A look at the life and times of everyone’s favourite Japanese ghosts, Sadako and Kayako…
The late 1990s and early 2000s were a great time to be a fan of Asian horror cinema, the period giving birth to two of the genre’s most iconic ghouls, namely the Japanese spectres Sadako and Kayako, from the films Ringu and Ju-On, or to give them their English language titles, The Ring and The Grudge. With a Fulci-esque disregard for logic or reality, and somehow seeming to be at the same time both angry and vaguely depressed, the two generally wear white dresses, have long black hair and, without wishing to overly generalise, were basically contemporary cinematic interpretations of the Japanese Yūrei ghost figure, with modern trappings and added sneakiness. The films were both major hits internationally and dragged themselves into the zeitgeist, being ripped off and remade around the world, even to the point of being lampooned in the Hollywood Scary Movie franchise, surely a true sign of success.
After giving Kayako a few years to rest her loudly arthritic joints, The Grudge now returns to cinemas, and although the film doesn’t appear to be setting the box office on fire, with Sadako also having made a return to screens, this seems like an opportune time to review the fortunes of the two ghosts, both of whom, it’s fair to say, are struggling to find either relevance or box office success in recent times – not to mention the two having faced off in the monster mash-up Sadako vs Kayako.
For the uninitiated, a brief bit of background and a few key stats. Ringu was directed by Nakata Hideo and came out in 1998, based on Koji Suzuki’s 1991 novel, which was the first of a trilogy, and which was followed by several short stories and ‘new novels’ – interestingly, the novel was first adapted in 1995 as Ring: Kanzenban in 1995, a direct to video film which never really got much attention. Despite simplifying the novel’s more philosophical and wilder aspects (which basically saw Sadako pitched a DNA infestation), Ringu was a major breakout hit around the world, and led to two sequels in Japan, another TV film, a Korean version, and a decent, if over-long Hollywood remake in 2002, which was itself followed by two sequels, all of which were met with varying degrees of success. Interestingly, Nakata Hideo, who directed Ringu and the admirably nuts Ringu 2 in Japan, also directed The Ring 2 in the US, which is arguably the very worst of all the films in the series, which is no mean feat considering that Ring 0: Birthday was a Carrie knock off that featured a young Sadako joining an acting troupe and being given a birthday cake in her pre-TV crawling days.
Ju-On has a slightly more convoluted origin, and started in 1998 with the shorts Katasumi and 4444444444, which were part of the TV film Gakkō no kaidan G, and which were followed in 2000 by the V-cinema (direct to video) films Ju-On: The Curse and Ju-On: The Curse 2, all directed by Takashi Shimizu (whose Marebito: The Stranger from Afar arguably remains one of the most eerie Japanese horrors of the last two decades). The success of these spurred him to make new versions of Ju-On: The Grudge and its sequel in 2002 and 2003, which is when the series started to attract international interest, in no small part due to its sinister sound design and offbeat, time-splitting narratives. With Ringu having been remade as The Ring in Hollywood, inevitably Ju-On took a similar path, being remade in 2004 as The Grudge, which was followed by The Grudge 2 in 2006, and The Grudge 3 in 2009, as well as the vaguely racist sounding Ju-On: Black Ghost and Ju-On: White Ghost in Japan in the same year. The Hollywood films were surprisingly faithful to the originals, were arguably less Americanised than The Ring, and were box office hits, though suffered from the inevitable law of diminishing returns, leaving Kayako lurking in the attic with nobody to help her with her breathing problems.
Given that Sadako and Kayako had had such a major impact on the global horror landscape, despite the two being in the doldrums, their box office credit rating meant that it was inevitable that they would be given further chances to prove their quality, or at least to underline the importance of IPs in the global film industry as opposed to traditional franchises.
Sadako seized the opportunity in 2012 with Sadako 3D, directed by Tsutomu Hanabusa, and this is where continuity gets sent to the bar to buy the drinks, with the film being technically based on Koji Suzuki’s novel S, which would make it the sequel to the 1998 TV film Rasen. Viewers feeling confused can comfort themselves with the fact that a lack of familiarity is no barrier to being baffled by the film, which all but jettisons the cinematic Ringu cannon in favour of melodrama, telekinesis and a ‘the one’ style prophesy. To be fair, this was a pretty interesting direction for the series to have taken, and one which was arguably more in keeping with the novels, though it was undermined by its complete lack of sense and incredibly convoluted plotting, not to mention the absence of any actual scares – although cursed videos and crawling out of TVs was clearly so late 1990s/2000s, the film really felt like Sadako wasn’t making that much of an effort anymore, despite a few enjoyably deranged scenes involving her as some kind of spider creature.
Still, the film did reasonably well at the international box office, no doubt buoyed by Sadako’s brand recognition skills (as well as the masterful marketing scheme of having her turn up to throw the first ball at a major league Japanese baseball match, which of course made 100% sense in context), and it managed to inspire a 2013 sequel, also in 3D, and also pretty nonsensical and showing a similar disregard for actual horror. Proving that the lame attempt to revive an IP is a global affliction, there was also the US offering Rings in 2017, which took the premise precisely nowhere, despite it featuring Samara/Sadako showing the ambition to try and group attack folk on an aeroplane via inflight video – full marks for efficiency and gumption, young lady, though as the film’s ridiculous Alien/Aliens one-upmanship title suggests, desperation was very much the order of the day.
The Grudge made a comeback in 2014 with Ju-On: The Beginning of the End, and like Sadako 3D, the film saw the franchise attempting a degree of reinvention, and although not a remake as such, it featured a different origin story for Kayako and her demonic little screeching cat of a son Toshio. The film was also the first Ju-On film without Takashi Shimizu being involved in any capacity, being directed by Masayuki Ochiai, a somewhat underrated J-horror helmer who also made the excellent Infection (Kansen) and who directed the Hollywood version of the popular Thai horror Shutter. Its reboot elements aside, the film was basically business as usual for the series, with a fractured narrative and timeline following a collection of unfortunate characters who find themselves cursed after visiting the standard haunted house. Although the new Ringu films were bigger budget affairs, The Beginning of the End and its direct sequel Ju-On: The Final Curse (again directed by Masayuki Ochiai) are arguably the stronger films, despite sticking close to the original blueprint, and played a few international genre festivals as well as performing reasonably well at the box office. Of course, while it’s doubtful that anyone really thought that The Final Curse would be just that, the films at least offered a degree of closure to the original Kayako storyline.
With both series having pretty much run out of ideas, there was only one logical next step, namely to pit the two shades against each other in a supernatural slugfest crossover. When it was first announced, many assumed Sadako vs. Kayako was a joke, though it soon became clear that it was only too real, and was released in 2016. The film was written and directed by Kōji Shiraishi, one of the great unsung heroes of Asian horror, who has a wide ranging and impressive genre CV that includes the found footage classic Noroi: The Curse, the much-banned torture flick Grotesque, Carved, Ju-Rei: The Uncanny and many other fine shockers. Thanks to a bizarre trailer and its whacky premise, anticipation was high for the film, if mainly in a ‘I can’t believe they actually made it’ kind of way, and the producers really pulled out the promotional stops, with online contests for audiences to vote for which ghoul was their favourite, a fake Kayako Instagram account, and even a Hello Kitty brand crossover – best of all was an appearance by Sadako, Kayako and her kid Toshio at a baseball game, keeping up the amusing tradition in what might just be one of the greatest sporting moments of all time.
Sadly, the film itself didn’t really live up to its offbeat concept, unsurprisingly getting caught up in narrative shenanigans and tedious justifications for bringing the two together, even going so far as to end with them merging into one new super ghost called Sadakaya. Although the film was released internationally and did well at the box office, it was clearly a gimmicky one-off, and its very existence didn’t bode well for either The Grudge or The Ring, with the fact that they don’t really even come to blows properly meaning that a sequel was never going to be on the cards.
Still, it’s hard to keep a good ghost down, and since it was clear that there was at least some money left at the bottom of the well, it was soon announced that Sadako would be returning yet again for what would technically be the eighth film in the series. While this in itself wasn’t particularly exciting news for understandably jaded fans, there was a glimmer of hope when Nakata Hideo was attached as director, with the film being based on Koji Suzuki’s 2016 novel Tide – though what that meant in terms of continuity was anyone’s guess. Confusingly named Sadako, despite coming after Sadako 3D and Sadako 3D 2, the film is a strange mix of old school J-horror and Ring throwbacks, and sappy melodrama, and though it starts strongly enough, it soon becomes bogged down in exposition and dull relationship drama.
Part of the problem is Sadako herself – by 2019 it had been more than twenty years since she crawled onto screens (nearly 25 if Ring: Kanzenban is counted), and during that time, much like the original videotape at the centre of her curse, things had moved on. Despite the fact that she’s onscreen for most of the film, Sadako never really does very much aside from skulking around in a sulky manner, offering no sense of physical or supernatural threat. Nakata is strangely uninterested in actually making her frightening or to update her for the online generation, and seems to be assuming that her mere, almost constant presence will be terrifying enough, when keeping her in the shadows would arguably have been a smarter move. The film is depressingly boring as a result, and while not actually bad, like most of Nakata’s latter films, is a pale imitation of his early works – critics and audiences certainly seemed to agree, and while it played a number of festivals around the world, the film didn’t make much of an impact, failing to revive or reinvent the Ring franchise.
This brings us to the new 2020 US version of The Grudge, which is kind of pitched as a remake of the original source material, rather than a follow-up to the previous US versions – probably a good idea, since it’s doubtful that many can remember the timelines and fractured narratives of the previous outings, which could be described as either ambitious or baffling depending on how charitable the viewer feels. The new film does make an effort to sidestep this for younger or unfamiliar audiences, and comes with a fair pedigree, being produced by Sami Rami’s Ghost House, produced by Taka Ichise and with a credit stating that it’s based on ‘Ju-On: The Grudge by Takashi Shimizu’, as well as being directed by Nicolas Pesce, whose Eyes of my Mother and Piercing are two outstanding recent examples of US indie genre cinema, the latter being adapted from a novel by Ryū Murakami (In the Miso Soup).
Whereas the Sadako films tried, and arguably failed, to do something different with the material, The Grudge basically sticks to its guns, and though not really a remake in the strictest sense, it ticks all the usual series boxes, with the curse getting up to its old tricks – after a brief opening scene in Tokyo, the action shifts to a small town in Pennsylvania, where a collection of connected characters fall foul to the ghosts in the usual ways. Although there’s nothing new here, quite the opposite, the film is fun despite its lack of originality, and Pesce is a talented director, who at least manages to make things creepy and atmospheric in an efficient manner, throwing in a surprising amount of blood and gore, something quite rare for the genre. Still, while its relatively low budget will surely push it into modest profit, The Grudge is unlikely to spark any new interest in the franchise, and as with Ring, its horrors now feel very much like they belong to a bygone age.
And so, where now for our two friendly neighbourhood ghouls? With real estate prices in Tokyo continuing to skyrocket, it’s unlikely that Kayako’s haunted house will remain unsold for long, though with global audiences no longer surprised or impressed by her antics, she seems to be stuck in a bit of a rut. Her pal Sadako if anything faces an even greater challenge, and the decision whether to fully embrace the science fiction weirdness and dark philosophy of Koji Suzuki’s increasingly far-out novels, or to simply try and update her to fit in with the changes in modern technology, something she has thus far stubbornly refused to do. Of the two, The Grudge perhaps stands a better chance, if for no other reason than the fact that few people are now likely to be scared by a tetchy teenage girl crawling very, very slowly out of a TV set, and would most likely simply kick her in the head or hurt her feelings by leaving a mean comment on her YouTube channel. Joking aside, this is really the key to the issue faced by both – the two have been iconic pop culture figures for so long now, whether it be on screens, in comics, cartoons, as toys or at baseball games that there’s very little mystery or actual creepiness left to either of them, if any. The same thing has happened with
Sadly, while both franchises still have a huge amount of potential, whether it be through genuine expansions of their universes or perhaps a shift to a long-form TV format, what’s most likely is that in a couple of years both will see a new reboot, remake or something else which results in more of the same – or perhaps, as Pesce himself suggested in a recent interview for The Grudge, a sequel set in a “less contemporary” time period, whatever that might mean, or a US version of Sadako vs. Kayako, which would at least raise the amusing question as to what the Americanization of Sadakaya. Until then though, it’s back into the well for Sadako and back up into the attic for Kayako, for a few years at least, or until someone actually comes up with a good idea about what to do with them, whichever comes sooner.