Japanese Horror Art in Cinema and Their American Remakes

Valerie Wee
Valerie Wee

Upon its release in 1998, the Japanese horror film ‘Ringu’ (Hideo Nakata) quickly attained cult status in the East, subsequently inspiring an American adaptation, ‘The Ring’ (Gore Verbinski, 2002). This sparked a trend in which Hollywood began remaking Japanese and Asian horror films.

Following ‘The Ring’s box-office success, other Japanese horror films, including ‘Ju-On’ (Takashi Shimizu, 2002), ‘Ringu’ director Hideo Nakata’s ‘Honogurai Mizu no Soko kara’ (2001, henceforth ‘Honogurai mizu’), Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s ‘Kairo’ (2001), and ‘Chakushin ari’ (Takashi Miike, 2003), were remade by Hollywood as ‘The Grudge’ (Takashi Shimizu, 2004), ‘Dark Water’ (Walter Salles, 2005), ‘Pulse’ (Jim Sonzero, 2005), and ‘One Missed Call’ (Eric Valette, 2008), respectively.

This phenomenon offers an opportunity to engage in comparative examinations that could provide rich insights into how differing cultural and ideological anxieties find expression in a range of narrative and representational revisions undertaken during the remaking process, even as it remains inevitable that each culture’s products engage in an intricate cycle of mutual interaction and cross-cultural influence.

This article explores the complex exercise of textual transformation involved in translating films from one distinct culture to another, offering an in-depth investigation into the representations and conceptions of horror specific to Japan and Hollywood, while also acknowledging those anxieties and fears that transcend cultures and are commonly shared.

‘Japanese Horror Films and Their American Remakes’ proposes that while the films mentioned above share numerous narrative and thematic similarities, there remain significant divergences in each version’s treatment, execution, depiction, and resolution of key textual elements, differences that can be traced to distinct historical narrative and aesthetic conventions, and specific contemporary ideologies and attitudes.

This article is particularly interested in how contemporary Japanese horror film expresses distinctive values and ideologies, and how these points of view are changed and, in some cases, rejected, during the process of adapting the text for a different culture and a different audience.

Thus, one of this book’s key objectives is to delineate the multifaceted ways in which textual elements are revised, with an aim to highlighting both what is gained and lost in the process. By comparing the Japanese perspective expressed in ‘Ring’ , ‘Honogurai mizu’, ‘Ju-On’, ‘Kairo’, and ‘Chakushin ari’ to their American counterparts, ‘The Ring’, ‘Dark Water’, ‘The Grudge’, ‘Pulse’, and ‘One Missed Call’, this study highlights how contemporary constructions and indices of horror and the supernatural are shaped by and continue to uphold potentially unique worldviews, while also acknowledging the ways in which these national cinemas have influenced each other.

The assumption that different cultural texts reflect specific cultural beliefs, aesthetic practices, and value systems is a familiar one. In the film, there is an established tradition of comparing different national cinemas with an eye to understanding the particular traditions that have helped shape that culture’s cinematic narratives, styles, and beliefs.

The view that Japanese and American cinema exists as separate and unique forms of creative and aesthetic expression reflecting distinct cultural perspectives is commonly expressed in several classic studies of Japanese popular culture and cinema.

Ruth Benedict’s ‘The Chrysanthemum and the Sword’ and Joseph Anderson and Donald Richie’s seminal text on Japanese cinema, ‘The Japanese Film: Art and Industry’, both assume that Japanese cinema and popular culture exists as an expression of an idiosyncratic and identifiable national character and identity.

Similar views of Japanese cinema as a unique alternative to Western and Hollywood cinema continue to surface in other English-language studies of Japanese film and popular culture.

Donald Richie, Noël Burch, Joan Mellen, and more recently, Cynthia Contreras, Kathe Geist, Susan Napier (‘Anime’), and Takashi Murakami (‘Earth’; ‘Superflat’) have all emphasized the distinct and unique nature of Japanese culture and its aesthetics in their analyses of Japanese cinema, foregrounding the enduring influence of Japanese traditions and stylistic practices on its modern popular culture.

Perceptions of Japanese cinema as narratively obscure, featuring inscrutable characters, and embracing culturally distinct aesthetic practices accessible only to those familiar and steeped in Japanese culture encourages the notion that it is characteristically unique and distinct. These studies reflect what Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto identifies as a “position of Japanese cinema [that] maintained its territoriality through a double process of inclusion and exclusion”.

Whereas these scholars highlight significant distinctions that set Japanese film and culture apart from others, other scholars have pointed out the danger of reinforcing cultural essentialism that fails to adequately value the complex dynamics of cultural flows and influences that are also a part of cultural evolution.

This is a point that David Bordwell argues, noting that “a historical examination of the Japanese cinema must confront the fact that it is not wholly other, not a blank, drastic alternative” (“Dream” 46).

Darrell William Davis, William O. Gardner, Douglas McGray, and Jay McRoy represent the branch of Japanese film scholars and cultural commentators that has heeded Bordwell’s call. These individuals acknowledge the distinct qualities of Japanese culture while also noting Japan’s ability to adopt, hybridize, and incorporate external cultural influences, often commenting on the cross-cultural interactions that shape and characterize Japanese popular culture.

As McGray asserts, “Japan was […] fusing elements of other national cultures” into an “almost-coherent whole” as early as the fifth-century. These scholars and commentators, therefore, emphasize the porosity of Japanese culture in general, and Japanese film in particular, highlighting the assertion that Japanese cinema continues to be shaped by productive negotiations with other film cultures since its earliest origins.

Discussions of Hollywood’s historical development often acknowledge the industry’s great willingness to absorb and adapt influences from other national cinemas. As early as the silent film era, Hollywood welcomed European filmmakers and embraced their artistic contributions.

German Expressionist filmmakers including Fritz Lang and Karl Freund joined Hollywood studios and brought with them their distinctive cinematic and stylistic practices, even as they absorbed Hollywood’s preferred narrative and stylistic conventions into their filmmaking activities. And just as these Expressionist filmmakers working in Hollywood in the late 1920s and early 1930s helped launch the Hollywood horror genre, translating the Expressionist style into a visual tradition that would come to represent Hollywood’s notions of cinematic terror and the monstrous, almost a century later, Hollywood’s interest in Japanese horror showcases Hollywood’s ongoing commitment to pursue contributions from non-Hollywood sources.

Notably, Hideo Nakata and Takashi Shimizu were both hired by Hollywood studios to helm American horror films based on their successful Japanese versions.

Thus, despite holding the view that any national cinema will inevitably reveal unique and distinct expressions of national culture and identity, it also remains true that any national cinema is inevitably shaped by cross-cultural exchange. In fact, despite the apparent differences that distinguish American and Japanese (popular) culture in general, and Hollywood and Japanese cinematic forms and traditions in particular, there remains an undeniable degree of interaction and exchange between the two nations and industries.

The Japanese and American horror films at the heart of this study stand as valuable examples of this tension between cultural specificity and cross-cultural influence.

Acknowledging and investigating these complex developments involves pointing out the key qualities within each film that reflect a culturally specific perspective, working off the assumption that the distinct ideologies, messages, and aesthetics encompassed in contemporary Japanese and American horror films reveal complex attempts at expressing and negotiating historically specific socio-cultural and political anxieties.

At the same time, this study cannot legitimately proceed without recognizing the multiple ways in which these texts also reflect and reveal the complicated influences from (each) other(’s) film cultures and also highlighting the shared fears explored in the films, fears that clearly transcend cultural and geographic boundaries.

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