Onryō (怨霊 onryō, literally "vengeful spirit", sometimes rendered "wrathful spirit") is a mythological spirit of vengeance from Japanese folklore.
In traditional beliefs of Japan and in literature, onryō is a ghost (yurei) who is able to return to the physical world in order to seek vengeance. Onryo are believed capable of causing harm in the world of the living, ailing or killing enemies, or even causing natural disasters to exact vengeance to redress the wrongs it received while alive. The term overlaps somewhat with goryō (御霊), except that in the cult of the goryō, the acting agent need not necessarily be a wrathful spirit.
Onryō are a very popular element in asian horror films, being depicted similarly yet distinctly in several movies. This popularity started with the release of Ring, based on a trilogy of novels written by Koji Suzuki, and was increased by Takashi Shimizu's Ju-on film series. Kayako and Toshio are two examples of fictional vengeance spirits.
The myth of Oiwa
Kayako's story is loosely reminiscent of Yotsuya Kaidan (四谷怪談, Yotsuya Kaidan, lit. "Yotsuya ghost story") or the myth of Oiwa, a traditional Japanese onryō legend, which has also inspired many other horror stories in Japanese culture. In this tale, the ghost of Oiwa, a woman disfigured and (in some versions) murdered by her unfaithful husband, returns seeking revenge, pursuing him.
Oiwa was a loving, devoted wife to Tamiya Iemon, an unscrupulous ronin (wandering samurai) who murders Oiwa's father after he discovers Iemon's evil past deeds. Oiwa trusted her husband, believing when he comforted Oiwa, promising he would find her father's murderer. No longer a samurai, Iemon was forced to become an oilpaper umbrella maker in order to support his young pregnant wife. Under this circumstance and bored with his marriage, Iemon started feeling resentful of Oiwa, whom he once had loved.
Influenced by his wealthy neighbor, whose granddaughter was in love with Iemon, he murdered Oiwa after the neighbor considered a marriage between Iemon and his granddaughter, and so Iemon would become rich. Iemon poisoned Oiwa but failed as the poison disfigured, but did not kill her. However, Oiwa died after her eventual realization of her husband's true intentions. Kobote Kohei, Oiwa's faithful servant, discovered and was murdered as well. Iemon threw both corpses into a river and went to marry the neighbor's granddaughter. At the ceremony, as he lifted his new bride's veil, Iemon saw Oiwa’s disfigured face, beheading her and consequently his bride. Kohei's ghost also tricked him, causing Iemon to murder his father-in-law. After being pursued by Oiwa's vengeful ghost, Iemon was murdered by Oiwa's brother, avenging his evil deeds.
According to the legend, a curse accompanies Oiwa's story, and those who retell it suffer injuries and even death. To this day, producers, actors, and their crews continue to visit the grave of Oiwa in Tokyo before productions or adaptations of Yotsuya Kaidan, praying for her soul and asking for her blessing to tell her story once again.
In Ju-on and The Grudge
In both film series, onryo are depicted as pale ghostly figures capable of physically harming and killing their victims. Sometimes they can manifest in the opposite form, as dark wraiths. Under their grudge curse, they are able to haunt or consume an individual using the following abilities:
- Possession: When the ghost takes over a cursed individual, usually to recreate the murders that gathered its curse.
- Disturbance: When a cursed person is psychologically haunted by the ghosts, mostly by the apparitions of previous victims.
- Death rattle: Some ghosts such as Kayako and Haru emit the eerie sound on their victims.
- Cervical fracture: In The Grudge films and The Beginning of the End, Kayako's ghost often kills its victims by snapping their neck, recreating her own murder.
- Suffocation: Some victims can be supernaturally asphyxiated to death.
- Ripping of the jaw: Cursed individuals can also have their jaw forcibly ripped.
- Rebirth: Kayako was able to live once again through the pregnancy of Kyoko. The ghost of Toshio Yamada also found his second chance through Kayako, following her strong desire of becoming a mother.
- Reality Warping: Some ghosts like Kayako can resort to bending reality around them to perform unexpected ways of killing, ranging from materializing from unexpected objects/area around the victim (such as under blankets) to replace a person's reflection on a mirror with their ghostly images.
- Electromagnetic Interference: Some ghosts can interfering electronics around victims for better advantages to claim them.
- Haunting: Onryos like Kayako and Toshio can cause an area to be haunted by their spirits and those of their victims, triggering apparitions there in the process.
In asian horror
- It is never made clear in both Ju-on and The Grudge film series if Takeo Saeki became himself an onryō or is just a manifestation of Kayako's grudge and the curse itself. In a deleted scene of Ju-on: The Grudge, however, Takashi Shimizu refers to him as a "ghost".
- The scene in White Ghost where Haru's ghost confuses Fumiya and causes him to murder his girlfriend Chiho is reminiscent of the myth of Oiwa.
- Naoko wears a white kimono, as onryo are traditionally depicted in Japanese folklore.
- Fukie's twin is the only known onryo in films and in folklore to have dark black skin, unlike all the other Onryos, who's skin is chalk white.
- Although most characters are too frightened to fight back against the ghosts due to the disturbance, it is revealed in Ju-on: Video Side that when trying to hit them with an object, it passes through them, just like regular ghosts.
- Sadako Yamamura, the antagonist of her own Ring franchise, has clashed with Kayako Saeki in the crossover Sadako vs. Kayako. She is another famous horror character based on an Onryō.
- Another example of an Onryō in media is Samara Morgan (American counterpart to Sadako Yamamura) from The Ring, who is the vengeful spirit of a young girl who died from falling into a well now seeking revenge on others who dare to watch her cursed tape.
- Onryō at Yokai.com