Director(s): Hideo Nakata (Ringu 2)/ Norio Tsuruta (Ringu 0: Birthday)
Screenplay: Hiroshi Takahashi (Ringu 2/Ring 0)
Based on the work of Koji Suzuki
Ringu 2 Cast: Miki Nakatani (as Mai Takano); Rikiya Otaka as (Yoichi Asakawa); Nanako Matsushima (as Reiko Asakawa); Rie Inō (as Sadako Yamamura)
Ringu 0 Cast: Yukie Nakama (as Sadako Yamamura); Seiichi Tanabe (as Hiroshi Toyama); Kumiko Aso (as Etsuko Tachihara); Takeshi Wakamatsu (as Yusaku Shigemori)
A Night of a Thousand Horror (Movies) #111 & #112
Ringu (1998) was a perfect horror film. Imagine the short story structure of a horror film, or a radio drama expanded into ninety minutes1, perfectly compassing a theme or concept within its length like the best of its literary and audio cousins. It's premise sounds so like an actual urban legend, a decade or so before Slender Man or Creepy Pastas like the cursed video came to be, already with the advantage of having built such a sound in-world legend that it elicits fears in viewers as if based on a legend that's more timeless. Eliciting fears of the unknown tapping into modern technology, the fear of finding a mysterious blank videotape that could be anything, like the unknown video clip online or other digital/physical object, matched by the hazy obsoleteness of VHS technology in the current day, a vehicle still venerated as much for its failures as it is its virtue in transporting information before the tech improved drastically. The lengthy mystery the protagonists follow to resolve the mystery, even if you know the answers on repeat viewings, is still fascinating, the unravelling of the mystery alongside the slow pace and characterisation still intense to participate in. Ringu was an incredible success leading to sequels, an American remake series, reboots and a crossover with the Ju-Oh series, but I'll stick to the immediate two sequels here2. One is an example (RIngu 2) caught between embracing pure, irrational phantasmagoria but being completely alien to the original film to its detriment. The later (Ringu 0) is a prequel which explains so much in an A-to-A straightforward fashion, resulting in something as alive as an taxidermy display and cingeworthy to watch.
Ringu 2 at least makes a rewarding decision to follow a minor figure from the prequel named Mai (Miki Nakatani), a student investigating the cause of the events in the previous film's finale and trying to track down the first film's heroine, the result of which giving the sequel an immediacy in being set subsequently from the prequel, the horror now as a result of a fallout from the previous narrative. Even if its having to repeat the investigation of before, it now has the advantage of previous visual motifs from the cursed tape and Sadako being known and registering with fear in the sequel of the curse drawing over Mari and those she interacts with. The issue, where is drops the ball, is its indecisiveness in where it wants to go from here. It visibly wants to escape how narrowing the plot potentials of the original film will be to expand the mythology, completely disregarding the cursed videotape set-up with Sakado's curse being spread by peoples' minds and any television equipment in the room, all without fully jettisoning the entirely of the original plot's presentation. Either it needed to write ideas worthy of expanding out what is an already perfect horror lore, or fully remove the lore even if the result was blasphemous and closer to the type of rip-off you'd expect the Italian film industry to have made of American supernatural horror movies. Instead, its stuck in an area where the new ideas - the importance of water particularly as Sadako's weakness in connection to the well as a symbol - don't feel fleshed out and rushed.
If it had fully committed to the vaguer, more ellusive form of horror which tires of a videotape you have to have potential victims see, and decides to spread its influence without such a teather, it could've reached the eerie mystery found in a masterpiece like Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Pulse (2001), the curse growing tired of its limited reach and growing after exposure to victims and previous cases, causing bystanders to the previous film to have their memories and thoughts tainted by the curse like a psychic contagion, spreading out wider and wider. In ways it actually predates what the 2002 version of Ju-On: The Grudge and how it followed a chain of victims as more people crossed incidents of previous curses, fitting as well considering the eventual crossover between the franchises. The film could've become a dreamlike experience if it pushed into this plot point more, managing at least one scene that redeems the film where a single clip of video footage is repeated so much that it transforms into something terrifying, the distortion and degredation of images literally the window for the supernatural to be encountered. Sadly the film stays straddled in the middle of both artistic choices. Where the lack of the cursed videotape feels arbitrary than leaving its confines for more ideas. Where suddenly Sadako wants to possess a young child, given them psychic powers, which makes little sense to her lore and does, in any context, feel like an exceptionally stupid plot idea with little explanation to justify it in-narrative. Where water becomes an important part of overcoming her, already mentioned and fitting her existing lore, but is convoluted in exactly how it works, ending the film inexplicably at a swimming pool like a less successful version of the ending of It Follows (2014).
Ring 0: Birthday should just be removed from canon. Sadako is turned from the haunting figure with a tragic past of previous films to a young, quiet woman in an acting troop in the late sixties/early seventies, actress Yukie Nakama less Sadako than a lesser reinterpretation of Sissy Spacek in Carrie (1976). It's a laborious viewing experience, slow but with most of its time spent on a conventional narrative structure with little to intrigue. A story that reaches its expected ending, having to lead to the first film, whilst following utterly unlikable characters - a female reporter with revenge on her mind for Sadako, members of the troop, the girlfriend of one of the members whose sympathetic to Sadako - whose characterisations are hazy in whether one should hate them, experiencing the corruption of Sadako, or we should be on their side as Sadako has an atmosphere around her that's already starting to kill people and haunt the trope. It's the kind of horror prequel that Hollywood would be accused of continually making many years before they ever did, where the central horror figure Sadako is turned into merely a parade of motifs from before without any of the realistic folklore or actual tragedy of the existing version. Symbolism of the original film without context but merely because it's expected to be there as decoration like wallpaper. In fact the only interesting part of the film is the theatrical play within the movie, a weird tale of a scientist bringing his daughter back to life through science with Western period costumes and decor on the stage, more fitting the Japanese's ability to create unconventional, genre shifting horror movies than the film around it, one that should be removed from memory.
1. If you stay with the idea of the short tale, like a campfire story, that chills a listener for a short amount of time and transport it to other mediums, I find the best examples for short written stories is something read aloud that lasts 30 minutes to an hour, a radio story to be thirty minutes, and horror films to be around 90 minutes. Obviously there are exceptions, especially those that want to emphasis details like characterisation or mood, but it's usually apparent which films need that extra time or not depending on their content.
2. Then of course there's Ringu: Kanzenban (1995), the first ever adaptation for television which I reviewed HERE which is an utterly bizarre viewing experience by itself.