The Ring and J-Horror: Re-Visiting the Japanese Horror Remake Craze

In addition to ‘Torture Porn‘ and remakes, the early 2000’s was defined by a brief fascination with J-horror. As compared to Saw and the movies it inspired, Japanese horror, or J-horror, dismissed gore in favour of atmosphere. With its stories of ghosts, or Yurei, and haunted technology, J-horror was stylistically unique. Everything from use of sound to its contortionist dead, wet girls made the sub-genre stand out from the slasher-lite renaissance that followed Scream. Not surprisingly, American studios quickly jumped on the bandwagon. In 2002, Gore Verbinski directed The Ring, a remake of Ringu. Following its success, several remakes followed, including Pulse, One Missed Call, and Dark Water. Though The Ring remains a genuinely scary movie, most of these remakes failed to make a last impact.

The Ring Re-Imagined J-Horror For Western Audiences

In spite of the poor reception to much of the North American J-horror craze, The Ring was a proper introduction to Japanese horror. Generally, remakes – particularly Westernized re-imaginings of foreign films – fall short of the original. Yet The Ring may be the rare case of a remake surpassing its predecessor. Both Hideo Nakata’s’ Ringu and Verbinski’s The Ring share author Koji Suzuki’s basic premise. Unsuspecting individuals who watch a cursed VHS tape die seven days later. Each version seeps inself in sustained dread, packing several effective jumps. But Verbinski streamlines the story in a way that preserves Suzuki’s concept, while creating a greater sense of urgency.

The Ring, like its J-horror counterpart, understood the horror underlying its technology.

Arguably, one reason The Ring succeeded in its translation of Ringu was the remake’s understanding of its source material’s themes. Despite its use of what’s now out-dated technology, Verbinski’s remake retains both its ability to frighten and social relevancy. That is, The Ring, like its J-horror counterpart, understood the horror underlying its technology. Before his death, Brian Cox’s ‘Richard Morgan’ remarks, ‘What is it with reporters? You take one person’s tragedy and force the world to experience it, spread it like sickness.’ In 2002, this sentiment could easily have referred to the fear agenda in the 24/7 news cycle. But it’s not hard to see how The Ring foresaw the toxic nature of viral social media.

The Ring Reinforced the Viability of Remakes

Following The Ring’s success, Hollywood jumped on the J-horror bandwagon and remakes more generally. In 2003, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre proved the profitability of raiding 70’s and 80’s horror stables. And Ghost House Pictures’ Ju-On remake, The Grudge, proved The Ring wasn’t a fluke. J-horror was here to stay. Japanese director Takashi Shimizu helmed the remake of his own movie, retaining most his movie’s DNA along with its complex, multi-narrative structure. Creepy Toshio and those creaky sound effects were back. Fresh off of Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s final season, Sarah Michelle Gellar also headlined the remake. While The Grudge was a box office hit, paving the way for two sequels, critics hated it.

Truth be told, The Grudge wasn’t particularly good. Certainly, it fell far short of The Ring. Given that Shimizu directed his own remake and kept much from his original vision, it’s hard to nail down what went wrong. There are subtle differences in some of the underlying themes across both versions. Though Ju-On doesn’t focus on collective anxieties over technology, it retains J-horror’s fascination with viruses. Much of Ju-On’s horror centred around the viral nature of hate and rage, which was lost in translation. At times, The Grudge is a confusing movie that feels like it can be summed up as people who go into a haunted house and bad things happen to them. In other words, the remake misses the historical and social content in which Ju-On was produced. Comparatively, The Ring understood and successfully translated Ringu’s themes to a Western context.

What is it with reporters? You take one person’s tragedy and force the world to experience it, spread it like sickness.’ (The Ring, 2002)

One Missed Call and Subsequent J-Horror Remakes Miss the Point

The next J-horror remake, Dark Water, roughly The Grudge’s approximate in quality, paled in comparison to its predecessor. Some of its problem was misinterpreting what made the original Japanese version unnerving. Dark Water also just suffered from underwhelming direction. Its moody atmosphere couldn’t hide a lack of jolts and pacing that dragged. Most importantly, Dark Water marked a significant downturn in the critical and box office fortunes of J-horror remakes. Misunderstanding what made many J-horror movies so good would inevitably plague most of the Westernized remakes.

Horror has always worked best when exploiting cultural anxieties and fears. Techno-horror, though in smaller in scope, has enjoyed a niche among fans. Cultural fears over rapidly expanding technology was at the core of much of J-horror. If 2006’s Pulse, a remake of Kairo, is bad, One Missed Call was the death knell for J-horror remakes. Both movies exhibit no understanding of J-horror’s psychological examination of the effects of technology on our lives. Instead, Pulse and One Missed Call substitute jarring, distracting scores and safe PG-13 jumps in place of more introspective horror. The result was disposable horror movies that failed to resonate with audiences.

The Ring Has Outlasted the J-Horror Remake Legacy

Ultimately, the Western J-horror trend followed a remarkably similar trajectory to the 2000’s’ ‘Torture Porn’ cycle. As the 2000’s came to a close, Hollywood shifted its attention elsewhere and J-horror fizzled out. Later attempts to re-ignite the trend with 2017’s Rings and this year’s The Grudge remake (again) bombed. The J-horror remake phase really struggled with the issues that plague remakes more generally. The Ring, for instance, has stood as a classic horror movie in part because it re-imagined the source of Ringu’s horror for a Western context. It had a raison d’être. In contrast, J-horror rip-offs, like One Missed Called, used their sources as flimsy excuses to cast attractive rising stars for tween-friendly box office scares.

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I am a Criminology professor in Canada but I've always had a passion for horror films. Over the years I've slowly begun incorporating my interest in the horror genre into my research. After years of saying I wanted to write more about horror I have finally decided to create my own blog where I can share some of my passion and insights into the films I love.

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