Movie Review – Ringu

Ringu (1998)
Written by Hiroshi Takahashi
Directed by Hideo Nakata

The origin point for much of modern Japanese horror can be traced to Ringu. This horror film has all the elements I’ve previously talked about: techno-horror, child murder, investigation that reveals the truth behind the horror. These things speak to the existential fears of not just the Japanese but almost all people living in our neoliberal present, attempting to make sense of modernity and the collapse of myths. Technology is going to lift humanity out of suffering, we are told. But has it really? Or does it fix some problems while creating new ones or exacerbating existing troubles? There’s currently a fervent discourse around child murder/molestation/etc. in America right now, but it mostly feels like political factions using the concept as yet another cultural divide rather than genuinely attempting to protect young people. The great pit in your stomach moment of horror that is well-written is the realization that the forces you are up against cannot be stopped, and so the protagonist is often warped in some way for the rest of their lives.

Reiko (Nanako Matsushima) is a news reporter chasing the story of a mysterious videotape that reportedly kills anyone who watches it. The story hits home when she learns her niece has died, and it appears to have ties to the same tape. Reiko’s life is absorbed by her journalism career, which has led her son, Yoichi, to greater independence than most children. She’s reunited with Yoichi’s estranged father, Ryuji (Hiroyuki Sanada), who possesses a level of sixth-sense abilities that help track down this cursed video’s origins. Their journey leads them to Izu Oshima Island, a remote locale once home to a renowned psychic. The couple discovers a tale of suicide, betrayal, and murder that led to forces beyond our own, manifesting this videotape and reaching out to gobble up as many souls as possible. 

The American version of The Ring follows almost every plot beat, but the details surrounding the tape are where the two versions diverge. The movies are very similar until the protagonist journeys to the remote home of the characters behind the mystery. In the American version, there’s much more disconnect between the parents of Samara than there is with Sadako in the Japanese film. While in the American movie, Samara is adopted, and her abilities remain more veiled in mystery. In Ringu, Sadako is not adopted; instead, she is the child of the psychic who was a single woman who is rumored to have had a child with Dr. Ikuma, the man studying her abilities. He reveals that Sadako was not his child and tells stories about the psychic standing on the coast speaking to something he could not see, implying that our antagonist is a hybrid creature born from some Lovecraftian elder entity.

When you step back and look at the plot of Ringu in isolation, it’s not something that seems scary. I mean, the simple solution is to just not watch the tape. The horror in Ringu conveys how this version of the story works perfectly on film. The soundtrack is filled with metallic screeching like fingernails digging into your spine that keeps you constantly unsettled. The camera seems to be working with Sadako, revealing just enough but never the amount of detail we need to understand the complete picture until the end. Ringu is a precursor to the very mood-driven horror we see among independent filmmakers today. You couldn’t have an It Follows without Ringu and the children it spawned in Japanese cinema. The horror of these stories does not come out of the plots but rather by placing the audience in the perspective of the person faced with such strange circumstances. Once the first bits of fundamental reality begin to crumble, you would inevitably go tumbling down.

The film’s opening works perfectly as a short movie on its own, just like the American remake’s prologue. Understanding why Ringu is so affecting begins with these two secondary characters, teenage girls sharing an urban legend while sitting at home alone. Mundane things like a ringing phone or a staticky television take on foreboding aspects merely because of the atmosphere built through film technique. Horror works best when it injects terror into the everyday. In Ju-On: The Grudge, the shower & the bed are made places where monsters can get you. Ringu is built on those oft-told urban legends about the killer being in the basement. We aren’t allowed lingering glimpses at the victims of Sadako, and that helps in allowing our imaginations to carry us away with what really happened. This is one area where the American version is too on the nose, showing people’s faces physically drained of color and distorted. Less is more when you’re trying to create atmospheric horror.

We can also look at the shocking third act, one of the best plot twists ever presented (in both films). We’re given the kind of resolution you might expect from a maudlin horror film that is trying to end on a somber but hopeful note. Sadako’s skeleton is recovered so that she might be laid to rest. But, much like the hauntings in The Grudge, this spiritual force is akin to a perpetual motion machine. It’s no longer affected by rituals traditionally used to lay the dead to rest. The rage of the dead has grown to such proportions it is no longer relatable; it is like trying to quell a hurricane. It’s coming whether you like it or not. 

But the way Sadako is presented when we finally see her on-screen works concurrently with the horror of the mundane previously set by the opening scene. It’s just a television, something without inherent horror. Yet, the concept that an unstoppable presence could come into our safe homes via television is chilling. Even more, the film manages to evoke some empathy for Sadako, the camera briefly pausing on her nail-less fingers, a reminder of the terror she experienced being tossed away in that well years earlier. The director seems to inquire if she isn’t justified in being mad about a world where a child is so easily tossed away and forgotten. 

There’s never a reliance on empty jump scares here; everything our characters experience has a purpose to it. If a moment is scary, then there is a rationale behind it, even if that reasoning is viewing something that appears senseless, as in the case of the video. Because the video presents us with a series of seemingly random disturbing images, it pulls us into the mood being set. Later, many of these images will be given context as we learn Sadako’s story, but they are the perfect starting point to bring us into the horrific mystery. Although, Ringu was not a picture I loved, I greatly appreciate the film and the psychological work the director is doing. The J-horror movie born out of Ringu I love most will be the subject of our final review…

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