Japanese Horror Films and Their American Remakes: Translating Fear, Adapting Culture

By Overton, Hamp | Journal of Film and Video, Spring 2016 | Go to article overview

Japanese Horror Films and Their American Remakes: Translating Fear, Adapting Culture


Overton, Hamp, Journal of Film and Video


JAPANESE HORROR FILMS AND THEIR AMERICAN REMAKES: TRANSLATING FEAR, ADAPTING CULTURE Valerie Wee. New York: Routledge, 2014, 258 pp.

In Japanese Horror Films and Their American Remakes, Valerie Wee evaluates five contemporary Japanese horror films and their American remakes: Ringu (1998) and The Ring (2002); Honogurai mizu no soko kara (2002) and Dark Water (2005); Ju-On (2002) and The Grudge (2004); Kairo (2001) and Pulse (2006); and Chakushin ari (2003) and One Missed Call (2008). Wee spends a chapter on each pair of films but begins the book with a background comparison of the cultural and societal influences on Japanese and Western horror films. She specifically addresses the impact on the genre of Buddhism, Shintoism, and Confucianism in Japan versus Judeo-Christian beliefs in the United States. Wee differentiates the duality and coexistence of good and evil in Japanese versus American horror film. American horror films use the Judeo-Christian belief of good versus evil. In Japan, good and evil can and should coexist, but in balance (yin/yang). Therefore, in a Japanese horror film, there is an effort to restore balance between good and evil. American films, based on the ideology of good versus evil, depict good trying to defeat evil. This difference can cause a Japanese horror film to leave American audiences confused and wishing for a less abstract ending. American remakes often address this issue by supplying the more concrete ending their audiences crave.

Wee also examines the history of Japanese horror films in the context of Kabuki theater and its "tradition of exploring and expressing notions of terror and the horrific" (31). More specifically, she discusses kaidan, which is a supernatural story usually involving a female ghost that seeks revenge. Wee states that in Japanese culture (premodern), the ie system is based on the idea of community needs over individual needs. The natural (personal) inclination, or ninjo, is secondary to the communal obligations, or giri. To pursue ninjo over the giri is "wrong" and unacceptable in society. "Right" is acting as per one's role and responsibility in society. Wee demonstrates how this is expressed in many Japanese horror films, where a vengeful ghost is not evil in the traditional Western sense but is trying to restore balance. For example, if a child dies because of the neglect of a parent, then the parent has not lived up to his or her communal obligation. Balance is disrupted, so the child's ghost haunts the living until balance is restored.

From a historical perspective, Wee elaborates that after World War II, with the American occupation of Japan, the US forces imposed mandates that had a large impact on Japanese art. Nationalistic and militaristic films were banned, so the popular samurai film couldn't be made. This caused an increase in the production and popularity of "the Edo gothic horror film, with its focus on the restless ghosts who return to haunt the living" (41). Wee details how the Western values of democratic freedom, individual expression, and women's rights were forced on Japan during the post-occupation period. This created a change in Japanese horror films in that the films often reflected a lamenting of the loss of traditional Japanese culture to these newly imposed values.

In America, Wee explains, the "supernatural horror film largely disappeared for almost a decade after the end of WW2" (38), as science fiction films became more popular in the atomic age. It was not until the late 1950s that horror films returned in a significant way. The 1970s saw a shift to the postmodern horror film, both in Japan and in America, but the popular onryo, or female vengeful ghost, continued to be a staple in horror films and other pop culture in Japan. …

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