Coming to America: J-Horror

by Mary Grob

Film critics and fans alike agree that the American horror genre entered into a slump during the 1990’s that it has yet to recover from. Gone are the days of psychological thrillers like Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, and even the slasher film, an American horror stable since the 1970’s, has lost its appeal. Horror fans have been left wanting something new to chill their blood [1]. In the late 1990’s, a new wave of films known as J-Horror began to develop a cult following in the US. Soon after, Hollywood began to take notice of these foreign films, and the answer to America’s horror slump appeared to have been found within Japan.

History of Horror in Japan

The horror genre has a long history within Japanese culture. Since before the advent of cinema, Japan’s art used zankoku no bi or an ‘aesthetic of cruelty‘ which is dominated by “a highly aestheticized, even fantastical world where the inherent sadism is muted by artistic technique [3].” Both the Noe and Kabuki Theatre drew on this “aesthetic of cruelty” during its plays, mixing the supernatural with the natural world of violence; however, the horror genre was not limited to the stage. Mizoguchi Kenji’s horror film Ugetsu (1953) was based off a collection of short stories called Ugetsu Monogatan, first published in Japan in 1776 [4].

The horror genre made a smooth transition in Japan from stage to screen. The first horror films ever made in Japan were interpretation of Kabuki plays. As film developed as a medium, the Japanese horror genre expanded. From kaidan (avenging spirit films) to daikaiju eiga (giant monster films), filmmakers used horror as a medium to explore societal angst and fears.

The Beginning of J-Horror

In 1998, during the middle of the American horror slump, Nakata Hideo released Ringu in Japan. The movie turned into a surprising critical and commercial success. Filmed on a modest budget of $1.3 million dollars, Ringu went on to become the highest grossing horror film in Japan, netting $137.7 million dollars [1]. Less than four years later, Gore Verbinski released his Hollywood version  The Ring. The film was so successful that Hollywood continued to remake Japanese movie after movie. In the process, this helped the original films to become more readily available in the US. This new phenomena of the importation of Japanese horror films and integration of plot lines into American remakes led film critics to ask the question, why Japan?YouTube Preview Image

Trailer Ringu 1998

YouTube Preview Image

Trailer The Ring 2002

Genre or Japan

In a New York Times review of the Hollywood remake of the Hong Kong film The Eye, critic Terence Refferty claimed, “horror is by its nature a good deal friendlier to cross-cultural transplantation than most movie genres, because fear is universal in a way, that, say, a sense of humor is not: what we dread is far less socially determined than what we laugh at [3].” But is the appeal of these film really as simple as that they induce fear? Does horror transcend cultural distinctions?

To agree with Refferty’s claim is to ignore some of the unique aspects of J-Horror that distinguish it from US horror films. American movies often feel the need to provide some sort of logic or morality behind the plot. The tragedy that befalls the protagonist stems from a past transgression or miscalculation. Characters are normally strictly villainize or victimized. Even if we fault a character for his past decision, we sill sympathize with him as he is persecuted. J-Horror complicates this narrative. Instead of following the victim, the film often follow an avenger, who is attempting to right the wrong inflicted upon him or her. Though gore is a stable of horror regardless of country, J-Horror has also taken violence on screen to a new level. When Miike Takashi‘s Audition played at the Rotterdam Film Festival, dozens of audience members walked out and one woman even fainted and was taken to a local hospital. [3].

The US remakes share characteristics with both the original J-Horror films and typical Hollywood horror conventions. For the most part, the remakes do not deviate greatly from the plots of their source material. However, the US films devote a much larger portion of time to exposition especially if the film deals at all with supernatural elements.

It is not just plot that separates J-Horror from Hollywood horror. Even the American remakes foster the sense that there is something unique about Japan. Both Nakata Hideo and Shimizu Takashi were asked to direct the American remakes of their own  films. Shimizu even kept The Grudge located in Tokyo rather than moving the film to an American city. Japan still has a clear presence in these new interpretations [5].

The Future of Horror

Tom Mes, author of The Midnight Eye Guide to  New Japanese Film, and critics like him have begun to write that the end of J-Horror is near. He claims the proliferation of sequels and remakes has weakened the genre. The original power of a film like Ringu is destroyed as Hollywood continues to try to exploit the franchise [4]. Only time will tell if Japan is about to enter its own horror slump.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Do you agree with Mes that the era of J-Horror is coming to an end?
  2. Can an American remake be construed as Japanese?
  3. Are J-Horror films popular becomes they are good examples of the horror genre or because they are Japanese?

Sources:

1. Mes, Tom and Jasper Sharp. The Midnight Eye Guide to New Japanese Film. Berkley: Stone Bridge Press, 2005. Print. <http://www.amazon.com/Midnight-Eye-Guide-Japanese-Film/dp/1880656892>.

2. Hantke, Steffen. American Horror Film: The Genre at the Turn of the Millennium. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2010. Print. <http://www.amazon.com/American-Horror-Film-Genre-Millennium/dp/1604734531>.

3. McRoy, Jay. Japanese Horror Cinema. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005. Print.

<http://www.amazon.com/Japanese-Horror-Cinema-Jay-McRoy/dp/0824829905>.

4. Mes Tom and Jasper Sharp. The Midnight Eye. Midnight Eye. 2001 Web. 26 March

2011. <http://www.midnighteye.com/features/death-of-j-horror.shtml>.

5. Corliss, Richard. “Horror: Made in Japan.” Time Magazine. 25 July 2004. Print

<http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,672606,00.html>.

Contributed by Mary Grob

Comments

  1. Tori Szczesniak says:

    I really like the topic of your post. I had no idea that America has been remaking a bunch of Japanese horror films. I also like your discussion questions and your train of thought of topics. Great idea to include the trailers. I would have liked to learn more specific details, like how many J-horror films are adapted by Americans? I would love to hear some reflections on the critic’s question “why Japan?” You also ask the questions, “But is the appeal of these film really as simply as that they are scary? Does horror transcend cultural distinctions?” that I want to know the answers to. I would recommend just bulking up the post with a few more facts and you’re good to go!

  2. glhaynes says:

    A well thought-out article, Mary. Having watched a grand total of four horror movies in my life, I’m probably not the best person to respond intelligently to this post, but I’ll try anyway.

    While I’m not sure whether J-horror as a subgenre is fading, the fact that most of recently produced J-horror films are sequels of previous successful sales seems telling. Are the Hollywood studios producing these films incapable of creating original J-horror of their own? If that is the case, it could be support for the argument that there is a uniquely Japanese bent to J-horror movies. Alternatively, couldn’t the general decline of J-horror in the American market be seen as just a continuation of the downward trend of horror movies in the US as a whole?

    It seems to me that American remakes of J-horror films likely can be construed as Japanese in origin; at the very least they are certainly ‘other’ to the standard American horror movie, and that otherness is one of the attractive qualities of the genre. One of the four horror movies I’ve seen is The Ring; I could definitely tell that it was different from the Hitchcock and slasher movies I’d also seen.

    Questions for you: I’m not sure how much is changed in an original J-horror film when it is remade in English, perhaps that could be explored further? In a similar vein, and coming from someone who has seen very few horror movies, I’d like to hear some more about what makes J-horror distinct from typical Hollywood-produced horror movies.

    Cheers!
    Gibson