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Project Zero (Fatal Frame) V: Japanese Folklore & Ghost Stories


Despite the lukewarm reception that Project Zero: Maiden of Black Water received from Destructoid upon it's release, I kept my physical edition preorder (my wife talked sense into me that it was just one of many reviews - some of which like Edge magazine gave an overwhelmingly positive 8/10 - and that I probably wouldn't get chance to change my mind later) .I've been playing through the game since Halloween and so far I'm absolutely *loving* it, and it feels great to be playing a true and traditional survival horror game again after being disappointed in recent years with games like Outlast; which just isn't scary to me. I'm on Chapter Eleven at the moment, I believe out of a total Fourteen, so it probably won't be too long until I put up my own review... but even then, this game has got me thinking. Just what is it about the latest Project Zero that terrifies me so much? Why do I find this game scary? Since I started the game I've had to sleep with my bedroom door shut because it's obviously effecting me even after turning it off for the evening, and I've not felt this way since the heyday of J-Horror films like Ringu or Ju-On. Those 90s films pulled a ton of inspiration and iconography from traditional Japanese ghost stories and folklore, and Project Zero is no different; perhaps this is what scares me to my core. Japanese ghost stories are just *really* creepy and esoteric, and there are lots of real-life locations and events referenced in Project Zero: Maiden of Black Water that I think bare discussing about in more detail.

The setting for the latest Project Zero is 'Mount Hikami', a haunted forest-covered mountainside that drawn people from all over Japan to commit suicide, often by hanging themselves from trees, and in this respect it is obviously a ficticious hybrid of both 'Mount Mihara' and the infamous 'Sea of Trees'. Officially called Aokigahara (which means "green fields"), the Sea of Trees is an expanse of wilderness at the base of Mount Fuji, that most iconic of Japanese natural landmarks. Since 1939 hundreds of people from across the country have been visiting this dark and brooding forest every year to commit suicide, and understandably the place has now gained a bit of a sinister reputation, with people people considering the forest itself haunted and likely to actually be the cause of many suicides there. This whole thing was "recently" sparked by a book called Tower of Waves (a 1939 novel about a couple committing suicide in Aokigahara), and shifted the focus of national suicides to the 'Sea of Trees' away from 'Mount Mihara', which since 1933 has been attracting people to throw themselves into the volcano. Project Zero's fictitious setting combines these two locations effectively to make a spooky forest littered with the ghosts of suicide victims, leading up to a caldera at the mountain's summit flooded with the titular black water.

Another creepy location in and around 'Mount Hikami' is a very dangerous and extremely haunted tunnel, which is again based on the real location of 'Jomon Tunnel', and even extends its influence into the plot of Maiden of Black Water. This is but one of several infamous haunted tunnels across Japan, and is a railway tunnel of modest length up north in Hokkaido, which to this day people try and avoid because of its grim reputation. Cut from the mountain rock mostly by the hands of prisoners and work-gangs, many people perished in the construction of 'Jomon Tunnel', and a pit of crushed workers was found at the one end of the orifice confirming that many had died through landslides or roof-collapses. This plays in with Project Zero's use of the tunnel, which is very similar, and explains the hauntings. The real-life location however is several order of magnitude more creepy though because it is a site of 'hitobashira', or "human pillars", a form of human sacrifice intended to protect a structure and "seal it" against spiritual forces. In the 1970s some workers repairing part of the tunnel discovered human remains bricked-up in a ritualistic standing position,somewhat proving that 'hitobashira' may be involved and indeed that the tunnel is an extremely unpleasant part of Japan! In the plot of Project Zero, young shrine maidens are ritualistically drowned in boxes filled with black water and buried all over the place to create "human pillars" in a similar fashion to 'Jomon Tunnel'. *shudder*

One of the creepiest locations for me personally in Maiden of Black Water is the 'Shrine of Dolls', a small Shinto shrine halfway up the mountain covered with creepy old traditional dolls; some are small but some are about the size of small children which sometimes come alive and... well, it's just horrific really! Possessed/haunted dolls have a tradition in Japanese folklore, with some still knocking around even to this day. The most famous of these dolls is the 'Okiku Doll', currently housed in 'Mannenji Temple' in Hokkaido (what is it with that place and ghosts!?), which houses the displaced soul of a dead girl and continues to grow human-looking hair. It is often believed that toys, especially dolls that look quite human, when cherished by children sometimes become haunted or have spirits trapped inside them. This is why dolls are often brought to shrines in a practice called 'ningyo-kuyo' where they are consecrated and properly disposed of, otherwise people believe you could face a rather horrific haunting on your hands. In Project Zero, the 'Shrine of Dolls' is covered with traditional white-faced black-haired 'ohina' dolls, interred in a 'ningyo-kuyo' fashion and often returned to the waters of the mountain to consecrate them.

I couldn't find a picture of it, and didn't take my own on MiiVerse, but there's a sequence very early on in Maiden of Black Water where a character watches in stunned horror as the ghostly bodies of dozens of dead shrine maidens fall down within a waterfall, flooding the pool in the sacred shrine below. This is very reminiscent of 'Oiran Buchi' or "the courtesan's abyss" at real-life 'Choshi Falls'. This haunted location is supposedly the place where fifty-five women were drowned in the river and dashed upon the rocks of the waterfall below, leading to the site becoming extremely haunted. One theory is that is was Takeda Shingen's "walking maidens" (sounds similar to "shrine maidens" right!?), the guardians of his lucrative goldmine who he had killed to protect the secret. Either way, this is one of the most famous stories of mass-drownings of women in large bodies of water, especially involving a waterfall, and it is surely more than coincidence that this sequence is repeated in Project Zero. Because of the life-after-death mythology involving crossing the 'River Sanzu', water has always been seen as having a strong connection with the spirit realm in Japan, which also ties in with the wetness-meter mechanic in the latest Project Zero game; the more water-logged you are the more ghosts can harm you.

Finally, the ghosts themselves pull inspiration heavily from traditional representation of spirits in Japan, especially from the old ghost stories of 'Oiwa' and 'Okiku' (not to be confused with the aforementioned creepy doll). These tales often featured in traditional Kabuki theatre and paved the way for the common signifiers of Japanese ghosts that have endured the ages and even influenced modern horror stories like Ringu and Project Zero. Common traits include: long and lank black hair hanging freely over the face (think 'Sadako' from Ringu or the titular Maiden of Black Water), white kimonos worn in traditional funeral custom (right-over-left style), dangling limp hands and 'hitodama'. This last one is important because it even ties into the combat mechanics of Project Zero! When you take pictures of ghosts and do damage to them, you cause parts of them to break away and fly around the ghost as weird orbs - these are 'hitodama' or "orbs of human soul" - capturing them on film is essential for exorcising the angry spirit. In fact, the whole premise of Project Zero comes from 'Shinrei Sashin', or Japanese ghost photography, which began in 1878 and reached popularity once more in the 1980s, inspiring a new generation of spirit photographers. The Japanese government even experimented at one point with 'nensha' psychic photography, which doesn't even involve a camera, and probably also inspired other elements of this videogame series. I hope this has been informative, and helps you sleep at night knowing there's all this weird s**t out there!! I know I won't.

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About n0signalone of us since 2:01 AM on 10.06.2014

Videogames have come a long way since the 8-bit and 16-bit days of old, and it is now one of the most interesting and constantly-evolving storytelling mediums. I started blogging about videogames a few years ago because I am very passionate about certain experiences I've had, which I don't think could have existed outside of our unique hobby, and I wanted to share this with other like-minded people on the internet.

I'm based in the UK and my favourite videogame of all time is probably still Shadow of the Colossus, but other more recent games such as the impeccable Dark Souls and Journey have given it a run for its money. My other interests, and things I have blogged extensively about, are board games and Japanese anime. I've got a degree in Media Communications and Film, and I'm currently a Teacher of ICT.

I post fairly regularly on my personal blog at https://n0timportant.blogspot.co.uk/, so please visit there for legacy videogame reviews and articles on anime, boardgames, etc.