The film “The Grudge,” which opened recently, is actually the fourth in an American horror film series and the 13th overall in a franchise that originated in Japan in 1998 with a series of direct-to-video short films directed by Takashi Shimizu. The first two films did well enough to warrant a full-length theatrical release in 2002 as “Ju-On” (“The Grudge”), which which was remade for American audiences starring Sarah Michelle Gellar with Shimizu still in the director’s chair in 2003.
The essence of the story centers around a house in Tokyo, Japan, that is haunted by an onryō or “vengeful ghost” of a woman name Kayako — who, along with her son Toshio and their cat, was murdered by her jealous husband. As the movie states in an intro, whenever a person dies in extreme rage or sorrow, a curse settles upon the house and upon anyone who either steps inside the house or encounters someone else who has. Kayako’s ghost kills them either directly or indirectly through other violent and mysterious means.
The current remake of “The Grudge,” produced by Sam Raimi and directed by Nicolas Pesce, is not so much a reboot as it is a sidequel that runs concurrent with the events that took place in the 2003 American version of the film. A live-in nurse who worked at the cursed house in Tokyo carries the curse back with her when she returns to her home in small-town Pennsylvania. The rest of the film essentially reenacts the same plot line as the other “Grudge” films. A bunch of unmemorable characters are killed off one by one, with the requisite amount of blood, gore, and jump scares to keep a rather formulaic story moving along.
While the film will probably appeal only to those who are already fans of the franchise, it does have one redeeming quality in that it presents an excellent juxtaposition between Japanese and American horror films.
East vs. West
The release of “Ju-On” occurred during the J-Horror craze, which began back in 1998 with the release of the film “Ringu”(“Ring”). It was a perfect mix of Japanese folklore and urban legends, telling the story of a reporter investigating the of deaths of people who died seven days after watching a VHS tape cursed by another onryō named Sadako. “Ringu” was followed by other horror films such as “Kairo” (“Pulse,” 2001), “Honogurai Mizu”(“Dark Water,” 2002), “Ju-On”(“The Grudge,” 2002), and “Chakushin Ari”(“One Missed Call,” 2003).
All of these films were remade for American audiences shortly after their initial release. However, as some have noted in the past, something seemed to have gotten lost in the translation, as the remakes just didn’t seem as scary as the originals. While this observation is obviously subjective, there is some truth in it, for we’re talking about films made for audiences from two very different cultures.
Japanese notions of the supernatural are by and large shaped by its Shinto and Buddhist heritage, which posits a spiritual landscape where the boundary between the spirit world and our own is very fluid. There it is believed that when someone dies, their reikon or soul resides in a purgatorial state until certain funeral rites are performed to send them off to the afterlife. Absent those rituals, those reikons remain in this world as a restless ghost, or yurei. For those whose lives end abuptly through murder or suicide, however, they become an onryō, such as the characters of Kayako in “The Grudge” or Sadako in the “Ringu” movies. In short, that worldview sees human life and death as existing in an ambiguous and mysterious world that is “ultimately beyond human understanding.”
American horror, by contrast, comes out of a Judeo-Christian culture, largely shaped by two interlocking elements. The first is a rational and inquisitive outlook on the world, which began with the Greek Socratic method and continued on with scholasticism and the scientific revolution that grew out of the Enlightenment era. So unlike the ancient notion of the Tao, which viewed the universe as unknowable, or maya, which viewed the world as illusory, Western thought saw the world as having an order that could be observed and eventually known.
The second contributing element is, of course, the influence of Christianity. The belief in the death and resurrection of Christ was seen not only as reordering all of human history into two periods but also, theologically speaking, reordering the supernatural world as well. The risen Christ was seen as having a definitive and authoritative claim to break the influence of what Paul referred to as the “elemental spirits” or “powers and principalities” over the world.
From this worldview, we get the notion of a spiritual world that is logically and morally ordered and hierarchical — one that has a beginning, as well as a telos, or end or purpose toward which it is moving, i.e. judgement, heaven, and hell. It is from here that ideas such as a happy ending, good triumphing over evil, and everyone getting their just deserts arise.
It is these key cultural differences that can partially explain the difference between Japanese and American horror films, and why when they are remade, some view them as losing part of their scare factor.
Horror vs. Terror
So when it came to J-Horror films, what many Western viewers found so unsettling about them was how they masterfully used a pervasive sense of “uncertainty and mystery” to tell a traditional ghost story in a modern setting. More often than not the audience was not told or shown everything that was going on, leaving them to wonder whether they understood the story enough to know what would happen next. This uncertainty, combined with dark settings, little or no soundtrack, and the build-up of silent tension created a sense of foreboding or even dread in the viewer — the kind of feeling anyone who has ever had a real encounter with the supernatural will tell you occurs at an instinctual level and is capable of sticking with the viewer long after the movie is over.
When it comes to American horror movies though, because of our skeptical and Judeo-Christian outlook on the supernatural, much of the mystery and dread is absent in them since they can be mitigated with the idea that everything will work out in the end. This is why American horror films have a harder time creating that sense of terror that J-Horror films are capable of doing, and hence why the remakes are seen as not being as scary as the originals. Instead, American horror tends to rely on predictable cycles of action and reaction that build up tension, which is released via exposure to shocking images, plot reveals, and jump scares.
A perfect example of how this difference is played out can be seen in the movie “Kairo” and its 2006 American remake “Pulse.” The original story was meant to be a social commentary on the Japanese phenomenon of hikikomori, or people who are shut-ins, and is about ghosts that are using the internet to enter our world, causing those whom they meet to lose the will to live. In “Pulse,” the ghosts were turned into aliens from a parallel universe who, because of an experiment gone wrong, were trying to invade our world, and its message became a warning against an over-reliance on technology. To be fair, both are good movies, and both manage to keep the surprise and dour ending, but what’s clear is that “Pulse” removed the spiritual element in favor of a more rational and scientific explanation.
Of course, this is not to say there are not some notable exceptions to this East vs. West contrast. In 2016, what started out as an April Fools joke ended up in a movie that upended everything that made the J-Horror genre so great. In “Sadako vs. Kayako,” the two curse-carrying ghosts battled against one another, and it was because of this “Ringu” and “Ju-On” crossover that the J-Horror trend has essentially given up the ghost (pun intended).
Likewise, there have been some truly haunting American horror movies that have opted for a more subtle approach to their storytelling. A classic example of this is 1999’s “The Blair Witch Project,” which, like “Ringu,” was a perfect mix of American folklore and urban legend, as well as being a nascent version of internet creepy pastas, with the clever internet marketing of the film. It is precisely because of how little is shown or revealed about what is going on during the three characters’ ordeal in the woods that the film truly terrified viewers.
In fact, on a personal note, as an avid hiker of the many trails of the Mississippi River valley near my home, it is not uncommon to encounter stacked rocks, bundled stick shapes, or makeshift lean-tos out in the middle of the woods. It has been 20 years since I first saw that film, yet I can still laugh at remembering my first reaction to seeing these things. That is what a scary movie should be about and what we are always in more need of.