A powerful exercise in atmosphere, still disarming after over a decade…
Time has been surprisingly kind to director Hideo Nakata’s original Ringu. Even by the time it reached a UK release, the tropes and ideas it presented were already becoming stock in trade for Asian horror. As other directors entered the arena, ‘J-Horror’ was formed and defined; stretching across the work from the likes of Takashi Shimizu, Koji Shiraishi and Kiyoshi Kurosawa, as well as Takashi Miike and even Nakata himself, and on into Hong Kong with the Pang brothers, Thailand with Banjong Pisanthanakun and Korea with Kim Jee-woon. When the American remake The Ring dropped in 2002, it was already difficult to feel like you hadn’t seen it all before (though that didn’t stop a continuing line of Hollywood remakes of Japanese and wider Southeast Asian horror films, including Dark Water, The Grudge, The Uninvited, Shutter and The Eye).
And yet watching Ringu (Ring) again recently – for the first time on the big screen – distance from that plethora of Asian horror that filled the early 00s allows you to judge the film on its own strengths. Of course, there can’t be many who aren’t already familiar with the story. Reporter Reiko Asakawa (Nanako Matsushima, Shield of Straw, The Inugamis, Boys Over Flowers), investigating the popularity of an urban legend about a video curse, discovers her niece Tomoko (Yuko Takeuchi, Golden Slumber, Be with You) died at exactly the same time as three other students.
After learning they stayed together in a rental cabin in Izu, she follows their trip, staying in the same cabin and borrowing an unmarked video at the cabin’s reception. Of course, curiosity gets the better of her and she watches it herself, only to find she immediately receives a call afterwards – the sign that she will die exactly seven days later. Is this curse real? Enlisting the help of her ex-husband Ryūji Takayama (Hiroyuki Sanada, Rasen, The Twilight Samurai, The Promise, 47 Ronin), they begin to unweave the meaning behind the mysterious images on the tape, find a spoken message that comes from a dialect found only on Izu Ōshima Island. They begin to learn about a psychic called Shizuko Yamamura, and her daughter Sadako.
But when Reiko discovers her and Ryūji’s son, Yoichi, watching the video, the race is on to uncover the truth and break the curse before it’s too late.
Ringu literally rumbles and crackles into existence over a title sequence of an otherworldly black ocean, water becoming one of the recurring themes for the film; accompanied by stripped down, heavily synthesizer-based score by prolific composer Kenji Kawai, then best known for his collaborations with Mamoru Oshii on Anime like Ghost In The Shell and Patlabor. This sounds like electronic instruments at the most ‘analogue’ end of the spectrum, a fitting analogy for the demonic spirit of Sadako using technology to make her way back to the world, described even in Koji Suzuki’s original book series in more organic terms as a ‘virus’ (before that term more widely known to us in the context of home computers). Vastly different to Kawai’s more recognisable choral and orchestral work, it’s a score that could largely have been written and performed some two decades or more before, echoing Goblin’s compositions for Argento in the 70s, and the (largely Italian) horror scores that followed.
The sound design is key to Ringu’s success, and part of its enduring impact. Kawai often strips back his score to a single discordant note; the primordial rumbling of waves or voices, distorted beyond recognition; the isolated phone ringing, lingering loud into the soundtrack mix; or that distinctive scraping like nails on a chalkboard that somehow embodies Ringu’s power in a single sound (though reminiscent of the sounds created by director Tobe Hooper and Wayne Bell on The Texas Chain Saw Massacre). Screeching as it does through the mundanity of the real world in the suburbs of Tokyo.
It’s this normality in which we find ourselves, filtered through a blue/grey light captured by cinematographer Jun’ichirō Hayashi, in a potent but unfussy way. Here Nakata recognises power of what is captured in the corner of the eye; what we think we see before we turn round. The figure of Sadako is caught fleetingly in reflections – often on TV screens, a portent of what is to come – before disappearing. Nakata uses that familiarity to get under our skin, and use our own imagination against us. Those cursed appear as smudged, distorted faces in photos, a device that Shimizu would later borrow (along with several other tropes) and bring crashing into the real world with Ju-On: The Grudge).
When it comes to the video itself, it’s rather less than the specific imagery Suzuki describes in his book; more cryptic, more surreal. He often throws us directly into the video, rather than allowing us to watch from a distance; layering videotape’s distinctive grungy, stretched, over-recorded-on effects. This wasn’t the first film to have used with such effects, Shinya Tsukamoto played around with comparable imagery on Tetsuo: The Iron Man, and similarly this footage is cast in Black and White, unlike on other versions. At the point of release, the use of found footage was largely seen in the West as a response to The Blair Witch Project. Now if anything it feels more like a reaction to the work of David Lynch. Indeed, as Sadako makes her way out of the well in the woods, her movements jerked and shot in reverse, it’s hard not to think of some of the darker, dreamlike moments of Twin Peaks.
Ringu had itself previously been adapted as a TV movie, Ring: Kanzenban (リング 完全版) in 1995; a well-known and liked adaption. (It would again be adapted for Japanese television just a year later, this time as a 12 episode series, Ring: The Final Chapter (リング ～最終章～ Ring ~Saishūshō~). Perhaps it was this previous edition and the books popularity that caused Nakata and screenwriter Hiroshi Takahashi to make some major divergences from Suzuki’s original novel, mainly around his two lead characters.
Most famously the lead character Asakawa was originally the male Kazuyuki, still married with a one-year-old daughter Yoko. This switching of sexes shifts Nakata into themes he would return to later in films like Dark Water and Death Game. Here the errant single mother admits her son is used to looking after himself as she often comes home late; when the time comes to save him – effectively finally becoming a good mother – she must make a choice that in turn makes her a bad person.
In many senses it’s the transition of the character of Ryūji Takayama that is more dramatic. In the original book Ryūji is Kazuyuki’s ‘best friend’, but one he doesn’t seem to actually like that much, suspecting him of being an ‘occasional rapist’. Instead, here Ryūji is one of the films more sympathetic characters. The biggest change is that Nakata and Hiroshi Takahashi give Ryūji supernatural, psychic abilities not unlike Sadako’s, propelling the narrative by circumnavigating the investigation and thorough newspaper archive searches that take up much of the original novel and many a ghost story. (Though sometimes it jars with the heightened normality of much of the rest of the film).
Ringu successfully linked the folklore of old Japan, with its vengeful ghost stories explored in films like Kuroneko, Ugetsu, Kwaidan and Ghost Story of Yotsuya, to the modern world of technology and teenage obsessions. One folktale, Banchō Sarayashiki, is often quoted as a direct influence as its protagonist is thrown down a well to her death, she then becomes a vengeful spirit. Nakata helped create a new aesthetic that learned from the horror traditions of his own country, and marry them to the best of horror from outside it; as well as American horror of the 70s, there are nods to Italian horror not only in the soundtrack, but in the more discordant nature of films like Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond or Dario Argento’s Inferno – both of which featured that familiar refrain in horror of a vengeful spirit residing below, or at least in, a building (though for Fulci that meant another excuse for zombies).
And it does all that with very little bloodshed or gore. The videotapes may make this feel like a period piece, and now in many ways it is (though Sadako 3D may have recently tried to bring the iconic vengeful spirit into the 21st century and through your broadband connection – she would never have got so far on dial-up).
Amongst the prequels, sequels and remakes – including Korean remake The Ring Virus, sequels Rasen (Spiral) and Ring 2, and the dreadful prequel Ring 0 – not to mention all the films that came after, few reached the same level of accomplishment that Nakata did on Ringu. Only Nakata’s own Dark Water, another Suzuki adaption, came anywhere close and in some ways betters it.
If you haven’t watched Ringu for a while, now’s the time to break out the old DVD and watch it again, but make sure you have the volume turned way up. And if there’s a chance to see it on the big screen again, don’t miss it!
Ringu screened as part of the BFI Gothic season, part of their haunted strand. It was presented by John Mullarkey as part of the Philosophical Screens series.
Distributor: Palisades Tartan (UK)
Edition: DVD (2001, reissued 2013)
Even at the time this was released, much was made of the murky original video transfer, with much scratching notable on the picture. The soundtrack is much punchier (thankfully), but this easily feels like a film in need of a remastering. Extras include an UK Exclusive Trailer, Mark Kermode Film Review, Stills Gallery and trailers for Ring 2 and Audition.
The 2001 Tartan DVD has recently been reissued by Palisades Tartan, but to my knowledge this is exactly the same as the original.