The cinematic wave that swept the globe in 1896 also found its way to Japan, a country that, despite keeping its gates closed to the West and viewing Western societies as somewhat barbaric, embraced the cinematic art form. They became an integral part of the film movement, contributing to its spread like a cultural epidemic producing an array of captivating works.
What sets Japan apart is its unwavering commitment to its cultural roots. Despite drawing inspiration from the West since the arrival of the first Portuguese explorer, they’ve remained steadfast within their cultural boundaries. Their movies serve as a testament to their respect and dedication to preserving their rich heritage.
Regrettably, Japan suffered irreparable losses during the catastrophic nuclear bomb attacks of World War II, probably, resulting in the disappearance of many films. In my explorations of horror movies, particularly when delving into lost films, I discovered that Japan holds the unfortunate distinction of having the most lost movies after the USA. My research, conducted through Letterboxd and IMDB databases, revealed a total of 118 horror films between 1895 and 1930, with only two of them surviving to the present day—Momijigari and A Page of Madness—films that miraculously reappeared after a period of obscurity.
Examining these lost Japanese films, a striking realization emerged: almost all of them were deeply rooted in Japanese culture. While horror films of that era often drew from diverse cultures and projected the fears of foreign societies onto the silver screen, Japan stood out for its commitment to producing films firmly grounded in its cultural narrative, with only one exception among the 118.
Motivated by this, I embarked on an extensive journey, intending to explore the stories behind these lost films. What began as a modest inquiry unexpectedly unfolded into a comprehensive article, revealing a tapestry of legends as I scrutinized each movie individually.
It’s crucial to note that the 118 lost films from Japan that I’ve uncovered represent just the tip of the iceberg. The actual number is undoubtedly higher, a testament to the enduring mystery surrounding lost cinematic treasures. Despite some films appearing similar and causing moments of confusion, I meticulously categorized and separated them, striving for accuracy. Though some movies lack sufficient information, their names provide enough clues to assign them to specific categories.
Consequently, I present a detailed article delving into the Japanese culture woven into the fabric of the 116 lost films, offering insights into the stories these films may have once told. Aligning with the constraints set in my Lost Films article, I limited the exploration to 1930, as cinema entered a transformative era of horror, particularly with the advent of Universal Horror in 1931.
Before diving into the intriguing world of legends that inspired these lost films, let’s lay the foundation by understanding what Kabuki truly is. The majority of these lost movies draw their essence from Kabuki plays, some even being direct adaptations. While the folklore presented below boasts original stories, most films are intricately designed based on versions of these tales that once graced the Kabuki stage. An exemplary instance is “Momijigari,” the inaugural Japanese horror film to endure through time, also standing as an adaptation of a Kabuki play. Notably, the movie unfolds directly on the Kabuki stage, as seen in the provided link. Therefore, comprehending the origins of Kabuki is essential because, fundamentally, the legends explored here were shaped during the Edo period (1603-1867) and seamlessly interwoven with the people through the art of Kabuki, also born in that era.
Kabuki (歌舞伎, かぶき) emerges as a classical form of Japanese theatre, seamlessly blending dramatic performances with traditional dance. This art form is renowned for its highly stylized presentations, resplendent costumes, and the elaborate kumadori make-up adorning certain performers.
Thought to have originated in the early Edo period, Kabuki’s inception is credited to Izumo no Okuni, who founded a female dance troupe in Kyoto performing dances and light sketches. Over time, it transformed into an all-male theatrical form after the prohibition of women from Kabuki theatre in 1629. The evolution of Kabuki reached its pinnacle in the mid-18th century, having developed through the late 17th century.
By the early 18th century, Kabuki had solidified as a revered art form, capable of presenting serious, dramatic situations. As Japan’s commoners rose socially and economically, Kabuki, as the people’s theatre, offered a poignant commentary on contemporary society. Many historical events were brought to life on stage, such as “Chūshingura” (1748), a faithful dramatization of the 1701–03 incident where 47 rōnin avenged their lord’s forced suicide.
While Kabuki aims to entertain and showcase actors’ skills, it holds a didactic element, epitomized by the notion of kanzen-chōaku (“reward the virtuous and punish the wicked”). The plays often delve into conflicts involving religious concepts like the transitory nature of the world (Buddhism), the significance of duty (Confucianism), and broader moral sentiments. Over time, as the region’s fantastical stories were incorporated, Kabuki began embracing horror and tension, telling tales of fear and superstition, including the adventures of Yotsuya Kaidan, Kaibyo, and legendary samurais.
Kabuki’s highly lyrical plays are celebrated more as a showcase for actors to display their visual and vocal prowess than as literature. These actors, with minimal alterations, have passed down Kabuki traditions from one generation to the next. Many trace their ancestry and performing styles to the earliest Kabuki actors, appending a “generation number” to their names to denote their place in this long and illustrious lineage.
Now that we’ve immersed ourselves in the essence of Kabuki, let’s shift our focus to another crucial aspect—understanding the concept of ghosts in Japanese culture, particularly the realm of Yūrei stories.
Yūrei (幽霊) are entities in Japanese folklore akin to the Western notion of ghosts. The term comprises two kanji, 幽 (yū), signifying “faint” or “dim,” and 霊 (rei), connoting “soul” or “spirit.” They are alternately known as Bōrei (亡霊), denoting a ruined or departed spirit, Shiryō (死霊), representing a dead spirit, or more inclusively, Yōkai (妖怪) or Obake (お化け). Similar to their counterparts in Chinese, Korean, and Western cultures, Yūrei are perceived as spirits denied a peaceful afterlife.
According to traditional Japanese beliefs, every human possesses a spirit or soul called a reikon (霊魂). Upon death, the reikon departs the body and enters a form of purgatory, awaiting the appropriate funeral and post-funeral rites for a peaceful transition to join its ancestors. Executed correctly, the reikon is deemed a guardian spirit, returning yearly in August during the Obon Festival to receive gratitude.
However, if death occurs suddenly or violently, without proper rites or under the influence of intense emotions like revenge, love, jealousy, hatred, or sorrow, the reikon transforms into a yūrei. This yūrei can then traverse back to the physical world. The intensity of emotions holds particular significance in Japanese society, notably in samurai stories where the potency of emotions often leads to drastic choices, exemplified by the preference for harakiri over defeat.
Once manifested on Earth, the yūrei lingers until laid to rest through completing rituals or resolving the emotional conflicts binding it to the physical realm. If these rituals remain unfulfilled or the conflicts unresolved, the yūrei persists in its haunting. “Ju-on” (2000), an iconic film in Japanese cinema, draws inspiration from this Yurei framework, emphasizing the pivotal role of emotions.
Interestingly, the deceased’s social rank influences their yūrei’s potency. Those of lower social status who faced violence or mistreatment in life often return as more formidable entities. This dynamic is exemplified in the tales of Oiwa in “Yotsuya Kaidan” or the servant Okiku in “Banchō Sarayashiki.”
As the late 17th century unfolded, a game named Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai gained popularity, contributing to the increasing prominence of Kaidan in various artistic forms, including theater and literature. This cultural evolution further enriched the nuanced tapestry of Japanese ghost stories.
In the contemporary portrayal of yūrei, there’s a striking uniformity that immediately communicates the ghostly essence, ensuring cultural authenticity. Typically garbed in white, yūrei don the symbolic white burial kimono from Edo period funeral rituals. Their long, disheveled black hair, often seen as a legacy from kabuki theater practices where wigs are standard, adds to the eerie aesthetics. The lifeless, dangling hands from outstretched wrists, held close to the body, create an unmistakable visual signature. Additionally, yūrei are frequently accompanied by floating flames or hitodama, exhibiting eerie hues like blue, green, or purple. These ghostly flames, intriguingly, are not independent spirits but integral components of the yūrei itself.
While all Japanese ghosts are collectively termed yūrei, there exists a diverse classification within this realm, each with unique characteristics and roles. The terms used to describe these ghosts may overlap, depending on which aspects of their traits are highlighted:
Onryō: This term refers to spirits carrying grudges or harboring hatred, feared for wreaking havoc through possession.
Ubume: A poignant figure, the ubume is a mother ghost who met her end during childbirth or while leaving young children behind. Returning to care for her offspring, she is often associated with bringing sweets.
Goryō: The concept of goryō encompasses the spirit of a noble or accomplished person who transforms into an onryō after losing a political power struggle or succumbing prematurely to an epidemic. It is, essentially, a subtype of onryō.
Funayūrei: These are the ghosts of those who met their demise at sea. They are sometimes depicted as scaly fish-like humanoids, even taking on mermaid or merman forms.
Zashiki-warashi: Portrayed as mischievous children, zashiki-warashi are ghosts known for playing pranks on the living. Often part of local folklore, they are believed to bring good fortune to the houses they inhabit.
Floating Spirits (Fuyūrei): These spirits aimlessly wander, lacking a specific purpose. In ancient times, it was believed that diseases afflicting the Emperor of Japan were linked to these spirits floating in the air. Alternatively, fuyūrei can denote ghosts where only the body has perished, and the soul floats in the air.
Earth-bound Spirits (Jibakurei): Similar to fuyūrei, these rare spirits are tethered to a specific place or situation rather than seeking a particular purpose. Famous examples include the haunting tale of Okiku at the well of Himeji Castle and the chilling events in the film “Ju-On: The Grudge.”
Example movies for yūrei:
Yurei muko (1911)
Yûrei soroi (1911)
Yōkai, meaning “strange apparition” in Japanese, constitutes a diverse class of supernatural entities deeply ingrained in Japanese folklore. The term is a fusion of two kanji characters, both signifying “suspicious” or “doubtful,” with a nuanced meaning in Japanese culture. Rooted in the animistic beliefs of Japan, where spirits were believed to inhabit all things, including natural elements and objects, yōkai were not limited to malevolent entities. Peaceful spirits, known as nigi-mitama, symbolized good fortune, while ara-mitama, the violent spirits, were associated with misfortune like illnesses and natural disasters. Yōkai, in its truest sense, did not encompass either of these classifications.
Among the myriad yōkai, Yuki-onna, or the “Snow Woman,” stands out as a prominent figure in Japanese folklore, making appearances in literature, films, and animation. This mythical character, associated with winter and snow, has various versions of her story, but a common thread weaves through each narrative—a captivating, otherworldly woman.
The tales of Yuki-onna often paint her as a ghostly and ethereal being, characterized by her pale skin and flowing hair. Simultaneously enchanting and unsettling, her beauty is set against the backdrop of snowstorms, where she emerges amidst the falling snowflakes. A recurring theme in Yuki-onna stories involves encounters with mortal men lost in snowstorms. She lures them with her beauty, and as they approach, she breathes a freezing breath upon them, sealing their fate. However, some renditions depict Yuki-onna as benevolent, sparing those who promise never to divulge their encounter with her.
The legend of Yuki-onna exhibits regional variations across Japan, with her character serving as a central theme in literature, theater, and film. These tales delve into supernatural elements, life’s fleeting nature, and the unknown’s perilous allure. Yuki-onna remains an enduring symbol in Japanese folklore, capturing the essence of winter’s beauty and severity and the enigmatic and unpredictable facets of the natural world.
Example movies for Yōkai:
Yuki Onna (1911)
Muromachi goten hyakkaiden (1914)
“Monster cat” or “ghost cat” films, known as kaibyō eiga or bake neko mono in Japanese, constitute a distinctive subgenre within the realm of Japanese horror cinema, featuring supernatural cats or kaibyō, predominantly drawn from the rich tapestry of kabuki theatre. This subgenre witnessed its initial surge in popularity before World War II, establishing a unique niche. However, the fervor dwindled in the post-war era, coinciding with a shift in Japanese audience sentiments—perhaps due to changing beliefs and diminishing fears associated with these supernatural entities.
Among the lost films, the kaibyo narrative stands out as the most preferred story for adaptation. Within the cache of 116 missing films, 38 belong to the kaibyo genre. This substantial prevalence underscores these spectral cat tales’ enduring fascination and cultural significance within the Japanese cinematic landscape.
The inclusion of cats as yōkai in Japanese mythology stems from a myriad of their distinctive traits. Their eyes, with pupils changing shape throughout the day, the potential for sparks to fly from their fur due to static electricity, the occasional licking of blood, the ability to tread silently, the juxtaposition of gentleness with an underlying wild nature, an elusive quality unlike dogs, and the possession of sharp claws and teeth, along with nocturnal habits and impressive speed and agility, all contribute to their mystique.
A fascinating folk belief surrounding bakeneko involves their peculiar penchant for licking lamp oil, a phenomenon regarded as an omen of impending strange events according to the Edo period encyclopedia Wakan Sansai Zue. In an era when cheap fish oils, like sardine oil, were commonly used in lamps, cats’ attraction to these oils may have been a practical explanation. The image of a cat standing on its hind legs to reach a lamp, its face aglow with anticipation, could have evoked an eerie and unnatural presence, akin to a yōkai.
Legend has it that a cat raised for seven years or longer might turn on its caretaker, even resorting to lethal means. Superstitions linked to this belief led people in various regions to pre-determine the number of years they would raise a cat. Stories abound where cats, brutally killed by humans, transform into bakeneko seeking revenge. These tales extend beyond aged cats, delving into the realm of vengeance against cruel humans.
The repertoire of abilities attributed to bakeneko is diverse, encompassing shapeshifting into humans, dancing with towels or napkins on their heads, speaking human words, cursing humans, manipulating the deceased, possessing humans, and even lurking in mountains alongside wolves to attack travelers.
During the Edo period, a belief arose that cats with long, snake-like tails possessed bewitching powers, resulting in a widespread custom of tail-cutting. This practice is speculated to be the reason for the prevalence of cats with short tails in Japan today, a manifestation of natural selection favoring these felines.
Interestingly, the belief in cats causing strange phenomena isn’t confined to Japan. In Jinhua, Zhejiang, China, a similar superstition suggests that a cat raised by humans for three years may start bewitching them.
Adding a personal reflection, it’s intriguing how society has not estranged these feline companions despite harboring numerous superstitions about cats and even inspiring movies based on these fears. The juxtaposition of cats’ perceived formidable powers and their continued integration into society remains a captivating and enigmatic aspect.
Example movies for Bakeneko:
Night-Blossoms of Saga (1910)
Okazaki Neko (1912)
Nabeshima no nekô (1912)
Monster-Cat of Sanno (1914)
Legend of a Noble Ghost-Cat (1914)
Cat Chaos at Kamakura Palace (1914)
Legend of the Arima Ghost-Cat (1914)
Sekiheki Daimyōjin (1914)
The Okazaki Cat (1914)
Nihon kaibyōden (1914)
Arima Cat Chaos (1915)
The Kumamoto Cat (1915)
Ghost-Cat Legend (1915)
Arima no nekô sôdô (1916)
Saga no bakeneko (1916)
Arima no nekô sôdô (1916)
Saga no yoru sakura (1917)
Nabeshima kaibyô (1917)
Sekiheki Daimyōjin (1918)
Sekiheki myōjin (1918)
Nabeshima Cat Riot (1919)
Arima kaibyōden (1919)
Ôkazaki kaibyoden (1919)
Okazaki’s Cat (1919)
Sekiheki myōjin (1920)
Hida no kaibyō (1920)
Arima no neko (1920)
Nabeshima nekô sôdô (1921)
Nabeshima nekô sôdô (1921)
Myōgi no yamaneko (1921)
Arima neko sōdō (1921)
Hachisuka no neko (1922)
Hachisuka no neko (1922)
Arima no neko (1922)
Nabeshima no neko (1923)
Sekiheki myōjin (1923)
Nabeshima kaibyōden (1929)
Modern Cat Riot (1930)
Nekomata, much like Maneki-neko, doesn’t feature prominently in cinematic narratives, with “ghost cat” stories predominantly leaning towards Bakeneko. This inclination is particularly noticeable in lost films, where many explicitly cite their source as adaptations of Bakeneko. Although the distinction between Bakeneko and Nekomata isn’t substantial, the nuances become evident in the subsequent paragraph. Despite the challenge posed by their subtle differences, I refrained from adding movies to the Nekomata and Maneki-neko titles to avoid confusion, yet I emphasized the need to acknowledge these two myths.
The presence of Nekomata extends beyond Japan, with appearances in stories predating their Japanese iterations. In the Sui dynasty, mysterious cats were described as 猫鬼 (cat demons) and 金花猫 (golden flower cats). Japanese literature first introduced Nekomata in the early Kamakura period (1185-1333), as documented in the Meigetsuki by Fujiwara no Teika. The account narrates a chilling incident in Nanto (now Nara Prefecture), where a Nekomata (猫胯) was purported to have killed and consumed several people in a single night. Described as a mountain beast with cat-like eyes and a sizeable dog-like body, debates persist regarding whether Nekomata is genuinely a cat monster. Some associate the creature with “nekomata disease (猫跨病),” interpreting it as a beast afflicted with rabies.
During the Edo period, yōkai emaki (illustrated books on supernatural creatures) proliferated, featuring frequent depictions of Nekomata. The Hyakkai Zukan of 1737 includes an illustration of a Nekomata assuming the guise of a woman playing a shamisen, often made using cat skins during that era. This particular Nekomata, donned in geisha clothing, sang a melancholic song about its species as it plucked the strings—an image laden with ironic interpretation. The connection between Nekomata and geisha stems from a historical context when geisha were colloquially referred to as “cats (Neko).”
In Chinese lore, a cat yōkai known as “xiānlí/senri (仙狸)” emerges, where “ri 狸” denotes “leopard cat.” According to this narrative, aging leopard cats attain divine spiritual power (xian arts), transforming into attractive individuals who absorb the spirits of humans. Some theorists posit that Japanese Nekomata legends find their roots in Chinese xiānlí/senri tales, establishing intriguing cross-cultural parallels.
The maneki-neko (招き猫, lit. ’beckoning cat’) stands as a ubiquitous Japanese figurine, widely believed to usher good luck to its owner. In contemporary times, these figurines typically materialize in ceramic or plastic forms. The portrayal features a cat, traditionally a calico Japanese Bobtail, extending a paw in a beckoning gesture. These figurines find their place of prominence in various establishments, including shops, restaurants, bars, hotels, nightclubs, and other businesses, often strategically positioned near entrances. They are equally embraced in households, sometimes boasting a mechanical paw that gracefully moves back and forth.
The roots of the maneki-neko are often traced back to Tokyo (formerly Edo) or occasionally Kyoto. A prevailing theory suggests that the figurines evolved from Imado ware, initially sold in Asakusa during the Edo period (1603-1868). The discovery of clay suitable for pottery in Imado during the Tenshō era (1573-1592) prompted the locals to embark on the creation of Imado ware. Potters from the Mikawa Province later migrated to Asakusa’s Imado, enhancing the pottery craft. The Genroku era (1688-1704) witnessed the crafting of Imado dolls, believed to be the precursors of the maneki-neko. The marushime-neko, a variation of maneki-neko made from Imado ware in the late Edo period, stands as the earliest known record of these figurines.
Superstitions surrounding the maneki-neko amplify its significance, attributing it with the power to “beckon customers into shops” and serve as a harbinger of “good fortune and prosperity” within households. It is revered as an embodiment of “fertile, life-enhancing feline energies,” weaving an intricate tapestry of symbolism and belief around this beckoning cat.
Kaidan, at its essence, is a narrative steeped in the mystique of Yurei stories. Rooted in the Japanese language, Kaidan (怪談, sometimes transliterated kwaidan) melds two kanji: 怪 (kai), encapsulating notions of “strange, mysterious, rare, or bewitching apparitions,” and 談 (dan), denoting “talk” or “recited narrative.” Among the myriad Kaidan tales, Yotsuya Kaidan and Banchō Sarayashiki stand as the foremost luminaries, gracing both Kabuki stages and cinema screens with unparalleled frequency.
Yotsuya Kaidan (四谷怪談), weaving the saga of Oiwa and Tamiya Iemon, unfolds a tapestry of betrayal, murder, and spectral retribution. Undeniably the most renowned Japanese ghost narrative, its spectral tendrils have reached across time, inspiring numerous film adaptations and casting an enduring influence on contemporary Japanese horror. Penned in 1825 by Tsuruya Nanboku IV as a kabuki play, the original title, Tōkaidō Yotsuya Kaidan (東海道四谷怪談, Ghost Story of Yotsuya in Tokaido), has undergone a gradual truncation, now loosely translated as the Ghost Story of Yotsuya.
Debuting in July 1825 at the Nakamuraza Theater in Edo, Yotsuya Kaidan shared the stage as a double-feature with the immensely popular Kanadehon Chushingura. Departing from the norm of staging the first play in its entirety, followed by the second, the play’s unprecedented success compelled producers to schedule additional out-of-season performances to satiate the surging demand. This narrative delved into the collective fears of its audience, summoning the ghosts of Japan from the confines of temples and aristocrats’ mansions to the homes of common folk—the very audience that filled the theater, giving life to the phantoms within.
Nanboku ingeniously interweaves two chilling and factual homicides into the fabric of Yotsuya Kaidan, a masterful fusion of reality and fiction that strikes a resonant chord with its audience. The first grim tale unfolded around two servants who, having murdered their respective masters, met swift justice through execution on the same fateful day. The second macabre episode featured a samurai who, upon discovering his concubine’s illicit affair with a servant, condemned the faithless pair to a grisly fate—nailed to a wooden board and cast into the unforgiving currents of the Kanda River.
Within the theatrical realm of Yotsuya Kaidan, the protagonist, Yotsuya Oiwa, assumes the role of an ordinary Japanese woman wedded to a ronin, a masterless samurai named Tamiya Iemon. The narrative takes a sinister turn when Oiwa receives a poisoned facial cream from Oume, a romantic rival vying for Iemon’s affection. Intending to disfigure Oiwa and prompt Iemon’s rejection, Oume’s scheme takes a tragic twist. Confronted with her distorted visage in the mirror, Oiwa succumbs to hysteria and inadvertently ends her life in a frenzied sprint with a sword. From this demise emerges Oiwa’s onryō, a vengeful spirit, setting in motion a series of fatal mishaps that befall most characters by the play’s conclusion, realizing Oiwa’s quest for retribution.
As an onryō, Oiwa embodies the quintessential traits of Japanese vengeful ghosts. Draped in a white dress symbolizing the burial kimono, her disheveled, lengthy hair and pallid visage marked by hues of white and indigo conform to the spectral aesthetic of kabuki theater. Yet, Oiwa possesses distinctive features setting her apart, notably her left eye—a haunting detail resulting from the poison inflicted upon her by Iemon.
Legend has it that Oiwa finds her eternal rest at Myogyo-ji, a temple nestled in Tokyo’s Sugamo neighborhood, with her recorded death date being February 22, 1636. Curiously, various productions of Yotsuya Kaidan, spanning television and film adaptations, have been accompanied by reports of mysterious accidents, injuries, and even fatalities. Notably, the character Sadako Yamamura from the film Ring serves as a poignant homage to the enduring legacy of Oiwa.
Example movies for Yotsuya Kaidan:
Kaidan Yagyu (1907)
Yūrei Kagami (1907)
Oiwa Inari (1910)
Yotsuya Kaidan (1911)
Yotsuya Kaidan (1913)
Shin Yotsuya Kaidan (1914)
Yotsuya Kaidan (1915)
Yotsuya Kaidan [Jitsoroku Oiwa] (1918)
Yotsuya Kaidan (1921)
Yotsuya Kaidan (1921)
Yotsuya Kaidan Oiwâ (1923)
Yotsuya Kaidan (1923)
Shin Yotsuya Kaidan (1925)
Yotsuya Kaidan (1925)
Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan (1927)
Yotsuya Kaidan (1927)
Irohagana Yotsuya Kaidan (1927)
Yotsuya Kaidan (1928)
Shinban Yotsuya kaidan (1928)
Banchō Sarayashiki, also known as The Dish Mansion at Banchō, weaves a haunting Japanese ghost story (kaidan) centered on shattered trust and unfulfilled promises, culminating in a tragic destiny. Alternatively recognized as the sarayashiki tradition, this tale universally orbits a servant whose unjust demise propels her return to haunt the living.
The narrative unfolds with the demise of Okiku (お菊), a captivating dishwashing servant employed at Himeji Castle. Initially brought to the stage as a bunraku play titled Banchō Sarayashiki in July 1741 at the Toyotakeza theater, it later found its way into the realm of Kabuki in a one-act rendition created by Segawa Joko III in 1850. Although the kabuki adaptation, titled Minoriyoshi Kogane no Kikuzuki, did not achieve immediate popularity, it laid the foundation for numerous future film adaptations.
Okiku’s tragic tale revolves around her relentless rejection of her master’s advances, leading him to concoct a deceitful ploy. In a manipulative move, he hides one of the ten precious dishes under Okiku’s care. Upon summoning her, he falsely claims that one plate is missing. Driven to a frenzy, Okiku meticulously counts and recounts the remaining nine plates. The samurai, growing increasingly impatient, offers to forgive her if she consents to become his lover. Her steadfast refusal enrages him, prompting a brutal act. Okiku is subjected to a merciless beating, tied up, and suspended above a well. The torment escalates as the samurai, in a fit of fury, slashes her with his sword and hurls her lifeless body into the depths of the well.
The tragic turn of events marks Okiku’s transformation into an onryō, a vengeful spirit. Her spectral presence torments her assailant through a haunting ritual—counting to nine and then emitting a chilling shriek, symbolizing the absence of the tenth plate. In certain versions, this spectral torment persists until an exorcist or a compassionate neighbor audaciously utters “ten” at the culmination of her count. The ghost, finally relieved by the apparent discovery of the elusive plate, ceases to haunt the samurai.
While Ningyō Jōruri and Okamoto Kido have offered their own renditions of the tale, the core narrative revolves around a vengeful spirit cast into a water well, relentlessly returning. The most renowned iteration of this tale, adapted across Kabuki plays and cinema, finds a modern manifestation in the iconic movie, The Ring (2002). Despite contemporary reimagining, the essence remains tethered to Okiku, reincarnated as Sadako or Samara in the United States.
Example movies for Banchō Sarayashiki:
Banshû sarayashiki (1911)
Shin sarayashiki (1911)
Hata-shu sarayashiki (1913)
Banshû sarayashiki (1913)
Bancho sarayashiki (1914)
Banshû sarayashiki (1918)
Banchō Sarayashiki (1923)
Shin Sarayashiki (1926)
Other Kaidan Stories
There are also different legends that do not belong to the classic Yotsuya Kaidan and Banchō Sarayashiki stories. Again, at the core of all of them, there is a murder. And after the murder, vengeful Yurei goes after its murderer.
Example movies for different kinds of Kaidan stories:
Chibusa no Enoki (1910)
Kaidan tsuki no kasamori (1911)
Kaidan bunya goroshi (1911)
Kasamori ôsen (1911)
During my research, one prominent name continually surfaced in the realm of these vintage films—Matsunosuke Onoe. Recognized as Medama no Matchan, or “Eyeballs” Matsu, Matsunosuke Onoe held a pivotal role in shaping the landscape of Japanese cinema.
Embracing the cinematic stage in 1899 with his debut in the short film “Goban Tadanobu,” Onoe embarked on a trajectory that would indelibly contribute to the nascent Japanese film industry. Rapidly garnering acclaim for his compelling on-screen performances, he became a linchpin in the industry’s foundational years, leaving an enduring mark on its evolution.
Delving into the annals of Japan’s lost horror films before 1930, Matsunosuke Onoe emerges as a recurrent presence. The available records show that he graced the screens in 17 out of the 118 films that existed before the turn of 1930. Notably, Matsunosuke found his niche in the realm of ghost cat stories, leaving an indelible imprint in narratives like Banchō Sarayashiki and tales of heroic samurais. His name resonates through the early corridors of Japanese cinema, embodying a significant chapter in the rich tapestry of its filmic history.
Momotarō’s origin is as enchanting as folklore itself. Born from the womb of a colossal peach, this miraculous event unfolded when the fruit drifted down a serene river, catching the attention of an elderly couple longing for a child. The discovery of the child within the peach, during an attempt to savor its contents, revealed a divine gift—a son bestowed upon them by the gods. Thus, they named him Momotarō, a fusion of ‘momo’ (peach) and ‘tarō’ (eldest son in the family).
Remarkably precocious, Momotarō’s prowess manifested at age five, wielding only an old knife to effortlessly topple a mighty tree. As he transitioned into adolescence, a call to adventure beckoned him beyond the familial abode. His mission: to confront a marauding band of Oni, ominous demons threatening their land. The epic journey led him to forge an alliance with a remarkable trio—a talking dog, a monkey, and a pheasant. In return for his kibi dango, millet dumplings that fueled their journey, these newfound allies pledged their support.
Venturing to the distant island of Onigashima, aptly named “Demon Island,” Momotarō and his formidable companions infiltrated the demons’ stronghold. In a resounding victory, they vanquished the demonic horde, compelling them to surrender. Returning triumphant, Momotarō brought with him not only the spoils of the demons’ treasure but also their chief, a captive testament to the valor that marked his legendary quest.
Example movies for Momotarō:
Shin Momotarô (1909)
Shin Momotarô (1909)
Shin Momotarô (1909)
Momotarô ichidaiki (1909)
Kiuchi Sōgorō, also known as Sakura Sōgorō (1605 – 1653), stands as a legendary figure in Japanese folklore, originating from the humble roots of a farmer whose actual family name was Kiuchi. His tale unfolds in 1652 when he served as the village headman within the Sakura Domain, prompting him to make a daring plea directly to the shōgun. In a courageous appeal, Sōgorō beseeched the shōgun’s intervention to alleviate the heavy tax burdens and agricultural challenges burdening the peasants. This bold move, however, led to his arrest, as direct appeals were deemed illegal during that era.
The prevailing narrative suggests that in 1653, the farmer, alongside his sons and possibly his wife, faced execution, notably through crucifixion, at the hands of the daimyō governing his feudal domain. Despite the widespread acceptance of this account, no concrete evidence has emerged to substantiate the occurrence, with only a farmer named Sōgorō appearing in the village records.
The enduring legend of Sakura Sōgorō has woven itself into the fabric of Japanese cultural narratives, finding expression in various forms such as kabuki plays and Jōruri. Notably, a play titled “Self-Sacrificing Man Sakura Sōgo” debuted at Nakamura-za in 1851, immortalizing his story. Sōgorō is venerated in the Sōgo-reidō of Tōshōji temple in Narita city, where annual all-night gatherings on September 2, the eve of his reported execution (alternative sources suggest the 24th), serve as a poignant tribute to Sōgo-sama, drawing participants from across Chiba prefecture. His legacy, extolled by notable figures like Fukuzawa Yukichi and championed during the Freedom and People’s Rights Movement, endures as a symbol of martyrdom in a secular sense, continuing to captivate the admiration of many.
Example movies for Sakura Sôgorô:
Sakura Sôgorô (1909)
Sakura Sôgorô gimin-den ichidiki (1909)
Sakura Sôgorô no Akebono (1910)
Sakura Sôgorô Ichidaiki (1910)
Yanagibaba emerges from the shadowy realms of Japanese folklore, an ethereal willow ghost etched into the tapestry of strange tales within the Ehon Hyakumonogatari collection from the Edo period. The ancient tome “Kidan Ruisho” weaves a narrative about a venerable willow tree rooted in Kashima, Hitachi Province (now Hokota City), whose gnarled branches spanned over a millennium. This arboreal entity possessed the mystifying ability to metamorphose into a captivating woman, ensnaring the senses of unsuspecting passersby.
Alternately, it would shroud itself in the guise of an elderly woman, beckoning to those traversing the streets. This spectral manifestation finds echoes not only in Japanese lore but also resonates in the annals of Chinese literature, where ancient willow trees were believed to instigate peculiar occurrences.
Example movies for Yanagi-baba:
Bake yanagi (1909)
Tsuchigumo, a term laden with historical connotations, serves a dual role in Japanese folklore — functioning as both a derogatory label for rebellious local clans and the moniker for a species of spider-like yōkai.
The inception of the tsuchigumo as a colossal, oni-like yōkai can be traced back to medieval literary compositions. The narrative tapestry of The Tale of the Heike, woven during the Kamakura period (1185–1333), provides a seminal glimpse into this creature’s lore. Within these ancient pages, the tsuchigumo assumes the guise of a yamagumo, or “mountain spider.” Over the ensuing ages, the tsuchigumo underwent a transformation, evolving into a yōkai of increasingly bizarre proportions.
The 14th-century emakimono Tsuchigumo Sōshi unveils a vivid portrayal of the tsuchigumo, depicting it as a gargantuan yōkai stretching a staggering 60 meters in length. The climax of this vivid narrative unfolds as the monstrous entity faces extermination, disgorging a macabre spectacle — 1990 heads of the deceased emerge from its bloated belly. This metamorphosis of the tsuchigumo across centuries paints a captivating portrait of a yōkai morphing from the annals of historical literature into a fantastical, otherworldly entity.
Example movies for Tsuchigumo:
Tsuchi gumo (1910)
Legend holds that Jizo statues were offerings from the devoted followers of Bishop Tenkai, originally numbering a hundred. However, the tranquility of their assembly was disrupted by a flood, leading to the destruction and displacement of several statues carried away by the relentless current. The exact count of the Jizo statues that remain concealed within this valley remains a mystery to this day, shrouded in an ethereal uncertainty. According to local lore, attempting to enumerate them yields varying results each time, lending them the evocative title of Bake Jizo, signifying “Ghost Jizo.” The elusive nature of their count adds an enigmatic layer to their presence, perpetuating an air of mystique that resonates through the valley.
Example movies for Jizo:
Jizo the Ghost (1898)
Jizo the Spook (1898)
In the revered legend of Dôjôji Temple, nestled in the province of Kishû, Princess Kiyo found herself ensnared in love for the priest Anchin. His attempt to evade her affections led him to seek refuge beneath the colossal bell (tsurigane) at the Dôjôji Temple. Undeterred, Princess Kiyo metamorphosed into a monstrous serpent, relentlessly pursuing Anchin across the Hidaka River. The gripping chase culminated in her coiling around the Temple bell, her fiery breath fusing the bronze of the bell with Anchin’s flesh.
Fast forward to a later time, the dance unfolds at Dôjôji Temple, where a new bronze bell has replaced its serpentine-melted predecessor. The ceremonial proceedings for the new bell are set to commence today, with the abbot sternly prohibiting any woman’s presence in the temple precincts. Enter two shirabyôshi dancers, Hanako and Sakurako, beseeching the priest for a glimpse of the new bell. The priest, momentarily forgetting the abbot’s edict, agrees under one condition: the dancers must perform a captivating dance. Unbeknownst to them, one of the dancers harbors the vengeful spirit of Princess Kiyo, casting ominous glares toward the bell. As they remove their ceremonial golden hats (eboshi), the priestesses unveil their beauty, gracefully executing a series of dances akin to the classic “Musume Dôjôji.” Their movements artfully convey the myriad facets of women’s experiences in love, captivating the entranced priests. Yet, at the dance’s pinnacle, the performers’ true nature is revealed as Hanako charges toward the bell, which crashes to the ground in a thunderous resonance. Confusion grips the priests as the two women ascend the fallen bell, striking dramatic poses and unveiling their true identity—they are the vengeful serpentine spirits!
Example movies for Dôjôji:
Ninin Dojoji (1899)
Hidaka iriai zakura (1909)
Beyond the realm of vengeful ghost narratives, cinema has embraced the tales of daring heroes, particularly those of renowned swordsmen. These adventure stories unfold as these sword-wielding protagonists, often samurai, embark on journeys encountering various monsters along their path.
Remarkably, many of these characters have roots in reality. Take, for instance, Tenjiku Tokubei, a 17th-century traveler who explored numerous countries. Originally a merchant, Tokubei’s adventures transcended reality as Kabuki performances infused fantastical elements into his exploits. Similarly, Watanabe-no-Tsuna, an 8th-century samurai, found his historical feats woven into cinematic narratives.
The tapestry of these adventure tales extends to the 16th-century sword master Miyamoto Musashi, portrayed in “Miyamoto Musashi Hihitaiji no Ba,” and the samurai-turned-Daimyo in the Jûtarô films. These cinematic sagas intertwine historical figures with fantastical encounters, crafting compelling narratives that captivate audiences with a blend of reality and imagination.
Example movies for adventurer stories:
Miyamoto musashi hihitaiji no ba (1908)
Tenjiku Tokubei (1910)
Iwami Jûtarô (1911)
Iwami Jûtarô ichidaiki (1913)
In a coastal village, the life of a young fisherman named Urashima Tarō takes an unexpected turn one day. Observing a group of children tormenting a small turtle, Tarō intervenes, saving the creature and allowing it to return to the sea. Little does he know, this act of kindness sets in motion a fantastical journey. The following day, a colossal turtle approaches him, revealing that the rescued turtle is the daughter of the Emperor of the Sea, Ryūjin. Expressing gratitude, the turtle endows Tarō with gills and transports him to the depths of the ocean, where the Palace of the Dragon God (Ryūgū-jō) awaits. Here, Tarō encounters the Emperor and the transformed princess, Otohime, surrounded by a palace with views of the four seasons. Although Tarō spends three days in bliss with Otohime, a longing for his village and aging mother compels him to seek permission to depart. Reluctantly, the princess grants his request, presenting him with a mysterious box named tamatebako, cautioning him never to open it. Clutching the box, Tarō rides the same turtle back to the seashore.
Upon his return, Tarō is confronted by a changed reality—his home is gone, his mother has vanished, and familiar faces are nowhere to be found. Inquiring about a man named Urashima Tarō, he learns that someone matching that description vanished at sea centuries ago. The startling revelation dawns on him: 300 years have elapsed since the day he descended to the sea’s depths. Overwhelmed by grief, he absentmindedly opens the princess’s gift, unleashing a cloud of white smoke. Instantaneously, Tarō ages, his once-youthful visage replaced by a long white beard and a bent back. Through the melancholic voice of the princess echoing from the sea, the truth resonates: “I told you not to open that box. In it was your old age…”.
Example movies for Urashima Tarō:
Otogi taro (1909)
In the Otogi Boko version, as the initial night of Obon descends, the dwelling of the widowed samurai Ogiwara Shinnojo encounters an enchanting spectacle. A captivating woman, Otsuyu, and a young girl bearing a peony lantern leisurely traverse Ogiwara’s residence. Instantly smitten, Ogiwara pledges an eternal connection to Otsuyu, who, from that night forth, becomes a twilight visitor, departing before the break of dawn. Suspicions arise when an elderly neighbor, dubious of the girl, peers into Ogiwara’s abode, only to discover him in bed with a skeletal presence. Seeking guidance from a Buddhist priest, Ogiwara learns that he is imperiled unless he can resist Otsuyu. Safeguarding his dwelling with a protective charm, Ogiwara thwarts the woman’s entry. However, unable to resist her allure, he ventures outside to meet her, ultimately being led to her abode—a grave within a temple. At daybreak, Ogiwara’s lifeless form is discovered, entwined with the skeletal remains of Otsuyu.
In the Kabuki Version, a young scholar named Saburo finds his heart captivated by the enchanting Otsuyu, the daughter of his father’s closest companion. Their clandestine meetings culminate in a promise of marriage, but Saburo’s ailment disrupts their union, keeping them apart for an extended period.
Upon Saburo’s recovery, the joy of reuniting with Otsuyu is cruelly shattered by the news of her demise. In an attempt to reunite with her spirit, Saburo prays fervently during the Obon festival, only to be startled by the approach of two ethereal figures resembling Otsuyu and her maid. Unraveling the web of deceit, it is revealed that Otsuyu’s aunt, vehemently opposing their union, spread false reports of their deaths.
The star-crossed lovers, once again united, rekindle their clandestine romance. Night after night, Otsuyu, accompanied by her maid carrying a peony lantern, shares precious moments with Saburo.
The idyllic nights take a dark turn when a servant, spying through a hole in Saburo’s bedroom wall, witnesses an intimate encounter between Saburo and a decaying skeleton. Disturbed by the unsettling scene, the servant alerts the local Buddhist priest, who intervenes by locating the graves of Otsuyu and her maid. Confronted with the truth, Saburo seeks the priest’s aid in protecting his abode against vengeful spirits. The priest fortifies the house with sacred ofuda and offers nightly prayers.
The plan proves effective, barring Otsuyu and her maid from entering. Despite their persistent nightly declarations of love, Saburo’s health begins to decline. Driven by fear of unemployment, Saburo’s servants remove the protective ofuda, allowing Otsuyu to reenter. Tragically, the morning light reveals Saburo’s lifeless form, entwined with Otsuyu’s skeletal remains, adorned with a serene expression.
Example movies for Botan Dōrō:
Botan dôrô (1910)
Shin botan dôrô (1910)
Jiraiya stands as a legendary figure in the rich tapestry of Japanese folklore and literature, often portrayed as a heroic ninja endowed with the extraordinary ability to command toads. His saga unfolds within the pages of the Jiraiya Goketsu Monogatari (The Tale of the Gallant Jiraiya), a tale deeply woven into the fabric of Japanese folk stories, resonating with enduring popularity.
Central to the narrative is Jiraiya, a distinguished and noble ninja armed with a unique magic that grants him mastery over summoning and controlling toads. The significance of his abilities is underscored by the perpetual conflict with his arch-foe, Orochimaru, whose dominion lies in the manipulation of snakes, creating a thematic tension that permeates the tale.
Adding depth to the story is a romantic subplot, as Jiraiya finds love in Tsunade, a captivating princess with whom he shares a profound connection. Yet, their passion encounters myriad challenges intricately woven into the ongoing conflict with Orochimaru.
The pinnacle of the Jiraiya legend manifests in the ultimate battle against Orochimaru, a fierce and epic confrontation between these formidable ninjas, delving into themes of love, loyalty, and the timeless struggle between good and evil.
Jiraiya’s narrative transcends traditional folklore, finding new life in various forms of popular culture, spanning kabuki theater, novels, and, notably, the widely acclaimed manga and anime series “Naruto.” Within the realm of “Naruto,” Jiraiya assumes the role of a mentor and father figure to the titular character, Naruto Uzumaki.
In essence, the tale of Jiraiya is an enthralling narrative that has withstood the test of time, illustrating the enduring allure of heroic legends within Japanese folklore. The legacy of this gallant ninja persists in contemporary storytelling, ensuring that Jiraiya remains a cherished and integral figure in the cultural traditions of Japan.
Example movies for Jiraiya:
Jirairya goketsu tan-banashi (1912)
While the majority of lost films share a common foundation, exploring familiar narratives rooted in folklore, there are intriguing exceptions that delve into lesser-known legends. Two noteworthy films warrant consideration within this context. First among them is “Yome no odoshi,” crafted in 1910. This film unfolds the tale of a mother donning a mask to terrify her daughter, finding its echoes later in Kaneto Shindo’s 1964 masterpiece, “Onibaba.”
Another film deserving attention is “Moken no himitsu,” produced in 1924. Amidst the array of lost or preserved horror stories filmed up to 1930, all deeply entrenched in Japanese cultural motifs, “Moken no himitsu” deviates by presenting a Sherlock Holmes narrative. From my understanding, it stands as the inaugural Sherlockian venture in Japan, particularly within the realm of horror cinema.
Example movies for other kinds of stories:
Resurrection of a Corpse (1898)
Shinin no sosei (1898)
Shin Katsuragawa (1909)
Sugawara tenjin-ki (1909)
Kasane miuri koroshiba (1909)
Utsunomiya tsuritenjô (1910)
Yome no odoshi (1911)
Onogawa Kisaburô (1911)
Kaoru itsuki I monogatari (1911)
Sakura no akenono (1911)
Kaiketsu Ondo maru (1916)
Moken no himitsu (1924)
The Passion of a Woman Teacher (1926)