Japanese Film Remakes | Film Studies Dissertations

Published: 2021-06-17 17:35:03
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Since the beginning of the 21st Century a new trend has become commonplace within the Hollywood horror genre, Japanese horror films are being purchased and remade for a new audience, removing the traditional underlying history and Americanising them for western viewers waiting for their next dose of fear and terror.
In this dissertation I will explore the reasoning behind this influx of remakes, looking at the important roles people like Roy Lee and Vertigo Entertainment have played in their acceptance and successes. To do this I feel it is important to look at the state Hollywood horror was in before, and how films such as The Ring (2002) and The Grudge (2004) have changed things.
As well as this I will look at the differences between J-Horror and its American counterpart, and how these have made them an appealing prospect for remaking. It will also be important for me to look at the academic theories behind remakes, and the different types of remake there are, using the work of Druxman, Leitch and Greenberg to try and help identify the different approaches used by Hollywood directors whilst tackling these projects.
As well as investigating into why this has become so popular recently, and what examples there are in the past of similar situations arising, I’ll be attempting to predict how long this will last for, and the problems studios may encounter by doing it on a large scale.
I will begin in Chapter One by introducing the work of Michael Druxman, Thomas Leitch and Harvey Roy Greenberg, summarising their writings on the topic of remakes and looking at how they each have different categories of them, depending on the new films style and the way it is released. I will look at Leitch’s theory of the “triangular relationship” (1990: 139) which helps to explain how remakes differ so much from other versions of adaptation. Along with these categories of remake I will attempt to give examples of different films which fit into the criteria, as well as relating them to the current trend of remaking J-Horror.
In Chapter Two I will talk about the differences between Hollywood and Japanese horror styles, looking at both countries long histories in the genre, focussing on things such as folklore and local tradition, trying to discover why the two styles are so different. I will look at the origins and formation of the J-Horror style, along with the key films and directors associated with the movement. Before focussing on Hollywood’s history of remaking, and some of the reasons and thinking behind doing it, looking at films such as Yojimbo (1961) and Shichinin no samurai (Seven Samurai, 1954) as examples of this happening in the past.
Chapter Three will be a case study based around Ringu (1998) and The Ring (2002), pointing out the differences and similarities between the two films. Through the use of illustrations I will identify important scenes where Gore Verbinski has either almost copied exactly or drastically altered the shot from Hideo Nakata’s original. I will try to relate my arguments and observations to other contemporary cases of J-Horror remakes, again talking about the cultural differences between the two countries and how in turn that has affected the look and feel of the two films.
Finally I will conclude by looking at the future of remaking J-Horror, highlighting future films in development and how Hollywood is now exploiting new markets. I will summarise my findings from previous chapters and use them to try and predict how long this spell of remaking will last for and if it will continue to be as financially successful as it has been so far.
Chapter One
Categories of Remake
Ever since the early days of Hollywood cinema films have been remade, reimagined and adapted for new, ever changing audiences. In most cases it has proven that if a film was successful the first time round a remake will be equally so. The producer or studio make the decision that the original story is still viable (Druxman: 1975: 13) and can once again make big money at the box office. This has led to this trend increasing rapidly over the last few decades, with fresh new material becoming harder to come by.
Before I go into detail on the types of remakes and how they relate to the current trend of remaking Asian horror, I must clearly define what a remake actually is. A remake is much more than a film based on an earlier screenplay (Verevis: 2006: 1), as it can be broken down into even more definitions. The sequel/prequel, adaptation, homage, reimagining, film series and the retour aux sourced are all a type of remake (Delaney & Potamitis: 2004: 1), with films falling under one of them.
Leitch states that the reason remakes differ so much from other adaptations to a new media is due to the “triangular relationship” (Leitch: 1990: 139) they establish among themselves, the original film and the property in which both are based on. This has come about because typically producers of a remake pay no adaptation fees to the makers of the original film, but instead purchase adaptation rights from the authors of the based on property (Leitch: 1990: 139).
This seems strange as it is the two films which will be competing against each other, often being found side by side on store shelves, and not the original property and the remade film (Leitch: 1990: 139). It is often the case that the original film benefits from the release of a remake, as it brings in a fresh audience who are often interested in watching the original film as well. In the case of Ringu, you can clearly see that the theatrical release of its remake caused its popularity to soar higher than ever before [fig 1.1] (pro.imdb.com).
Many texts have been written regarding the subject of remaking film, and in particular looking at breaking the remake down into smaller more specific categories. The writings of Robert Eberwein, Michael Druxman, Harvey Roy Greenberg and Thomas Leitch, have defined multiple different types of remade film between them, from the wide and vague to the extremely specific. These books and essays can prove very helpful when comparing remade cinema, especially in trying to identify why the film in question has been remade, and the thinking behind it. I hope to use these definitions to help answer my own question of why there is such a high demand for westernising Japanese horror.
In one of the first texts dedicated solely to the subject of the movie remake, Make It Again, Sam, Druxman sets out to answer three questions through the analysis of thirty three films and their remakes (1975: 9). These questions are “Why was the picture remade?”, “How was the remake different from the original as far as important story changes were concerned?” and “What was the critical reaction to the remake?” (Druxman: 1975: 9). When searching for a definition of a “remake“ for his work Druxman decided that he would not take into account obvious sequels to films, and instead focus mainly on those that were based on a “common literary source” (1975: 9), such as an existing screenplay, novel, play, etc.
Three major factors are described as driving “industry pragmatism” (Verevis: 2006: 5) in regards to Hollywood’s practice of remaking. Druxman argues that the first of these factors is that the studios’ decision to remake is a “voluntary one” (1975: 13) based on the fact that the script is still relevant today and could prove successful. However during the 1930s and 1940s, in the studio dominated era, they were forced to produce a certain amount of films every year (Druxman: 1975: 13). Producers found themselves with no alternative than to start using previously filmed movies as sources for new “B” and sometimes top-of-the-bill productions (Verevis: 2006: 6). These updated plots were essentially the same as their predecessor, with just the settings and characters being changed slightly.
Druxman’s second point is that it was common practice for studios to purchase rights to plays, novels and stories, so that they could then produce multiple versions of these without giving the copyright holder additional payments (Verevis: 2006: 6). As Literary classics such as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and The Three Musketeers where in the public domain, it meant that no initial payment would have to be paid for their dramatic rights (Verevis: 2006: 6).
The final factor is simple economics; established films can be redone in order to exploit the ever changing production techniques and movie stars. That is why these old stories were, and will continue to be, constantly resurrected. If a studio has purchased the rights to something they will want to redo and release it as many times as possible in order to maximise their gain.
Through Druxman’s definitions and in depth analysis of Hollywood remakes he comes up with three categories which he feels they can fall under; the direct, disguised and the non-remake (Druxman: 1975: 15). The direct remake category contains films that do not even attempt to hide the fact that they are based on earlier productions (Druxman: 1975: 15). Such productions may adopt a new title and make some changes to the narrative image (Verevis: 2006: 7), but it is basically the same film being remade, with not even the publicity campaigns hiding this fact (Druxman: 1975: 15). The main objective of these direct remakes is to draw in two types of cinema viewers. Those who have seen and enjoyed the original, and are curious about this new remake, and those who have heard good things about the original so want to view this version as the older is no longer in circulation (Druxman: 1975: 18).
His second category, the disguised remake is a film which is either updated with little change, or completely retitled and then disguised, with the help of a new setting and original characters. (Verevis: 2006: 7). In either case though, the disguised remake doesn’t wish to draw attention to the fact that it’s not an original piece, instead just promoting itself as a normal film. Finally Druxman says there are non-remakes, films retaining the title of a well known story (Druxman: 1975: 15), as well as possibly referring to the name of a well known author, strictly for commercial purposes. Basically all the remake and the original share in common is the title, but the content is extremely different in each case (Verevis: 2006: 7).
A perfect example of Druxman’s non-remake would be The Ring Two (2005) as the film shares the same name as its original (in its American release title at least), but that it pretty much where the similarities end. It is interesting to point out that the film is remade by Hideo Nakata, the director behind the original, clearly placing this remake within Robert Stams category of autocitation, in which a film maker remakes his/her own film (Verevis: 2006: 21). A further relevant example of this is Takashi Shimizu’s American film The Grudge a remake of his earlier Japanese language Ju-on: The Grudge (2003).
In Harvey Roy Greenberg’s article “Raiders of the Lost Text: Remaking as Contested Homage in Always”he expands upon Druxman’s “commercially grounded” (Verevis: 2006: 8) groups and comes up with three categories which instead focus on the directors reasons for remaking a film. His categories center around the example of the romantic war fantasy A Guy Named Joe (1943) and its Steven Spielberg remake, Always (1989). Using this as an example of what Verevis translates as a “acknowledged, transformed remake” (2006: 9), with the film having huge changes made to the characters, location and general story telling.
But still making sure to acknowledge the original, like in the case of Always a small mention is given in the credits. Much like Druxman he also names two other categories in which he feels remakes fall under. The acknowledged, close remake much like Druxman’s direct (1975:15) category, is when a remake completely replicates the original, with little to no change made to its narrative structure (Verevis: 2006: 9), and the unacknowledged, disguised remake is when both minor and major changes are made to the time, settings and characters. But the original version is not referred to and the audience are not informed of there even being one (Verevis: 2006: 9), similar to Druxman’s category of disguised remake.
Thomas M. Leitch gives a much “more developed” (Verevis: 2006: 11) taxonomy of remakes. He claims that remakes seek to define themselves through either primary reference to the original film, or to the material both are adapted from, and there are four possible stances of remake that a film can fall under (Leitch: 1990: 142). The readaptation is the simplest of these stances, ignoring earlier cinematic adaptations in order to readapt an original literary property as faithfully as possible (Verevis: 2006: 12). The readaptations goal is “fidelity to the original text” (Leitch: 1990: 142), which it aims to translate as thoroughly as possible into the new film medium.
Unlike the readaptation, the update competes directly with its literacy source, instead of seeking to subordinate itself to the essence of a literacy classic (Verevis: 2006: 12). They transform the original text through such ways as transposing it to a new setting, changing its values, or making the original seem dated, outmoded or irrelevant (Leitch: 1990: 143). Films such as these updates often display their “contradictory attitude towards the material” (Leitch: 1990: 143) through their titles and marketing, sometimes even using a tone which verges on parody. For perfect example of this would be Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet (1996), a film which takes an established screenplay and changes its meaning, updating it for a new generation.
The homage is a type of remake whose primary objective is not to disrespect and put down the original film, but celebrate and pay tribute to it (Leitch: 1990: 144). Much like the readaptation which seeks to direct the audience’s attention to its literacy source (Verevis: 2006: 13), the homage situates itself as a secondary text, with its only value depending on its relation to the original text they pay tribute to (Leitch: 1990: 144). Therefore the homage renounces any claims that it is better than its original and attempts to reintroduce films that are in danger of being lost and forgotten (Leitch: 1990: 144).
Leitch’s final category, the true remake is the complete opposite to the homage, claiming that it is better than its original (Verevis: 2006: 13). It focuses on a cinematic original with an accommodating stance and seeks to update the original, making its more relevant to a new modern audience (Leitch: 1990: 145). More than any of the other categories it borrows largely from the unacknowledged film, instead of being a reinvisioning of a literacy text (Leitch: 1990: 145).
As well as these three major taxonomies on remakes from Leitch, Druxman and Greenberg, Robert Eberwein has published an elaborate list, proposing fifteen individual categories, each with many subdivisions (Verevis: 2006: 11). Ranging from the obvious such as a silent film remade as a sound film (Eberwein: 1998: 28) to the much more specific, “A remake that changes the race of the main characters” (Eberwein: 1998: 30). His taxonomy doesn’t address the issue of film adaptations, (Eberwein: 1998: 31) but regardless is a comprehensive and extremely specific list of categories which film can easily be slotted into.
Chapter Two
Different Styles of Horror
It’s fairly clear to see, even to the most casual of audiences that Hollywood and Asia have extremely different styles of horror cinema, focussing on very different aspects and using different techniques to produce an element of fear. The west has a long history of horror cinema, starting with the early gothic in films such as Todd Browning’s Dracula (1931) and James Whales’ Frankenstein (1931), before going through a more paranoid stage focussing on unease and a sense that things are not right in the world, such as John Carpenters Science Fiction horror The Thing (1982). In recent times though “horror has become the domain of the slasher movie” (Maher: 2005: 14), with the likes of Friday the 13th(1980), Halloween (1978) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) giving rise to a new genre, one which would reshape the future of horror for almost 20 years.
Towards the end of the 20th century it had become the norm for horror cinema to be all about multiple grotesque killings, limited back-story and a very formulaic approach to making the films. With the audience expecting certain key things when watching a horror film, such as, big jumpy moments, psycho-killers who never quite die and conventions such as the “Final Girl”. As Gore Verbinski, director of The Ring puts it “slasher films contextualise the horror so you watch it, eat your popcorn, go through a few jumps, and then go out for dinner” (O’Toole: 2003: 93), it was no longer fresh and exciting in the way it was in the early 1980s.
Wes Craven changed all this in 1996 with the first of his Scream trilogy, the ironic slasher movie has run out of “nudge-nudge and wink wink” (O’Toole: 2003: 93) and it was now time for a smarter type of horror, one which was very aware of its audience knowing the key conventions, and which would use this to its advantage.
The Scream films make use of the previously subtle and covert intertextual references and transform them into a very overt, discursive act. The movie characters knowledge of the horror genre rivals that of this new very aware target audience, and no longer tries to patronise them and act oblivious, with even the rules of horror sequels being discussed in detail in the following Scream 2 (1997) and Scream 3 (2000).
The dismantling and parody riddled approach to the slasher genre continued with the Scary Movie (2000) franchise, this time not just giving a smart alternative to current horror cinema but completely mocking every aspect of it. Although these films and there sequels did very well at the box office, they had done serious damage to the American horror genre (Braundu: 2005: 118), the age of the slasher genre was over and Hollywood studios needed to find a way to invent horror for a new audience.
In 1998 “Japanese suspense maestro” (Maher: 2005: 14) Hideo Nakata’s small budget Japanese horror film Ringu had revived a stagnant genre for the country, and had become a “cinematic phenomenon” (O’Toole: 2003: 93) across Asia, quickly becoming the most successful horror film franchise in Japan’s history. (Arnold: 2002:16) The story of a mysterious video tape which kills everyone who watches it exactly one week later became an underground cult classic within the west (Maher: 2005: 14), providing a kind of deep unsettling horror which had never been seen before.
The film is based largely on the book of the same name by Koji Suzuki, who has been dubbed “the Stephen King of Japan” (O’Toole: 2003: 93), which was published in 1991. Suzuki’s downbeat, everyday settings have proven to translate well into film, (Donald: 2005: 9) with another one of his books, Honogurai mizu no soko kara (Dark Water, 2002) from 1996 also being adapted and remade for an American audience.
Roy Lee, arguably the best known go-between in the world of remakes (Frater & Kay: 2003: 10) and one half of the new Vertigo Entertainment, was one of the first big name American film producer to watch Ringu and it was this viewing that triggered the start of the Asian remake boom. On Lee’s recommendation the film was watched by Dreamworks Production Executive Walter Parkes and by 7pm that same day they had “paid $1m for the remake” rights (Frater & Kay: 2003: 10).
The history of the Japanese horror film is arguably as big as that of Hollywood and the West’s. With its roots firmly set in folklore, myth and urban legend (Langford: 2005: 175) it has progressed from woodblock carvings, to Kabuki theatre and finally to motion picture cinema. The main premise of the horror is based around the ghost story, at least up until the late 20th century. Story’s known as Kaidan (literally translated to “tail of a strange apparition”) originating from the Edo and Meiji period where passed down from generation to generation, retold in an ever changing medium (Stamou: 2007).
The average Japanese person is more inclined to believe in ghosts than not, due to the culture and the way they are constantly exposed to these tales of terror. They believe that spirits inhabit absolutely everything (Rucka: 2005) and because of this don’t regard them as enemies, but as just another thing which co-exists within their world (Kermode: 2005). As Walter Salles, director of Dark Water (2005) puts it, “they don’t question it the way we question it, it’s much more a part of their world” (Kermode: 2005).
Due to the unquestioning of the paranormal and the Buddhist and Shintō religious followings they are much more acceptant to the idea of life after death. This view of life, death and the afterlife is the fundamental difference between Japanese horror and its western counterpart, and where all the other differences stem from (Rucka: 2005). As Hideo Nakata says, “when making horror films, the methods of describing the spirit world and the expression of horror are totally different between Japan and the West” (Kermode: 2005).
As is common within the Japanese language there are names for multiple different types of ghost and spirit. The ghosts and demons of the ancient period tales where known as the Yurei (lean ghost), the Zashiki-warashi is a dead child’s ghost, like the character of Toshio in Ju-on: The Grudge. One of the most common kinds of ghost though is the Onryō (resentful spirit), a spirit trapped at Yomi (Japanese purgatory) who comes back to earth looking for revenge (Stamou: 2007).
Although not limited to being female, such as Rentaro Mikuni’s husband character in Kwaidan (1964) for example, the majority of them are (Wilks: 2006). It is this image of the Onryō which comes to mind when you think of Japanese horror, the female spirit gowned in snow-white, with its long black hair obscuring its face. This is mainly due to the new wave of Japanese directors such as, Takashi Miike (Ôdishon, 1999), Hideo Nakata (Ringu), Takashi Shimizu (Ju-on: The Grudge) and Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Kairo, 2001) using it at every opportunity, making it as “iconic in horror cinema as the projectile-vomiting, spinning head” (Wilks: 2006).
1964 saw the release of what many regard as one of Japans greatest horrors, Kaidan (Kwaidan, 1964). Directed by Masaki Kobayashi and based on four short stories by author Lafcadio Hearn, it uses abstract use of lighting and sound, creatively staged and shot in vibrant colours (Rucka: 2005). Keiko Kishi’s performance as Yuki The Ice Maiden sparked such terror within the Japanese population, that now only the passing glimpse of the likes of Sadako in Ringu and Kayako in Ju-on: The Grudge ignite utmost fright, due to the accumulated cultural knowledge of this character (Wilks: 2006).
After years of Japanese horror plodding along in a stale state, influenced more by American slashers than its own rich heritage, a young director called Norio Tsurta decided he had had enough and it was time for a change. Japan was no longer the fantastically safe country it once was, and the Japanese people were starting to feel the ills of the outside world encroaching on them (Lovgren: 2004), and this was starting to be shown through their cinema. Tsurta’s Honto ni atta kowai hanashi (Scary True Stories, 1991) was the first of these, providing through low budget production, the look, mood and style which would later be known as J-Horror (Rucka: 2005).
The term J-Horror was originally coined as a cult fan term (Rucka: 2005) for the post Ringu horror cinema which was coming out of Japan, although now it is often wrongly used to define Japanese horror as a whole. This revitalised horror scene fronted largely by Hideo Nakata after the phenomenal success of his film Ringu, completely revived the Japanese horror scene and caught the eye of film fans and studios all around the world.
The common theme within J-Horror is once again ghosts, Onryō and the supernatural, but other more violent torture based films can also be included under the banner, for example Takashi Miike’s Ôdishon (Audition). For the most part though the films were very similar in style and overall theme to each other, with the following being the most notable examples; Nakata’s Ringu, Kaosu (Chaos, 1999), Ringu 2 (1999) and Honogurai mizu no soko kara. Takashi Shimizu’s Ju-on: The Curse (2000), Ju-on: The Curse 2 (2000), Ju-on: The Grudge, Ju-on: The Grudge 2 (2003), Marebito (2004) and Rinne (Reincarnation, 2005). Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Kyua (Cure, 1997), Kairo (Pulse, 2001) and Sakebi (Retribution, 2006), and Takashi Miike’s Chakushin ari (One Missed Call, 2004).
The Japanese horror style has an “eerie ambient quality” (Maher: 14: 2005) about it which differs largely from its western counterpart. As noted previously, in the traditional Japanese horror movie the “past haunts the present, invariably taking the form of the supernatural” (Schneider and Williams: 6: 2005). Where, as director Rob Zombie (Halloween, 2007) points out, in American horror “you’ve gotta kill someone in the first five seconds” (Chaffin: 2005).
J-Horror takes a very different approach to this, focussing on delivering heavy “atmosphere, nuance and ambiguity” (Chaffin: 2005), instead of raw grotesque gore, mainly due to the fact that the Japanese audience is much more tolerant of it (Phelan: 10: 2005). In Japanese horror films there’s much more of an acceptance towards the irrational and the unexplained (Lovgren: 2004). Nakata says that the ghost need do nothing more than “stand behind and stare at the main character” (Davies: 2005) to create fear amongst the audience, it all comes from sounds, shadows and suggestions, you don’t need “a 3D creature lopping people’s heads off” (Lovgren: 2004).
Takashi Shimizu compares the current J-Horror style to films by American director John Carpenter, such as The Thing (1982) and Halloween. Saying that “just the suggestion of the presence of a ghost is frightening” (Dixon: 7: 2005), whereas Sarah Michelle-Gellar, star of The Grudge, describes Asian horror as being “much more beautiful, more poetic, leaving much more to the imagination” (Baughan: 78: 2005), a view which seems to be shared by many.
Western horror plots normally evolve around the idea that the characters discover the cause of the horror and then destroy it, but J-Horror works very differently to this. As Stephen Susco, the writer in charge of translating Ju-on: The Grudge for the remake puts it, Asian horror is more “like a haunted house that follows you” (Kay: 7: 2004), there’s no limits or barriers to the horror. For example in Ringu where Sadako Yamamura climbs out of the television set, breaching any line which might keep you safe.
In the west a ghost is often required to want something much more meaningful and have a deeper back-story, whereas “in Japan a ghost may simply want to terrify and destroy” (Phelan: 10: 2005). It’s the little differences like this which make these variations on the horror genre so different, where Hollywood mostly relies on over the top multiple sequences of death, Japan still has its roots firmly placed amongst the aesthetics of folklore, Japanese Noh and Kabuki theatre (McRoy: 214: 2006).
Although history would suggest that Europe was the first stop of film makers and studio’s looking to remake a movie for a world audience, Japan has long been a “happy hunting ground for Hollywood remakers” (Shackleton & Schilling: 2003: 17). First beginning in 1960 with The Magnificent Seven, John Sturges’ classic remake of the cult hit Shichinin no samurai, and then followed by Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (1964), a remake of the Japanese film Yojimbo.
In fact Yojimbo was remade once again in 1996 in the Bruce Willis lead crime drama Last Man Standing, a tribute to Akira Kurosawa’s screenplay that it was still deemed worthy of a remake over 30 years later. Literally the largest example of Hollywood remaking a Japanese movie though is Godzilla (1998), Roland Emmerich’s re-envisioning of the then twenty two film monster series, beginning in 1954 with Goijira (Godzilla). It was this film which became one of the first early examples of a foreign film becoming “Americanised”, even though it was given a (very limited) subtitled theatrical run it was still remade two years later as Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (1956), with numerous new scenes shot and inserted into the original Japanese film, completely changing the plot and removing any real trace that it was a foreign made production (godzylla.com).
As Mike Macari, Fine Line’s Creative Executive and avid Asian film fanatic, states Hollywood has always had the ability to “import foreign ideas and re-export them to a world market” (Frater & Kay: 2003: 9), remakes have always been a very important part of American film making, but in the last ten years this is becoming even more so. As the mainstream Hollywood audiences’ become bored and overexposed to the current market the studios are forced to look elsewhere for inspiration, Walter Parkes says that Hollywood’s “voracious appetite” (Frater & Kay: 2003: 9) will look wherever it can for new material and inspiration.
American children have been “growing up on Pokemon, Japanese anime and manga” (Frater & Kay: 2003: 9) for the past ten years, which has meant that as they become adults they’ve become more accustomed to the Japanese style, whereas fifteen years ago they wouldn’t be so open to it. Roy Lee states that he looks for “something new and fresh in the story that will appeal to a wider audience” (Paquet: 2003: 15), as long as it has an original concept and several strong scenes Hollywood can see potential in it for a remake. “Hollywood is a machine” (Maher: 2005: 14) and has proven that it can translate even the most cultural specific film into a box office success.
Chapter Three
Case Study
As previously mentioned Hideo Nakata’s Ringu became the first film associated with the style of movie which would later be described as J-Horror. It came up with a fresh and exciting approach to its genre which would not only be used as a template for its western remakes, but the stream of replicas which would follow it in Japan. In this chapter I will be looking at the film in much more detail, comparing and contrasting it to Gore Verbinski’s Hollywood remake The Ring, in an attempt to identify how truthful it stays to the original, which parts are changed and westernised, and why this is the case.
Although I am using Ringu/The Ring as my main example, mainly due to the fact that it was the first contemporary case of remaking Japanese horror, I will try to relate my arguments and observations to other films and their Hollywood versions. Before I begin this though I think it is important to give a basic summary of the Ringu plot outline and identify its key characters, so I can point out how it was so different and what made it so appealing for a western remake in the first place.
Nakata’s plot for Ringu revolves around the circulation of a cursed video tape amongst Japanese teenagers, where if you watch it you will die exactly one week later. The film follows the characters of Reiko Asakawa (Nanako Matushima) and her ex-husband Ryuuji Takayama (Hiroyuki Sanada), who also fathers her son Yoichi (Rikiya Otaka), as they attempt to discover the origins of the video tape and find a way to stop it. When the victims seven days are up they are killed by Sadako Yamamura (Rie Inou) after seeing her staring “basilisk eye” (Langford: 176: 2005), instantly stopping their heart and turning their faces to “frozen masks of indescribable terror” (Langford: 176: 2005).
Nakata’s film is itself an adaptation, basing its story loosely on that of Koji Suzuki’s novel of the same name. Although the basic plot is similar Nakata has purposely changed parts and added new scenes to make it more accessible, in the same way Verbinski has in his remake. In the original Japanese film the main protagonist is a female named Reiko Asakawa, in the book she is a male called Kazuyuki (Suzuki: 15: 2005).
Also arguably the most terrifying scene in the film, Sadako emerging from the television, is not mentioned at all in the book. In the novel the victims die not from heart failure at the sight of Sadako’s piercing glare, but from a tumour in the throat which develops as they hallucinate, seeing themselves horribly aged (www.theringworld.com). Both the film and book climax with the death of the character Ryuji, where in the film he is killed by Sadako coming from the television screen, Suzuki’s novel describes him as receiving a phone call then seeing himself in the mirror “a hundred years in the future” (Suzuki: 344: 2005), with his cheeks “yellowish, dried and cracked, and hair falling out in clumps” (Suzuki: 344: 2005).
As previously pointed out, Vertigo Entertainment co-owner Roy Lee became the self-made leader in remaking Japanese horror in 2001, with his discovery of Ringu. Even though Mike Macari had been trying to get his parent company New Line Cinema interested in distributing Ringu for some two years (Frater & Kay: 2003: 10), it was Lee who built his success round it. What Lee does is watch “videos of every Asian movie ever made” (Friend: 2003) then picks the best to sell the remake rights for, working on behalf of their Asian distributors. Lee, who “claims not to have seen a single Japanese or Korean movie before 2001” (Singer: 2004: 7), always worked on the assumption that if a film has been successful in one market, there’s no reason it can’t be in another (Chaffin: 2005).
Before The Ring remake the original film was only really known outside Asia, amongst a cult fan base, with discussion and analysis mainly limited to internet message boards (Hills: 2006: 162). Poor quality videos of the film would be passed amongst these “anti-mainstream” (Hills: 2006: 163) fans in a way which largely mirrors that of the movie’s plot (Langford: 2005: 178), the videos being passed from friend to friend much like the Ring Virus. But apart from this small underground fan network, the more mainstream moviegoer was completely oblivious to the fast growing Japanese film market.
As Mike Macari states “pitching a horror concept is hard” (Frater & Kay: 2003: 9) unless you can prove somehow that it will be a financial success, a Studio will be reluctant to commit to it. This is where Lee exploited the Japanese market to his and Hollywoods’ own needs, he was actually able to show what the film could look like, and predict its financial success roughly on how well it was received in another country. “Having a visual guide is so much better than a pitch” (Frater & Kay: 2003: 9) says Amanda Klein of Primal Pictures, it just makes it easier for the Studios to see success in an idea. Also as only a tiny percentage would have seen the originals of these proposed remakes, Hollywood doesn’t have to fear the audiences’ reactions and comparisons quite as much (Singer: 2004: 7).
Although Gore Verbinski’s The Ring has been praised for how true to the original is stayed, it is still riddled with differences, some minor and some very major. It is these differences that I will now discuss, by comparing the two films. Even though the story lines in both Ringu and The Ring are extremely similar, you can quite easily spot a large difference. All the way throughout Ringu there are references to characters having ESP (Extrasensory perception), with them using this supernatural instinct to read people’s minds and tell some of the story through flash backs.
The characters Ryuji Takayama, Reiko and Yoichi Asakawa, as well as the whole Yamamura family possess this power, but their American versions in The Ring do not. Verbinski refers to the ESP elements as being “too convient” (O’Toole: 2003: 94) as for the reason they were left out, and Walter Parkes states that the decision was made to leave it out as it made the story take a “dreamlike nature” (Arnold: 2002), where a “Western audience require linearity” (O’Toole: 2003: 94).
DreamWorks and Walter Parkes felt that for the film to be successfully remade its overall feel would have to be changed, and the whole film much more Americanised. Although it had given them a “great template” (O’Toole: 2003: 93) that was pretty much all it was, as Parkes says himself the original was “elusive or downright confusing” (Frater & Kay: 2003: 10) and there was fears that an American audience not used to subtlety might not follow it. Verbinski himself states that he had “changed 50 per cent of the original” (O’Toole: 2003: 94), in an attempt to make it more accessible to an audience not used to the J-Horror style. The Ring shifts its story away from the originals background in folklore and myth, instead “towards the established generic vernacular in contemporary American popular culture for rendering the paranormal” (Langford: 2005: 180), like that used in a programmes such as The X-Files for example.
The cursed video tape used in The Ring is clearly very different to that of Ringu’s, longer, more professional and uses the kind of shots you would see in an American horror film. It stays true to most of the content of the original, with shots of the well [fig. 2.1 & 2.2] and Anna Morgan brushing her hair [fig. 2.3 & 2.4], but cannot resist in adding a number of “generic horror images” (Langford: 2005: 179).
Images of crawling insects, electrodes coming from open mouths, fingers being impaled on nails and then severed fingers wriggling in a box have all been added in, in scenes which are more reminiscent of those found in body-horror films such as Saw (2004) and Hostel (2005), than the original Ringu. The images are “considerably clearer” (Langford: 2005: 179) than in Ringu, using equipment such as Steadicams in the shot of Anna Morgan’s suicide. Even though the character of Noah Clay describes it as a “very student film” it is clearly much more professionally done than its original, loosing somewhat the appearance of a video which has been passed amongst friends, copied over and over.
The investigation into the video by Reiko/Rachel is done in a different way, largely due to the horses sub-plot in The Ring. As this is the case the character known only as “Towel-Headed Man” is completely ignored both in the film and the cursed video. In Ringu he literally points Reiko in the right direction, aiding her with clues to solve the riddle of the video, his “no longer human” (White: 2006: 41) face concealed under a white towel, symbolic of death.
When he appears in the video pointing at the sea, the phrase “Shoumon bakkari shiteru to, boukon ga kuru zo” is just about audible. Literally translating into “if you keep playing in the water, the monster will come for you”, but on the DVD subtitles more rhythmically scribed as “frolic in brine, goblins be thine”. This is supported throughout the film as well as in its sequel and prequel, Ringu 2 and Ringu 0: Bāsudei (Ring 0: Birthday, 2000), that Sadako is in fact a “supernatural offspring of a human being and a sea monster” (White: 2006: 40), once again tying in with myth and folklore, in particular the stories of En no Ozunu.
The most obvious difference between the character of Sadako and her western version, Samara, is in their names. The name Sadako translates into “Chaste Child” (www.behindthename.com), making you assume the character is pure and innocent, when in fact she is the complete opposite. This is explained somewhat in Ringu 0, with the introduction of the idea that there is two Sadako’s, her personality split. Whilst it may seem unfamiliar for a western audience, the name Sadako is not uncommon in Japan, with it easily stirring up memories of the story of Sadako Sasaki a child victim of Hiroshima and national symbol of piece (www.sadako.org).
The surname of Yamamura is taken from the “place name meaning mountain village” (www.ancestry.com), tying in with what we see of the girls past through ESP induced flashbacks. In Ehren Kruger’s Hollywood screenplay he uses a similar technique with Samara’s surname, Morgan, which is a breed of small saddle back horse, exactly the kind used throughout the film. The name also means from “the edge of the sea” (www.name-meanings.com) or born from the sea, perhaps this is a small homage to the original script and Sadakos origins.
Where Sadako is a quite typical Japanese name, Samara is extremely rare within America, making it unfamiliar and alien to the audience, in a way which only makes it easier to associate the character with fear. Roughly taken from the Hebrew for “protected by God” (www.thinkbabynames.com) it is again really misleading in its definition, giving a false association with the character. It is however also the name given to the winged seed of a Japanese maple tree, much like the one shown in the cursed video, again a homage included by Kruger and Verbinski, acknowledging the films Japanese roots.
Japan is a country surrounded by oceans, with natural disasters such as typhoons, flooding and tsunamis regularly happening. As Nakata says himself “it’s natural to be afraid of water” (Braundu: 2005: 120), with it being the source of life as well as taking it away. Films such as Ringu and Honogurai mizu no soko kara are full of “water based scares” (Newman: 2005: 24), and Verbinski has clearly noted this in his remake, during some scenes in The Ring you could easily think you are watching Walter Salles’s Dark Water.
As Samara walks across a floor water runs off her forming puddles at her feet, showing the fact that shes just come from a well, but this storytelling device is not really used in the original Ringu but is instead largely taken from Nakata’s later film Honogurai mizu no soko kara. As well as the use of water, a scene in Verbinski’s remake where the horse tries to break out of the horsebox [fig. 2.5] largely mimics that of the character Mitsuko Kawai smashing out of a water tank [fig. 2.6] in Honogurai mizu no soko kara, the shots are far too similar to be just coincidence. Perhaps this goes further than straight forward intertextuality within a remake, and falls within Robert Kolker’s category of the “secret remake” (1998: 40) with Verbinski knowingly opting to use aspects of the film in his, remaking The Ring to contain parts of both Ringu and Honogurai mizu no soko kara.
Much of the terror around the character of Sadako is caused due to the way she moves. Although the best examples are in Ringu 0 it is used throughout the trilogy, with Sadako using short sharp movements almost in an insect like way. This style of movement is easily recognisable by a Japanese viewer and can be “strongly identified with ghosts” (Ozawa: 2006: 4) in Japanese horror films made over the past decade. The film Kairo and the whole Ju:on series use this same technique throughout to create a dramatic effect, but its true origins lie in the Japanese experimental dance style of Butoh.
Butoh delves into the “worlds of grotesqueness, darkness, and decay” (Ozawa: 2006: 4) giving a representation of the spirit world, skilfully and drastically moving between “interpositions of silence and sound, nakedness and various levels of dress, stillness and motion” (O’More: 1987: 128). It has become the standard practice within J-Horror for ghosts of any kind to be played by Butoh trained actors, making it a reoccurring theme amongst the current crop of films.
The only real instance of this occurring within an American remake happens in one of the final scenes of The Ring, where Samara emerges from the television set to kills the character of Noah. Although the style hasn’t been replicated exactly you can clearly see the influence, with Samara’s speed changing shakily and her body almost jerking in and out of focus.
It is this final scene which really made Ringu stand out, and make people from all around the world take notice of it. Although the now famous shot of Sadako crawling out of the television wasn’t completely original, you can clearly see it was inspired by Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983), it was the sign of a change in the current horror scene, with J-Horror and all its key characteristics pushed right to the forefront. Clearly this was one scene that Verbinski wasn’t going to tamper with too much when remaking, but once again it’s hard not to notice Nakata’s slow paced subtleties replaced with a more “generically placeable visual style” (Langford: 2005: 80).
Samara is again dripping with water, continuing the associating with it and death, but the most obvious difference is in her appearance. Whereas the character of Sadako appears human throughout [fig. 2.7], just looking like a normal girl with long hair, her Hollywood version tries to push the fear factor to the limit. Samara has a blue/green tinge to her [fig. 2.8], which is mimicked in the room’s colour scheme, and even the static which appears on the television screen. Where in the Japanese version she crawls across the carpet in a slow and unstoppable way, Verbinski visualises her as a much more generic Hollywood monster.
At times Samara is transparent and seems to jump forward when she moves like several frames in a video have been skipped. Perhaps this is not just an attempt to make the scene scarier but a genuine attempt of homage by Verbinski, presenting the character of Samara as looking like a poor quality copy, literally a duplicate of Nakata’s character.
In Ringu Sadako’s face is always covered by her long black mask of hair right up until this final scene, where the camera jumps forward in a series of shots to reveal her left eye staring straight at camera [fig. 2.9], this now iconic shot is all that’s needed to scare a Japanese audience, and Sadako’s victim literally to death. In Verbinski’s version though Samara’s face is transformed into that of the “typical Hollywood monster” (Ozawa: 4: 2006), instead of only the left eye almost the whole face is shown [fig. 2.10], revealing an expression which is positively asexual, with aspects of femininity and masculinity shown at the same time. In this shot Samara changes from a character easily identifiable with her Japanese roots, to a monster which wouldn’t be out of place in a generic Hollywood slasher.
As explained during both films Samara/Sadako’s victims’ hearts literally stop beating from sheer fright once they glance into her eye, but the “terror-stricken expressions” (White: 2006: 38) are extremely different in each version. Nakata uses a post-production effect on his victims’ to show them turning into a black and white image [fig. 2.11 & 2.12], turning them into a negative in death compared to life’s colourful positive.
This very simple but effective approach to the characters death masks is completely changed in Verbinski’s remake, he opts for a much more obvious grotesque approach [fig. 2.13 & 2.14], taking inspiration from faces of tortured victims in slasher films, the expressions of the dead people heavily mirror that of the smudged and distorted photographs seen in both films [fig. 2.15 & 2.16]. The victim’s faces are literally twisted into gory positions with the help of latex masks and special effects, again opting out of the subtle less obvious approach and instead turning the victims into almost copies of Samara’s monstrous image.
In a way which mirrors their acceptance and place within working society, the role of women in Japanese cinema has drastically changed in recent years, whereas before they would “accept their fate passively” (Corliss: 2004) now women are taking center stage. In lots of J-Horror films the screenplay is based around the Onryō, the female spirit out for vengeance, Ôdishon is a great example of this, the quiet reserved female character is revealed to be a brutal killer, pushing the boundaries of on-screen horror to their limit. Although this is the case in Japan, in Hollywood studios are starting to show signs of going the other way, not reluctant to back scripts with female lead roles, with Warner Brothers even going as far as to say they will now avoid making drama’s with a lead women (Danielsen: 2007), largely due to two major box-office disasters this autumn, The Brave One (2007) and The Invasion (2007).
Hollywood seems much more reluctant to have a women become the bringer of pain and terror, in the way that the Japanese have. America’s attitude towards women seems to be that they want them to either be Lara Croft styled “righteous fighters” (Corliss: 2004) or sex symbols, or if possible both. You can see this difference quite clearly when Naomi Watts’ character of Rachel talks to the college students at her niece’s funeral [fig. 2.17], and then compare it against the identical scene in Ringu and how Reiko acts completely different.
In The Ring the first thing you notice is the students are shown as being much older, even appearing to look in their mid-20s, and are all very attractive. The character of Rachel exchanges cigarettes with them and speaks like they are old friends of hers. In comparison Reiko in Ringu questions the girls, all in school uniforms [fig. 2.18], like a teacher would question their students. The different attitudes towards gender and the necessity to sexualise characters is all too clear, like the vast majority of Hollywood films The Ring feels, and is quite possibly right, that the addition of attractive females, and even to a certain extent males will increase box-office figures.
When comparing Nakata’s Ringu and Verbinski’s The Ring critics and fans alike seem to largely focus on the cultural differences between the two films, in a way similar to what I have just done, where as perhaps it is more apt to note the “technology-based cultural similarities” (Hills: 2006: 168) instead. Both America and Japan are countries governed and controlled over by technology, and in the same way the Japanese have come to fear the oceans, both countries live under fear of what would happen if the technology failed, and worked against them.
Look at recent Hollywood blockbusters such as The Matrix (2003) and I, Robot (2004) for example, along with Kurosawa’s internet centred horror Kairo, they all follow the same themes, that one day technology could overcome us. As Eric White notes, Ringu with its ever present technological intervention, makes the viewer associate it with post-human otherness, intruding into contemporary life (2006: 41).
The film combines elements of nature, folklore and traditional Japan with these technological fears, in a way which ultimately combines two great fears, information technology and nature, into one common terror (Ozawa: 2006: 3). The character of Sadako has come from nature, but is only able to inflict her widespread evil through the technology, in this case the VHS cassette. Because of these similarities it can be argued that cultural differences are much less important when comparing the two films, than shared anxieties over an out of control technologised society (Hills: 2006: 167).
Looking To The Future
The Hollywood horror industry has been completely reformed largely due to Dreamwork’s purchasing and remaking of the Asian cult hit Ringu, and Roy Lee’s ability to translate these films into box office successes. American horror had largely been in a state of limbo after the Scream and Scary Movie franchises finally put an end to the stagnant slasher genre, and with surprise cult hits such as The Sixth Sense (1999) and The Blair Witch Project (1999) proving to be financial and critical successes, studios could easily envision this style as being the future.
The effect that these J-Horror films had exploded all around the world (Rucka: 2005), with Gore Verbinski’s The Ring proving that they could be successfully remade, culturally translating the film for a completely different audience, one which was largely new to this “slow-burning” (Rose: 2002: 11) style.
The western audience seem to have developed quite the appetite for J-Horror, largely due to its differences, and with the US market proving virtually impervious to foreign language releases (Frater & Kay: 2003: 9) the obvious solution was to remake the films completely, removing all the aspects which the studios knew would discourage an audience from watching, mainly subtitles. The Japanese film industry is now seen to have caught up with its Hollywood counterpart in terms of production values (Singer: 2004: 7), some could say that they look more commercial and western than ever before, only making it easier for people like Roy Lee to see the potential in them.
After looking at the work of Druxman, Leitch and Greenberg you can clearly see that the majority of these remade films fall firmly under Druxman’s category of disguised (Verevis: 7) remake, and Greenberg’s unacknowledged, disguised (Verevis: 9), both of which are very similar by definition. In fact this is the case for pretty much every remade J-Horror film; they are not promoted as remakes in anyway, with only the fact that they are, being revealed by critics and fans of world cinema the like.
Whether it be on the promotional film posters, trailers or DVD boxes, there is never any mention of the films origins, or the fact that the screenplay isn’t an original one. Perhaps studios and producers have learnt their lesson after negative reactions to remakes in the past, where however successful the film is it always seems to be coined inferior to its original in one way or another, so they try to avoid labelling films with the word ‘remake’.
As I pointed out previously The Ring seems to also fall under Leitch’s category of homage (Leitch: 1990: 144), whether this was intentional or not is unsure, but the film is riddled with subtle reference to Ringu and its Japanese beginnings, not obvious enough to be spotted by the average Hollywood movie fans, but used in a way which suggests a film with much more depth than usual to the more critical of viewer.
Since The Ring in 2002 Western cinema screens have been literally bombarded with remakes of post-Ringu J-Horror. We’ve seen Americanised reimaginings of Ringu 2, Kairo, Honoguari mizi no soko kara, Ju-on: The Grudge and Ju-on: The Grudge 2, as The Ring Two, Pulse (2006), Dark Water, The Grudge and The Grudge 2 respectively. But since this initial outburst, the flood of new horrors seem to have stopped, with Roy Lee and his Vertigo Entertainment turning their hands to new ventures, such as the Mou gaan dou (Infernal Affairs, 2002) thriller remake, The Departed (2006), which like The Ring before it was a massive critical and financial success.
This sudden hiatus led many to believe that that was the end of this Asian influx, with many regarding it to have injected new life into the Western horror genre. Producer Taka Ichise even voiced his concerns that Hollywood has “cherry-picked the hottest properties” (Shackleton & Shilling: 2003: 17), meaning that all the strongest screenplays had been remade already, and maybe he was right.
The J-Horror style has been accepted by the Western audience arguably better than Roy Lee and DreamWorks could have hoped for, following the release of The Ring, and because of this other production companies began to take note. Ironically, in a way that you could have predicted, other scripts borrowed ideas from these fresh remakes, diluting the original Japanese themes and narratives structures even further.
Films such as FeardotCom (2002), with its obvious Ringu similarities, The Messengers (2007), with its crawling Grudge-like ghosts and more recently Untraceable (2008), again with technological fear aspects taken from Ringu, began to be released as rivals to the original batch of Roy Lee produced remakes. The unique J-Horror style was quickly becoming an accepted and very popular type of screenplay in Hollywood, even with so called survivalist horror films such as Saw (2004) and Captivity (2007), borrowing lots from the more graphic of the J-Horrors, Batoru rowaiaru (Battle Royale, 2000) and Ôdishon.
2008 has seen the beginning of the remake surge once again, but for this second wave of horror films Hollywood has for the first time on a large scale looked outside Japan for new Asian scares. As well as One Missed Call, a remake of the J-Horror Chakushi ari (2004), this year’s cinemas will see remakes of films from Hong Kong, in the form of the recently released The Eye (2008). Korea, with remakes of Janghwa Hongryeon (A Tale of Two Sisters, 2003), The Host (2006) and Jungdok (Addicted, 2002), Thailand with a remake of Shutter (2004) and finally the Philippines with a remake of the film Sigaw (The Echo, 2004). As you can see 2008 will be a busy year for Vertigo Entertainment, as they attempt to match the success of what I have dubbed the first wave of Asian horror remakes.
There is no sign of the remakes stopping any time soon either with sequels The Ring Three and The Grudge 3 already scheduled for 2009 releases, and remakes of Oldboy (2003), Chinjeolhan geumjassi (Sympathy For Lady Vengeance, 2005), Batoru rowaiaru (2000) and Gin gwai 2 (The Eye 2, 2004), either in pre-production or have had the remakes rights purchased. How far Roy Lee’s search will take him after that though largely comes down to how well these 2008 releases do on a financial level, but without the word of mouth hype which comes with remaking films by the likes of Nakata and Shimizu, it can only be a more difficult task to achieve.
With Japanese writers and directors realising that there is big money to be made by selling remake rights, they are already starting to make their films move accessible, removing the localness and many of the J-Horror traits, now aiming for “world markets not just Japanese” (Frater & Kay: 2003: 9) ones.
But this approach to film making runs a great risk of losing the subtle differences and Japanese styles which made it so popular and attractive to remake in the first place, and with Hollywood starting to “eat itself” (Kermode: 2000) once again, with Scary Movie 3 (2003) and Scary Movie 4 (2006) spoofing The Ring, The Grudge and Dark Water, it’s becoming more difficult for J-Horror remakes to stand out as being different. Like the decade of slashers before them these ambient, so called quiet horror films have become the norm, overdone and overexposed. Instead of being the solution, these horror films with their Hollywood money and Japanese hearts may just leave America desperately searching for the next quick fix.
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Figure 1.1
Graph of Ringu’s popularity amongst IMDb users. The Ring was released theatrically on 18th October 2002 in USA
Figure 2.1
Ringu (Hideo Nakata, 1998) Cursed Video Movie Still
Figure 2.2
The Ring (Gore Verbinski, 2002) Cursed Video Movie Still
Figure 2.3
Ringu (Hideo Nakata, 1998) Cursed Video Movie Still
Figure 2.4
The Ring (Gore Verbinski, 2002) Cursed Video Movie Still
Figure 2.5
The Ring (Gore Verbinski, 2002) Horse box dent movie still
Figure 2.6
Honogurai mizu no soko kara (Hideo Nakata, 2002) Mitsuko trying to escape from the water tower
Figure 2.7
Ringu (Hideo Nakata, 1998) Sadako movie still
Figure 2.8
The Ring (Gore Verbinski, 2002) Samara movie still
Figure 2.9
Ringu (Hideo Nakata, 1998) Extreme close up of Sadako’s eye
Figure 2.10
The Ring (Gore Verbinski, 2002) Samara reveals her face for the first time
Figure 2.11
Ringu (Hideo Nakata, 1998) Sadako’s first victim movie still
Figure 2.12
Ringu (Hideo Nakata, 1998) Ryuji’s death mask movie still
Figure 2.13
The Ring (Gore Verbinski, 2002) Samaras first victim movie still
Figure 2.14
The Ring (Gore Verbinski, 2002) Noah’s death mask movie still
Figure 2.15
The Ring (Gore Verbinski, 2002) Warped photograph movie still
Figure 2.16
Ringu (Hideo Nakata, 1998) Warped photograph movie still
Figure 2.17
The Ring (Gore Verbinski, 2002) Rachel questioning her niece’s college friends
Figure 2.18
Ringu (Hideo Nakata, 1998) Reiko questioning her niece’s college friends

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