Technoghosts and Culture Shocks: Sociocultural Shifts in American Remakes of J-Horror

By Wetmore, Kevin J., Jr. | Post Script, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

Technoghosts and Culture Shocks: Sociocultural Shifts in American Remakes of J-Horror


Wetmore, Kevin J., Jr., Post Script


"Ghost stories are to do with the insurrection, not the resurrection of the dead"

--Gillian Beer, Ghosts

The first decade of the twenty-first century has brought about numerous American remakes of "J-horror": horror films from Japan's new generation of filmmakers such as Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Takashi Shimizu, Takashi Miike, and Hideo Nakata that embrace similar themes, images and styles. So much is horror cinema now associated with Japan in the American popular imagination that one recent American film had as its tagline: "It's not a remake. It's not a sequel. And it's not based on a Japanese one." (1) This boast is a bit unfair, perhaps, as there have only been five American adaptations of J-horror in six years, far less than the number of remakes of original American horror films and sequels during the same period. (2) It is, however, indicative, of the cultural influence of J-horror both in Hollywood and in the American popular imagination.

More so than any other film genre, horror concerns the fears and anxieties of the society that produced it. The Victorians produced Dracula, with their anxiety over sex and bodies. Japan gave the world Gojira in 1954 as an extension of concern over atomic weapons and atomic bomb testing in the Pacific. Only a post 9/11 America, concerned with torture and imprisonment, would produce the Saw and Hostel movies in which the horror comes from bodies subjected to physical torture and minds subjected to psychological torture. And it is in that context that Hollywood has remade Japanese horror films and in doing so has shifted the sociocultural concerns in the film through variations in the narrative, cinematography and even individual shots. The five films which have been remade and which I shall engage here are: Ringu (dir. Hideo Nakata, 1998), remade as Ring (dir. Gore Verbinski, 2002), Ju-on (dir. Takashi Shimizu, 2000), remade as The Grudge (dir. Takashi Shimizu, 2004), Kairo (dir. Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2001), remade as Pulse (dir. Jim Sonzero, 2006), Honogurai mizu no soko kara (dir. Hideo Nakata, 2002), remade as Dark Water (dir. Salles Walter, 2005), and Chakushin Ari (dir. Takashi Miike, 2003), remade as One Missed Call (dir. Eric Valette, 2008). I shall first examine some of the larger issues surrounding J-horror and similarities between J-horror and its American doppelgangers, and then offer a few specific examples from three of these films that demonstrate the shift from Japanese popular culture to American. While Ringu was the first to be remade, with significant shifts from the Japanese version to the American one, I have chosen to focus on the films which came in its wake, especially since Ringu is also discussed at length in another essay in this issue. Likewise, although Honogurai mizu no soko kara and its American incarnation Dark Water demonstrate a shift in concern for the break up of the family and parents abandoning children in which the Japanese film reflects the reality of Japanese divorce and the effect it has on the non-custodial parent (who "may as well be dead" (qtd. in Reitman) and children, as opposed to the American film, which explores the concern over joint custody, children shuttling between two different homes, and contemporary parents' insecurities about their own abilities and worthiness to be a parent, examining the sociocultural shifts in J-horror is perhaps best served by examining specific scenes in Pulse, One Missed Call and The Grudge.

The cinema of J-Horror is rooted in the culture of post-Aum Shinrikyo Japan. In 1995 the apocalyptic cult led by Shoko Asahara released sarin gas in the Tokyo subway system, followed by national panic and shock that such a crime could happen in Japan. The event itself mixed the traditional, the supernatural, and technology. It is this mixture that forms the heart of J-horror. Interestingly, American remakes of J-horror do not begin until after 9/11. It is this mix of the irrational, western technology used against westerners, and the linkage of personal and societal destruction that reflects the post-9/11 context of the American adaptations of these films. …

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