This killer examination of the J-Horror genre and attempts to remake these films in America is courtesy of an old mate of mine Jon Fisher. Read on for the goodness.
I recall hiking to the cinema to see The Ring (2002), Gore Verbinski’s psychological thriller/horror starring Naomi Watts as a young journalist investigating a series of mysterious deaths that appear to have a correlation with (or be caused by) a strange home-made video. The film was a smashing success financially – the kind of sleeper hit that production studios dream about. I thought Verbinski’s film was a well-made, rather elegant example of a genre that usually elicits boredom. There was something different about it, right down to the way much of the apprehensive matter was presented (the jagged motions of the ‘freaky girl’ antagonist, the slow seeping water scenes). Horror movies are usually, as Wes Craven stated so elegantly in Scream (1996) via his proxy Sidney Nolan, about “some stupid killer stalking some big-breasted girl who can’t act who is always running up the stairs when she should be running out the front door.”
The Ring, of course, was based on a Japanese horror film, Ringu (1998). Ringu is a vintage J-Horror film in that it ticks a number of the boxes for that genre. The plot focuses on a victim – usually a dark-haired young girl – who has been subjected to an atrocious miscarriage of justice. The perpetrator has usually either died without suffering for their crime, or is living a normal life within the community. If the perpetrator is still alive, the victim focuses their vengeance on them. If not, innocent bystanders are usually subjected to torturous, creepy and eventually fatal stalking by the victim. Ju-On: The Grudge (2002) is another example of this prototypical Japanese horror story format. (Interestingly, Shutter (2004), is a Thai horror movie that covers much of the same ground – perhaps revealing something about horror mythology and folk tales from Asia generally)
It almost goes without saying that the J-Horror titles are fundamentally different to American horror. J-Horror, like American horror, sits firmly in the realm of ‘film as entertainment’. It would be an error to claim that the genre as a whole is flawless and more sturdy than its American counterpart. But in much of the J-Horror canon, particularly the really good titles, there is an underlying mythology and obsession with leitmotifs that is fundamentally different to American sensibilities. That’s not to say the mythology is necessarily better or worse – they simply differ. J-Horrors usually involve a festering desire for revenge, justice delivered long after wrongdoing, and of course fear of the unknown. It gets more complex than that, of course, but to put it simply – people get scared by different things in different cultures.
Take Audition (1999), a psychological thriller about a male widower searching for a new wife. The widower devises a mock casting audition for his new flame. The film eventually meanders down a dark path, in the end revealing itself as a parable about the dangers of brazenly confecting love and romance – a theme that is particularly compelling considering Japanese perspectives on sex and sexuality, which are considerably different to the American emotional response.
It’s a sad observation that American horror films are generally vapid, predictable, overly reliant on gore and critically lacking in complexity. It must be noted, though, that the genre has had something of a mild renaissance with strong titles like Insidious (2011), Paranormal Activity (2007), The Cabin in the Woods (2012) and others. Those titles, though, are successful primarily because they are imbued with American sensibilities. It doesn’t quite work to take a set of parameters that clearly apply to another country’s culture and just plonk them into New York City, replacing the Japanese lead with Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Doing so comes across as creatively lazy and vapid.
Successful American J-Horror remakes – of which there are surprisingly few – like The Ring take influence from the presentation of horror rather than the seeds of horror itself. Mirror the slow-burning presentation of pursuit and supernatural ‘toying’ with the victim, sure – but don’t make the mistake of transplanting cultural milieus that have credibility within another culture that aren’t appropriate for your audience. Audition works because of the cultural stigma of being a sexually domineering person. Could that motif really horrify people in the land of Keeping up with the Kardashians?
To see a little of what I am saying, here is Audition for your viewing pleasure.
Jon formerly wrote The Film Brief website and hosted a podcast of the same name (with me as his co-host). You can now find Jon’s latest work at Wide Angle Iris, a site he runs with the talented Rollie Schott. Be sure to check out their stuff over at that site.