Posted by David Kalat on July 7, 2012
J-Horror don’t get no respect. The long-haired ghosts have become a cliché to be ridiculed, and the tragedy of it is that the audiences perhaps best attuned to appreciate what J-Horror had to offer in its heyday are those least inclined to give it a chance. I know—I speak from experience. My love affair with J-Horror began, as all the best movie love affairs do, with opposition.
I grew up on horror movies—but to grow up on horror movies in the 1970s meant to grow up on a diet of gothic chillers. It’s an extinct animal these days, hounded off the earth and replaced by a coarser, ruder, more grisly genre that has changed what “horror” means.
The horror movies I fell in love with as a child were films about dread, free-floating fear, and abstract ideas. Fear of sex, fear that science was reaching hubristically too far, fear of the foreign, fear of one’s own inner demons—these were the themes underlying the best of the gothic chillers. Modern horror movies reduce it all down to the simplest element: fear of being killed.
The change in horror movies is not necessarily a bad thing—just because my tastes run one direction doesn’t mean my tastes are right. The gothic chillers I cut my teeth on were crafted in a different, more innocent age. Horror had to change, because the world in which the audience lived changed. In Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets, Boris Karloff plays himself, more or less, an aging star of monster movies whose personal appearance at a drive-in coincides with the arrival of a gun-toting madman who takes to killing the audience for no clear reason. In the 1960s and 70s, the real-life horrors of assassinations and riots and wars made it impossible to feel the same shivers from monsters of a more innocent age.
The summer after September 11, 2001 I was at a monster movie convention. The attendees, all of them fans of gothic chillers and creepy monsters, shared a dazed bewilderment at the unutterable horror the real world had too recently become. If the traumas of the late 1960s had rendered Frankenstein and Dracula obsolete, then how could Jason and Freddy and Leatherface possibly compete with real-life madmen who could vaporize thousands of innocent people in an instant?
It was at this event in 2001 that I was first introduced to The Ring.
A colleague was running a booth selling Japanese horror imports, and he tried to get me to watch Hideo Nakata’s The Ring—but I kept resisting. The problem for me was that the guy trying to convince me was running a stall selling bootlegs of various Japanese shockers such as the Guinea Pig films, and Guts of a Virgin. If you don’t recognize those titles, then you’re a happy lucky person. These are sadistic exercises in video cruelty that even gorehounds find extreme. In my mind, that’s what Japanese horror was: everything that was wrong with modern American horror films, but even more vicious, misogynistic, and depressing.
I wrongly pre-judged Ring to be something gaudy and rough. I almost missed the fact that, halfway around the world, the suspense-driven gothic thriller had been brought back from extinction.
Meanwhile, the Ring spread. At that point, Hideo Nakata’s 1998 motion picture had not yet been officially released in the United States. So it circulated instead through an underground subculture of fans who made copies for each other. “Here, ya gotta see this.” Ironically, that’s the same thing that happens in the movie: people make copies of a scary video for each other. Reportedly, if you watch this cursed videotape, exactly seven days later you drop dead. When a group of teenagers simultaneously die of unknown causes at different places around Tokyo, an investigative reporter traces their lives back to a common point when they watched a scary video together. She watches it herself, and realizes in horror she now has just one week to solve the mystery of the tape and save her own life.
One of the underground copies wound up in the hands of a man named Roy Lee, whose destiny was soon to become intertwined with Hideo Nakata’s. Lee was overwhelmed by the movie—no surprise, really, since everybody who saw it responded by a) loving the movie; b) recommending it to a friend; c) trying to make their own version; or d) some combination of the above. Since Lee worked in Hollywood, his ability to take action was substantially more advanced than the average fan. He made a copy for a development executive at Dreamworks Pictures, Mark Sourian. “Here, ya gotta see this.”
Sourian immediately phoned producers Walter F. Parkes and Laurie MacDonald: “Here, ya gotta see this.” Sourian copied the tape and sent it along to his producers. They watched it, and had the same reaction. They then copied the tape and mailed it to up-and-coming director Gore Verbinski (whose major credit at that time was Mousehunt).
And so, Dreamworks hired Verbinski to render Nakata’s film into English, with an explicit agenda of maintaining as much of Nakata’s atmosphere as possible. It arrived in theaters around Halloween-time 2002, and sported a decidedly low-key marketing campaign. Whatever I had mis-expected of the original, the remake was obviously aimed at—and attracting—a crowd of serious adults, who didn’t come out talking about the splatter FX but instead made comparisons to the early films of Luis Buñuel. My interest was piqued, and off to the theater I went.
I kept my expectations low—but as the film unspooled, I was enthralled, mystified, intrigued, and genuinely scared.
There is a moment towards the end when the entire cramped auditorium erupted in simultaneous shrieking. It’s been a long time since was genuinely shaken by a movie, and it set me out on a project of researching its history and coming to some kind of understanding of the genre.
Meanwhile, emboldened by its enormous success, Roy Lee went back for seconds. He started buying and selling remake rights to a slew of Japanese (and other Asian) horror flicks, brokering an entire remake genre all on his lonesome only. There was plenty to choose from, since the Asian film industry had responded to Ring by flooding theaters with similar ghost stories. One of the most popular of these was the haunted house movie Ju-On: The Grudge, by Takashi Shimizu. With Lee’s intermediary help, Shimizu was invited to come to Hollywood to direct an American remake of his own film. As “Americanizations” go, it’s a novelty–Shimizu hired an American cast including Sarah Michelle Gellar, and brought them out to Tokyo to shoot the film in Japanese with a Japanese supporting cast.
The Grudge turned out to be one of the major theatrical successes of 2004. Its cost was so low, and its box office returns so large, that it outperformed many expected blockbusters that had bigger stars and heftier promotion. The Grudge was so big, in fact, it caused industry observers to remark that Sarah Michelle Gellar was now a “real” star (forget that Buffy the Vampire Slayer stuff, that’s just TV).
Meanwhile, Roy Lee brokered more work for Hideo Nakata, including directing the Hollywood sequel to Verbinski’s remake of Nakata’s film. This movie was released on March 18, 2005 as The Ring Two. It bears no relation to the Japanese film Ring 2, which was also directed by Hideo Nakata.
I haven’t even broached the fact that in Japan the first attempt to sequelize Ring wasn’t Nakata’s Ring 2 at all, but a film called Spiral (no relation to the superior J-Horror film Spiral by Higuchinsky). This movie flopped so thoroughly, the producers tried to pretend it never existed, and commissioned Nakata to direct an entirely unrelated sequel.
Gore Verbinski’s version was not even the first remake of Ring: Korea had already produced a very fine version called The Ring Virus, which had been prepared almost immediately upon the Korean release of Nakata’s version. And for that matter, Nakata’s was not the first version, either. The earliest appearance of the story was Koji Suzuki’s novel, published in 1995. That was then adapted for a 1995 TV version The Ring: Complete Edition. Produced by Fuji-TV with a cast of soft-porn starlets, it managed to adhere very closely to the novel while adding as much nudity as possible. For a film with so many bare breasts, The Ring: Complete Edition is staggeringly dull and uninspired. Koji Suzuki told me it was popular in its original run, but I don’t know how to believe that. Nakata’s take on the material, from a screenplay adaptation by Hiroshi Takahashi, works so very many improvements it is tempting to forget about the TV version altogether.
While the TV version of The Ring is a washout, and the various sequels suffer a bit, the three major film versions are all extremely well-made. Each of these versions can be said to be a remake of someone else’s prior work, yet each once has its own visionary strength. And despite sharing a very high percentage of their filmic DNA (these three cousins differ in only minor ways) they managed to be huge successes and inspirational influences in the different cultures and film industries of Japan, Korea, and the United States.
In various countries, the local variant of The Ring made a huge splash that sent out ever-widening ripples. Japanese, Korean, and American filmmakers rushed to mimic the success of The Ring with similar follow-ups. A consistent aesthetic sensibility developed, with a common set of storytelling themes and visual ideas that linked the movies together in a single sub-genre. This much is to be expected. What is startling—puzzling, even—is that the films made in the wake of The Ring not only maintain a uniform set of ingredients (dead wet girls, ghosts, urban legends, female heroes, viral curses) but a uniform quality as well.
Now, let’s stop here and remark on just how bizarre this is.
It turns film history on its head. There have been Western reworkings of Japanese blockbusters before–but turning Seven Samurai into The Magnificent Seven involved a wholesale reimaging of the setting and the style, not a slavish insistence on maintaining the original approach. There have been attempts to transform Japanese popular culture into something palatable to Americans–but Americanization of things like Godzilla movies tried to efface the original’s Asian origins, not hire the Japanese filmmakers to go do the “remakes” in Japan in Japanese! And since when has a slew of knock-offs and bandwagon-jumpers ever kept pace with the quality of the trendsetters?
When Star Wars broke into theaters in 1977 it sent a similar shock wave, inspiring imitators and knock-offs to try to duplicate its success. A few of these Star Wars wanna-be’s managed to get enough traction to hold on as moderately popular TV series—Battlestar Galactica, for example, or Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. Far more common were the likes of Message From Space, which may have been directed by one of Japan’s more interesting and storied filmmakers, the late great Kinji Fukusaku, but it’s a mess of a movie and insufferable to watch. If you’re a Star Wars fan, you might as well not bother trying to find an imitator that can justify itself on its own merits.
Uniquely, The Ring (choose one) set in motion a cycle that produced films of actual quality, worth watching, discrete and independent of one another.
Part of this is attributable to the fact that unlike the world of Star Wars knock-offs, the various movies that burbled up in the aftermath of The Ring tended to involve the same creative forces: novelist Koji Suzuki, manga artist Junji Ito, producer-director Kiyoshi Kurosawa, director Hideo Nakata, director Takashi Shimizu, screenwriter Hiroshi Takahashi, director Masayuki Ochiai, director Norio Tsuruta, producer Takashige Ichise, to name a few.
It is then quite natural that the same imagery and thematic concerns recur over and over again throughout the cycle. What makes these few people tick is what makes their movies tick. What we find in the recurring visions of ghostly schoolgirls, dark water, viral curses, and disrupted families is a common iconographic language. The written language of Japan is ideograms–characters that don’t represent isolated sounds as in our alphabet but are symbols representing ideas. Depending on context, the meaning and pronunciation of a kanji character will change. The imagery of J-Horror is a sort of cinematic kanji, using an alphabet of phantoms to symbolize larger issues.
Of this symbolic alphabet, certain symbols are especially common, and their relationship to modern Japanese fears are fairly easy to trace. For example, suicides feature prominently in these films, while suicide rates in Japan happen to be alarmingly on the rise. The hauntings and curses of these films tend to spread in a viral fashion, an epidemic of spookiness: after the deadly Sarin gas attack on a Tokyo subway in 1995, fears of bioterrorism and plagues are quite naturally weighing on the Japanese mind. The prevalence of water imagery is also striking (here’s a drinking game for you: slam a shot every time one of these films shows a bathtub filled with some dark murky liquid). As an island nation whose fate is linked with the sea’s bounties, threatened by tidal waves and tsunamis, Japan’s longstanding awe of water goes back farther and deeper than any fear of nasty microbes.
By far the most recurrent image in J-Horror is the dead wet girl herself. Nothin’ says scary like a chick with her hair hanging in front of her face. It’s tempting to write this off as obvious mimicry of Ring. In Hideo Nakata’s landmark, the monster is the ghost of a girl drowned in a well, so everyone following in his footsteps feels honor-bound to include a drowned girl somewhere in the plot. But we’re missing something if we leave it at that.
Legends of female demons are part of ancient Japanese folklore. More recent (that is, 20th century) art forms have popularized stories of Oiwa (a murdered woman who returns from the grave to avenge her death), and Okiku (a girl drowned in a well who then haunts the place of her death—sound familiar?). Nakata has gone on record that the film that most directly influenced his style… well, it was Robert Wise’s The Haunting. OK, bad example, but the Japanese film that most influenced him was Nobuo Nakagawa’s 1959 Ghost Story of Yatsuya. Since this highly regarded Japanese classic is not well known outside their country, a quick refresher is in order.
It’s set in the same feudal Japan as many of Akira Kurosawa’s samurai pictures, but the samurai in this picture is no noble hero. This guy is a Grade A bastard, whose approach to wooing his lady love is to kill her father, kill her friends, kidnap her sister, steal her money, frame her for adultery, poison her and dump her corpse into the river. Her ghost returns with an eye towards meting out some justice, poltergeist-style. Along the way the audience is treated to scenes of a pallid ghostly woman, and water clogged with clumps of black hair.
Ghostly schoolkids feature in such pre-Ring J-Horrors as 1995′s The Haunted School and Phantom of the Toilet (yes, you read that correctly, phantom of the toilet). The evil ghost girl with hair combed in front of her face and a viral curse in plan shows up in Masayuki Ochiai’s Parasite Eve, made a year before Ring made its impression. So what gives?
Notice how the ghostly schoolgirls are ghosts in the first place because they were once victims of some terrible crime, returning as phantoms to threaten other children, and confronted by (in most cases) female heroes. The victims and villains of ghostly curses intertwine, with women and girls presented as both vulnerable and powerful at the same time. These movies are not so much about monsters, not in the literal sense. Instead, the monsters serve to highlight alienation, how modern society disrupts traditional family structures and leaves the most vulnerable of us alone in an unfriendly world.
The connective tissue that links the many symbols of J-Horror together is sexual deviancy and violation of traditional family structures. These movies consistently invoke incest, rape, abortion, divorce, adultery, the irredeemable trauma of child abuse… in each of these films we find some departure from established traditions of how men and women are “supposed” to relate to one another and form families. These departures threaten the existing order, and lead to anxious, uncertain futures. The modern world with all its progressive ideas gives women the power and opportunity to break away from their traditionally circumscribed roles in society, but as women increasingly turn away from established orthodoxy they threaten the social order—something these films represent with monsters and ghosts. What else are ghosts but the revenge of the past on the present?
When I asked Norio Tsuruta (director of Ring 0: Birthday, and arguably the creator of J-Horror’s visual style) what it was about long black hair Japanese folk found so unsettling, he explained that in feudal Japan the custom was for me to wear their hair very long. As a contrast, women were expected to have their hair neatly closed up. So, a woman whose hair was lengthy like a man’s, and wildly unkempt, signaled deviance—perhaps madness or even demonic possession. At the very least, it signified a woman who was…non-conformist.
Many of the vengeful ghosts in these films are set on their path of destruction after a moment of betrayal by an object of love: a parent, a boyfriend, a subject of some irrational crush. Everyone has felt the burn of rejection—it is not a hard leap to imagine what havoc we might have wreaked had we been gifted with some awesome power at that moment of pain. The bad things that happen in life are not isolated or contained—when one of us is hurt, it affects us all. More importantly, when the family is threatened, the whole of society is endangered.
American horror movies rally around some singular monster—a Freddy, a Jason, a Michael Myers—on the theory that if we can find a way to stop or contain that one bad egg, then everything will be OK again. J-Horror depicts supernatural horrors that propagate themselves, exponentially growing in power and reach with every new innocent victim. These are dark, unhappy tales of perpetual defeat and endless suffering, with no escape possible.
There is no correct response to the curse of the Ring. The girl at the bottom of the well can never be made right again. Love her, help her, kill her, whatever, it doesn’t matter, nothing changes. You’ll just have to live in her world, you have to accept the future, whether you like it or not.
This is a powerful lesson for audiences in the grip of wrenching change. The 21st century is a scary place, with global unrest and technological advances changing the landscape in irreversible and often terrifying ways. Some people retreat into comfortable and reassuring dogmas, religious or political security blankets. J-Horror has spread across the globe in a time of anxiety and fear with another, less reassuring path, into the future: if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.
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