Last week I took the opportunity of the west's spooky season to talk about Japanese ghost stories, kaidan. Continuing on with this vein, today we explore J-horror. As with many cultures, the original scary stories of Japan have made their way to the silver screen. Though technically still kaidan, scary movies or horror are more likely to be marked hora (horror) or kowai hanashi (scary stories). Here in America we know them as J-horror.
I'll start right now by saying that I do not usually go out of my way to track down scary movies. For the halloween season I usually watch Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow and every halloween episode of Buffy. I am not a horror person at all. But because I wanted to tell you all about J-horror, I put considerable effort into finding and watching two iconic Japanese horror films, Ju-On: The Grudge and Ringu.
Both of these were very popular in Japan and had American remakes put out within a couple years of the original's release. Since I usually don't watch horror movies, I hadn't seen the American versions of either. However, when The Ring (American Ringu) came out, a friend of mine watched it and described the whole thing to me. I still remembered the general plot and thought that it would be a good movie to watch for my halloween blog post. I found it online and invited my sister, Chelsea, over to watch it with me.
Unfortunately, I didn't realize that I was watching Ringu: Kanzenban, not Ringu. This was a much lower budget and not at all scary movie that came out in 1995, before any other Ring movie. Both movies are based on the book by Koji Suzuki, but supposedly Kanzenban is closer to the original novel. It was not well made and wasn't even released in theaters, but was a TV movie. It took me a while to catch on, I kept thinking, "man, those people who wrote reviews on Netflix sure had a wired idea of 'suspenseful'". I could have watched it in an old house by myself, in the middle of the night, with the wind rattling the windows and still slept soundly. Once I finally read the title of what I was watching and did a quick google search I realized my mistake. I had to wait for the DVD to come in the mail.
I had been planning on only watching Ringu for this post, but since we watched the wrong movie and it was a total let down, we decided to watch Ju-On. Chelsea is far less wimpy than I and had actually watched The Grudge (American Ju-On). I on the other hand, was completely unprepared for the super creepy movie. I have watched ghost films before, and had recently watched The Awakening, which had lots of moments of things behind your shoulder and a ghost child who was terrifying and one horrible moment that almost ruined dollhouses for me. But Ju-On mastered the "there is no escape" feeling that makes you feel absolutely helpless.
Basically it involves a house that is haunted by the ghost of a murdered woman and her child. It has very strong connotations of kaidan, featuring vengeful spirits who track down, drive insane and kill anyone who sets foot in the house. This meant that even after escaping the house, there was nowhere to run. Personally, I think that is way over the top, terror wise. I feel so much better while watching scary movies if there is some way that the person can avoid a horrible fate (even if they don't manage it).
All in all, it was a good movie, but way too scary for me. Actually, that night I had to sleep with an earbud in, playing The House at Pooh Corner. (Fun fact, it's impossible to think about ghosts while listening to Winnie the Pooh.) This being the case I was a little apprehensive of watching Ringu, which was already on its way, especially since Chelsea had to go back to school so I would be watching it alone. However, I am dedicated to this blog, so I toughed it out.
I won't leave you in suspense, I actually really enjoyed Ringu. The premise is that there is a cursed VHS (remember those?) which once watched gives the person seven day until they die. There is an initial moment where she watches the video that is a bit spooky, and then there are some jumpy moments later when she and her ex-husband (who has also watched the video) are trying to find out who made the tape and how to stop it. At the end there is one masterfully creepy suspenseful lead up and then, just when you think everything will work out, a creepy ending scene. Between these moments there was good story, interesting characters and suspense. It felt more like a thriller than horror at those times. I like thrillers, so that is probably why I liked this movie.
I can't really say how other J-horor films differ from American, since I haven't watched enough of either. For an "expert" opinion, I called up my best friend, Nicole, who is a lover of scary movies and a devote of Asian horror. I asked her some questions and we talked about it for awhile. Nicole told me that in her experience what seems to be the main theme of most asian horror is ghosts and vengeful spirits. While the American version might need to explain why this was happening, the Japanese did not, because the concept was already in the culture. As we have seen, ghosts are an integral part of kaidan and most Japanese scary stories.
I asked her if she thought Asian horror was scarier than American and she said, not scarier, but different. Then she said that it was hard to tell, since she did not grow up in the culture, so she was sure that there were subtle cues that she might have missed that would make the whole thing more frightening. She recommended a few other movies that she liked. Though Nicole has rarely steered me wrong in the movie department, I like sleeping soundly too much to take her up on the suggestion.
Until next time, maybe don't watch any blank VHS's anytime soon.