This past weekend I took the opportunity of vacation time and irregular sleeping schedule (due to our newest family member) to catch up on some Japanese horror flicks I've been meaning to watch. I only got as far as Ringu and Ju-on: The Grudge. I thought they were brilliant, and will have to seek out more J-Horror. I have not watched the American versions of either, and I've found the inevitable comparisons I read on them to be a very interesting exemplar of cultural differences. Warning: Spoilers follow.
I've always had a love for mythologies, and Japan has a marvelous mythic tradition, so I've read plenty of Japanese mythology. Maybe that's why I don't have a problem with the disjointed nature of J-Horror. The unraveling threads, the lack of moral simplicity, the indirect methods for the scares are all quite palatable to me. It's not much unlike the West African mythic tradition, and in fact, it's a lot like the Greek mythic tradition. The Romans began the process of rationalizing the Greek myths, and since then Western tastes have been for clean story lines and moral certitude.
One preference that seems more specifically American than generally Western is for literal representation, even in horror. I've heard a lot of criticism from Americans of the look of the monsters in "Ju-on: The grudge" they're plied with white makeup and then blued up, and how is this supposed to be scary when we've seen the twisted monsters of "Evil Dead" and "Night of the Living Dead"? The interesting thing is that, though I love both of those movies, they have always represented comedy as much as horror to me.
Jack of diamonds! Jack of spades! Whhhhyyyyy dooooo yyyyoooouuu distuuuurb my sluuumber
That shit has me rolling, yo. Anyway, complaints about the less obviously grotesque J-Horror demons seems ludicrous to me. Do people really claim that they're more terrified of the fully revealed than of the unformed and unknown? Who cares if Toshio looks like an overgrown blue baby when he clearly establishes himself as the omen of his murderous parents (you know that the big spooks are coming, but you're not sure just how, and that distills a real dread). Who cares that Sadako is all black, wet hair when her slow, purposeful stagger and the one briefly exposed eye are so thoroughly menacing? I find that in my reaction to J-Horror, the chills come far more from the menace of the characters, than from the effects of the characters. I use the word "effects" not only to mean the special effects that bring the characters to life, but also the effects of their actions on people. Sadako stops people's hearts. She doesn't find creative ways to maul their bodies, as is the general formula in American horror. Much of the fright comes from the lack of clear moral to her vengeance. I've heard people ridicule "Ringu" because they have no idea why Sadako cursed a tape for the general public rather than seeking out the specific ones who wronged her, but that arbitrariness is exactly what is so horrible to me.
When the monsters do appear in J-Horror, it's not with flawless CGI that you're thrilled: it is the mannerisms. Sadako's walk. Kayako's bulging eyes. When Sadako crawls out of the TV, and when Kayako does that awful staircase descent, I found myself more thrilled than in any other horror moment I could remember. I don't carry horror movies into my dreams very often, but these ones left me pretty jumpy for a couple of days.
I do have to watch out for unfair generalization. There have been examples of successful American horror that prefers subtler methods (and is thus to me much scarier). But I think that it's quite typical of Hollywood horror to prefer the explicit and gory to the understated and symbolic.
BTW, seems to me Ringu draws on the famous Japanese ghost story of Okiku's well. There are several variations on the story, but in the one I have in mind, after Okiku was killed and thrown into the well by the Samurai, she climbed out of the well every night as a yūrei avenging spirit, tormenting the Samurai until he went mad, thus extracting her revenge. Of course Sadako is no yūrei, which I've never heard of to be poltergeists (to use the Western term). She was telekinetic in life and retained her action-at-a-distance capabilities to a terrifying degree in the afterlife. Tomoko, on the other hand, who inexplicably urges her cousin to watch the same tape that killed her, seems more of a usual yūrei: seen and heard, but not physically threatening.
One way or another, if you want a little different take on the horror genre, give J-Horror a try, and keep your mind open. For my part, I'll have to catch some more. I already have the much-praised A Tale of Two Sisters in the Netflix queue. If you know of other such flicks that I should make a beeline for (I might go for the Japanese Dark Water, next), drop me a line.