Hollywood and the Japanese Horror Film
Since the early days of filmmaking, the dominance of Hollywood over World cinema has been undeniable. However, from the Soviet montage to the French New Wave, the evolution of American cinema has always drawn inspiration from other nations. In the past decade, few countries have received more attention from Hollywood than Japan. Indeed, its folkloric legends and eerie aesthetics have in many ways revolutionised the horror genre. This essay will look at the relationship between American and Japanese cinema and explore how the two countries overcame cultural differences in order to develop a successful horror film cycle. The first section will describe how American and Japanese cinema have influenced each other over the years. In the second part, the phenomenon of J-horror will be analysed in order to demonstrate how remakes have contributed to the Western understanding of Japanese horror films. Ultimately, the final section will look at the implications of this interrelationship in terms of the accessibility of Japanese films in Western culture, and the growing importance of transnational cinema.
Although the recent embrace of J-horror by American filmmakers and audiences has received a great deal of media and critical attention, Hollywood’s affinity for Japanese cinema is in no way a new phenomenon. In fact, both countries have influenced each other for many decades. Retracing the history of Japanese film, Donald Richie writes that from 1915 onward, films like Civilization (Reginald Barker and Thomas Ince, USA 1916), Intolerance (D. W. Griffith, USA 1916) and Sunrise (F. W. Murnau, USA 1927) transformed the Japanese movie industry (Richie 2001: 28-29). For example, during a screening of American films, the director Shozo Makino discovered the importance of writing a ‘proper script, matching cuts and reframing pans’ (Richie 2001: 29). This led to the 1917 version of his own film The Loyal Forty-Seven Ronin (Japan 1912). Incidentally, after many adaptations this film is now being remade for the American public as 47 Ronin (Carl Rinsch, USA 2012).
Similarly, after the Second World War, some Japanese films began to attract the attention of the American audiences, particularly Gojira (Godzilla, Ishiro Honda, Japan 1954) which mirrored the apocalyptic cultural fears of the 1950’s American science-fiction films, and Shichinin no Samurai (Seven Samurai, Akira Kurosawa, Japan 1954), a film that influenced a number of Hollywood adaptations. Indeed, while David Desser lists the likes of Star Wars (George Lucas, USA 1977) and A Bugs Life (John Lasseter, USA 1998) as owing much to Seven Samurai (Desser 2008: 27), he states that the most direct remake is The Magnificent Seven (John Sturges, USA 1960) which adapted the original Japanese war film into the more popular American Western genre (ibid.: 24). While many of Kurosawa’s films inspired now classic Hollywood films, Kurosawa’s own Western influence is equally indisputable. For instance, Magnus Stanke points out that Kimonosu-Jo (Throne of Blood, Japan 1957) is a Japanese adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth (1603) (Stanke 2004: 45) and Nora Inu (Stray Dog, Japan 1949) shows obvious film noir iconography: from its portrayal of an ex-policeman who needs to face his dark side, to the stark black and white cinematography and projected shadows used in the movie. While the American influence on Japanese cinema was undeniable, the evidence that Japanese films were an inspiration to many Hollywood popular films remained somewhat more subtle.
In the 1990s, Quentin Tarantino took part in placing Japanese cinema into more of a spotlight, more specifically the Yakuza (Gangster) genre. His extremely popular gangster film Pulp Fiction (USA 1994) was reminiscent of Takeshi ‘Beat’ Kitano’s Sono Otoko, Kyobo ni Tsuki (Violent Cop, Japan 1989), a film that had a very similar approach to violence:
To fully understand the impact of Violent Cop on the gangster genre and in particular its brusque, laconic treatment of violence, one must remember that the film was made five years before Pulp Fiction […]. Much was made of the way Tarantino deployed violence in an offhand manner […] The template for this type of ‘off the cuff’ violence may certainly have been influenced by Kitano (Toraro 2004: 135).
However, it is with Kill Bill (Quentin Tarantino, USA 2003) that Tarantino made his influences clear: he used the same snowy set design, Kimonos and revenge story of Shurayukihime (Lady Snowblood, Toshiya Fujita, Japan 1973) (see Vojković 2009: 180) and also included an anime sequence in Japanese as an homage to the source of his inspiration.
Interestingly, it was around this time, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, that anime became extremely popular in the Western culture (Napier 2005: 22). Writing about the global success of anime, Susan J. Napier points out that:
Anime is indeed “exotic” to the West in that it is made in Japan, but the world of anime itself occupies its own space that is not necessarily coincident with that of Japan. […] It is thus a particularly apt candidate for participation in a transnational, stateless culture (2005: 24).
To be sure, anime’s representation of highly imaginative worlds transcends Japanese culture and has not only found a global audience but a huge following among Hollywood directors. It has, for example, been observed that Avatar (James Cameron, USA 2009) owes a lot to the visual styles and designs of Hayao Miyazaki’s Mononoke Hime (Princess Mononoke, Japan 1997), and John Lasseter has stated: ‘By far, the most inspirational films for me are the animated films of Hayao Miyazaki […]. Toy Story owes a huge debt of gratitude to the films of Mr. Miyazaki’ (quoted by Greydanus 2010). The popularity and critical attention that anime has received introduced many Western viewers to Japanese cinema. It can then be suggested that this trend has opened a Japanese niche market in America, indirectly contributing to the introduction of what has come to be known as J-horror. This Hollywood take up of Japanese films which were strongly inspired by the American horror genre, constitutes an unprecedented example of the cross-fertilisation between Hollywood and Japanese cinema.
At the turn of the century, as Steffen Hantke explains in his study of Japanese horror, America was in need of a new horror film cycle (2005: 54). Franchises like Halloween (John Carpenter, USA 1978) and Friday the 13th (Sean S. Cunningham, USA 1980) had countless remakes, and the industry would only produce horror films like Scream (Wes Craven, USA 1996) that were so filled with self-referential humour that the genre had lost its terrifying appeal. In 1998, the horror film Ringu (Hideo Nakata, Japan 1998) was extremely successful in Japan. Hollywood producers saw an opportunity for a return to a more gothic form of horror with an exotic twist. Gary G. Xu explains the appeal of the Japanese horror genre to Hollywood:
There is a certain aura in Japanese ghost fiction and films, often filled with women’s grudges against men who deserted or injured them. Unlike most ghost stories in the West that seek moments of shock and harmless thrills, the Japanese ghost stories tend to allow the aura to linger, to permeate, or to literally haunt the audience (2008: 192).
In order to adapt the film successfully, the Japanese specificities of Ringu, such as the slow atmospheric pace and the compassion with wronged spirits were adapted for a more Western audience: more closure was added and the ghost became a manifestation of evil. The remake that followed, The Ring (Gore Verbinski, USA 2002) grossed $250 million worldwide (Xu 2008: 192), encouraging a franchise and numerous subsequent remakes of Japanese horror films.
This enthusiasm has encouraged many Western horror fans to watch the original movies and to seek out more Japanese films. Consequently, scholars have questioned this new-found popularity, including the ways these films could translate to the common Western spectator. Indeed, the Japanese culture is known to be extremely rich and different from the Western one. Although Japan is a highly modernised country, traditional values remain that might not be understood by every Western viewer. One of these scholars, Ruth Goldberg, discusses two ways for audiences to read foreign films: ‘in terms of cultural specificity or as “acts of translation” to foreign audiences’ (2004: 371). Similarly, Hantke quotes Masao Miyoshi who speaks in terms of ‘domestication’ and ‘neutralization’ (2005:62):
‘To restore the accustomed equilibrium,’ Miyoshi writes, ‘the reader either domesticates or neutralizes the exoticism of the text. The strategy for domestication is to exaggerate the familiar aspects of the text and thereby disperse its discreteness in the hegemonic sphere of first world literature, […] the plan for neutralization […] operates by distancing the menacing source’, defusing its otherness with ‘[s]uch “pseudocomments” as “delicate,” “lyrical,” or “suggestive,” if not “illogical,” “impenetrable,” or “incoherent”’ (Miyoshi quoted in Hantke 2005: 62).
Simply put, the film’s cultural specificity can be either recognised by the viewer, dismissed as exotic, or they can be replaced altogether by a universal reading – which makes the text more accessible when it does not lead to misinterpretations. For example, Ringu is culturally specific in the sense that is part of the Japanese kaidan (ghost story) genre which derives from the traditional plays of the Noh and Kabuki theatre (McRoy 2008: 6). As the writer of Ringu, Koji Suzuki explains, this folklore has a different perspective on ghosts than the Western tradition:
In America and Europe most horror movies tell the story of the extermination of evil spirits. Japanese horror movies end with a suggestion that the spirit still remains at large. That’s because the Japanese don’t regard spirits only as enemies, but as beings that co-exist with this world of ours (Suzuki quoted in Branston and Stafford 2006: 98).
Furthermore, Ringu reveals national fears related to the increase of divorces and the new gender roles: nowadays, Japanese women often have careers and are no longer full time mothers. As Goldberg puts it, Ringu ‘reflect[s] in microcosm the anxious tension between tradition and modernity that looms large in the nation’s sensibility’ (2004: 371). On the other hand, using Myoshi’s expression, the film can easily be ‘domesticated’ by Western audiences: Nakata has named The Exorcist (William Friedkin, USA 1973) and Poltergeist (Tobe Hooper, USA 1982) amonghis influences (Branston and Stafford 2006: 98). Moreover, Ringu refers to the teen culture that is so common to the American horror film, comprises the typical final girl and the themes of technophobia and broken families that have populated cinema for the past two decades. In this way, it has been suggested that ‘Nakata manages to strike a genuinely alarming balance between the cultural depths of Japanese folklore, and the surface sheen of latter day teen culture’ (Kermode 2000). In adapting the film for Western viewers, Gore Verbinski ignored the Japanese cultural specificities and focused on fully ‘domesticating’ the film. However, as the following will demonstrate, he preserved some memorable and eerie images from the original production which would become the markers of J-horror.
Drawing its inspiration from A Nightmare on Elm Street (Wes Craven, USA 1984) and Friday the 13th(see McRoy 2005: 176), Ju-On (Takashi Simizu, Japan 2002) is a similar hybrid between American horror classics and the kaidan tradition. When Simizu remade the film as The Grudge (Takashi Simizu, USA 2004) for an American audience, he filmed the ghost of Kayako in the same way as Sayako’s in The Ring: a faceless head covered by long black hair that reveal only one eye. In imitating this successful film, it can be suggested that Simizu was constructing ‘a deliberate relationship between the two films and, as such, conforming to Western expectations about a vengeful ghost in the Japanese horror film’ (Balmain 2008: 189). This new symbol of horror began to appear repeatedly not only in Japanese films like Honogurai Mizu no Soko Kara (Dark Water, Hideo Nakata, Japan 2002) but also in other East-Asian films like Janghwa, Hongryeon (A Tale of Two Sisters, Jee-woon Kim, Korea 2003). When put in its original linguistic and cultural context, the characteristic appearance of this spirit is understandable. Indeed, in Japanese, the term kurokami is a homonym meaning both black hair and black spirit. In addition, Jay McRoy describes the cultural significance of the hair and single eye:
These physiological details carried a substantial cultural and aesthetic weight, as long black hair is often aligned in the Japanese popular imaginary with conceptualisations of feminine beauty and sensuality, and the image of the gazing female eye (or eyes) is frequently associated with vaginal imagery (2008: 6-7)
Consequently, it only makes sense that a ghost with bad intentions, especially a beautiful woman that has been wronged and seeks revenge, would be represented with long black hair. By repeating this image across films, it was slowly converted into Western culture from a culturally specific symbol to an immediately recognisable piece of horror iconography. This image could very well have participated in making J-horror a cult phenomenon. On the other hand, this repetition was quickly starting to remind audiences of the overly repeated American horror franchises and raised criticisms, such as Grady Hendrix’s, who has seen enough of the ‘long-haired-dead-wet-chick’ (quoted in McRoy 2008: 173). The never-ending American remakes have also exasperated Japanese filmmakers like Ju-On director Simizu. In response, he released the short film Blonde Kaidan (Takashi Simizu, Japan 2004) which portrays a Japanese filmmaker haunted by a blonde spirit, parodying the obsession of American producers for interchangeable blonde heroines.
The upside of this recurring visual trope is that it has helped popularise the Japanese horror film and positioned the genre into the mainstream. In fact, studying the American horror fans’ reception of J-horror, Matt Hills points out that:
The remake’s success is viewed positively, as providing a platform for the cult text’s wider availability […]. Hollywood remakes are thus positioned as relatively inauthentic/inferior texts that nevertheless allow the ‘cult’ original to move beyond its initial underground status, a shift that is embraced, as if culturally validating the fans’ love of Ringu et al (2005:164).
With Japanese horror becoming a bigger part of popular culture, Western audiences encouraged the distribution of more violent and original Japanese horror films that often offer more thrills and depth than the popular likes of Saw (James Wan, USA 2004-2010) and Hostel (Eli Roth, USA 2005-2007). Indeed, as Jay McRoy puts it, ‘these disturbing films offer visceral visions interlaced with a degree of stinging social satire rarely seen in works of Western horror directors’ (McRoy 2008: 10). For example, new cult films include the shocking social satire Batoru Rowaiaru (Battle Royale, Kinji Fukasaku, Japan 2000) and the disturbing and genre-bending Odishon (Audition, Takashi Miike, Japan 1999). As a result, it can be argued that the multiplicity and repetition of American remakes have familiarised their viewers with elements that used to be typically Japanese. Their cultural specificity has become more transparent, and in this way, they have come to transcend their original folkloric references.
The fact that genre films from distant cultures have nowadays become so accessible to popular understanding is a sign of the increased transnationalism of film culture. As Elizabeth Ezra and Terry Rowden explain:
Without succumbing to the exoticizing representational practices of mainstream Hollywood films, transnational cinema – which by definition has its own globalizing imperatives – transcends the national as autonomous cultural particularity while respecting it as a powerful symbolic force. The category of the transnational allows us to recognize the hybridity of much new Hollywood cinema (2006: 2).
This transnationalism is therefore characterised not only by the American remakes or re-interpretation of foreign films, but also by the ability of foreign films to represent universal issues and thereby transcend their cultural specificity. Ruth Goldberg, who is quoted above as saying that the Japanese horror film can be read as ‘culturally specific’ or as an ‘act of translations to foreign audiences’, ultimately adds that a third possibility can be ‘to use elements of both approaches’ (2004: 382). This more balanced mode of spectatorship could be referred to as the transnational reading. As suggested earlier, the cycle of Japanese remakes in America is very likely to have educated audiences to this broader reading of Japanese films. This worked to strengthen the foreign film market in the United States, a country that has been long renowned for its aversion to subtitles. In fact, not only did Hollywood never hide that their new cycle of horror films were remakes of Japanese movies, but the viewings of the original versions were encouraged through cross promotion. For example, while discussing the special features on the DVD of the Hollywood remake The Ring, Chuck Tryon observes that ‘the selection “Look Here” invites viewers to watch a trailer for the Japanese original, which was distributed in conjunction with the DVD version of the American remake’ (2009: 24). The remake, in this way, acted as a transition between American and Japanese horror.
Interestingly, the advent of the DVD format proved to be fundamental not only to the popularity of Japanese horror, but to its transnational reading. Indeed, the availability of subtitles on DVDs makes it easier for people to acquire movies that are not available in their country or language. If the original Japanese versions are distributed in Western countries, the films are usually complemented with special features to allow a better understanding and reading of the cultural specificities. For instance, the ‘2 Disc Special Collector’s Edition’ DVD of Ju-On offers a large number of special features including: interviews and commentaries with the director and a selection of actors, a ‘Ju-On True Stories Featurettes’ and an ‘Exclusive Feature-Length Audio Commentary with Asian Cinema Expert, Bey Logan’. These features are included to educate the viewers in their transnational reading of the film, giving them a clearer understanding of the Japanese culture in order to approach the cultural specificities of the movie with an informed mind.
In addition to the remakes and the transnational format that is the DVD, many Japanese films owe their success to the Internet. Indeed, this medium provides endless possibilities for film discoveries and international communication. One can, for instance, mention the emergence of the online grassroots participatory culture, which Henry Jenkins describes as a ‘bottom-up consumer-driven process’ (2006: 18): consumers can now actively influence the production and distribution of films by highlighting the existence of niche markets. Other benefits of the Internet in terms of promoting transnational cinema are the unlimited availability of short films from all over the world, and the forums where international users are given the opportunity to discuss their opinions on films and share their interpretations. In this way, they encourage transnational readings of films along with the expansion of the foreign film market in America.
Japanese films have inspired the American movie industry for decades. However, their films were always adapted for the Western culture and stripped of their deeper cultural meanings. Apart from a handful of productions that became international classics like Godzilla and Seven Samourai, Japanese film culture remained quite obscure until the success of Japanese horror. A series of American remakes called attention to the existence of this genre that portrayed terrifying horror filled with deep significance: either specific to the Japanese culture or universal. Some factors such as DVD distribution, the Internet and active fan culture led to the increased distribution of these films in America, and strengthened viewer’s involvement in transnational film culture. Thus, through its multitude of adaptations and hiring of international filmmakers, Hollywood has become central to the crossover of cultural boundaries at a time of rapid globalisation.
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47 Ronin (Carl Rinsch, USA 2012).
A Bugs Life (John Lasseter, USA 1998).
A Nightmare on Elm Street (Wes Craven, USA 1984).
Avatar (James Cameron, USA 2009).
Batoru Rowaiaru (Battle Royale, Kinji Fukasaku, Japan 2000).
Blonde Kaidan (Takashi Simizu, Japan 2004).
Civilization (Reginald Barker and Thomas Ince, USA 1916).
Friday the 13th (Sean S. Cunningham, USA 1980).
Gojira (Godzilla, Ishiro Honda, Japan 1954).
Halloween (John Carpenter, USA 1978).
Honogurai Mizu no Soko Kara (Dark Water, Hideo Nakata, Japan 2002).
Hostel (Eli Roth, USA 2005-2007).
Intolerance (D. W. Griffith, USA 1916).
Janghwa, Hongryeon (A Tale of Two Sisters, Jee-woon Kim, Korea 2003).
Ju-On (Takashi Simizu, Japan 2002).
Kill Bill (Quentin Tarantino, USA 2003).
Kimonosu-Jo (Throne of Blood, Akira Kurosawa, Japan 1957).
Mononoke Hime (Princess Mononoke, Hayao Miyazaki, Japan 1997).
Nora Inu (Stray Dog, Akira Kurosawa, Japan 1949).
Odishon (Audition, Takashi Miike, Japan 1999).
Poltergeist (Tobe Hooper, USA 1982).
Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, USA 1994).
Ringu (Hideo Nakata, Japan 1998).
Saw (James Wan, USA 2004-2010).
Scream (Wes Craven, USA 1996).
Shichinin no Samurai (Seven Samurai, Akira Kurosawa, Japan 1954).
Shurayukihime (Lady Snowblood, Toshiya Fujita, Japan 1973).
Sono Otoko, Kyobo ni Tsuki (Violent Cop, Takeshi Kitano, Japan 1989).
Star Wars (George Lucas, USA 1977).
Sunrise (F. W. Murnau, USA 1927).
The Exorcist (William Friedkin, USA 1973).
The Grudge (Takashi Simizu, USA 2004).
The Loyal Forty-Seven Ronin (Shozo Makino, Japan 1912).
The Magnificent Seven (John Sturges, USA 1960).
The Ring (Gore Verbinski, USA 2002).