Foundations of J-Horror Double Feature Part 1: ‘Ringu’ Review

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“Four people died from watching this videotape!”

I haven’t seen a ton of Japanese movies. This was worse in my younger days and when Ringu was first released in Japan in 1998 my experience with them was pretty much limited to Akira Kurosowa films and Godzilla movies. By the time I actually saw Ringu  –  probably as a rental from Netflix around the time of the US remake – the most horrifying thing I knew about from Japan was the Silent Hill videogame.

Ringu was like lightning to me. Part of it was due to an increase in a personal interest in Japanese culture, part of it was a similar interest in urban legends, and part of it was just how damn creepy the film is. I felt like I hadn’t seen anything like it before. I saw the original and the remake fairly close together and I know I ended up liking the Gore Verbinski film better as a whole. However I thought the original was scarier. Less movie-like, if that makes sense. More… normal in its settings and presentation, which made the abnormal aspects seem more disconcerting.

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In the early 00’s we were still crawling out of a relatively dry period for horror movies. Though there were a few excellent horror films in the 90’s the genre really didn’t dominate the video shelves the way it had in the 80’s. I had come to expect post-modern films like the Scream series or similarly self-aware teenage slasher flicks like I Know What You Did Last Summer. 2002 felt like maybe things were turning a corner for horror fans, with films like 28 Days Later, Dog Soldiers and, yes, The Ring giving us something that felt different – something new. They worked with traditional horror trappings – zombies, werewolves and ghosts – but put them into a modern context and didn’t make fun of them, didn’t wink at the audience too much and, most importantly, actually tried to be scary.

It didn’t hurt that I had heard about the movie in the late 1998 or ’99 as an actual urban legend. Some friend of a friend story that made its way to me via the local comic shop. There was a video tape, I heard,  that if you watched it you would die. Like, screaming in terror die. Nobody knew what was on the tape or why it killed you or really any other details – and it came off at the time like a warning not to touch those blank VHS tapes your parents kept in their bedroom – but I’m almost certain that it started out as someone trying to explain Ringu and had degraded over multiple tellings (not unlike a video tape that has been dubbed too many times).

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I was sold on Japanese horror movies from that point on. I watched The Grudge (despite thinking it was a stupid name for a horror movie), Dark Water, Pulse etc., my interest dovetailing with that of the US film industry. While that initial flurry of ‘remakes of every Japanese horror film’ has passed there are still several released every year (just not in US theaters). I haven’t seen every one, but I try and make sure I watch one or two a year. The genre has grown to encompass films from South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong and China as well, so it should probably be called Asian Horror instead – but it all started with poor Sadako and the well and that long dark hair. And I still won’t watch unmarked videos. No way.

The Medium
I’ve got an old DVD copy of Ringu, from when “Wide Screen” was one of the ‘extras.’ It’s not currently available on any legal streaming service. There’s a Ringu collection coming out late this month from Arrow Video, who tend to do an excellent job with their releases, so I’m guessing next year we’ll see Ringu return to streaming with a much higher quality presentation.

A ‘did you know’ about the upcoming collection: the relatively unknown sequel to Ringu will be included in the set. No, not Ringu 2 – a sequel known as Spiral (the title of the second novel in the series) was released in theaters at the same time as the original film! It had a completely different look and feel, however, and has subsequently been ignored. I’ve never seen it, and it might be worth getting that upcoming set for this alone!

The Movie
Ringu and its remake are pretty famous and even if you’re not a horror or J-Horror fan you’ve probably heard about them. It’s still worthwhile to mention the basic plot – reporter Reiko Asakawa and her ex-husband Ryuji Takayama try to hunt down the origin of a videotape that is supposed to kill people seven days after they watch it. It’s not just a curiosity for them – they’ve both seen it. As has their son.

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Watching Ringu now you might wonder how such a small film started such a big resurgence in Japanese movie making – horror movie making in particular. At the time of the movie’s release the old studio system had collapsed and Japanese movies – once big enough to get releases all over the world – were relegated mostly to small theatrical releases and direct to video series. In one way this ended up being a good thing in the same way that a similar reduction in studio influence in the US led to the rise of auteur filmmakers like Spielberg, Lucas and Coppola. Without the rigid system that required an apprentice period some young filmmakers got chances to make films they might not otherwise have been able to. Even films based on an books by “The Stephen King of Japan.”

Hideo Nakata’s film is actually not the first adaptation of Koji Suzuki’s novel – there was a TV movie in 1995 called Ring: The Complete Edition that is more faithful to the original text. I’ve since read Suzuki’s original novel and, while there are definite horrifying elements, it’s also partly a science fiction thriller. The TV movie, while being a more literal translation of the original, isn’t anywhere near as scary (or as good) as the 1998 film.

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A lot of the details of Ringu are the same as the remake – it starts off with two teens who talk about an urban legend about a tape that, if you watch it, you will end up dead seven days later. Of course one of the girls has seen it. Seven days ago. This scene is effective no matter which version you watch, but in Ringu there’s less self-awareness about the jump scares. Verbinski plays with your horror movie expections a lot  more, where Nakata lets things play out a little more straight.

That’s really the hallmark of this film. Everything is played straight – even the cinematography is almost pedestrian, like a good but unexceptional TV movie. There moments – the scenes at the cabin where Reiko finds both the tape and, later, the well, are particularly good – but it’s that level of mundanity that makes the horror feel more real. These are recognizable people in recognizable situations faced with an out-of-context problem.

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One of the few things that was changed significantly between the Japanese and US versions is the character of the protagonist’s ex-husband. Not only does Ryu play a much greater role in Ringu – the extent that the plot couldn’t move forward without him – but he also possesses a psychic ability. On this re-watch I was struck by how much of a part that ability plays in the proceedings. It’s a bit of a cheat – leading both Reiko and Ryu to conclusions they would be unable to make otherwise – but it’s also leads to an interesting idea. Sadako is presented as both the daughter of a psychic and a powerful psychic in her own right. Powerful enough to have imprinted her psyche on a piece of video tape. I found myself wondering this time around if maybe Sadako is leading Ryu on, planting psychic breadcrumbs, so to speak, to lead them to her resting place.

The iconic ending – with Sadako breaking the symbolic fourth wall of the TV screen – still effects even after seeing it over and over again (and having seen it made fun of almost as many times). Again, I feel like the pedestrian nature of how Nakata films this actually heightens its impact. Verbinski’s ending is horrifying, yes, and an amazingly realistic special effect. But in Ringu it’s just  a TV in a corner. Sadako has crawled out of it almost before you realize it. There’s no time for Ryu. Or for us.

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The Bottom Line
Ringu is a classic for a reason and it still has power, even twenty one years later. It feels smaller than I remember – more intimate – but that hasn’t diminished its ability to unsettle and occasionally terrify.

(Note: I ended up having to break the double feature into two reviews. Part two – Ju-on: The Grudge – will be up tomorrow!)