It Came From the East… Japanese Horror Cinema in the Age of Globalization
May 13th, 2009
This essay examines the social negotiations within the structure globalization by investigating the boom of Japanese horror films in the United States, from their emergence in the mid-nineties until today. The films that are most frequently associated with the colloquial, hybrid term “J-horror” are those that have crossed not only international market borders, but have crossed cultural boundaries as well. These films have evolved from independent B-movies in the East to major blockbusters in the West and are now established as a genre within Hollywood cinema. This transformation is not by any means coincidental; rather, it can be explained by identifying the various cultural, economic, and technological factors behind its rapid growth in the West.
The sudden global interest in the J-horror genre is largely dependent on the nexus between economic, technological and cultural circumstances both in the United States and in Japan. Through deconstructing the social framework which led to this recent Western consumption of J-horror films, specifically the modes of communication that maintain their mobility and the cultural environment that fuels their appeal, we may then finally draw greater conclusions concerning the shifting flow of power and representation in a globalized world.
The media relationship between Japan and the United was the direct result of a persistent, asymmetrical relationship between these nations that began in postwar occupation and continues today. What is especially interesting about this relationship, particularly when it comes to the DVD format, is that it represents a shift in how each country perceives each other and itself in relation to the other. The resulting incarnation of this relationship is a loop in which a cultural product is absorbed, digested and regurgitated in some novel form to be absorbed again by the society of its origin. This article examines the J-Horror phenomenon as it illustrates this cross-cultural exchange between Japan and America. This study uses Hideo Nakata’s Ringu (1998) and Gore Verbinski’s The Ring (2002) to explore the origins, modes and implications of such a relationship and to argue that the J-horror movement is essentially tied to the evolution of new media on the global market.
Early Media Relations between Japan and America
In the years following World War II, the American occupation of postwar Japan established an unquestionable power differential in which American culture dominated Japanese culture (Yoshimi, 2003). Japanese exports during this period were produced and sold cheaply and the expression, “Made in Japan,” held the same negative connotations that “Made in China” does today. These exports were made to sate the needs of their Western customers, rather than reflect the society from which they were manufactured. As such, their prevalence in the US marketplace had relatively little cultural influence on the average American consumer.
American products in Japan, on the other hand, had quite a different effect. These imports were considered ti be the highest quality and practically bled into Japanese culture, including fashion and film. Interestingly, all strata of the Japanese economy were receptive to this cultural influx. Big business considered the US a model of economic development, while the student movement of the 1960s was fuelled by the words of Kerouac and the sounds of Bob Dylan (Forsberg, 2000). Even producers of influential Japanese works, such as writer, Kenzaburo Oe, were noted to have a distinctly Western flair to their writing (Oe, 1969). While not everyone accepted this shift from a self-sufficient culture to one heavily dominated by American products and symbols (indeed, a vocal nationalist movement exists even today), the majority of Japan embraced a syncretism of traditional Japan with the contemporary West.
During the first phase of the postwar period, which lasted until the 1970s, the trade loop between Japan and the United States primarily transferred culture one way (Shunya, 2008). This period also marks the beginning of Japanese re-appropriation of American media. Not long after American film, music and literature flowed into Japan did Japanese consumers started making their own cultural products inspired by these Western media. These new products were then resold to a Japanese market that was receptive to both the “Japaneseness” and “Americanness” of these products. The difference between this early postwar phase and our contemporary period is that these products did not leave Japan. While Japanese media did have some influence outside its own country (for example, the works of director Akira Kurosawa directly or indirectly influenced a number of “spaghetti Western” films; see British Film Institute Database, 2008), the dominant flow of culture was into Japan rather than out.
By the early 1980s, however, a significant change in this relationship had occurred. Japanese exports were no longer considered second-class imitations of American products. On the contrary, Japanese research and design became the gold standard to which all other technological products are compared even to this day (Adams, 2000). For the first time since World War II, the Western psyche recognized Japan a superpower. As cultural critic Douglas McGray (2002) states, “what made Japan a superpower, more than just a wealthy country, was the way its great firms staked claim to an intellectual high ground that left competitors, even in the United States, scrambling to reverse-engineer Japanese successes.” The economic threat Japan posed sparked an era of “Japanophobia” (Emmott, 1993). Curiously, this economic shift in relations did not translate to a cultural one, possibly because Japan’s new power was considered a threat to the average working-class American. As such, the flow of cultural products continued to be primarily unilateral: actor Arnold Schwarzenegger became a star in Japan while Japanese actor, Yusaku Matsuda, did not breakthrough in the United States.
With the Japanese recession of the early 1990s, the era of Japanophobia diminished, but the country’s status as a superpower remained. No longer an economic threat, it was at this time that Japanese culture’s influence became apparent in American culture. It first emerged in media aimed at youth (Kelts, 2006). Where early exports such as Astro Boy and Robotech had found only niche success in the late 1980s, Sailor Moon, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers and Pokemon came to dominate children’s television in the 1990s. After a dormancy period for video game development in the US, the Nintendo Entertainment System and Super Nintendo expanded the home console market and were met with unparalleled success. Then, as audiences grew out of children’s entertainment, new media geared towards older adults was already waiting for them, including comic books (manga) and animation (anime). In the span of a single generation, American audiences came to be familiar not only with the themes and tropes of Japanese media but also with their origins. Thus, Japan’s “gross national cool” was established in the American market and has been expanding ever since into other markets, including food, fashion and literature (McGray, 2002). We have entered an era of Japanophilia.
This cross-pollination of culture is both reciprocal and self-perpetuating. American media pervades Japan, where it receives disproportionate attention. For example, American movies are estimated to account for 65% of Japanese box office profits (Lee, 2005). These Western themes are consumed and re-appropriated in Eastern media. For example, the most famous name in Japanese manga and animation, Osamu Tezuka, was unabashed about the influence of Walt Disney on his own work (Davis, 2004). As such, Japan creates its own cultural products, more of which reach North American shores every year. These products are increasingly bought and absorbed by the mainstream American public, who in turn re-contextualizes and repackages these ideas into American cultural products. These products then make their way to Japan and the cycle begins again. The end result is one where American imports to Japan already have a distinct “Japaneseness” built in and vice versa. In regards to film, Media Studies Professor Christina Klein (2003) calls this “the Asianization of Hollywood and the Hollywoodization of Asia.”
One notable example of the near-infinite regress of culture is the J-Horror phenomenon. Originally a term that defined horror from Japan, J-Horror now encapsulates products from a number of Eastern countries as well as the United States itself. Rather than a geographical distinction, it has become a thematic one. Like all other genres of film, American horror movies received considerable attention from Japanese audiences. In turn, Japanese filmmakers put their own Eastern spin on these tropes and produced something both like and unlike their influences. It is through their familiarity with American films and novelty that J-Horror has found an audience in the United States. These films are similar enough to American productions to attrat an audience yet distinct and challenging enough to pique the interest of genre fans. A clear example of this phenomenon is the pair of Ringu (1998) and its American remake, The Ring (2002). These two movies illustrate the reciprocal flow of culture without beginning or end. Understanding their origins and production clearly reveals the unique relationship between these two countries.
The Impact of DVD
Media is inherently tied to the process of globalization as they exist in a co-dependant relationship, where media acts as both a catalyst and a facilitator of globalization. By nature of its ubiquity and ability to transcend national borders, media has also introduced new dynamics within the global sphere. The emergence of several East Asian films on the global market signifies the destabilization of Hollywood’s position as the dominant film distributor within global cinema.
New media technologies, particularly the advent of DVD, have played a pivotal role in enabling the J-horror boom. The move towards digital production emerged parallel to the recognition and circulation of J-horror in the West and its creation in the East. The 1989 decline of the Japanese economy laid the groundwork for a series of production, promotion and distribution changes in the Japanese studio system (Wada-Marciano, 2007). Studios looked to the cost-effective DVD format as an alternative during this economic lull.
The J-horror genre also exemplifies the successful adaptability of the DVD medium. The horror films produced by young, independent and inexperienced Japanese filmmakers initially circulated among fan circles in Japan and in the US. DVDs lend themselves to easy international circulation, crossing national boundaries via relaxed import regulations, digital networking, Internet downloading, and piracy. The mobility of DVDs and the increasing ease of duplication has enabled piracy and illegal film downloading, proving a major obstacle for Japanese film studios. The unexpected immense piracy of J-horror films illustrates how new media technology has also “extended cinema’s reach as a global commodity through both official and unofficial channels; an intersection of digital media and mobile culture” (Wada-Marciano, 2007).
In addition, the J-horror DVD market has diminished the need for costly marketing campaigns and the production of theatrical releases because films are released directly to DVD. The shift to DVD production also reflects the studio’s attention towards the target audience of Japanese horror cinema: younger viewers looking to avoid excessive ticket prices. J-horror remains a prime example of the potential economic advantages of DVD. The 1996 release of Hideo Nakata’s Ringu aptly occurred shortly after the legalized licensing DVD distribution in Japan. The increased promotion of DVD software and hardware worked favourably as secondary promotion for purchase of Ringu on DVD (Wada-Marciano, 2007). The film sold ten million copies in Japan and the US remake sold two million in a mere 24 hours of its release. Since Ringu/The Ring, several J-horror DVD releases have proved more profitable than their box office sales.
Professor Mitsuyo Wada-Marciano (2007) observes that from an industrial point of view, conversion to the DVD format has been the central force enabling J-horror’s entry into the world market. By directing the flow of East Asian cinema into the United States, DVD production consequently decentered Western distribution authority in the global cinema trajectory. Films were no longer dependent on theatrical screenings. As more US homes acquired DVD players, technological advances in other electronic media equipment followed, further encouraging these alternative venues of viewing (home theatre systems). These advances continue today to create appealing alternatives to movie theatres as there have been upgrades to both the DVD formats themselves (HD DVD, Blu-Ray) and the related entertainment equipment (flat screen TVs, HDTV, surround sound).
Roy Lee: Cosmopolitan Middleman
Not all aspects of creating a transnational commodity require the cooperation of powerful corporations. In some cases, as seen with the J-horror phenomenon, initiation and circulation can be traced back to a single individual, albeit, an individual that represents several transnational corporations. Born to Korean immigrants in Brooklyn, New York, Roy Lee personifies the emerging commercialism behind Hollywood productions in a transnational market. Already a scrupulous businessman, Lee made himself known in Hollywood during his mid-twenties, when he developed an online program called Scriptshark, while working at a production company called Alphaville (Kalat, 2007). Scriptshark was online tracking system for screenplays. Open to the public, users could log on and review scripts as they please. Their reliability and credibility could be easily referenced. Within a short period of time, Scriptshark acquired a significant number of active reviewers. When he noticed that the script for American Beauty had gained significant attention on the tracking boards, Lee notified his friend Mark Sourian, another young executive (Lee had connections with many) at Dreamworks (Friend, 2003).
In 1999, through similar sources, Lee got word that the Hideo Nakata film Ringu had received critical acclaim in Japan and was heavily circulating among American cult film fans. Lee immediately brought the tape to Dreamworks, who bought the remake rights for a million dollars. Two years later, Ringu’s remake, The Ring, hit theatres, making $8.3 million in its first two weeks, over $129 million domestically and over $249 million worldwide. At age 34, Lee was well established in Hollywood as the “go to guy” for obtaining the rights to Asian remakes. Modelled after his Scriptshark program, Lee came up with the idea to capitalize on the East Asian films that had already proven successful in their home countries (Kalat, 2007). With a firm understanding of how the Hollywood film industry packages, commodifies, markets, and brands its productions, Lee initiated his project with full force. Lee understood that in order to succeed in the globalized market, one needs to cater to the various cultural and economic specificities of any region.
Unable to speak a word of Korean, Japanese or Chinese, let alone understand the customs, Lee took advantage of his Asian appearance when establishing overseas contacts and working as an intermediary between Hollywood and the East Asian studios. Asian executives felt Lee understood them culturally and they trusted him as their representative in negotiations with the West. They respected his direct business approach and admired how he had attained financial success at a young age. Although Lee primarily identifies himself as American, his appearance and cutthroat business demeanour rarely failed to close a deal with Asian companies. In an interview with Tad Friend of The New Yorker, Lee comments, “I didn’t know a single person from Korea until 2001…All I knew was that I had to bow when I met an Asian,” (Friend, 2003). Lee’s East-Asian appearance and capitalist ideals allowed him to play to both sides of the transnational relationship: the consumer and the producer.
In his pitch to Asian distributors, Lee introduced his proposals with the same argument: that the possibility of the original films succeeding in America was slim to none because Americans do not have the patience for subtitles and do not like watching non-American casts. Since competing with the Hollywood industry was near to impossible, Lee argued that the best option was to sell the remake rights immediately through him. The benefit of using him as an intermediary was that it would not cost them anything since he is financed by American studios. The angle Lee played was that these Asian companies could not survive without him in the global market and as a bonus, could negotiate through him risk-free.
Lee’s tactics proved successful and he soon became the catalyst for independent horror films in East Asia becoming heavily marketed, big budget productions in the West. The demand for J-horror films escalated to an all time high in October of 2001. According to Lee, Miramax studios would purchase the rights to a Japanese horror film without knowing its premise (Friend, 2003).
Tad Friend, The New Yorker journalist, tells of the screening night of Takashi Shimizu’s Ju-on, the film that would go on to become the box-office success, The Grudge. Although Lee had not yet viewed the film himself, he was certain Hollywood executives would go for it. He was right. When Robert Tapert, Sam Raimi’s producing partner, asked why the director of Ringu and Dark Water would willingly sell the remake rights for a mere one million dollars, Joe Drake, president of Senator International (an American mini-studio) replied “he’s a Japanese director and they haven’t figured it out yet” (Fiend, 2003). In order to rationalise filming in Japan using American actors, the story played upon the recent trend of American agencies recruiting North Americans to teach English in Japan.
The Ring’s success initiated Roy Lee’s reputation as the “King of Remakes.” Since The Ring, Lee has continued to import several East Asian films including: The Grudge (2004), The Ring 2 (2005), Dark Water (2005), The Lake House (2006), The Departed (2006), The Grudge 2 (2006), The Echo (2008), The Eye (2008), Shutter (2008), My Sassy Girl (2008), The Uninvited (2009) Grudge 3 (2009).
Hungry Audiences: Fandom and Mainstream
Aside from clever marketing, low production costs and accessible remake rights, the J-horror boom occurred on thanks to a Western audience that desired and sought out these images, allowing them to thrive in the Western market. Contrary to what Hollywood defines as J-horror, those that identify as Japanese horror cult film followers will argue that the term has nothing to do with American influences. In fact, according to this group, in order for a film to be considered J-horror it must not have entered the Western mainstream (Hills, 2005). The discourse of cult film has had a heavy hand in the definition of J-horror, as the phenomenon’s origins stem from cult-like beginnings. These underground modes of circulation (fanzines, free media, internet downloads, DVDs) were enabled by American J-horror fans who considered themselves outside of the mainstream. Thus, according to J-horror cult followers, the application of the term is constantly changing in opposition to the ebb and flow of Hollywood trends.
Similar to other trends from abroad, J-horror films began circulating among cult film fan groups through online networking, file sharing, DVD exchange and the occasional film screening. Like the origins of anime in the US, fans exchanged information and texts among themselves, creating homemade subtitles or dubbed versions (Hollows, 2003). In spatial terms, Japanese horror films would be considered “underground” as their rarity, as well as visceral content (torture, graphic sexual nature, brutal violence) exist in hidden or specialist spaces (i.e. cult film stores, specialist cinemas, fan sites). In film fandom culture, the regulation and inaccessibility of texts is extremely important. As ethnographer and film theorist, Matt Hills observes, the distinctiveness required for cult status is based on the films’ cultural textual differences from the mainstream of Hollywood productions, in other words, “the national contextual specificity of foreignness” of Japanese horror films (2005). American cult fans feel they are being privy to specialized knowledge that mainstream audiences are not, which is why they often resist the infiltration of Japanese horror films into the commercial Hollywood realm of “J-horror.”
In Hills’ 2004 case study of the online message board, Ringworld’s Ring Forum “Remake versus Original,” he concludes that fan status is dependent on an imagined or self-constructed deviation from the status quo of mainstream film culture (Hills, 2005). This separation hinges on a supposed understanding of Japanese film culture as distinctively more creative, innovative and experienced than American film productions. Although Ringu fans were not unanimously anti-mainstream, or against The Ring, they d their superiority over The Ring fans in temporal terms, that is: pre-mainstream. Hills (2005) observed that these subcultural boundaries were maintained by cult fans referring to themselves as, “we” or “people like us who saw the original first” and remake fans as, “those clueless teens” and “average American Joe’s” (Hills, 2005). Exercise
According to Hills’ study, the definition and construction of subcultural identity also requires actively “reading for difference” (Hills, 2005). Postcolonial discourse has theorized the notion that interpolating the “Other” is a means of defining the self. In the case of American J-horror fans, an awareness of Japanese cultural specificities seems to merit cult status in the fan community. For example, fans will often refer to certain archetypes in Japanese horror films as having been influenced by the Noh tradition of classical Japanese musical performances. American fans also admire the eerily nonlinear narratives of Japanese horror films. Consequently, regarding American adaptations as unsophisticated and conventional gives fans what they perceive to be cultural capital. Reading for cultural difference works as, “a homologous part of this audience’s bid for a subcultural identity as opposed to mainstream American [audiences]” (Hills, 2005).
By emphasizing their understanding of Japanese culture within J-horror, fandom groups are actively constructing their cult identity as distinct from mainstream audiences. However, the practice of “reading for difference” is based on notions of Japanese inscrutability, a tendency shared by mainstream American fans. In order for a film to be considered J-horror, it must exemplify all the “extreme” aspects of the Asian horror film genre. The main appeal of J-horror and a significant driver of its cult following is the visceral effect of the films’ content. The disturbing imagery in J-horror films, often considered taboo to Western audiences, is perceived as liberating uncensoredness to cult viewers. J-horror enthusiast, Patrick Galloway, compares America to an over-protective parent, shielding their child from the realities of the world. He describes his early experiences with J-horror as, “not only a lively tradition of macabre cinema but one far more extreme and outrageous than anything [he’d] experienced before. Rivers of blood! Mountains of corpses! There seemed to be no limits placed on the Asian filmmaker’s vision, no boundaries in terms of topic or depiction. Vive le difference!” (Galloway, 2006). Galloway and many other J-horror followers have attributed the boldness they find in Japanese horror films to the extensive history of Asia, compared to the shorter history of the United States. To western J-horror enthusiasts a longer history apparently suggests a more knowledgeable and unabashed culture. This claim however, is not without the Orientalist perception of Japan as inscrutable. The mysticism associated with Japan is only re-emphasized by the J-horror films depicting the extreme, occult and supernatural.
American journalist, Annalee Newitz, observes that what is ironic about American fans of Japanese popular culture (J-horror, manga, anime) is that they are the first generation of US citizens to experience cultural imperialism in reverse, in other words they are “being colonized by Japanese pop culture, rather than the other way around” (Newitz, 1995). The negative connotations of the term “otaku” (a person with an obsessive interest) are not carried over in the American usage. “Otakudom” instead, is embraced as a subcultural expertise. In J-horror’s case, otakudom can be seen as a rejection of one’s own nation’s cultural style in favour of another’s.
The popularity and mainstream acceptance of the remakes often trigger a negative reaction among fan communities who reject these films because the graphic content is minimized and the uncensored nature of their originals is absent. As a response, fan cultures will seek more visceral and graphic imagery from Japan’s independent filmmakers. A subset of Japanese filmmakers, independent of commercial studios, make unpolished, low budget films that respond to this need. However, it is because of this Western demand (fandom and mainstream alike) that these very same Japanese filmmakers have received international acclaim, increased budgets, larger casts and upgraded equipment for their subsequent films. Fan cultures appreciate these films initially, but typically lose interest after they are released to the public, remade and re-marketed for the mainstream. Also, the increased attention and accessibility of J-horror films converts more mainstream fans into cult fans, blurring the separation between the two groups, perpetuating this negative feedback loop.
It is likely that J-horror images strike the interest of American fans because of the long history of influence America has had with Japan. Ringu tells the story of Sadako, a powerfully magical yet socially inept woman who is raped and thrown into a well. Her child returns to the land of the living, through the circulation of a videotape, in order to avenge her mother by brutally killing anyone who watches the tape. The long, black, stringy hair worn by all the female villains has become a referential symbol for J-horror. Japanese horror filmmakers explain that the long hair is a metaphor for ancient Japanese customs, where men wore their hair long and unbound and women wore their hair neatly tied up. The unkempt hairstyle of the female villains signifies madness or demonic possession due to its non-conformist associations (Kalat, 2007). The underlying message in Japanese horror cinema that has translated into J-horror can be seen as a reaffirmation of patriarchal values, for they represent women who defy social norms as monsters, ghosts and murderers of the innocent. Newitz (1995) suggests that psychologically, American otakus are drawn to the rigid and conventional gender roles presented in Japanese popular culture. The origins of these images can be traced back to the 1950s postwar period, when American occupation d its greatest influence over Japan. It is possible that this contemporary American interest is a nostalgic recollection of “the old days…when America occupied the dominant position in an imperialist relationship with Japan” (Newitz, 1995). Exercise
On the other hand, Roland Kelts, author of Japanamerica, argues that although Japan can draw upon decades of American pop iconography, it is the very “Japaneseness of the…cultural icons that American fans and critics seek, not direct mimics of [their] own aesthetic styles” (Kelts, 2006). Asian Studies professor Michal Daliot-Bul (2007) echoes the idea of a Japanese national essence infused in certain products for marketing purposes. Contrary to when Japanese exports needed to be culturally “odourless” to avoid being too ethnically specific, Daliot-Bul notes that since Pokemon, there has been a noticeable shift to making products like anime and I would argue J-horror, “fragrantly Japanese” (Iwabuchi, 2002)
Japanese horror filmmakers, along with other producers of Japanese products, have responded to this American trend. Since the emerging image of Japanese culture involves notions of “elegance, eroticism and emotions of the body” (Daliot-Bul, 2007) J-horror, piggybacking on the popularity of anime, also operates in the corporeal realm. Part of the visceral appeal of Japanese horror cinema is how it graphically grapples with pain and pleasure, inside and outside of the body. Often showing the act of torturing or cutting into the body (Nakagawa’s 1960, Jigoku; Miike’s 1999 Audition; Suicide Sono’s 2002, Suicide Club) Ringu’s corporeal element is also found in the grotesque, bodily movement of the ghost Sadako as she crawls through the television screen. This type of movement originates from the Japanese avant-garde experimental dance style, “Ankoku Butoh” or “Dance of the Darkness.” Founded in the 1960s by Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno, the purpose of this dance is to invoke the rejection the flesh by internal ghosts, demons or animals (Ozawa, 2006). This macabre trope has been repeated in several other J-horror films since Ringu. Although the reference to Ankoku Butoh is most likely lost in the film’s transition to the United States and its Hollywood remake, the abnormal movements within the film still appeal to the 1930s Japanese phenomenon ero guro nansensu, or “erotic, grotesque, nonsense,” that Western audiences have come to associate with Japanese folk culture. In an act of counter-Orientalism, Daliot-Bul states that the Japanese have used these stereotyped generalizations to define themselves “not for national purposes but for establishing and marketing themselves in the global economy” (Daliot-Bul, 2007).
For mainstream audiences the advent of the J-horror boom could not have arrived at a more opportune time. Since 1960 the American horror genre (Hofstadter, 1964) has mirrored societal anxiety and paranoia. However, many of these films were advertised as “date movies” or gore filled shockers to satiate young boys. Influential films such as Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) established a model for subsequent American horror narratives. However, this mass production of zombie and slasher films also deadlocks the genre into clichéd storylines and production elements. The psychological representations of fear in the Japanese film aesthetic provided an innovative alternative for audiences tired of the American horror genre.
In 1999, the release of both M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense and Daniel Myrick’s Blair Witch Project were fundamental to the re-introduction and acceptance of the horror genre in the American mass market. In additional to this new-found attention to different horror cinematic styles, Hollywood was also experiencing Asianization when American film studios looked to the East for inspiration and appropriation cinematic styles (Klein, 2003). Iwabuchi (2002) observes that the 1990s proved Asia to be the “hottest battlefield for transnational media corporations…illustrated by the emergence of pan Asian satellite broadcasting industries.” Before Asian cultural specificities prevented their visibility in American entertainment but with Asianization, film and television increasingly attempted to incorporate Asian bona-fides. Film historian David Kalat notes that regular cinemas screened dubbed East Asian films such as Kung Fu Hustle and Ong Bak without concern over how mall going teens might react to subtitled foreign films. Major American filmmakers, like Quentin Tarentino, caught on to the East Asian film trend. It seems that when The Ring appeared on the scene, the environment for its embrace was already established.
Ringu and The Ring: A Textual Analysis
Hollywood remakes of Japanese films prior to the J-horror boom did exist, as evidenced by Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai (1954) remake into Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven (1960). The trend of J-horror remakes, however, significantly exceeds any prior attempts in scale, distribution, marketing and profit. The success of Ringu/The Ring as a transnational product can also be attributed to its cultural adaptability into a Hollywood remake. Although it is the novel “Japaneseness” of J-horror films that American fans are first attracted to, it is the adaptable and recognizable elements that maintain their interest.
Much like using New York City as a stage set, the claustrophobic density of the Tokyo landscape is often used to represent isolation and anonymity in megalopolises in Japanese horror films. The three locales used in Ringu are Tokyo, Oshima Island, and the Izu peninsula, all of which are familiar to most Japanese citizens. Popular for their natural landscape and historical sites, Oshima and Izu are well known vacation spots for Japanese city dwellers (Wada-Marciano, 2007). In the film, the association of these areas to distance, remoteness and retreat make the film’s horrific spatial element particularly effective. In this sense, locality plays an important role in the viewers’ experience as it depends on their familiarity with the region, an element that is almost completely removed in the American remake. The Ring takes place in Seattle, although much of the film’s remote scenes are shot in Vancouver. The generic backdrop does not significantly affect the film because, unlike the original, the film’s focus is on character development and causality. This shift also allows for a more linear and rational narrative than the original. Eimi Ozawa notes that due to the flawless translation of specific Japanese locations into American cities in the remake, it is no coincidence that US fans prefer the Hollywood remake to the original (Ozawa, 2006).
Another attractive aspect of J-horror for both American and Japanese fans is the incorporation of technophobic themes in an age of rapid digital communication. In this respect, The Ring stays true to the original’s concept of technology as a motive, means and result of the horrific. Both films comment on the modern dependency of society on electronic gadgets. In Ringu/The Ring, a young girl’s ghost, Sadako (or Samara in the remake) kills anyone who watches the cursed videotape by entering the real world through the television monitor. The only the way to avoid the curse is to make a duplicate copy and show it to someone else. The dissemination of the tape is referred to as “The Ring Virus” referring to the epidemic nature of how the curse spreads as well as its inevitable cycle death and destruction. This also suggests its viewers are also susceptible to the curse and must share the film with others. The metaphor of technology’s ubiquity and influence is relevant to both American and Japanese audiences, for both countries represent centers of economic power and technological advances. The recurring J-horror film theme of the destructive and alienating nature of modern technologies, including televisions, cameras, computers, videos, cell phones and the Internet, represents a growing anxiety in urban societies.
Globalization has long been perceived as a one-directional flow of culture disseminating from the United States to the rest of the world. However, it is understood now that the circulation of commodities is far more complex and must be analyzed in a global trajectory, for in fact, a significant portion of recent American popular culture and cinema in particular, has taken its cues from countries like Japan. Over the past two decades, Japanese horror cinema has rapidly emerged to become a household term. One only has to walk into a Virgin Records or HMV to see the large sections these multimillion-dollar businesses have dedicated to the J-horror genre.
This process is not simply a “cultural pillaging” of Japanese studios and their filmmakers by powerful American industries, although as seen with Roy Lee, in can be a unilateral relationship. Instead, the advent of the American J-horror boom must be understood like many other transnational trends and commodities: as an ongoing process of negotiation and exchange. Much like the thematic idea within The Ring/Ringu, its existence as a digital commodity speaks to the cyclical process of transnational products on the global market.
Its origins as a low budget B-movie produced by Japanese independent filmmakers initiated the gritty, uncensored, unique style American fans have come to associate with Japanese horror aesthetics. Supported by a Western audience, already eager for exotic imports from the East, Japanese horror films did not have to circulate underground for long before it became the full fledged phenomenon known as J-horror. Its success, in turn, generated further Hollywood industry attention on Japanese studios, who responded enthusiastically by pumping out the Orientalist narratives they’re so familiar with. As for their remakes, the “take what you want, leave what you don’t” method has never been so successful.
The J-horror phenomenon also contributed to the reconciliation of Japan to its Asian identity, albeit driven by economic motives. In an act Iwabuchi (2002) calls “consciously self-Orientalising,” Japan has historically modeled its national identity after the West, while simultaneously disassociating itself from the rest of Asia which was seen as “backwards.” Since the post-Cold war era, which reaffirmed this East/West divide, Japan has actively tried to reassert itself within modernized Asia. As it no longer holds the unique position of the only non-Western country to achieve a high level of industrialization, Japan has looked to its neighbours for collaboration in order to resist the onslaught of American film poaching. The success of J-horror remakes consequently piqued the interests of Hollywood executives, prompting them to capitalize on this growing American trend. As more local screenwriters, directors, and actors are recruited to Hollywood studios, Asian film industries have banded together in hopes of resisting American authority and domination. Film studios continue to collaborate by hosting Pan-Asian festivals and marketing DVDs with horror films made in Japan, Hong Kong and Korea. Many film critics (Xu, 2004; Lee, 2005; Wada-Marciano, 2007) perceive this collaborative effort to be a positive movement towards the integration of culturally distinct film stylistics. Although this reverse cultural flow also presents the potential threat of cultural imperialism and homogenization by the West, it is certainly true that the investment and (to an extent) the dependency of Hollywood horror cinema on Japanese horror complicates the notion of “Americanization” as implicit to globalization.
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