time it hit the West at the turn of the millenium. It’s best to let sleeping ghosts lie in that respect.

That said, I think it’s fair to say that J-horror certainly has had a massive influence on global horror filmmaking in terms of that more slow-paced and detached style. I think we can certainly see traces of it in films like It Follows (2014) and definitely in the recent Smile (2022), for sure.

NYX: I learned a lot from this documentary, did you uncover anything that was new to you?

JS: I knew about the importance of Norio Tsuruta’s Scary True Stories straight-to-video series from the early 1990s. The director in the West is primarily known for Ring 0 (2000), but really he is so critical to the early formation of the genre, it was really great to hear him talk in more detail about where he came from and his influences. And Kiyoshi Kurosawa too comes up with a few revelations that I didn’t know about beforehand.

NYX: Was there any people you just couldn’t get hold of to contribute?

SA: Yes, I think it is fairly clear that we didn’t get to interview Hideo Nakata, which would have been the dream. I mean, his addition I think would have made the line-up almost complete. But what can I say? We asked him, he said no, twice. That’s all you can do. I think some directors perhaps just want to move on and not be stuck answering the same questions about their most popular film and you can’t force them. I like to think Hiroshi Takahashi (writer of Ring) made up for the lack of Nakata. Personally I would have also had Gore Verbinski in there as well to explain more about the thoughts execs and producers were having around the time in Hollywood about these remakes, but alas.

NYX: Will you be nervous when it has its world premiere at FrightFest 2023?

JS: Not really. We are telling the story as it emerged during the making of the documentary, and as I mentioned, there were quite a few revelations for us. People might be surprised by the focus on the history prior to Ring, but my hope is it will lead to an interest in these films that people don’t know about.

NYX: What are you top 3 J-Horror [or inspired] movies?

SA: Pulse, The Ring (American), One Missed Call

JS: Cure and the originals of Ring and Dark Water. And I’ll put out a shout too for Uzumaki, even though its director Higuchinsky doesn’t think it is part of the J-horror wave.

NYX: So, what are you working on at the moment?

SA: I am working on a documentary with Phil Escott again about 00s horror. We have interviewed a lot of key directors already such as Rob Zombie, Chris Smith, Bill Malone, Jeffrey Reddick, Neil Marshall, Srdjan Spasojevic and hope to add some other key players very soon. Aiming for a 2024 release date.

JS: I’m currently working on the third edition of Behind the Pink Curtain, my history of the Japanese pink film, and am poised to begin a new book on mushrooms – not film related at all, sorry!

NYX: Sarah Appleton and Jasper Sharp, thank you very much.