Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Ringu (1998)

In the early 2000s we got a whole mess of horror films based off of Japanese and Korean ghost stories. It was a fresh take on horror after the slew of teen slasher films that dominated the 90s. While some folks didn’t like The Ring or The Grudge so much (especially these days when there seems to be a bit of a backlash against the films), I found the movies to be interesting and entertaining. But the film that started it all really hasn’t been topped. I figured it was about time I attempted to write a little about Ringu.

Reiko (Nanako Matsushima) is a journalist researching an urban legend about a cursed videotape. Who ever watches the tape dies in seven days. When Rieko finds out that her niece may be a victim of the cursed tape, the search becomes personal. She does find the tape, and watches it. From that moment on she feels death closing in. Rieko reaches out to her ex-husband Ryuji (Hiroyuki Sanada) for some help. She hopes his experience with the supernatural may help unravel the mystery.

The two begin a search for the origin of the tape. Some of the visuals point to an incident that occurred nearly fifty years ago. Then her son Yoichi (Rikiya Otaka) watches the tape, and is under the curse as well. Can Reiko discover the source for this evil and put a stop to it? Or will the madness continue forever in an endless Ring?

Good Points:
  • Creates and maintains a wonderful atmosphere of dread
  • Works like a mystery, constantly drawing the viewer into the search for answers
  • Just when you think its over, the movie takes a dark twist

Bad Points:
  • Non-Japanese viewers may find the folklore based curse to be silly or nonsensical
  • No blood and a menace you almost never see may disappoint some viewers
  • Moves at a very deliberate pace

When Ringu is firing on all cylinders it is one creepy film that worms its way under your skin. It plays upon our need for order and understanding, and how those things can be thrown out the window by a supernatural force. The horror comes from our inability to understand what is happening, even as we get more clues and the mystery seems closer to a resolution. Combined with an overwhelming atmosphere, solid performances and a score that jabs and slinks in equal measure, this is one of my favorite horror films.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 4
Sound: 5
Acting: 4
Script: 4
Music: 4
Direction: 5
Entertainment: 5
Total:  4

In Depth Review
Once seen, it can't be unseen.
One of my favorite elements of a horror story (in any medium) is the creation and sustainment of dread. Most films go for the quick scare, the gory revelation and the building of suspense. And yes, I love all those elements. But few films create that feeling of impending doom. It is something that requires a careful manipulation of all the elements of film, as well as careful manipulation of the audience. But when it is achieved the result is a film that stays with you, because you were truly afraid. You knew something horrible was going to happen, it had to happen, and when it does, your fear is realized.

Ringu nails it. This is a dread-making machine. It does have a few jump scares and a few moments of tense suspense. But the overall feeling it is trying to generate is that slow building fear. This isn’t an easy task, but I feel director Hideo Nakata manages it very well and on a limited budget.

One of the key elements of creating dread is to give the viewer characters they connect to and like. It is hard to feel dread for annoying teens or antiheros. Ringu gives us a divorced mother, Reiko and her son Yoichi. We first meet Rieko when she is interviewing some schoolgirls about the urban legend of the cursed videotape. She is professional and polite but also puts the girls at ease, so they have no problem talking to her. As she attempts to trace the origins of this bizarre urban legend, we realize she has the curiosity fitting for a journalist.

Finally we see her interacting with her son. You can tell she spends long hours at work, and Yoichi is used to taking care of himself. But the two obviously look out for each other. Her love and regret come across clearly in these early scenes. And little Rikiya Otaka is really cute. We like Yoichi immediately.

Mother and son dress for the start of their dark
We see them preparing for Rieko’s niece’s funeral, and that does something else. We see these two characters interacting, we get to know and like them. But Ringu surrounds them with death right off the bat. The funeral is somber of course. But Rieko starts to hear rumors that her niece may have been killed because of the cursed videotape. And we realize that this house where the funeral is taking place Is the same one from the opening scene – where two girls were so frightened that one died and one went insane.

With that set up, we follow Rieko into her investigation of the cursed videotape. Like the audience, she is trying to make sense out of the ridiculous. Just typing the phrase cursed videotape feels silly. But that is how the seeds of the horror are planted. How can watching a videotape kill you? There is no known way it could, and horror all boils down to the unknown. This curse is frightening because it really shouldn’t work, but the death toll says otherwise.

What is at the bottom of this well, and do
you dare find out?
Ringu focuses on unraveling the mystery of the images on the videotape. What are we seeing? Who made this? What does it all mean? The mystery element is intriguing, because we see parts of the tale coming together. The supernatural is introduced with a woman who claims to have powerful extrasensory perception, and her fate in the 1950s. But Nakata mixes history with folklore, as we learn that ocean dwelling demons may be tied up in this story. This element was dropped in the Hollywood remake, The Ring.

One element that wasn’t changed for the remake was the concept that the viewer of the videotape had seven days to live. This clever plot element adds to the overall dread. Each day that passes from the moment that Reiko watches the tape becomes more oppressive. This is reflected in Nanako Matsushima’s performance. She starts to lose her composure. When she stops for a few moments during her hunt, the realization comes back, and we can see in her eyes the desperation. That desperation turns into a hollow resignation by the last day.

Shots like this one, with darkness creeping in from
the sides, would strongly influence Boogiepop Phantom.
One of the other things that director Nakata used to his advantage in Ringu was a visual style that enhances the feeling of oppressive doom. Visually the movie is very muted. The sky is often overcast. Many of the buildings and locations seem drab and washed out. Even the ocean is shown as dark black, steel grey or turbulent churning but lifeless blue. We only see sunny scenes a couple times in the film, and usually when some measure of hope is glimpsed in the plot. I wouldn’t be surprised if the creative team behind one of my favorite horror anime series, Boogiepop Phantom were inspired by the visual style of Ringu.

Nakata also uses pacing to help build the dread. No one would ever call Ringu a fast paced film. The movie uses long takes, slow pans and lengthy tracking shots frequently. We also have plenty of scenes were the characters remain motionless on the screen, often lost in thought or reflection. This pace builds on the fear creeping below the surface. It feels like we are waiting for the horrifying event to occur, and we know it will. Any minute now… just around the corner… or maybe not. The pacing creates a great contrast to the few moments where fast cuts and sudden motion is utilized. It becomes unnerving.

The voice you hear now, you'll hear again.
Adding to this is some clever sound design. We hear some pretty strange stuff on the cursed videotape. But Nakata starts to use those sound effects in subtle ways outside of the videotape scenes. Rieko starts to hear the horrible scraping sound. We start to hear the voice chanting about goblins in the deep. It is almost as if the uncanny world of the videotape is bleeding into reality. Or is the impending doom working so deeply on Rieko that she can’t help but hear those sounds.

Prolific and skilled composer Kenji Kawai provided the music for Ringu. Kawai has done some wonderful work on anime and live action films with Mamoru Oshii (Ghost in theShell, Avalon, Patlabor). Here he does some fine work, especially with the creepy portions of the score. He keeps things musically interesting, but always building, giving momentum to the scenes, even when things seem to be moving slowly. His work reminds me quite a bit of Christopher Young’s approach to haunting and slow burn horror scores such as The Uninvited or The Grudge. Of course Kawai gets to throw in a couple of musical stingers for the jump scares and sudden revelations. They work well enough, but seem to be overplay their hand a bit. Those moments may have played better with no music at all. That said, there isn’t a lot of music in Ringu, but what you do get is pretty effective.

The mystery draws our protagonists and the viewers
in. Can we solve the puzzle?
This film lies in a strange place in the genre of horror films. While you could argue that the strange figure we see creeping out the well in the cursed videotape is a ghost, you could also say that it is the curse itself, not the ghost that is the real antagonist. Sadako (Rie Ino’o) is at the heart of the story surrounding the videotape. Her anger is potentially what curses the videotape. But we never get a reason why she focuses her fury into those images. We don’t know why she sets this horror into the world, not focusing her rage on those who harmed her. No, this curse ravages any unfortunate person who happens to watch the tape.

That is where the heart of the dread lies. Reiko, Yoichi and Ryuji don’t deserve to be cursed. Reiko is seeking answers sure. But she is doing it gain closure about her nieces death. Ryuji is cursed by attempting to help his ex-wife. But perhaps the most bizarre is little Yoichi, who ends up watching the tape because his dead cousin tells him to. We never know for sure, but it is possible that Sadako takes the form of the cousin to tempt Yoichi to fall into her curse. But why pick on the poor kid? What did he do wrong?

Its just a story right? A story can't hurt you.
One of the other interesting elements of the film is that it all starts with an urban legend. This is intriguing because this concept really seems to be a big element of horror anime in the late 90s and early 00s. Boogiepop Phantom uses its fractured storytelling to weave tales into tales, and some of these are urban legends about the angel of death herself. Paranoia Agent has the story of "little slugger" at its dark heart, and who or what he is depends on who is telling the story. Even the movie Cure deals with storytelling as the tale of the mass murderer gets out. Serial Experiments Lain has several plot points and concepts relayed by friends telling stories that seem to spread into a life of their own. This idea isn't unique to Japan, Candyman has a similar concept at its heart. I just wonder why all these films and anime series share this link and all came out around the same time.

But thematically it does make some sense why Reiko and Ryuji get cursed. Sadako is filled with fury over the way her parents treated her. Yoichi is pretty much a latchkey kid. Reiko cares for him, but she is obviously spending so much time at work that she doesn’t see much of Yoichi. The first time we see Ryuji, it is as he walks to Reiko’s apartment on a rainy day (on his way to see the tape). He meets Yoichi on the sidewalk and the two just look at each other. No words are exchanged. It is almost as if two strangers meet, except for the brief pause they share. Obviously they know each other, but don’t have anything to say. It’s surprisingly cold when we look back on it (when we see it the first time, we don’t know the two are related). The relationship is obviously broken. Sadako could understand this, and would curse Ryuji.

As the dread creeps in it saturates the visuals.
Here I am looking for an answer to the puzzle of Ringu, but that is what makes it frightening. There are no real answers. Each element we sort out only leads to further questions. By the time the film ends, Reiko believes that the only way to break the curse is to copy the tape and pass it on to someone else. Essentially the victim must spread the curse to be spared. Everyone must face the dread if they want to live. But is this even a guarantee? The glimmer of hope we get at the end doesn’t’ comfort completely. We all keep waiting to hear that horrible screeching grinding sound that signals Sadako’s approach.

I obviously really enjoy this movie. I love the atmosphere it generates, the cold horror it snakes into the viewer and the mystery that hints at logic, but also hints anything but logic. But Ringu is not for everyone. If you can’t get pulled into the world the film creates, it can come across as boring and even kind of silly. I know some non-Japanese viewers who find the story of Sadako ridiculous and the whole concept of the cursed videotape to be laughable. I know plenty who found the Hollywood adaptation more accessible and frightening.  It has been a long time since I’ve seen The Ring, but I do remember it having some very effective moments. But it lacked the real unsettling quality that the Japanese film provided.

When you see this, your seven days are up.
The uncanny and dread are two elements of horror that are difficult to convey. But they are the elements that appeal to me the most in horror films. When a movie gets it right, then you actually feel the fear the characters experience. Or even better (or worse) you have a nightmare inspired by the film. Ringu did that for me. I had a pretty intense nightmare after viewing this film, so Ringu certainly made an impression. It still gets a yearly viewing around October, along side similarly creepy films like the original version of The Haunting and Perfect Blue. The great thing is, you can watch the film on DVD and won’t have to worry about dying in seven days. I think Sadako detests digital technology.


  1. There is little in the world scarier than actual people when they choose to be, and for that reason I generally prefer horror films without supernatural elements, but I don't rule them out altogether. This one has given a lot of people nightmares, which, as you say, is pretty good praise. Curses are an age-old trope, and still apparently scary enough to motivate some people to forward that email or image to ten people to prevent whatever it threatens.

    1. Yes the concept of "a curse" is ancient, and I wonder if that disconnect with the concept is why some people don't find "Ringu" scary at all. I haven't seen the Hollywood remake in years, but I don't think they use the word "curse" at all during the film. But in "Ringu" it is certainly used and is the crux of the plot. One of the things that is intriguing about this film (and many of the followups and remakes is spawned) is that combination of ancient curse with modern technology. One of the follow ups was tied to cell phones (One Missed Call) and curses. Its a way to pull that ancient fear forward with us.

      I'm still curious to know what prompted the urban legend/storytelling element of a lot of these horror films at that time.

  2. I haven't seen Ringu, but saw the American counterpart, and thought it was okay although some of the Japanese folklore elements had me scratching my head. I probably should watch the original. I think today a lot of people are still superstitious--I am too as I avoid walking under ladders etc. :) At least The Ring tried to have some atmosphere. I think things that creep me out the most is watching some of the true crime on TV. I'm always shocked at how low certain individuals can sink at times. It's scary.

    I watched Quarantine last night, which is another American remake. It was okay, but I really hate that shaky Blair Witch camera style. I wish filmmakers would get past that device. I really would like to see what is going on.

    1. We have the Spanish version of "Quarantine" called ".rec". I really like that movie. They handled the found footage genre pretty well in that, and the way the film escalates and just keeps escalating is nearly perfect. I haven't seen the remake, but other than getting rid of subtitles, I don't see a point. ".rec" was pretty much a perfect film for what it was trying to pull off.