Horror has always been a popular theme for films, from very early cinema to modern and from Western to Eastern films. Horror has always been used to frighten, disturb and shock audiences. It is one of the largest film markets as people still desire to be scared. Therefore horror is reinvented for each generation of new fans, and it must be updated for these fans. This means finding new ways to scare people.
“The reason these films are popular is that audiences want to see something that’s forbidden. All these films toy with the rage and anger we have within us” (Carpenter – The Aesthetics of Fright – Dickstein 1980)
Both America and Japan have a large market for horror, yet the differences in the styles and themes of the films from these countries are significant. Horror has undergone many changes over the years and it has become apparent that the horror genre in America over the last 20 years has seen a decline while recent Japanese horror has become more popular and successful. The ability of Japanese horror films to create fear in the audience is what makes the film successful and enjoyable. As with all films, success lies with the film’s ability to relate to audiences contemporary issues and developments. In the past horror was a metaphor for the fears of man, so as people’s fears change, so must the films. Fear of nuclear power’s ability to create monsters becomes the fear of genetic engineering doing the same. As technology advances so does the fear of what problems these new technologies may bring. A major part of this comes from knowing your target audience and their changing demands. A successful horror film must know how the audience has changed in its tastes, and how much terror they can handle when viewing a film. The reason many recent American horrors fail where Japanese films succeed is the simple fact that they are not taking into consideration these factors. Japanese horror proves more successful than American horror of the last 20 years because it has gone back to the classic days of cinema, where you didn’t need to completely show your monster to scare your audience. Of coarse there are exceptions to the rules, M. Night Shyamalan and Alejandro Amenábar. In terms of atmosphere and original plot twists, Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense and also Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others are the best examples of films that have captured the subtle yet suspenseful feeling of Eastern horror.
Of recent Japanese horror films the most successful have been the Ring films and Dark Water both being directed by Hideo Nakata, of which Ring has already had an American re-make, and Dark Water and Ring 2 about to be re-made. This alone may prove that American producers, unsure of what their audiences want, are capitalizing on the success of Japanese horror films.
“Nobody knows what makes a hit or when it will happen, since audiences make hits not by revealing preferences they already have, but by discovering what they like” (W. David Walls – Identifying Hollywood’s Audiences – Maltby 1999)
Ring is the story of a cursed video tape that has become an urban myth. After watching this tape you have a week to live unless you can solve its mystery and its relationship to a strange girl named Sadako. The story deals with one family who has been affected by the curse. The young single mother watches the tape, shows it to her estranged ex-husband and it is also unfortunately viewed by their young son. The movie follows this family and their fight to end the curse as well as solve it using the clues left behind in the tape itself. You are also aware of the strange presence that is haunting this family since they watched the tape.
Dark Water is the story of a young mother fighting to gain legal custody of her five year old daughter. Because of the divorce and separation, mother and daughter move into a sullen and musty apartment building. All our young mothers’ fears of insecurity and uncertainty are exaggerated by unsettling events and the appearance of another unknown girl that seems to be haunting them. In Dark Water this fear is represented buy the leaking ceiling and reappearance of a small child’s red handbag. What would at first seem like every day occurrence like that of damp take on a new and horrifying meaning in this movie, as the young mother struggle more with her problems and insecurities so does this damp patch increase in size spreading across the bedroom ceiling.
The films do not have huge special effects; there are no CG monsters or people in exaggerated make up and costumes. They are driven very much by the script, which in both Ring and Dark Water is based on a book (in the case of these two films the author of both was Koji Suzuki) Also it has a subtle score the music helping to create a more ambiguous atmosphere, the use of chilling music and sound effects (like the strange noises used during the cursed video clip) to promote fear. The music is never over dramatic it mainly exists as background noise such as the breathing of the characters, the most frightening scenes done in silence letting the imagery do the work. Japanese horror films such as Ring and Dark Water rely on suspense rather than making the audience jump at regular intervals.
The Ring plays out more like a mystery than a horror it invites you to solve the curse saving the final scare for the end of the film. By this time you are not expecting anything as the film has played out at a subtle pace exploring the relationship between the characters as well as Sadako herself and her relationships, making the final scene of the film even more terrifying. Another aspect of this movie is that as well as being a mystery and horror it is also part melodrama with the central characters being a broken family not only having to deal with issues such as separation and being a single mother raising a child but now the fear of death that hangs over them. If you were to take out the supernatural element of this film as well as Dark Water you would still be left with an interesting drama about the breakdown of family and how they no longer are able to cope with their problems and social complications. The film has its own social commentary about the family unit and then upon this other genres appear in various layers, the rest being mystery and then finally horror.
“One might say that the true subject of the horror genre is the struggle for recognition of all that our civilization represses and oppresses: its re-emergence dramatised, as our nightmare, as an object of horror, a matter for terror, the ‘happy ending’ (when it exists) typically signifying the restoration of repression.’” (Wood – American Nightmare: essays on the horror film, 1979, p10)
Both Ring and Dark Water follow the theory of return of the repressed as the characters have been oppressed as well as having the emotions repressed. The human characters have been repressing their emotions in the struggle to hold together the fragments of their families and broken lives. They are dealing with their own insecurities (especially the young mother character in both films) but these problems have to be forced down for they also have to deal with being strong in the face of their child. The young mother has to show much strength in protecting their child and by putting the child before them they don’t think about their own feelings and are far more susceptible to the supernatural element. As for the supernatural element whether it manifests itself as a woman with a veil of dark hair or a child with a veil of dark hair it is the representation of these fears and insecurities. But more importantly, these creatures of nightmares that have manifested themselves were once human and in their lives were oppressed. So in death, all that was oppressed in life comes back as a terrifying and haunting power.
Why the representation of horror in these films is a woman is a much more difficult question to answer. For one thing Japanese and American cultures are very different therefore the role of women in their society is different. Women are looked upon and treated differently in Japanese society so it’s harder for a western audience to understand the cultural significance of the female “ghost” in far-eastern culture. Western viewers may find these movies far more unnerving because it is a mother that has become the symbol of fear when normally the mother figure is something we can rely on for safety and security. Though this is not always the case; in Species (directed by Roger Donaldson) the monster is female. It is far harder to see the female ghost in recent American cinema, which normally uses a male killer or a monster, however, a rare example of the female ghost can be found in What Lies Beneath by Robert Zemeckis. The child as a representation of horror has been used in American cinema (such as the Omen movies by Richard Donner), but this has been rare in recent cinema (with the possible exception of Godsend by Nick Hamm). The child is mainly placed within the horror or is susceptible to it like in Sixth Sense by M. Night Shyamalan and Bless the Child by Chuck Russell.
A mother or a child seems much safer because we fear them less, so to see them in these different roles of avenger, tormentor and killer is far more unnerving. To eastern audiences, using women as the element of fear may make more sense because in Japanese society the women are still seen as the lesser sex. Women are rarely seen as equals in Japanese society as they take on far more traditional roles like mother and housewife. Women are more often than not repressed by their own society, so it makes much more sense that in death they seek vengeance for this repression. Another reason that the female is used to represent fear is also related to the culture that these stories are born from. A lot of Japanese horror stories started of as folk tales and myths from times when the role of women was even less respected than it is in modern Japan. Also Japan has a different religion and therefore different beliefs when it comes to the spirit world and how it can interact with our world.
Sadako herself also is a nice twist on the ‘final girl’ image that exists in American horror of recent years. The ‘final girl’ is the term used to describe the last remaining character (that is nearly always female) who can kill the monster or killer in the movie. This surviving female character is the one to out wit our monster or killer, saving herself and signifying the restoration of normality (the ‘final girl’ has redeemed herself). But in horrors such as Ring Sadako takes the live of her victims, there isn’t another girl to stop her, no character to stop her, Sadako gets the final revenge so normality isn’t restored.
The other thing that sets Japanese horror apart is the very fact that many are based on the idea of something supernatural. A majority of American horrors have an evil presence which is either a man like in the slasher cycles such as Scream or follow the “monster of the week” formula like Jeepers Creepers. But these films are wearing thin becoming formulaic and predictable. Because Japanese horrors evil presence is not a man or a monster but something supernatural and other worldly it plays by a different set of rules. It is not a presence that is inherently good or evil it haunts who it haunts for a reason; generally one of revenge and therefore the body counts for these films is significantly lower than that of American horror. The point of the film is not to create a large body count, its not about how many victims are created and how they die it’s about the mysterious presence and the fear it generates.
American equivalents such as Gothika by Mathieu Kassovitz don’t have this subtle atmosphere and play up the jumps until it become predictable to where the ghost will appear to scare you. Hollywood horror will overdo the scoring, the tension in the scene lost due to music where silence would have worked much better. There are also exaggerated sound effects when scary events are taking place, music crescendos to the climax of the scene. Where there is a monster it’s a large computer generated beast like the killer bat in Jeepers Creepers. Hollywood horrors rely far more on spectacle rather than subtlety, the ending of the American re-make of Ring being a very good example. Unlike the Japanese version which was a slower but a shorter scene, the horror comes for you and takes you; the American ending is a faster paced scene but filled with more spectacle like the husband falling over a filling unit then trying to crawl away through broken glass. The other difference is the appearance of Sadako herself, while in the Japanese version she was a girl in a white dress with long black hair that obscured her face the only part you see of her at the end is a close up of bloodshot eye, in the American it’s the same basic image but you see her arms and legs all rotted and decayed, as well as the same has happened to her face in which she has a evil expression.
American horror tends to be set away from the home, featuring teenagers lost in unfamiliar locations. The Japanese understand you don’t need to take someone far away into such remote locations. Something as simple as a block of flats can hold a frightening secret, and something supernatural can follow you to somewhere you think is safe and familiar (such as your school). American films have rural locations, unlike Japanese films that have urban and inner-city locations. This goes to prove that Japanese filmmakers understand their audience, and what that audience will find terrifying changes with changing times. The best example of this is Ring. The source of horror is a video tape, a modern invention so taken for granted by today’s society that no one could suspect what kind of horror could be created from it. By placing objects that are so familiar to us in a frightening setting they become scary to us, objects that we take for granted now become our worse fears.
The final climatic scene of horror in both Ring and Dark Water is so terrifying that the scene itself haunts you like a ghost long after the movie is over. The image of Sadako implanted in your memory lingering there so that the movie stays with you. Even at the very end of the movie you are left on a cliffhanger still guessing the true nature of this evil presence as well as wondering what will happen next to the characters affected by Sadako. As with Dark Water the image of the child that has haunted the family now haunts you. It’s this subtle nature of telling the story that makes Japanese horror so much more effective for you are not presented with over glorified monsters but a more supernatural atmosphere. One factor that also makes these Japanese films scarier is the very fact that most of the time they are left unresolved or open ended. By the end of the Ring you are left with this cliffhanger, therefore the thing you fear is unresolved and you are left to think about it. Again this allows the movie to stay with you haunting your thoughts and continuing to scare you, a true sign that it has indeed been an affective horror. With Dark Water the plot has been resolved; you know who has been haunting the family (the small girl). You also know the fate of the small girl (how she became a ghost and why water and a red handbag relate to the haunting). Lastly you know why she has been haunting this family (she wanted a kind and caring mother to replace the one that abandoned her as a child and led to her unfortunate death). Though even with this film there is an open end, for the ghost has won, it was able to take the mother away leaving her daughter alone. The mother is now a ghost herself and alone with the ghost child they still haunt the apartment where this nightmare occurred. Normality hasn’t been resolved, the child’s vengeance may have been carried out but she hasn’t moved on she still lingers in this apartment continuing to haunt it, the difference being that now she has someone else to share this fate with.
“Sublime terror rests in the unseen – the ultimate horror. Things seen, fully described, explained, and laid to rest the last reel or paragraph are mere horrors….” (Rockett – Journal of Popular Film and Television, 1982, p.132)
Hideo Nakata’s movie was to create one of the most famous characters in the form of Sadako. Her image would become a famous image in nearly every horror film made after Ring. Sadako’s image, the women with a veil of dark hair partially or fully obscuring her face, would become a motif for horror movies. She would not only now represent fear but repressed emotions turning into the most horrifying events. Her image would later appear in other Eastern movies such as Ju-on a.k.a The Grudge 1 and 2 (again having had an American re-make) by Takashi Shimizu, Tale of Two Sisters by Ji-Woon Kim, Kakashi by Norio Tsuruta (which is not unexpected as he was also the one to direct Ring 0) and even American horrors such as Gothika by Mathieu Kassovitz and Saw by James Wan.
The movies themselves are also edited very differently from American films and they contain far less cuts. There are no close ups of characters till the end of the film where it is the horror element like Sadako or the ghost child that get the close up. The camera stays motionless with characters moving abut the frame entering or exiting the scene. Where characters interact the camera is positioned so both characters can be scene rather than cutting between them. The films themselves seem to have a slight hinting to them, Ring it is blues and grey whereas Dark Water is more green in colour. The colours in Ring could symbolize the sorrow of Sadako’s death as well as the coldness of Sadako’s isolation from the society that oppressed her. While in Dark Water green is used to emphasize the damp and root from the water that stains this movie.
As mentioned in an early quote by Maltby that discusses that in fact American producers have really no idea what their target audiences want, so it’s not surprising that they have been making less successful horrors in comparison to Japan and are increasingly re-making successful Japanese, Korean and Thai horrors. If the success of the film relies on being able to relate to a modern audience, then trying to cater for a wider audience is also valid. Horrors have been seen as something for a younger audience, mainly teen generations. As a result, they feature a cast of teenagers and do not deal with issues that would relate to an older audience. Therefore, what makes both Ring and Dark Water more successful is that they cater for a wider audience. Both films at their core have a family unit and play out more like a melodrama with supernatural elements. Since everyone can relate to the themes of family it makes the films that more frightening. It’s not just teenagers that are at risk but anyone. Both films reflect issues that would scare a family without the supernatural element like divorce and separation. These issues are made even more horrifying with the supernatural elements. Ring and Dark Water use everyday objects and situations to breed horror. They understand that you need go no further than your own home to find something to scare you.
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