Horror, Japanese Style: Beyond "The Grudge"

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Horror, Japanese Style: Beyond "The Grudge"

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
October 29, 2004

The success of the new horror movie The Grudge, a U.S. remake of the Japanese hit Ju-On, has moved the Japanese horror movie genre to the front of the Hollywood cue—and just in time for Halloween.

Now, with a slew of U.S. remakes of Japanese horror movies in the pipeline, audiences beware: These are not your typical monster-in-the-closet scary movies.

Japanese horror movies—or "J-horror" as the genre is referred to by its diehard fans—are marked by a subtlety and restraint foreign to most U.S. horror.

"There's an acceptance of the unexplained and the irrational in Japanese horror movies that was never very big in American horror films," said Patrick Macias, author of Tokyoscope: The Japanese Cult Film Companion.

The Grudge is a remake directed by Takashi Shimuzu, the filmmaker of the Japanese original. It grossed U.S. $40 million in U.S. theaters in its opening weekend.

The movie tells the story of a curse that befalls people who die in the grip of a powerful rage. Continuing to live in a supernatural state, the people pass along the curse like a virus from one victim to the next.

Reality Breakdown

Japanese horror movies draw on thousands of years of folklore, ghost stories, supernatural myths, and tales of honor and loyalty.

Movies like 1954's Godzilla grew out of Japan's World War II experience with the atomic bomb and were concerned with mass destruction. The 1960s, though, saw a spate of artfully made ghost stories.

"These were safe, distant fantasies for audiences that felt secure in their community," said Stuart Galbraith IV, a film historian who lives in Kyoto, Japan.

"Since then I think horror movies have begun tapping into the unease many Japanese feel as the ills of the [outside] world have encroached on Japanese life." he said. "For instance, Japan is no longer the fantastically safe country it famously once was, and the slumping economy has destabilized the notion of lifelong job security."

In Japan this unease is impolite to express in public, Galbraith said, but the anxiety is reflected in Japanese horror movies.

Today's Japanese horror filmmakers, many of whom grew up in the 1980s, may not have the same connection to history. As a result, their movies deal more with the breakdown of reality, of families, and of the mind.

"The world has become a much scarier and more irrational place in the last few years," Macias said. "These films, on a subconscious level, are about dealing with the unexplained."

The Japanese thriller Ringu spawned the successful U.S. remake The Ring in 2002. The movies tapped into contemporary Japanese anxieties about mass media with its story about the vengeful spirit of a little girl who kills people through a haunted videotape.

"Films like Audition, [in which a widower screens potential new wives], Ringu, Ju-On and others touch on sadism, torture, eroticism, revenge, and other themes that are psychologically disturbing as well as just plain scary," said Steve Ryfle, author of Japan's Favorite Mon-Star: The Unauthorized Biography of Godzilla.

Impending Doom

Unlike U.S. horror movies, which increasingly have come to resemble action films, the storytelling in Japanese horror films usually plays itself out slowly. Japanese directors are considered masters at using silence and empty spaces to create an impending sense of doom and dread.

Peter Block, the president of acquisition and co-production for the Lions Gate film company, says he was blown away by the original Ju-on when he saw it a couple of years ago. He immediately bought the U.S. rights to it.

"It's not the most genius story I've ever seen, but in its simplicity and execution it had a great visceral impact on us," he said. "All the scares come out of sounds and shadows, you don't have a 3-D creature lopping people's heads off."

Ju-On was shown in limited release in the U.S. this past summer and grossed about U.S. $500,000. It will be released on DVD next month. Lions Gate also plans to release Ju-on 2 in U.S. theaters next spring.

Many U.S. critics were not impressed by Ju-on, with some calling its story line needlessly convoluted. But Block says the ambiguity of the story is what draws audiences in and creates buzz on Internet message boards.

"When you don't know exactly what is happening in a story, there's a lot to talk about," he said. "What happens first in Ju-on? Where does the curse come from?"

U.S. horror films, in contrast, often lack ambiguity.

"In The Exorcist, what's happening is incredibly supernatural, but there's no ambiguity as to where [the horror] is coming from and where the battle lines are drawn," Macias said.

Lost in Translation

After the financial success of The Ring, Hollywood producers scrambled to buy remake rights to the latest Japanese horror films. The Ring 2 is coming out later this year, and a sequel to The Grudge is already in the works.

There are some signs that the Japanese style of horror will have an increasing influence on Hollywood horror movies.

"Japanese horror operates on a much more dreamlike level and has given Hollywood the license to not make sense," said Lucas Sussman, a Los Angeles screenwriter who specializes in supernatural thrillers. "This actually works well for horror, because horror is about not being in control."

But as Japanese movies are adapted for a U.S. audience, some fans worry that the original quirks will be lost in translation.

"When something like The Grudge is adapted for the U.S. audience, there is a tendency to fill in the blanks, and those original subtleties are lost," Ryfle said. "What you end up with is just another horror movie, with spooks jumping out of the shadows."

Block, the Lions Gate executive, is taking no chances. He recently signed a deal with Taka Ichise, the Japanese producer of the Ju-on movies, to make several new horror films for Lions Gate—in Japanese.

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