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The Enduring Horror Of Hideo Nakata’s RINGU

The Enduring Horror Of Hideo Nakata’s RINGU
A look back at Hideo Nakata's seminal thriller.

Words by Ren Zelen

ringu film poster

In 1998, director Hideo Nakata unleashed a chilling tale of technological dread which redefined the horror genre and launched the Japanese-horror boom in the West. Jaded with the tired franchises of Freddy, Jason and Michael, western audiences flocked to see something new, exotic and terrifyingly different. Ringu (aka Ring) introduced a generation of moviegoers to the bizarre, dark pleasures of Asian horrors.

Ringu is based on a novel by Koji Suzuki, (known as the ‘Japanese Stephen King’) and for any western viewer this film is the starting point for any exploration of modern Asian horror.

The film's success spawned a slew of American remakes, re-imaginings and imitators, but none could recapture the shock of Nakata's original 1998 masterpiece, which melded traditional Japanese folklore with contemporary unease about the impact of technology, in an eerily unfolding story of relentless ghostly vengeance.

A group of teenage friends are found dead, their bodies outlandishly twisted, and their faces blackened and contorted in terror. Reiko (Nanako Matsushima), aunt of one of the victims and a TV journalist from Tokyo, sets out to investigate this grotesque and mysterious event.

ringu film review

In the process she uncovers a creepy urban legend about a cursed videotape, the contents of which cause anyone who views it to die. The victim receives a phone call immediately after watching the tape informing them that they have only a week to live, unless they can persuade someone else to watch it, and, in so doing, pass on the curse.

Soon, Reiko herself becomes exposed to the curse when she follows a lead and travels to a cabin on the Izu peninsula where some of the victims had been for a brief holiday.

With the help of her ex-husband Ryūji Takayama (Hiroyuki Sanada) she uncovers the history of a psychic woman, Shizuko Yamamura (Masako) who hurled herself into the volcano on Oshima Island 40 years previously. Unravelling many cryptic clues they eventually discover that the source of the curse is Shizuko's daughter Sadako (Chihiro Shirai).

The brilliance of Ringu lies in its combination of the iconography of classic Japanese horror cinema with modern urban legends (plus a nod to ‘Casting the Runes’, the famous story by the celebrated British writer M.R James, which features a cursed parchment).

Ringu and also Takashi Shimizu's Ju-On are culturally specific in that they belong to a genre of Japanese ghost story called 'Kaidan', which partly derives from the traditional plays of the Noh and Kabuki theatre. These utilise make-up conventions which circle the eyes with dark colour and whiten the skin to a ghostly pallor.

ringu film review

Kôji Suzuki, the author of the novel the film Ringu is based on, explains how Japanese Kaidan folklore differs from the Western tradition in its perspective on ghosts:

"In America and Europe most horror movies tell the story of the extermination of evil spirits. Japanese horror movies end with a suggestion that the spirit still remains at large. That’s because the Japanese don’t regard spirits only as enemies, but as beings that co-exist with this world of ours…"

Furthermore, Ringu and other Japanese horror movies such as Dark Water, relate to an anxious tension between tradition and modernity inherent in tradition-venerating Japanese society. They reflect fears about changing gender roles and the proliferation of technology into every area of our lives.

Perhaps the most ominous aspect of Ringu is the nature of Sadako herself. Her frightening appearance was a new vision for Hollywood – a young girl hell-bent on retribution. But even more so was the dawning realisation that revenge did not satisfy her. Sadako wasn't out for mere vengeance, she wanted increasing numbers of victims to fall prey to her influence. No matter what the protagonists tried to do to help her, it wasn't enough. You had to follow the clues to her story, then share it and pass it on, or she would ruthlessly hound you to death.

ringu film review

When Nakata's Ringu film proved extremely successful in Asia and in the West, Hollywood producers immediately attempted to jump on the bandwagon and imitate its effect. They did this by a return to a more gothic form of horror, preferably with an exotic twist. Prof Gary G. Xu of the University of Illinois explains the phenomenon:

"There is a certain aura in Japanese ghost fiction and films, often filled with women’s grudges against men who deserted or injured them. Unlike most ghost stories in the West that seek moments of shock and thrills, Japanese ghost stories tend to allow the aura to linger, to permeate, and to literally haunt the audience…"

In remaking Ringu for Western viewers, Gore Verbinski ignored the Japanese cultural specificities and focused on "domesticating" the film. In order to adapt the film successfully, the Japanese specificities, such as social insecurities, the insidious atmosphere of tense expectation and the compassion for wronged spirits (as well as for human victims), were removed, to make it more palatable to a Western audience.

Nakata's film has, so far, produced about eight sequels and remakes. The original Ringu however, remains both an elegant chiller in the 'Kaidan eiga' tradition and a truly effective shocker for the discerning horror fan. Just like Sadako, Ringu it seems, refuses to stay dead.

 is on Arrow now.