Story Structure Day 33: Ringu (1998)

Director: Hideo Nakata

Writer: Hiroshi Takahasi, based on the novel by Koji Suzuki

Cast: Nanako Matsushima, Hiroyuki Sanada, Rikiya Otaka, Yoichi Numata, Hitomi Sato, Yuko Takeuchi

Plot: A pair of teenage girls (Hitomi Sato and Yuko Takeuchi) are telling scary stories to one another, about a video tape that warns its viewer they will die in seven days, followed by a creepy phone call. One of the girls claims to have viewed the video a week ago, but then laughs it off as a joke. Minutes later, as one of the girls is alone, the television turns itself on… and there’s a flash of light. The scene shifts quickly to a television news reporter, Reiko Asakowa (Nanako Matsushima) interviewing a series of teenage girls about the urban legend of the deadly video tape. Her niece Tomoko – one of the two girls in the opening scene — and three other friends recently died all on the same night, their faces warped into a horrible visage of fear. The girl who was with her, Masami, has been sent to a mental institution and is afraid of television sets. According to the police autopsy, Tomoko and the others who died did so because their hearts simply stopped. Reiko discovers that Tomoko and her friends had vacationed in a cabin the previous weekend, and finds photographs of them with their faces blurred out. She goes to the cabin and finds an unlabelled video tape. She watches the tape, filled with bizarre and unnerving imagery and ending with an image of a well. When it ends, she’s startled by a reflection in the television, and the phone rings. She answers it and says, horrified, “One week,” then takes the tape and flees.

Scared, she summons her ex-husband Ryuki (Hiroyuki Sanada) and tells him the story of what happened. She makes him take a picture of her, and her face comes out blurred, confirmation that she has been cursed like her niece and the others. Although Reiko objects, Ryuji watches the tape, but says there was no phone call. The next day, Reiko makes a copy of the tape for Ryuji to study and try to trace the origin. Together, they begin to study the tape frame-by-frame, beginning to notice oddities about it. A woman is brushing her hair in a mirror at an angle that should reveal the cameraman, and garbled sounds over an image of a man with his face covered, pointing by the water, turn out to contain a hidden message. Ryuji tracks the clues to a volcano connected to a great psychic named Shizuko Yamamura, who committed suicide when she was accused of being a fraud. Before they can investigate further, Reiko finds that their son, Yoichi (Rikia Otaka), has watched the tape.

Ryuji and Reiko check out an inn run by relatives of Yamamura, where they find the mirror from the tape. Ryuji confronts Yamamura’s relative and sees a psychic flash of her daughter, Sadako, telepahtically killing the man who accused Yamamura of faking her abilities. Ryuju deduces that the tape was made by Sadako’s vengeful spirit, and that she is the one who killed the teenagers. With one day left for Reiko, they return to the cabin where the tape was found. Below the floor, the find the well from the video, sealed up. A vision informs them that after her mother’s death, Sadako was murdered by her own father and thrown into the well. They open it up and discover Sadako’s body. When Reiko’s time passes and she lives, they believe the curse is broken. The next day, though, as Ryuji is home alone, his television turns on by itself, showing him the well. Sadako climbs out of the well, then out of the television, and Ryuji dies of a heart attack, just like the others. Reiko realizes that finding Sadako’s body isn’t what saved her – the curse was lifted from Reiko when she copied the tape and showed it to Ryuji. To save Yoichi, she plans to have him copy the tape and seek out a new viewer, realizing this cycle can never end.

Thoughts: I only became aware of this movie after seeing the American remake starring Naomi Watts. And while I thought The Ring was a decent enough horror movie, I didn’t really think of it deserving status as a classic. But since it came out, the influence of its parent movie, Ringu, on American horror culture has become undeniable, so I knew I’d have to include this original in my horror project.

The footprints this movie left on the horror landscape are pretty enormous. For the past ten years, two of the most popular subgenres of American horror movies have been those films light on gore but heavy on supernatural scares (in other words, PG-13 horror), and those that remake foreign horror movies. Very often, those two subgenres overlap. On a purely personal level, I have to admit that stuff like this creeps me out a lot more than most other horror. Blood and guts, torture porn, demons in your dreams… I can take it all. But there’s something much more fundamentally disturbing to me about the sort of slow, impending doom this film promises – and delivers on. It might be that idea of knowing, of waiting… Sure, Jason may kill you, but most of the time you’ll never see it coming. With this killer, you’ll have a whole week to brood about it before she makes you literally die of fright. For a professional worrywart like me, I think that would be the far worse death.

But I digress. Whatever the case, after this movie came out we got nailed with films like The Grudge (another Japanese import-slash-remake) and films from France, Germany, and elsewhere in the world that tried to capture lightning in a bottle again. In Japan, there were two sequels (one based on a sequel to the novel, the other not) and a prequel, and in the US there has been one sequel so far with another one announced, plus remakes in other countries around the world. And that’s not even counting the number of “original” ideas produced in the last few years that tried for PG-13 terror. Some of them worked. Many of them did not. Even the American The Ring tried to ratchet up the horror in the wrong way, burying the first victim under horror makeup that made the scene more grotesque, but in a way less actually frightening than showing a natural expression of terror.

The film, like many great horror movies, builds its terror slowly. After the opening scene there’s much discussion of the tape and a few deliciously creepy images of one of the dead girls, her face frozen forever in terror, but it’s still nearly a half-hour in before Reiko finds and watches the tape herself. Even after that, much of the film plays out more like a procedural instead of a horror movie, with Ryuji and Reiko playing detective and occasionally getting psychic images to remind us that this is, in fact, a ghost story at heart.

As I’ve been saying from the beginning, terror is cultural. What one society deems frightening may not hold true elsewhere, and cultural differences may derail attempts. The scene where Reiko finds the tape amongst a rental shelf at the cabin is accompanied by a creepy musical sting and a zoom in, but as I can’t read anything written on any of the tapes, the effect at that point was lost on me. Similarly, the tape itself uses a lot of words, which worked when I watched the American version, but have less of an impact when I needed to look down at the subtitles to see what creepy caption I was supposed to be scared of. (Incidentally, this may be the only place where the American version was inarguably more effective to me, but that wouldn’t be true of someone who understands Japanese.) It also should be pointed out that the expectations of a movie studio in the US are quite different from those in the rest of the world. The scene where the murder victim is found in the remake is a brilliant, special effects-laden scene clearly intended to make you believe that the characters have completed some noble quest and ended the evil of the spell, even though this turns out to not be true. Not so much in this version – the well scene is dark and creepy as anything else. We get Reiko  actually cradling the skeleton, hair sloughing off it, slime flowing from the sockets like tears… it’s downright gross. Yeah, there’s also a skeleton in the American version, but in this case, I’m going with the Japanese version. It may not work quite as well in terms of a fake-out, but it maintains the feel of the movie much better.

Perhaps the best trick the movie pulls, though, is the way Reiko saves herself. It’s a horrible idea, that a person’s salvation can only come at the expense of some other innocent person. How many people could do it – knowingly put someone else in mortal danger in order to save their own lives? Even more importantly, how many people would be strong enough to resist? It’s a chilling idea to end the movie on, and it survives the film in a way many of the other elements do not: in the Saw franchise. Jigsaw forces his victims to do terrible things to themselves or someone else to survive, and it isn’t a stretch at all to believe Ringu (or one of its remakes, sequels, or other successors) was weighing on the minds of the screenwriters when they came up with that concept.

Finally, I’ll chime in with the obvious question that one almost feels compelled to ask. Culture isn’t dependent only on place, but also on time period, and even though this film is a mere 13 years old, technology has advanced at a remarkable rate since then. You’ve got to wonder, in a world of DVR, DVDs, Blu-Ray, movie downloads and digital photography, if the basic premise of this film would work if they tried it today. It would, I think, there’s a simple enough undercurrent of fear here, but it would be fun to try to work out the mechanics of such a thing.

While Ringu was changing horror overseas, a tiny little production was about to hit the States in an enormous way. Tomorrow, we tackle The Blair Witch Project.

Blake M. Petit is the author of the superhero comedy novel, Other People’s Heroes, the suspense novel The Beginner and the Christmas-themed eBook A Long November. He’s also the co-host, with whoever the hell is available that week, of the 2 in 1 Showcase Podcast. E-mail him at BlakeMPetit@gmail.com.

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