It was a novel that became a film which would scare the whole world. It would spearhead the Asian horror boom of the late 90s and the Asian horror remake boom of the early 2000s, for better or for worse. It frequently makes its way on lists of the best horror movies ever made. But what is it that makes Hideo Nakata’s Ring so effective?
And yes, it is Ring, not “Ringu” as it is popularly referred to. Whilst that is in essence the Japanese pronunciation, using an English word as the title was a deliberate choice by Koji Suzuki when he wrote the book as a means of referring to not the circular well into which Sadako was thrown as many viewers of the films might believe, but rather the circular and repeating nature of the curse. Also, you never hear anybody call Battle Royale and Audition “Batoru Rowaiaru” and “Ōdishon” so why do it with Ring?
I may have been needing to get that off my chest for some time. We can move on now.
This restoration has been a long time coming. As much as I love my old Tartan Asia Extreme DVD with that cover which enticed and terrified me all those years ago on the video store shelf, it is not of the best quality; dark visuals, slightly fuzzy sound, and a few moments of obscured subtitles. The job that Arrow has done is brilliant, helped by the fact that they had the collaboration and blessing of Ring’s director of photography Junichiro Hayashi. The movie looks sharp and as shiny as new, with the appropriate exception of the cursed videotape. There are a couple of changes to the subtitles from the previous translation, but they make little difference as far as I can tell apart from one moment where the word “snogging” is used and it ends up being so out of place it’s a little funny.
The plot is known now, especially if you have already seen the remake. A cursed videotape that will kill you seven days after you watch it is investigated by a journalist, Reiko Asakawa (Nanako Matsushima). She enlists the help of her ex-husband Ryuji (Hiroyuki Sanada) who has a spiritual sense, to help her solve the mystery of the tape and the woman behind it, Sadako Yamamura, before their literal deadline is up for them and their young son Yoichi (Rikiya Ōtaka).
The greatest thing that Ring does well is mood, building it and making it sink in. The opening credits of the film are dark; a churning sea at night-time with foreboding music over the top. Then from there we go to a very unexpected place; a typical teenage girl’s bedroom in a normal Japanese house and two girls, Tomoko and Masami, talking and neglecting their homework. It’s a shift to the mundane that leaves you feeling ill at ease, expecting the worst. Nakata knows just how to use sound in this film; it’s quiet when it needs to be, but when it uses sound to highlight the visual horror it is always at the right moment. This whole opening sequence is about making you feel creeped, easing your fears for a moment, and then going right back to scaring you again.
The nature of the urban legend, its ability to grow and change, is a very important element to the film. Masami says that everyone at school is talking about it, and in our first scene with Reiko she is interviewing three girls about the legend, all of them with slight variations in the telling. Reiko and her co-worker discuss how these stories begin and a reference is made to Kuchisake-Onna, The Slit-Mouthed Woman, a famous Japanese urban legend with many variations to her history and who has also been the subject of several films of her own. It’s that mystery of the origin of the urban legend that interests Reiko, even before she knows about its connection to the death of Tomoko, her niece. The fatal nature of curiosity is a foundation of horror, and its use here is particularly dangerous. But who can resist when the cursed video with all its strange and spooky imagery is such a tempting mystery to uncover?
A lot of the moments of horror take place in everyday locations transformed into something sinister, which is a feeling runs through a lot of the film. Sadako’s victims too are made something sinister, as illustrated when Tomoko’s spirit is used to make Yoichi watch the tape and Ryuji comments “she’s not Tomoko any more”. Then of course there is televisions and phones, the movie invites you to regard them with fear too. Even if technology has moved on, these are still objects we use every day that in the course of the movie are turned against us. If nowhere is safe, nothing is safe, and no one is safe, then who is to say that same evil can’t reach us the audience? The point of the videotape is to reach from one world into another with a malevolent hand, it’s not that far a thought to see the movie Ring itself in the same light.
Then we come to the scene. You know which one I’m talking about. Much like the prom scene of Carrie or the exorcism of The Exorcist, Ring has that one scene that has become iconic in the annuls of history, and twenty years on from when it first graced the cinema screens it still has an impact. The image of Sadako stumbling gait climbing out of the well and coming towards the screen just feels so realistically raw yet also unnatural. It was achieved by filming actress Rie Inou, who was also trained in Kabuki, a traditional Japanese theatre style known for physical movement and exaggerated gestures, walk backwards and then playing the footage in reverse to make her walk forward. It’s simple, yet undeniably effective, especially when the movie has lulled us with a false sense of hope beforehand.
Sadako comes from a long tradition of onryō, the Japanese vengeful spirit. The image of a woman dressed in white, from the white burial kimono traditional in Japan, with lank hair that has become synonymous with Japanese horror was taken from Kabuki theatre where having a standard look for ghosts made them easy to recognise for audiences. The onryō’s wrath has the power to reach out and torment the living after death is very much Sadako’s M.O, however hints are made in the film that it is more than that. Sadako isn’t simply an ordinary person who was killed violently, for that more straight-forward example of an onryō you need look no further than Kayako Saeki from the Ju-On films, Sadako is someone with terrible power that comes from an otherworldly source. Was she ever innocent? Well yes and no, but for that you would have to watch Norio Tsuruta’s prequel Ring 0: Birthday. As far as this film is concerned, Sadako is pure rage and fury and a truly frightening image.
The movie ends as it began; with the telling of the legend of the cursed video but now with the final piece of the puzzle; what you have to do to avoid death. And the final question is interesting; could you doom someone else if it means your own survival? There is no answer as Asakawa drives off into a dark an uncertain future, leaving us on a note of unease that doesn’t let us shake it off as easy as the quick jump scare ends of many horror movies today.
There are moments that feel silly or outdated, especially the musical score, but what makes Ring such a memorable experience is still strong all this time later; the mood, the tension, and the fear of the looming unknown. I highly recommend seeing this on the big screen.