At the Movies

Way Too Scary: Japan’s Unique “Kowasugi” Horror Series

Cinema Entertainment

The director Shiraishi Kōji is one of Japan’s top modern horror directors. In his latest outing, the 2023 entry in his Kowasugi! (Too Scary!) series, he updates his approach for the contemporary era while keeping things terrifying for all film-viewers.

The Original “Way Too Scary” Films

Since the 1990s, Japanese horror movies have made their mark on the global consciousness with a distinctive style. Directors like Kurosawa Kiyoshi, Shimizu Takashi, Nakata Hideo, and Takahashi Hiroshi have built a firm foundation for Japanese horror auteurs in the modern era. One of the recent leading lights of the “J-horror” brand is Shiraishi Kōji.

Currently, Shiraishi is best known for live-action adaptations of anime like Funōhan (Impossibility Defense, 2018) and Jigoku Shōjo (Hell Girl, 2019), as well as Sadako vs. Kayako (2016), which pitted two icons of J-horror against one another. However, Shiraishi was originally a leading figure in the faux documentary (“mockumentary” or “found footage”) category of the horror genre. He produced several movies such as Noroi: The Curse (2005), Occult (2009), and the Cult (2013), which were highly acclaimed by horror fans at home and abroad.

(© 2023 Senritsu Kaiki Wārudo Kowasugi! Production Committee)
(© 2023 Senritsu Kaiki Wārudo Kowasugi! Production Committee)

In Japan, Shiraishi’s best-known work in this genre is the series Senritsu kaiki fairu kowasugi! (Too Scary: The Spine-Tinglingly Eerie Files). Including a 2014 theatrical release dubbed as the “most terrifying movie in history,” Shiraishi released nine films in the Files series from 2012 to 2015, (mostly straight to video). Throughout the series, the plot revolves around a film crew investigating bizarre supernatural phenomena based on Japanese ghost stories and folklore. These include the slit-mouthed woman, Hanako-san the “toilet girl,” and Kokkuri-san (a being summoned along the lines of the Ouija board). The series was popularly acclaimed for its fusion of horror and humor, unpredictable plot development, and expert use of the full range of faux-documentary techniques.

Eight years after the final Files film was released, Shiraishi has now released the tenth, and what Shiraishi says is the final, installment of the Kowasugi! collection, Senritsu kaiki wārudo kowasugi!

While the latest release bears a minor name change (from “files” to “world”) and continues to feature familiar and popular characters, Shiraishi has consciously and thoroughly updated the setting and modernized some of the themes in line with societal developments since 2015. Nevertheless, the essence of the Files series remains intact, and is infused into a packed 78 minutes, making it both the perfect introduction for beginners and a must-see compilation for long-time fans.

An Updated “World” of Fear

In World, three young TikTokers have peculiar encounters in an abandoned and supposedly haunted building. After destroying an altar-like structure in the basement, they hear a baby’s voice and see a “red woman” holding a knife, covered in blood. The three youths manage to capture the image on video, but after uploading they find that instead of going viral, their video and TikTok account have been deleted due to trespassing and destruction of property.

The three distressed youths turn to Kudō, a producer whose production company specializes in documentaries on bizarre phenomena. Kudō is dealing with financial difficulties due to the COVID-19 outbreak and plans to make a film and a fortune by shooting scoop footage at the abandoned buildings. Kudō, director Ichikawa, and cameraman Tashiro set off to the building with a psychic and the three TikTokers. Right from the outset, the group encounter all manner of strange phenomena.

Who or what is the “Red Woman” who appears and vanishes at a moment’s notice? (© 2023 Senritsu Kaiki Wārudo Kowasugi! Production Committee)
Who or what is the “Red Woman” who appears and vanishes at a moment’s notice? (© 2023 Senritsu Kaiki Wārudo Kowasugi! Production Committee)

World does well in hitting on all the appeal points of the original Files series while incorporating awareness of the changes in society since the last chapter released eight years prior. It retains the unique faux-documentary, found-footage horror style and a plot structure where all kinds of bizarre phenomena assail the main characters. It also pays homage to Kudō’s characteristic wildness, which is in many ways scarier than the movies’ supernatural events.

Throughout the Files series, Kudō is known for constantly badgering the cameraman, asking “are you sure that you got it?!” In World, Kudō’s persistence is juxtaposed with the young TikTokers’ obsession with going viral on social networks, and a concomitant lack of concern with film values. While Kudō’s violent personality remains intact, it is the often-victimized Ichikawa who emerges the stronger character in World.

Another updated theme that resonates throughout the film is its portrayal of the harmful effects of Kudō’s previously endearing “manly and violent” personality, something that Ichikawa alludes to right at the beginning of the film. The pasts of the three young TikTokers are also eventually revealed. Together with other indirectly suggestive elements, World is the most socially conscious installment in the Kowasugi! collection.

An Intense Mix of the Serious and Unserious

While the setting and production values have been revamped in World, Shiraishi does not deviate too far from the original essence of the Files series. For example, the themes surrounding the attempt to capture the “Red Woman” overlap with previous depictions. The unexpected developments in the middle of the film also test the audience’s acceptance of this film as a mockumentary.

One highlight is a scene involving the characters moving down a long corridor. (© 2023 Senritsu Kaiki Wārudo Kowasugi! Production Committee)
One highlight is a scene involving the characters moving down a long corridor. (© 2023 Senritsu Kaiki Wārudo Kowasugi! Production Committee)

The Kowasugi! series has been one that simultaneously mixes serious and unserious themes, simmering them all at once over a high heat. The frightening parts, the fun parts, and the ridiculous and comedic developments that sometimes leave the audience in the dark are all characteristic of the Kowasugi! series and, indeed, Shiraishi’s work as a whole.

It is also worth mentioning that this film teaches us once again that “simple ideas and ingenuity” are what make a film interesting. Without giving away too much of the story, the film does a good job of expressing itself in the twists and turns of space. Night and day also seem to switch simply with a change in camera angle. In this sense, the film is not pedantic like other pseudo “single-shot” films that have become popular both in the East and West. The film itself is dynamic as the characters keep moving forward, often running, which keeps the excitement level high.

Thus, even if the actors don’t have the looks and body of a Tom Cruise, or the director lacks a big budget for stunt scenes, this movie shows that intensity can be generated by little more than having people frantically running down a corridor. World is a good demonstration of fundamentally sound movie making with its terrifying use of light and sound effects. It is well worth experiencing in a cinema.

Senritsu kaiki world kowasugi! (2023)

  • Director, Script, Cinematography, Sound Effects: Shiraishi Kōji
  • Running Time: 78 minutes
  • Official Site (in Japanese only):


(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: © 2023 Senritsu Kaiki Wārudo Kowasugi! Production Committee.)

cinema horror J-horror