Director: Hideo Nakata
Screenplay: Hiroshi Takahashi
Cast: Nanako Matsushima (as Reiko Asakawa); Hiroyuki Sanada (as Ryūji Takayama); Rikiya Ōtaka (as Yōichi Asakawa); Miki Nakatani (as Mai Takano); Yūko Takeuchi as Tomoko Ōishi)
A Night of a Thousand Horror (Movies) #49
Unequivocally, I cannot give an unbiased opinion of Hideo Nakata's Ringu, a film I've lived with for years and love. It's emphasised knowing this is not the first ever adaptation of Kôji Suzuki's original novel - that would be Ring: Kanzenban (1995) (Reviewed on the blog HERE) which is said to be a more faithful novel adaptation, made for TV, but is insane, has a strange aesthetic that can only come from being made for nineties Japanese television, and is softcore erotica at points which feels amazingly explicit. The theatrical adaptation by Nakata strips the premise off almost all the details found in Kanzenban, keeping only the initial idea where you watch a cursed videotape, get a phone call immediately afterwards and die a week later from the viewing. The cause of it, as divorced mother and journalist Reiko Asakawa (Nanako Matsushima) views the tape as part of research of its urban legend and the death of her niece from it, and goes with her ex-husband Ryūji Takayama (Hiroyuki Sanada) to stop the curse, does involve a figure named Sadako and ESP, but the muted, down-to-earth nature of the story, how it's based on human emotions generating a monster with a simplistic cause-and-effect, made this premise universal.
Ringu works perfectly as an urban myth and could've easily become a real one. Anyone could find a cursed videotape that would kill, a lack of convoluted mythology to it allowing it to pass easily by word-of-mouth without difficulty. Unlike many horror films, it keeps the back story simplistic, which is more than likely why Ring's popularity including its US remake in Japan and the West became possible, the premise requiring little change even for the Creepy Pasta generation. (In fact it's a lot more simpler and more scary than many creepy pasta legends, which suffer from clichés of blood shot eyes and going over the top in their narratives, more chilling in how those who view the tape end up dying of apparent heart attacks with their faces contorted like Edvard Munch's more disturbing portraits). That the film is mainly a mystery, a slow drip fed of information where minuscule details of horror (distorted photographs, premonitions) are most of the scares, this proves to be in its favour in terms of aging gracefully as it doesn't feel tied to any clichés of its era, the innovator of modern J-horror to many in fact, and can still stand out greatly.
The grey, naturalist atmosphere of Ringu helps in its timelessness and also in terms of its immense sense of mood, an atmosphere without need of any fog covered hills or traditional sense of ghosts from classic Japanese mythology, commendable on Nakata's part for modernising the supernatural. Japanese films of the nineties into the modern day always stand out for me in how distinct they look - possibly different cameras from those in the West, the architecture and environments of modern Japan - where suburbia and urban environments have a distinction from similar locations in Western films, a sense of space in the exteriors and depth to the interiors which always stands out for the likes of Ringu to Pulse (2001) alongside a practical economy to them in how the environments look. In a film like this they have the distinction of being more appropriately blank as slates, allowing the dead to easily haunt them and paint character on the environments, especially when contrasted against more older and natural environments such as the coastal island the protagonists go to for their investigation of the tape.
That the film involves a videotape in its central premise doesn't date the film at all but makes it even more frightening to me. An update of a magical talisman that is haunted - from a whistle in an M.R. James short story found on a beach to myths around objects like mirrors - videotape however is actually one of the rare cases where, as it becomes more obsolete, it develops far more ominous qualities suitable for horror like certain artefacts in fairytales and mythology like black obsidian mirrors do. All film mediums, from celluloid to a YouTube clip, have the capacity to be haunted objects, filmmaking literally a form of channelling the dead back to life, but specifically with how it can be manipulated, how fragile the technology actually was and how its output of materials at one point in society means so much is left to accidentally stumble upon, the possibility of finding a videotape in a basement always likely and with an inherent mystery if the tape blahas no clear signs of what it is, videotape is becoming more of a mysterious entity where each failed moment tracking adds a sense of ghostly prescience. Also, if Harmony Korine's Trash Humpers (2009) proved anything, the curiosity laced with fear of what one could find if you found an unmarked tape becomes more increasingly felt. That it's difficult to find the technology to play videotapes on unless you go second hand adds to this, the sense of datedness against (now) alien technology for younger people having a profound effect on its form - that the cursed tape in Ringu is one in an unnamed white box found amongst a hotel's video selection emphasises this, the mystery of ancient tomes or scrolls transferred now to strange black tapes that punishes the curious who can actually play it. The video content itself in this version of the story, monochrome nightmares with a bluish tint, is appropriately surreal as well, the one aspect of Ringu which gets overtly phantasmagoric and is also a major advantage for the story in how distinct images from it, from a woman brushing her hair in the mirror or a figure with a white cloth over their head, are constantly repeated and haunt the protagonists further.
The only pervading issue in terms of Ringu as a fan is knowing its long line of sequels afterwards (and I'm including the US remake and its ephemera in this too) and how it continued as a franchise it might've gotten. Franchises sadly denote most of the time the danger of a convoluted back-story being forced upon a great premise onwards, the lack of the haunting mood of the original, and with the new crossover film with The Grudge franchise called Sadako vs. Kayako (2016) the fear of parody without any meat to the bones, but all of those films are for another time. If anything this fear merely evokes how potent Ringu is as a horror film, a ghost story for the modern day which manages to tap into a primal fear of death and the unknown perfectly for me.