This Friday, October 7, the Japan Society of New York City will screen Hideo Nakata’s 1998 j-horror classic “Ringu” in their “monthly classics” series of Japanese films. Go here for more information and to buy tickets. (Warning: spoilers ahead.)
“Ringu” is still considered the most commercially successful Japanese horror film and the most influential of the Japanese horror trend called “j-horror” that began in the 1980s. J-horror films replaced the trend of gory, slasher films with more supernatural and evocative stories. The popular 2002 U.S. remake, “The Ring” and remakes of other j-horror films like “The Grudge” (2004) and “Dark Water” (2005) also led to a shift away here from slasher films. This trend has since been replaced by zombie films and reboots of slasher films like David Gordon Green’s “Halloween” trio. Yet the success of films like the just released “Smile” (with its tagline, “Once You See It, It’s Too Late”) demonstrate the continued influence of “Ringu.”
“Ringu” opens with two Japanese high school girls discussing a story going around about a weird videotape which, once viewed, will prompt a phone call informing you that you will die exactly seven days later. The opening sequence slyly and creepily sets the tone of the film by showing intimate moments with the two girls accepting and then debunking the story just before one of them (who has seen the tape) dies, her face left in a horribly contorted shape.
The dead girl’s aunt, Reiko (Nanako Matsushima) is a journalist whose investigation of the rumored cause of her niece’s death leads to the actual videotape. After watching the short, enigmatic video sequence on the tape, Reiko is convinced that she is also cursed and frantically searches for the origin story behind the tape in hopes she can avoid dying in a week.
Her ex-husband (a math teacher with psychic powers) helps her discover the tape’s background: decades before, a psychic, Shizuko, accurately predicted the eruption of a volcano. During a public demonstration of her ESP abilities a journalist calls her a fraud and Shizuko’s daughter Sadaka psychically kills him with just “one thought.” The daughter’s father may be a water deity whom Shizuko communicated with after years of staring at ocean waters and speaking an inhuman language. After Shizuko commits suicide, her human lover, an ESP researcher, bludgeons Sadaka, knocking her down a well. Reiko believes she must find the well and Sadaka’s corpse in order to stop the curse.
“Ringu” gave birth to a series of sequels and remakes. It was based on “Ring,” a 1991 novel by Koji Suzuki, who Publisher’s Weekly once called “the Stephen King of Japan.” Suzuki wrote several sequels to the novel and in 1995 a TV film was made of “Ring.” Nakata’s feature film version of “Ring” was released the same day in 1998 as director George Lida’s film “Rasen,” based on “Spiral,” Suzuki’s sequel to his novel. Though the Nakata film became a huge critical and commercial hit, “Rasen” failed. Nakata did his own sequel, “Ring 2” in 1999, which was not based on a Suzuki novel. That was followed by a prequel, a 3-D sequel, a TV mini-series, a Korean remake and manga books. In 2002 Gore Verbinski directed the U.S. remake “The Ring” starring Naomi Watts and featuring a great soundtrack by Hans Zimmer. That film was a commercial hit and led to two U.S. sequels, the second one directed by Hideo Nakata himself.
Critical views of the film franchise have emphasized its exploitation of our unease about technological advances, especially the worries of parents who fear unexpected consequences for their children: predators in chat rooms, easy access to online pornography, phone sex, commercials urging you to “call now.” (The inverse of the “Ringu” equation: you see a video and then you call a number.) The story circulating among the Japanese school children also reminds us of the high speed with which urban myths travel in the internet age, often too quickly to be satisfactorily debunked.
In Colette Balmain’s book, Introduction to Japanese Horror Film, she says that despite the emphasis on technology, “Ringu” makes use of the “vengeful yūrei archetype of conventional Japanese horror.” Yūrei refers to all Japanese ghosts. One type of ghost, onryō, is a vengeful ghost out to redress a wrong. Onryō are prevalent in j-horror, they are almost always women and Sadaka (called Samara in the U.S. versions) is the most famous example. The appearance of an onryō was formalized by Kabuki theater to make them easy to recognize: a white burial kimono; wild, unkempt long black hair and thick white makeup. (The actress playing the ghost of Sadaka was herself a Kabuki player–Rie Inoo–and her unusual body movements after emerging from the well were created by a combination of her using traditional Kabuki dance movements filmed in reverse.)
Balmain also points out that many heroines of j-horror films, like Reiko, are single or recently divorced mothers. Though the absence of a male hero forefronts these female protagonists’ strength and resourcefulness, it also resonates with Japanese audiences because of their strong beliefs in family obligations.
Jay McRoy, who also writes about the significance of single mothers in the films, has written in his Nightmare Japan: Contemporary Japanese Horror Cinema that the gender of the ghosts and the role of water/rain/mist in j-horror is significant, noting that Japanese horror expert Grady Hendrix once jokingly referred to Nakata’s work as films about “dead wet girls.”
After all, Japan is an island, surrounded by water and with almost 200 active volcanoes. The natural elements strongly present in the hundreds of years of Japanese ghost stories and folklore still inform their urban myths. “Ringu” opens with a shot of dark ocean waters rippling mysteriously. (Think of the rippling blue velvet fabric at the beginning of David Lynch’s masterpiece.) The waters are superimposed with the pixelated screen of a blank TV screen, suggesting a relationship between the waters Sadaka’s mother stared at, mumbling a non-human language, with (we learn in the U.S. version) the blank screen of a TV set an imprisoned Sadaka stared at for countless hours.
Sadaka, whose father is said to not be human but to be an aquatic entity, can kill a man by just “one thought.” This reminds us of the adolescent fear that bad thoughts (wishes that someone would die!) might actually come true.
The title of “Ringu” refers to the unsettling rings of the dreaded phone calls accompanying the viewing of the video but it also refers to the ring of light surrounding the top of the well Sadaka would have been staring up at all of that time. (A perhaps unintentional but vivid reference to Plato’s parable of the prisoner in the cave!) And much of the horror of the last third of the film involves the anguish any viewer has contemplating a living child (or anyone!) being stuck in a well for any length of time. (And in “Ring 2” a scientist speculates that Sadaka may have been in the well for thirty years!) Just think of the rescue of 18-month old Jessica McClure from a well in 1986 or the 2018 Tham Luang cave rescue of twelve children and a teacher, the subject of the current Ron Howard film “Thirteen Lives.”
My first exposure to the “Ring” franchise was a viewing of the 2002 U.S. remake of “Ringu.” It was one of the few genuinely scary horror films I had seen in years, but my interest was especially piqued by the cursed video’s resemblance to American experimental film tropes–how daring to include this in a mainstream film! Seeing “Ringu” later, I was struck by the differing content in the “cursed video” in each version. As the sportscasters used to say, “Let go to the videotape!”
In the 1998 “Ringu” the video is less than a minute long and only contains nine shots. (Not counting slight jump cuts of the same content and the video contains extra content when seen later in the film.)
Shot 1: Clouds moving past the moon, as seen from the bottom of the well, presumably by Sadaka.
Shots 2,3 and 4: Sadaka (or Shizuko?) combing her long black hair in an oval mirror. In shot 3 the mirror shifts to the right of the screen and back to shot 2 for shot 4, with the woman’s (or women’s?) gaze suggesting some kind of duality between the two mirrors.
Shot 5: animated Kanji letters spell out “eruption,” a reference to the volcano eruption Shizuko predicts.
Shot 6: men struggling to stand up and move. Perhaps victims of the volcano eruption?
Shot 7: a man (the ESP researcher?) standing in front of the sea with a towel over his head pointing towards something.
Shot 8: the word “Sada” superimposed over a demonic, blinking eye.
Shot 9: the well, as it dissolves to a pixelated blank TV screen.
Here is the complete Japanese version of the “cursed video.”
One of the most striking images in the Verbinski version is the replacement of the animated “eruption” shot with the image of thousands of wriggling maggots dissolving into a shot what look like hundreds of drowning men, both shots rhyming visually with the pixelated blank screen of a television. There are several shots for shock effect that don’t seem necessarily related to the narrative. The sequence as a whole reminds me of the effect of the opening dream sequence to Bergman’s “Persona” (1966).
(Someone has also posted a video comparison of various scenes in the Japanese and U.S. versions of the first “Ring” film. )
While it’s intriguing to analyze the differing versions of the “cursed video,” a curious and unaddressed question remains: how does Sadaka’s rage/curse transfer to a videotape? (Recall that Reiko discovers the tape because it is in a blank tape box in the motel’s video collection.) What psychical connection records images onto a physical medium with a visual syntax whose understanding would require at least some exposure to both horror and experimental films? (Or maybe just silent films from the 1920s?)
And how is it that, like the children who also saw the video, after Reiko is cursed any photograph of her displays her face as a blur? (Blurred faces have also been used as a visual trope in the paintings of Francis Bacon and Gerhard Richter. And we all know that vampires can’t be photographed!*) And the photographs used to represent this in “Ringu” are of traditional analog cameras: a 35mm camera and a Polaroid. Along with magnetic videotape, all of these are non-digital mediums. And, notably, the phones Sadaka calls are all wired phones, even though Reiko has a cellphone. (Widespread cellphone adoption happened earlier in Japan than in the U.S.)
The most obvious way to understand this is that film and video recording for the unscientifically trained can still–even today–seem semi-magical and magical thinking has always been a key element of the horror genre. (As brilliant as the scientists are, they can’t stop the invaders from space or Godzilla.) Furthermore, in the late 1990s, analog film and video were close to becoming archaic technologies and thus more readily accepted in fictional narratives and urban myths as conduits of psychic mischief than the new digital products on the horizon.
Reiko eventually learns that the only way to avoid the curse is to make a copy of the videotape and get someone else to watch it. And then repeat the process for that now cursed person and on and on until some poor last person takes one for the team. This suggests the strategy of the “chain letter” scheme, in particular the Katu Lata Kulu chain email of 1945 which threatened death to recipients if they didn’t forward the letter to others. (It’s still unclear if this really happened or was just an urban myth.)
As we’ve seen throughout the history of horror film and speculative science fiction, the real ESP at work is that of insightful writers and directors who predict and tap into the fears of the masses: “Ringu” masterfully illustrating our worries about the increasing speed of communications and digital reproduction (multiple generations of copies) and the zombie trend prepping the 2020/21 pandemic with resurrected fears of viral infection. If the narratives based on our current dread of climate change subside (and there is no indication they will), what might replace them?
*Although there is some debate as to whether vampires can be photographed by digital cameras!
“Ringu” screens this Friday, October 7 at 7:30pm at New York City’s Japan Society. Go here for the venue location and to buy tickets.
Twentieth anniversary trailer (Arrow Films):