Onryo: What’s the Deal with Those Creepy Girls with Long, Straggly Black Hair in Asian Horror Films?

Ever wonder what the deal is with the female ghosts and apparitions with long black hair that are so prevalent in Asian horror films? If you are a fan of the Asian horror genre, or the mostly misguided Hollywood remakes (for God’s sake skip the Jessica Alba remake and instead rent the original version of The Eye), you are doubtlessly familiar with this recurring figure. An unfortunate side effect of the continued use of this image in so many Asian horror flicks is that almost all reviews by Americans tend to begin with “another Asian horror movie featuring a ghostly young girl with long string hair…” The implicit, and often explicit, assumption is that every time you witness one of these images it is because the filmmakers are attempting to rip off the most famous title from this genre: Ringu, or The Ring. Except that…

Did Buffy rip off Dracula because it features vampires? Vampires are a folkloric invention of the west represented iconically in the image of the well-dressed Middle European nobleman. If one were to go by the same logic that is applied to the Asian horror genre that contains the long-haired female ghost, then why doesn’t every review of a vampire movie begin “another vampire movie featuring a Middle European nobleman dressed to the nines and speaking in a thick accent”? To suggest that films ranging from The Grudge to The Ghost to the deeply disturbing Phone are simply overly derivative of Ringu is to suggest that An American Werewolf in London is merely a rip-off of the original The Wolf Man. The problem stems, of course, from a cultural divide made all the worse by the seemingly distinctly American virus of not caring about discovering foreign cultures.

Anybody remember the classic host sketch on MST3K that pays tribute to the best Abbott & Costello routines when Crow and Servo are arguing with Mike Nelson over his favorite form of Japanese theater, Noh theatre? Riotous. Kabuki gets all the press, but Noh theater actually has a more ancient tradition in the culture of Japan. And buried deep within the Noh tradition is a character known as Onryo, which is a ghost intent on revenge from the afterlife. Interestingly, the Onryo has often been compared to the Jewish tradition of the Dybbuk. Both are certainly ghostly manifestations who arrive for vengeance, but the Onryo is more unpredictable. While the Onryo often comes back to right a wrong involving domestic violence such as haunting an abusive husband, this is not always the case. The Onryo appears in many Noh plays to carry out a bizarre course of revenge that often attacks entirely innocent people or else those who are only tangentially guilty.

You can probably guess how the Onryo of Noh theatrical tradition usually appeared: a white kimono, white makeup, and long, straggly, unkempt jet-black hair. Sound familiar? The utilization of the Onryo into the current vogue of Asian horror certainly got its jumpstart in the Ringu series, but a closer examination of how they are used in each particular film reveals an unquestionably strong tie back to the Onryo’s Noh origins. For instance, the Onryo character in Ringu and the American version (and did you know that there is also a Korean version titled The Ring Virus) has a pretty standard role as a agent of revenge whereas in the exceptional Korean film The Ghost, the Onryo character serves the role as a bringer of vengeance, but the revenge that you think is being carried out is brilliantly upended not once but twice.

Next time you are told to avoid an Asian horror film because it is has been denigrated as a rip-off of The Ring simply because it contains a young female character with long, stringy black hair, just consider how you would react if someone told you to avoid watching The Godfather because it is a rip-off of Little Caesar simply because both movies contain gangsters. Understanding even on a very basic level the cultural significance of that now-iconic image of the black-haired ghostly apparition will hopefully be enough to encourage you to check out such other extraordinary examples of what may very well be the single most artistically compelling genre in world cinema today such as Shutter and A Tale of Two Sisters.