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Scare Tactics: Japan Exports Horror to Hollywood

Written by Andrea Agro Tell a Friend

You lie awake in bed. Your mind is racing. Every sound echoes a hundred decibels louder, as your eyes scan your dark room searching for reassurance. You bite your nails and think to yourself, "Why did I watch that Japanese horror film?"

With this type of reaction, you can guess why Hollywood has jumped on the bandwagon, remaking Japanese horrors and taking audiences for a frightening ride. It's no wonder, as Japanese horror films are without doubt the scariest genre ever to grace the scene, or shall I say slash through the scene with a vengeance.

The Slower, the Scarier

It's no secret that Hollywood horror audiences are used to blonde, big breasted teens getting slashed in the first ten minutes, but with Japanese horror films the complex narratives and psychological mind games entice the viewer and make them wait for a chilling death. And believe me, it is chilling. The film Ringu (1998) is an example of this, being one of the most successful horror films to come out of Japan, getting rave reviews and immense popularity among horror film fanatics. If you want scary, Ringu will definitely deliver. It's a psychological film and a mystery, as points of the plot are slowly unveiled. The death scenes are the major fright factor of this film-the most memorable moment being an ominous child ghost with long black hair slowly making her way through a television screen. At this point, death is inevitable, and as she creeps to the victim, you can't help but get goose bumps.

Not surprisingly, Hollywood observing the success of Ringu decided to come out with the ever so popular remake, The Ring (2002). Horror fans scampered to the box office expecting to get the old, run of the mill traditional horror film, or maybe just a DeBeers diamond ring commercial. Well, in this case they got more than their money's worth, as it was hailed the scariest movie in 2002 -undoubtedly, other Tinseltown producers followed suit, and now remakes are sprouting up everywhere.

A Ghost Here, A Ghost There

A century of horror cinema has taught the audience some rules of the horror genre. One type of horror film shocks your senses into a coma with the constant grotesque monsters, excess violence, blood, amputated limbs and gory deaths to the point one walks out of the theatre checking if there are stains on their clothes. The other type shows you as little as possible, and the audience's imagination ultimately sends them into their own horror coma. Great horror classics such as The Blair Witch Project and The Shining rely on the anticipation of discovering what is lurking just outside the frame, ready to pounce. The audience knows something is out there, and it is the waiting, the dread, that makes your skin crawl. The best Japanese horror films are usually closer to the latter genre, but it is usually more psychologically disturbing than its Hollywood counterparts. Not to mention, the Japanese horror genre can convince even the most maternal audience that there is nothing more horrifying than a child with a score to settle.

The film, Ju-On: The Grudge (2003) is a freaky Japanese horror, using a child ghost to torture and tantalize. Following a haunted-house curse that passes from person to person, this film definitely gets the adrenaline running. The twisted plot in this movie is creepy - A family whose own demise was filled with destruction and hate manifests into an unforgiving grudge unleashed upon the world. The most terrifying spirit of the curse is the Toshio child. Flashes of the ghost taunt the subconscious, playing mind games with the audience. He is the most prominent persona of the curse, and creates panic whenever he graces the screen. There are many other numerous subtle elements of fear that keep the atmosphere fresh and new, making the audience wonder what is going to happen next and how.

Hollywood is remaking the film using the same director, Takashi Shimizu, and stars everyone's favorite vampire slayer Sarah Michelle Gellar. Hopefully audiences are ready for chilling child spirits, without having the urge to phone Ghostbusters.

Horror Thrills

With complex plots making the mind run, watching a Japanese horror film is similar to that of a thriller. Most films leave the audience in the dark, having them scramble the clues together to figure out what the heck is going on. Not in Hollywood though-they are often categorized as having weak plots, with emphasis on blood and guts, rather than a convincing storyline.

After seeing the film Dark Water (2002), Hollywood had no problem changing their traditional horror plot style in the scheduled remake. The original is mysterious and powerful: A mother and daughter move into a creepy apartment in a Tokyo suburb, and strange things start to happen as they discover the origin of a ghost. This is the description of the plot in its most simplistic sense. The film is emotionally involving as the director, Nakata Hideo, shows the safest and most ordinary objects in the apartment and infuse them with evil, leaving the audience with no safety cushion to hold onto. This film is ominous, and very scary-definitely nightmare evoking. The remake enlisted acclaimed Brazilian director Walter Salles and stars Oscar-winner Jennifer Connelly, which shows that while Hollywood executives might think that there is nothing more in Japanese horror than 'bankable', it is in reality, well respected as an artistic genre of filmmaking.

Another must-see Japanese horror is Don't Look Up (1996), directed by Hideo Nakata who also helmed Dark Water and Ringu. The film is Nakata's debut, and is a good starting point if you have never watched a Japanese horror - mainly because it is a ghost story for anyone who is willing to be scared, but not quite ready to be horrified. This WWII-era psychological thriller is a story about an actress haunting a film studio. Much like Nakata's later films, it concentrates heavily on atmosphere in order to establish a haunting mood. Like his other films, there are glimpses of a ghostly figure, usually out-of-focus and in the background, which is quite shocking. This film will stick with you long after the credits finished rolling.

The film, Chaos (1999), is just that as Hideo Nakata strikes again with this chilling thriller. It portrays a world of backstabbing and double-crossing that destroys any sense of responsibility or family ties. After a successful Japanese businessman's wife is kidnapped, a story of betrayal unfolds. This film has often been described as having reminiscences of Hitchcock, as the audience becomes entrenched in the plot that twists and turns. The film lacks the typical supernatural elements of Japanese horror, but is still a disturbing and intense experience - after the end of the film, you can see how well planned everything was. This is also slated for a remake by acclaimed British director Jonathan Glazer, with Robert De Niro and Benicio Del Toro reportedly attached to the project.

The Turmoil of Technology

Ghosts, computers and humanity seem to be the common theme in the chilling Japanese horror, Kairo (2001). On the simplest level, this film is a horror story about the Internet. However, director Kiyoshi Kurosawa creates an underlying dark philosophy that all humans are alone, and remain alone until after death. He parallels the emptiness of the Internet with our own mortality, making the audience questioning the mystery of life. The role that technology plays in this film is overwhelming, creating a spiritual dilemma. This is seen when the main character Kawashima logs onto the Internet and is haunted with the question, "Would you like to see a ghost?" This film paints a bleak picture of life and death, making it unbelievably scary and thought-provoking.

Wes Craven is said to direct the remake, although one is left to wonder whether he will be able to top Kurosawa's aesthetics and cinematography, which make the film so daunting.

To Make or Remake, That is the Question

With the winning formula of Japanese horrors, it is no wonder why Hollywood has taken notice. It is also no secret that most western audiences are not into reading subtitles. By attaching big name actors, scraping the subtitles, and replicating these films, Hollywood has generated a successful genre. The upcoming remakes seem to be making an effort in doing justice to the original, with acclaimed directors, writers and actors ensuring that it will not just be a mindless copy. However, it is always a good idea to watch the original, with its subtitles and creepy Japanese children, just in case Hollywood ruins the fright.

Published August 20, 2004

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