Book: J-Horror: The Definitive Guide to The Ring, The Grudge and Beyond


J-Horror: The Definitive Guide to The Ring, The Grudge and Beyond

English Book Title

J-Horror: The Definitive Guide to The Ring, The Grudge and Beyond


David Kalat


Vertical, Inc.





By: Nicholas Driscoll

Recently I went on a short trip to Hong Kong, and while there (and on the plane ride both ways) I finished reading David Kalat’s J-Horror: The Definitive Guide to The Ring, The Grudge and Beyond, a truly fascinating book which, despite its title, covers a lot more than just Japanese horror films. Yes, it also covers horror films from other countries—including Hong Kong. Thankfully, though, Kalat writes with a lot of humor along with his insight and usual clarity, so despite the fact I was staying alone while abroad, I never really freaked myself out TOO much.

Faithful readers of Toho Kingdom will know that David Kalat ALSO wrote two editions of one of the most highly regarded English-language tomes on the Godzilla films (I did a review of the second edition, actually). I was looking forward to reading J-Horror, but as I’ve been really quite lax in my reading recently (at least of books), it took me quite some time to finish. And I can say that the book is actually very satisfying—but with some obnoxious caveats.

Okay, so first of all, what does Kalat mean by the term “J-Horror” if his book is not only about Japanese films and also includes such things as Korean and Hong Kong films? Well, Kalat is not here writing about every sort of Japanese horror film, but rather a specific style which became popularized by The Ring (1998) and Ju-On: The Grudge (2003). That is to say, movies with a focus on psychological scares, slow build up, usually modern backdrops, and very frequently dead wet ladies with long black hair and a bad attitude. That particular set of distinctive horror tropes (along with a few other details—read the book for yourself) makes up the “J-horror” ethos, which bleeds over into films from other countries as well. Thus Kalat is not here interested in stuff like Audition (1999) or Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989)—in fact, Kalat basically says straight up that he isn’t interested in the gore fests, and compares J-horror films more to the gothic horror of old. Still, Kalat only covers these gothic Asian horrors made in Japan, Hong Kong, Korea and the USA (the remakes)—in other words, even though Kalat covers an impressive swath of films, he isn’t quite as ambitious scope-wise as Andy Richards in Asian Horror… and Kalat has almost twice as many pages.

That means Kalat can cover things in considerably more detail. Thus, Kalat has chapters focusing primarily on a specific director, such as The Ring’s Hideo Nakata, or a chapter on horror manga legend Junji Ito and the many films based on his works, or a chapter on Kiyoshi Kurosawa and his films, such as Pulse (2001). What’s great is we don’t just get a list of movies with basic background details and a few short reviews—instead, Kalat takes the time to delve into the histories and personalities of the directors and their inspirations and more. He frequently includes side boxes with extra information as well, such as the true story which partially inspired The Ring. And so often, so much of what Kalat digs up is just darn fascinating.

For example, apparently the primary audience for J-horror is… young women. Not men. Men tend to go more for the splatter stuff. And those young women are apparently most readily prompted into seats by a scary trailer, and not so much by big names. The marketing, then, actually targeted that market.

Also, I didn’t realize that, while Hollywood tends (these days) to be more of a producer-led enterprise, Hong Kong usually has directors choosing projects—and apparently crowd-funding is a big part of many Hong Kong film projects (at least back then).

And did you know that there is a folk belief in Korea that if a woman dies childless, she is more likely to come back as a ghost? And apparently, in order to pacify these women, they would sometimes bury them along a road so that… well, so that the dead woman’s ghost might get a glimpse of a man’s member as he took a leak on the side of the road, and thus be pacified? (I think were I a Korean ghost, I’d be mad at this very idea…)

There are many, many interesting facts like these throughout Kalat’s text, which makes the reading thereof a real joy. Kalat’s good-humored, often rather informal writing style welcomes readers in as well. He also tries his best not to give away spoilers for any of the films—even the popular ones—so you can read recklessly ahead with nary a qualm that you are ruining your film-going experience later on.

If only the whole book could live up to that quality. As much as I enjoyed the book, Kalat’s prose is just pock-marked with grammatical and spelling errors and idiosyncrasies. I suspect Vertical’s editorial team is to blame—if you look on the back of the book, the publisher is listed as the “publilsher,” which inspires little confidence. Still, the errors annoy, and are especially bad around Japanese names and terms.

Further, you can’t really expect any original research here. While the same could be said of Richards’ Asian Horror book, Kalat goes into more detail, so it would seem at least working from original translations would have helped. Instead, the lion’s share of Kalat’s research seems to have come from freely available websites, plus the commentaries and special features of the movies themselves. Kalat puts together his information well, but there is still a sense that you are getting mostly a condensed version of free material here sometimes.

Also, inevitably, a book like this becomes outdated quickly. 2007 was a long time ago now. A lot more J-horror films have been released since then. An updated version of the book would be appreciated.

Still, frankly, I don’t want to judge this useful tome too harshly. I really enjoyed reading the book, and I learned a lot. I love Kalat’s tone, his obvious love of movies, and his appreciation of even the lousier or lamer films sometimes. For folks wanting to learn about Asian horror films, and who want a somewhat deeper dive rather than just a quick overview like Asian Horror provides, Kalat is where it’s at.