Horror and Supernatural in Horror Media in Japan and the West

Fear is perhaps one of the most primal of man’s emotions. As such, horror as a genre pervades just about every society and culture and it has been so since as far as Man has been able to communicate with language. Folktales and myths have been passed down by word of mouth from generation to generation.

Many of these traditional tales addressed Man’s vulnerability in a hostile environment or were superstitious explanations for phenomena that, at the time, were beyond Man’s ability to comprehend. The former evolved into cautionary tales which we know today as “fairy tales”. These stories with which we are accustomed to were the horror tales of the day, far more gruesome than the more sedate versions of the Brothers Grimm. Snow White was impregnated by Prince Charming, Little Red Riding Hood was eaten by the wolf, Hansel and Gretel wound up in the oven, so on and so forth.

These stories were meant to teach children what to do and what not to do and the element of fear only served to make them ever more poignant. In other words, these were stories meant to uphold and enforce the status quo. Today much of the horror genre has lost its cautionary side and now indulges in bringing to us on screen representations of Man’s most primal fears. While many of these are universal, a loss of security, the unknown, the overturn of the status quo or Man’s inherent mortality, cultural differences influence the means by which this fear is represented.

Our key objective is to examine these differences to elucidate the cultural aspect between a Japanese and American horror film. Achieved by delving into the cultural comparisons and horror conventions embedded within the films, this is done with the purpose of understanding the key differences in culture between Japan and the West. In subsequent chapters we will first examine briefly horror texts themselves before moving on to the context in which these texts are made. Then we shall perform comparisons between two pairs of movies to find cultural comparisons before taking a look at conventions in these horror movies.

Horror Texts

Before we examine horror texts, we must first define exactly what the term means. For the purpose of this paper, a horror text is one which uses fear as one of its primary storytelling tools. Reflecting the ubiquity of the horror genre, numerous media are used to convey horror tales. However, not all of them are appropriate as research material. The printed word in particular is subject to the personality and writing style of the author. The horror of Edgar Allen Poe, Bram Stoker, H. P. Lovecraft, Clive Barker and Stephen King for example are all wildly different such that a seminal work is difficult to identity. Moreover, there is a distinct lack of translated Japanese horror novels.

At the other end of the spectrum of popular culture, anime and console games in Japan have an extensive tradition of delving into the horror genre. Not so in the West. Mindsets which set animation as a children’s genre generally prohibit the use of animation as a medium for horror texts in the West. However, in Japan, anime, as we all well know, is a rich and varied medium, considered suitable for all sorts of texts. Computer games in the West have recently relied on the “shock and gore” style of horror which is often subsumed into the First Person Shooter genre. The Japanese games on the other hand have less of a protagonist mowing down hordes of slavering monsters with heavy firepower. In fact, the vast majority of Japanese horror games rely on the sublime and even in survival horror titles, the protagonist is significantly weaker than the creatures of the night that he or she must face. This will be examined later when we look at how each culture deals with the supernatural. Japan prefers to placate spirits whereas the West combats them resulting in different ideas of what a protagonist in a horror text should be.

Moving away from the animated world, recently there has been a spate of Japanese horror films being subtitled and released internationally. This prompted remakes by Hollywood and thus made horror films our texts of choice for comparison in this project. Ringu and Juon are two of the more recent and widely popular horror films and they have enough vintage to them to see the great amount of influence that they have had on subsequent films. As such they are fairly representative of the current mainstream of Japanese horror films. As always, these movies give us a window into the social and cultural values of Japan as they are explored throughout these two films. And although adopted by the West, the plots have been re-contextualized to cater to their immediate Western audience in the remake.

Context of the Horror Film

Religion

No text is produced in a vacuum; they are placed in the context of the culture that they emerge from. Firstly we will examine religions, not only do they influence moral and ethical codes but they are also strong determinants of the paradigm under which an individual views the supernatural.

Japan’s indigenous religion, Shinto, accords the natural world with a vast plethora of spirits known as “kami”, with some texts giving the metaphorical figure of eight million. Every rock, tree or blade of grass has a kami and certain human souls may be deified into Tenjin (literally Heavenly Individuals). These include every emperor up to Meiji as well as historical figures such as Michigane and more recently, Saigo Takamori. The World of Spirits thus is also the World of Man and Nature, the delineation between the natural and the supernatural are not distinct for the former and the latter are often one and the same. A tree has its kami and the two are no more separate entities as a human being and his soul are separate entities. Shinto evolved as a very organic religion, with no central dogma or doctrines. Kami are very much like the nature they encapsulate, they are neither good nor evil, they simply are. All of them have a benevolent and malevolent face and rituals are mainly focused in placating the kami. These rituals are the linear ancestors of many Japanese festivals or matsuri. However, a religion based off appeasement of powerful but amoral supernatural entities has little moralistic slant. There are no “thou shalt nots” in Shinto rather it emphasizes a purity of spirit and oneness with Nature.

The soul of a deceased individual typically has one of two fates. If a person dies happy and content, the spirit will become a shiryo, an ancestral spirit. These spirits are cared for during the Obon festival. Spirits which died in the grip of powerful emotions such as love, jealousy, hatred, wrath or sorrow linger in this world, unable to pass on, become the yurei. Such spirits are not exorcised so much as they are appeased much the way the kami are. Yurei are not essentially evil but are remnants of souls which were trapped by circumstance. Notably there is no moral element to a person becoming a yurei or a shiryo. The determining factor is the circumstances under which they died and not the way that they lived. Not surprisingly in a world filled with spirits, the supernatural is perhaps ironically, not unnatural in Shinto. Individuals with paranormal abilities are thought to be “touched by the kami” or just special individuals more in tune with the spirit world than most. There is little or no connotation of evil in such individuals.

Mahayana Buddhism and Zen are the two major sects in Japan. These forms of Buddhism are somewhat closer to a true religion than the more esoteric Theravada Buddhism. The concept of seishi (samsara in Sanskrit) is practiced in Buddhism. Individuals are part of a greater cycle of birth-life-death-rebirth. One’s deeds when alive determines which of the Six States of Existence one will be reborn in. In ascending order they are Beings In Hell, Hungry Ghosts, Animals, Ashura, Humans and Devas. Those who have sinned in their mortal lifetimes are confined to a lower state of existence. Those spirits confined to this world are usually those who have “died before their time” or have something important left undone. In the Buddhist paradigm these spirits are to be pitied more than reviled, prevented as they are from entering the Wheel of Life once again.

It is difficult to speak of the Western religions without referring to Christianity. As one of the most widely followed religions in the world, the Europeans large and by subscribe to some form of Christianity. While the Church has splintered into different factions since the Great Reformation, certain tenets of the faith remain more or less constant. There is one God who created the universe and it is from Him that all life springs. He sent His Son to Earth for the salvation of Man and that He died for our sins. There is a strict moral code to follow and souls after death are judged by God. In accordance to their deeds in life, these souls are then sent to either heaven or hell. Spirits which linger in this world are patently unnatural, denying the power of God and avoiding their final judgment. Ghosts then are often regarded as intrinsically evil and may be forcefully driven away by the power of God through rituals such as exorcism. Adding to this is a tradition of patently evil entities in the form of demons or devils which are thought to be the source of most diabolic supernatural power. In Christianity miracles happen at the largesse of God and only to people of extraordinary faith and piety or to convince the doubtful. Thus any manifestation of supernatural abilities by the laity is immediately regarded with suspicion. Even though New Age philosophies have invaded Christianity’s strongholds somewhat with the ideas of psychics and mediums who can contact the dead, the lingering suspicion of the supernatural remains. The conventional image of such individuals is more often than not that of otherworldly individuals with a sense of eeriness about them.

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Culture

As stated before, a part of horror is the loss of the status quo. In this part of the report we shall examine briefly the cultures of Japan and America and the normative conditions of each country. Japan is possibly best described as a collectivist, Confucian culture. Here is where harmony, the wa, holds sway over the minds of the populace. The status quo that horror threatens to overturn here is the loss of community or the disintegration of the family unit whereas in the West, individualistic tendencies are strong, especially in America. The loss of security and individual empowerment is equally threatening to the Americans just as loss of harmony is to the Japanese.

Mainstream Horror Films

The modern Japanese horror film has a strong emphasis on the curse. A typically normal individual meets his or (far more frequently) her end in a grisly fashion and returns as a yurei. While these yurei are sometimes deformed versions of themselves, it is far more common for them to appear as they did in life, albeit with an unnatural pallor. While clearly supernatural, there is little that is intrinsically diabolic about them. They are more often than not victims of horrible tragedies whose tales invoke more pity than fear. It is more imperative then to appease such spirits and lay them to rest. Death in the realm of the Japanese horror film is not necessarily the crux of the movie’s attempt to generate fear. The spirits themselves typically represent a breakdown of harmony, of the social unit so integral to Japanese society. It is not a violent death alone that creates yurei but the often tragic circumstances surrounding it. Sadako’s wrath manifests as the video tape because she was murdered by someone who was ostensibly a father figure. Then she was hurled into the well and cut off from the natural well by its stone walls. In Confucian ethics, it is a grave crime for a parental figure to kill his or her own child and it is this betrayal of the family unit that Sadako represents. Juon also centers around a family. A supposedly adulterous wife, a murderous husband and an innocent child who all died in a fit of violence are the precipitating factors of the curse. Their yurei are more reminders of the swiftly disintegrating family unit more than anything else. For the Japanese, being removed from the group is innately terrifying. As a people who tend to base their identity off their relationships with others or which groups they belong to, ostracization is a heavy penalty. In fact young children often use this tactic to censure classmates that have drawn their ire. Death is not the end in a Japanese horror film, the victims of a curse may return as yurei themselves, removing them from the most fundamental of all groups; that of the shiryo. The Japanese expect to join their ancestors and loved ones in the afterlife as revered ancestors as one large community bound by blood ties regardless of how distant. To be forcefully severed from this may be the crux of Japanese horror.

Western horror films However, tend to deliver a more visceral thrill. There is a strong tradition of the “monster film” in Western horror since the days of the Hammer brothers. These films involve a literally monstrous figure, often misshapen and deformed which directly threatens the physical wellbeing of the protagonists. Spirits are patently unnatural and thus threatening for they indicate a loophole on the promise of repose in paradise. These entities are typically irredeemably evil and have to be destroyed or subdued in some manner. Death in Western horror films tend to intensively bloody affairs with violent deaths that can be accompanied by subsequent mutilation. However, it beggars the question that since the souls of the victims go to their final reward after their demise, why does the violation of the body play such a strong part in the Western horror tradition? One of the answers that we have postulated is that in the West, body image is an integral part of an individual’s self-identity. By attacking the body in such a manner, it becomes a metaphor for an assault on the very identity of an individual, that he becomes just another faceless carcass of meat.

Curses versus hauntings

One thing that must be qualified before we do in-depth comparisons is the notion of a curse and a haunting. A curse coalesces out of emotions surrounding a particular location and traps spirits there. The curse itself is not sentient and the spirits trapped by it are difficult to placate since they may not be lingering on Earth on their own accord. Hauntings on the other hand are slowly at the discretion of certain spirits. They haunt a location that has significance to them and it is their own volition that paranormal phenomena occur. Usually these are to drive away those who intrude upon their domicile or to goad them into fulfilling a task such as burying their bodies. The upshot is that hauntings have a sentience behind them and can be resolved by placating that spirit. Curses on the other hand have their own momentum. This will be later shown in Ringu and Juon.

Comparisons between Ringu and the Ring

Premise

A mysterious urban legend speaks of a cursed videotape. The unfortunate souls which view it are doomed to die in seven days. The main female protagonist, a reporter, pays her respects at the funeral of her niece and begins to get suspicions that this “urban legend” was responsible for her untimely demise. The reporter investigates this and finds that the cursed video is all too real after she views it herself. She then recruits the aid of her ex-husband, the male protagonist. Together they begin a quest to uncover the truth behind the curse and perhaps save their own lives. Her desperation is exacerbated when her son, the child protagonist also views the cursed video tape. Eventually the intrepid pair found the final resting place of the spirit that powers the curse. They then assume that a proper burial would release them from the sword of Damocles hanging over their heads. However, the male protagonist meets an agonizing end at the hands of the spirit while the female protagonist is spared. The female protagonist then realizes that the only means of breaking the curse is to copy the video tape and show it to another person, just as she did for her late ex-husband.

While the plots of both movies are quite similar in overall structure, it is within the details that they differ. Presentations of the supernatural in particular are very different as are the personalities and image of Sadako and Samarra.

The protagonists and traditional Japanese values

Reiko is a reporter, a working single mother who has to raise her child by herself while pursuing a difficult career. Her counterpart, Rachel is in similar circumstances. However, while Reiko remains unfailingly polite and is seen in many domestic scenes in an apron cooking for her son. Rachel on the other hand smokes and has quite a hard edge to her. Both individuals are meant to portray “strong women” and yet we can see how the view of such diverges between East and West. Reiko’s strength is rooted in her feminine persona of provider and nurturer while Rachel has a far more combative and masculine visage. This hints at the notion that in the East stoic determination is admired while in the West it is aggressive confrontation that is to be applauded. Japanese traditional values are further reflected in the respective nervous breakdowns of both female protagonists. Midway through the movie Reiko succumbs to despair and wails her son’s name. She tells Koichi to ensure that Yoichi is cared for when she dies. This is a reaction to their failure to pry information from one of Sadako’s living relatives. A similar event occurs when Rachel meets Samarra’s father. Instead of succumbing to despair, she grabs him and demands answers, becoming almost hysterical. It is telling that Reiko so readily falls back on the support of others at her lowest point while Rachel lashes out. While this could be ascribed to differences in personality, the very depiction of these characters is keyed to the cultural sensibilities of their target audiences, to their preconceptions on what a mother should be.

The male protagonist too has significant differences. Koichi is part of the supernatural world himself, a person with paranormal powers which is why Reiko turned to him for help. He can sense spirits as well as apparently see glimpses of the past in a form of psychometry. As such, he does not doubt that Reiko’s plight is genuine. Noah, however, starts off as a strong skeptic, dismissing the curse of the tape even when Rachel shows him her warped photograph, he puts it down as a malfunction of the camera. Even viewing the tape does not convince him that anything untoward is going to happen to Rachel. It is only his own warped visage in a closed circuit camera that convinces him that the curse is real. These attitudes seem to be at cross-purposes. It moves the movie along easily in Ringu but it involves extra scenes in the Ring just for Noah to join Rachel’s quest. It might indicate, however, the ambivalence the West has for the supernatural; that a rational man would not easily believe in spooks and specters without solid proof. Furthermore the way these couples work together are also reflective of Japanese traditional values. Reiko and Koichi work together as a team for much of the movie while Rachel and Noah split up to pursue different avenues. The emphasis here is how well they work together despite being ex-spouses and how much encouragement Koichi gives Reiko through their sojourn.

The child protagonist bears out a different vein of the same principle. Yoichi seems to have inherited at least a glimmer of his father’s talent. He seemed to be able to sense Tomoko’s spirit while Reiko could not. And yet Yoichi seems to be very much an ordinary Japanese grade school boy, albeit a bit more independent than his peers due to his circumstances. Aidan, however, seems less than a child than an adult in a child’s body, helping his mother with many things around the house. His mannerisms and demeanor are more otherworldly than Yoichi’s and even his features seem somewhat goblinoid. He does seem to know more about Samarra than his mother and he makes assertions as if he has pre-knowledge about Samarra’s condition such as “she is in the dark place” which might be indicative of some sort of paranormal ability. Overall, Aidan is portrayed as somewhat uncanny, reflecting the West’s distrust of the supernatural.

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Sadako versus Samarra

Earlier on in the Ring, Samarra begins stalking her victims. Various scenes including regurgitated hair, manifestations and dream appearances all serve to do nothing less than intimidate the female lead. Much of the dream sequences in particular are sequential snippets of Samarra’s past, her way perhaps of telling her tale from her perspective. They serve to project a sympathetic image for Samarra. Her abuse at the hands of her parents, her confinement in a small room and experiments being conducted on her to elucidate the nature of her uncanny abilities; all of these events are meant to procure the pity not only of the protagonist but of the audience as well. As the reporter begins her investigations however, a far more unpalatable truth emerges. The locals of the town where Samarra used to dwell paint a different picture: a strange malaise overtaking the town, of misfortunes and ill portents, all of which started after the birth of Samarra. While Samarra reveals that her own mother had murdered her, we come to see that Samarra eventually kills both of her parents by driving them to suicide. Samarra’s death is particularly informative. Her mother was obviously bereaved and guilt-ridden and yet she had been driven to kill her own daughter. Her plaintive lament that Samarra was “all she ever wanted” indicates this and yet she carried on with the act. If we are to assume that a rational individual does not slaughter their own offspring save under extreme extenuating circumstances, perhaps we can infer that Samarra’s mother did indeed have just cause for her act of fratricide. An offhand comment that “some people were not meant to have children” suddenly becomes ominous indeed. We are left to wonder exactly who Samarra’s real father is but certain scenes such as her ability to leave burn marks and the miasma she inflicted upon her town hints at an infernal heritage.

In the closing sections of the movie, the protagonist discovers Samarra’s resting place and retrieves her corpse. Samarra’s body, despite being immersed in water since her death, appears immaculate, almost beatific before a sudden and rapid decay set in leaving the protagonist holding a rotting cadaver. There is a sense that Samarra was released from her prison in the well, her soul finally scrivened. The protagonist tells her son that the curse is lifted and that his life is safe because she had released Samarra from the “dark place”. So far we have the makings of a happy ending but the twist to the tale comes when her son looks at her with horrified eyes and whispers “but no one is supposed to release her from the dark place”. The protagonist turns over her son’s arm to find Samarra’s mark on him. It becomes apparent that Samarra’s imprisonment was meant to be a punishment. It was not the root cause of her curse nor was her curse linked to the well. Samarra’s video also conveys a coherent stream of images that convey important glimpses of her past. Her actions as well seem to be those of a coherent, malevolent entity. Samarra is slowly demonized through the movie. While it is true that she had suffered terribly throughout her admittedly short life time, events reveal that Samarra was also quite an evil individual in life and continued to be so in death. In contrast, little is revealed of Sadako’s life. We see only one scene of Sadako while she was still alive besides her death scene. Her mother was being harassed by a group of reporters until one of them literally dropped dead. Her mother rebuked Sadako for the murder and Sadako runs off. This is the one and only instance of Sadako killing outside of her curse. While it does seem a little cold-blooded to so callously take a life, the motive behind her actions is perhaps universal, Sadako was simply trying to protect her mother.

Sadako’s video is a hideous mis-mash of images, patently incoherent. Throughout the movie Sadako does not stalk or harass the victims of her curse in any way. The only visions they receive of Sadako come from the protagonist’s husband rather than Sadako herself. In fact Sadako leaves her mark on the protagonist during that vision, as a warning perhaps to leave her past buried. Sadako is thus portrayed as a near mindless entity, a being that exists to fulfill her curse and little else. There is no sense of Samarra’s vindictiveness or cruel taunts in Sadako. As such it is difficult to classify Sadako as evil. While it is true that she does kill, Sadako is more of a force of nature than a supernatural slayer like her Occidental counterpart.

Prevalence of the Supernatural

Samarra’s unnatural abilities are highlighted in the Ring, apparently her abilities are unique to her and rare enough to warrant a scientific investigation by the authorities. While this can be linked to a cultural image of paranormal powers being worthy of scientific inquiry, it is clear that such powers are uncanny in nature, indicative of a sinister parentage. In Ringu however, there are no less than four individuals with paranormal abilities. Sadako’s mother, Sadako herself, Koichi, the protagonist’s ex-husband and Youchi, her son, all display abilities beyond the ken of mortal men. Sadako’s mother was apparently clairvoyant and Koichi was both psychometric as well as a medium. These abilities seem to be consanguineous in their respective offspring. This paints a somewhat different image of the supernatural world in Ringu. There is little indication that any of these four were ostracized due to their abilities. There seems to be an acceptance of the supernatural in Ringu; that paranormal abilities do exist but are not necessarily unnatural or more correctly they were not always of dubious providence.

Indeed while the Ring features Samarra as the sole supernatural entity, Ringu not only brings to us paranormally gifted humans but spirits as well. The protagonist’s niece, Tomoko who was an early victim of Sadako, appeared to both her aunt and her cousin. Tomoko entices her cousin to watch the cursed video and it is all too easy to ascribe a malicious intent to her actions. A more innocent and plausible motive, however, could be that Tomoko was simply lonely as a restless spirit and wanted her childhood playmate by her side. It is this ambiguous morality that pervades Ringu as opposed to the more concrete sense of good and evil in the Ring. Koichi also appears as a restless spirit but is essentially a benevolent one. It is he who gives the protagonist the crucial hint of how to circumvent the curse. In Ringu, spirits are much likely the people they once were, no more good or evil as the typical human being. The only spirit of the Ring, however, is a force of malevolence.

Comparisons between Juon and the Grudge

The full title of the original Juon is Juon: the Grudge but for the purposes of this report, Juon will refer to the original Japanese film while the Grudge refers to the recent remake by Hollywood. If the need for this disclaimer seems ominous to you, then it is well founded. The Grudge draws the majority of its scenes from Juon, in fact it is more telling to examine what was omitted than what was changed. Most scenes simply feature Caucasian thespians meeting the fate of their Japanese counterparts in the original Juon while certain characters have been inserted to make this movie more palatable to Western audiences.

Premise

“Juon: the curse of one who dies in the grip of a powerful rage. It gathers and takes effect in places that the person used to inhabit. Those who encounter it die and a new curse is born.” This is the basic premise of both movies. A few years ago a murder took place when Takeo murdered his wife, Kayako and son, Toshio. Since then those who entered the house, that was the family’s domicile, have been stalked and killed by Kayako and Toshio. The movie follows a string of individuals as Kayako makes her lethal rounds.

Opening sequences and Kayako’s culpability

Juon’s opening sequence is in black and white and shows us images of Kayako’s death at the hands of her husband. There is an elegiac tone to this sequence as we are shown more of images than a coherent sequence of events. The Grudge on the other hand starts with the suicide of a university professor. It is a contrast of the gruesome made mundane and a sudden, inexplicable death. While both scenes are played for effect, Juon’s scene later becomes integral to the plot while the Grudge’s opening scene is very much later revealed to be an explanation for Kayako’s death. In Juon, we have a scene where a character is possessed by Takeo and he begins to babble phrases like “she had another man”, “she deceived me” and “that is not my child” repeatedly. From this we know that Takeo believed Kayako to have been unfaithful to him and that triggered his killing spree. In the Grudge, however, we know for a fact that Kayako had sent many love letters to an American professor at the local university. Both of them peg Kayako’s infidelity as the root cause of the curse but whereas Juon leaves us with only a vague impression, the Grudge brings us a rather pointless sequence to explain Kayako’s death and subsequently the professor’s suicide for it was he who found her body. While Juon hints at Kayako’s culpability for her present state, the Grudge confirms it. In fact the Grudge paints Kayako as a somewhat obsessive personality with her scribbling the professor’s given name numerous times in her diary. The onus of the curse then is partly on her shoulders in the Grudge. In Juon it is not impossible that Takeo butchered his family in a fit of paranoia as he did not seem the most stable individual in the world. Kayako is far more of a victim in Juon than in the Grudge, something that we will come to shortly.

Kayako the victim versus Kayako the Vicious

Yoko is a character found only in the Grudge. She appears briefly in the early part of the movie and is violently slaughtered shortly thereafter. In a way Rika has two counterparts, Karen and Yoko, as events that happened to her occurred to these two characters piecemeal. Yoko found Toshio in a cupboard while Karen witnessed Kayako’s manifestation to kill the family matriarch.
However, Yoko’s death is by far the most violent and gruesome in both movies and it is Yoko who returns to kill her former employer as a spirit. Her entire jaw was ripped away and we were shown the results in all of its gory glory in Yoko’s last appearance. Here we have the strong sense of bodily mutilation that runs through much of Western horror film. The Kayako in the Grudge does seem to mete out death in a far more violent manner than her Juon counterpart, the fact that they are supposed to be the same person notwithstanding. Juon’s Kayako, however, tends to kill in a manner which re-enacts scenes from her own death in the house. One victim carries his comatose wife to the same room where Takeo carried Kayako and we see Kayako’s face pressed against the window as if seeking to escape. Another scene has Rika witnessing her friend being dragged into the attic much the same way as Kayako’s corpse would have been. As opposed to the fury of the Grudge’s Kayako, Juon’s Kayako kills in a very clinical manner, appearing to individuals just before their death. She does not mutilate or indeed inflict any wounds of any sort and many deaths happened off screen. The manager of the care centre where Rika worked at was found stuffed under a sink while Karen’s manager had his former employee visit him as stated above. Unlike many Western films, the horror of Juon focuses on being stalked rather than bloody horror scenes.

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One of the major differences between Juon and the Grudge is the ending of the film. In Juon, we see scenes of Kayako’s demise once again with images meant to invoke sympathy for Kayako. As her body lies motionless after her husband’s ministrations, we see a single tear trickles down her eye. Kayako then looks at Rika with imploring eyes, seemingly in agony. As Rika looks at Kayako between her splayed fingers, we see Kayako in her mortal seeming, a plainly pretty woman with an emotionless face but wide, staring eyes. It is almost as if she is perpetually screaming for help but has lost her voice. It is Rika’s demise that confirms many of our suspicions. While Kayako is most commonly encountered, we also know that her husband Takeo’s yurei is also part of the curse. He descends down the stairs towards Takeo with the same gimlet expression that he wore in the opening scenes when he killed his wife. The curse is based off a deep anger and Kayako was more afraid than angry when she died, it is most likely Takeo’s wrath that initiated the curse and bound his wife to this world for eternity. The closing scene has Kayako lying in the attic, her apparent resting place, with a serene expression until her eyes open and her death rattle issues from her throat. From this we get the impression that Kayako is just one of many yurei bound by the curse and denied eternal rest. In the Grudge, Karen attempts to burn the house down to end the curse once and for all to avenge her dead fiancé but does not succeed and winds up in hospital. As she identifies her fiancé’s body, Kayako appears to kill her. There is no notion of Kayako denied rest, nor does Takeo appear as a yurei in his own right. In fact it is Takeo himself that appears to be the victim when we meet him swinging off the rafters. He probably committed suicide after he murdered his wife. In this, Kayako is very much not a victim. Her actions precipitated the curse and while to say that her husband overreacted is to make a gross understatement, there is very little sympathy for Kayako in the Grudge. This of course makes one wonder why does the depiction of Kayako differ so much in the two films. One explanation is that Christian wedding vows are considered sacred and that adultery is a mortal sin. Another, however, follows a common thread, the movie needs a villain and just as the ambivalent Sadako became the malicious Samarra, Kayako is recast as a faithless jezebel.

Prevalence of the Supernatural

While there are no paranormally gifted individuals in either movie, there are instances of other souls returning as yurei. In Juon, one of Kayako’s string of victims was a schoolgirl whose father and three of her friends had already succumbed to the curse. Her father appeared to her in a dream to warn her about the family ancestral alcove where his tablet was kept for Kayako was lurking within. Then her three erstwhile friends manifested themselves and drove her to that very spot so Kayako could come to claim her victim. Although all four yurei were trapped by the curse but there was no indication that this necessarily meant that the yurei were malicious or under the thrall of the curse. The only other yurei in the Grudge was Yoko who seemed to have been subsumed into the curse’s cast of killers. Again as in Ringu, yurei in Juon are of ambivalent morality, each yurei follows its own impulses as far as the curse will allow. The curse stilled the father’s tongue so he could only gesture but perhaps resentment that the girl was the only one to live fuelled her friends to seek her out. Again it could be just as possible that they want to spend eternity together. The Grudge shows Yoko returning as a murderous spirit which seems to bear out the idea that the West tends to regard spirits as unnatural and evil.

Conventions of Horror Films

Certain conventions have been expressed in both films with which we will explore here. These are often reflective of cultural myths or tendencies and as such have a strong bearing on comparisons between the cultures.

Subtle versus Blatant

Much of the background story of Juon and Ringu are explained in flashes of images rather than a coherent sequence of events as in the Grudge or Ring. This allows the audience to fill in any of the blanks in Japanese films whereas Western ones tend to give a very clear explanation. This can be thought of in terms of culture. Japan has long had a culture that emphasizes subtle cues such as “haragei” or body language as well as emotion taking precedence over reason. The West however tends to have a culture of forthrightness where problems are presented openly with a strong emphasis on logic. Thus the sequences in the Japanese versions were meant to invoke emotion while the Western sequences focused on providing information. A prime example is the flashbacks to Kayako’s death in Juon and the Grudge. Juon provides us with only momentary glimpses of the events surrounding Kayako’s murder save for the means by which it was perpetrated. The Grudge however lays out for us in a flashback the exact circumstances of her demise. How Takeo discovered Kayako’s diary confessing her infatuation with an American professor and they subsequent quarrel that turned violent. The flashback also includes the mentioned professor finding Kayako’s body later and thus links to the opening sequence where he commits suicide.

Audible cues

As many Japanese of all ages read manga or anime at least once in their lives, many of them are familiar with a host of visual and “sound” cues derived from these mediums. Sound cues in manga and anime often take the form of kana which are used to mimic a sound commonly heard in Japan. Some such as the “tokkurin” or the bells hung from the hallway which indicate that it is autumn or the sound of cicadas to indicate summer. Sound is often used sparingly in an Eastern horror film; its audio vocabulary often relies on soft, mounting music to build suspense. In densely populated urban Japan, sound is a constant companion. From the late night train to the carousing of drunks, the dead of night has some comforting to assure a person that there are indeed others about. This is why utter silence can be so threatening for it represents a departure from the status quo with which they are familiar. As a people with a rich audible tradition, unnatural sound can be quite unnerving. The sound of the whetstone in Sadako’s video and Kayako’s death rattle croaking are reflecting of this, of something comforting turned into something threatening. The Western films on the other hand have traditions dating back to the silent era. They utilize more rising crescendos and sudden bursts of sound to shock rather than scare.

Visual Cues and superstitions

Both Eastern and Western films tend towards highly symbolic cues but the symbols used differ sharply. Many of them are based off superstitions and religious beliefs and are thus culturally specific. One of those shared with much of the East is the idea that a camera can capture your soul. Photographs are used as visual cues for imminent demise in both Ringu and Juon. Sadako’s victims have they face warped in photographs while those affected by the curse in Juon have their eyes blacked out for the eyes are almost universally the seat of the soul. This is given short shrift in the Ring and absent completely in the Grudge. Exactly why is examined later. Western visual cues involve their own symbolism. One of them is that of the triangle, signifying the trinity in the Ring. Images in Samarra’s video also include maggots, millipedes and centipedes, all traditionally linked to death in the Western context.

Technology

Japan, despite its reputation as a technologically advanced society, has had an ambivalent relationship with technology. For a nation that prizes human interaction and societal groups, the ability of technology to alienate a man from his fellows is scary indeed. It is by no accident that Sadako’s curse spreads through a video tape or that in Juon television monitors allowed Kayako to find her victims twice. Some individuals believe that Sadako is a metaphor for how television is destroying the family unit in Japan. In the West however, technology is regarded far more favorably, in fact Rachel could not have found the lighthouse and Samarra’s parents without the use of the Internet and advanced audio-visual equipment.

Conclusions

As we can see culture involves every aspect of life, even in the way people structure their thoughts and their response to given stimuli. Therefore as culturally distinct states, Japan and the West have very different views on fear, the supernatural and spiritualism as is depicted in their horror films. The Japanese tend to regard the lingering spirit with a sense of moral ambiguity and appeasement while the West holds spirits with suspicion and tries to destroy them. Spirits when transferred from the Japanese context are often demonized for this very purpose. What the Japanese find threatening and what the West finds threatening are keyed into their cultural psyche, respectively the loss of harmony and the group versus a loss of security and identity.

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About the author

Nadia Petrova

I'm running this blog because I love Japanese culture, especially the art of geisha. When I was a little girl, I used to dream of becoming a geisha myself. In my spare time, I enjoy watching good anime and reading some manga.

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