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Japanese heart-stopping terror with the Ring series.

(Originally published in Vector, Sep 2002)

Freeze frame

Freeze frame

Two teenage girls are taking a brake from their homework to talk about boys, but soon the conversation takes a darker turn. There’s this videotape, see, and it’s cursed. It was recorded off a dead channel (some kid on holiday wanted to see the baseball but the channel did not extend that far) You watch and then the phone rings – one week later the phone rings again and you’re dead. One of the girls admits to seeing it… but she’s just teasing her friend. Or is she? Then the phone rings. Then the television turns on on its own…

Sounds dreadful doesn’t it? Some straight-to-video American slasher movie, or a post-Scream ironic comedy.

Actually no. This is Ringu (Ring). It’s Japanese and an unbelievable good straight horror film. There’s no gore – it’s only a ‘15′ certificate – but it’s just about the scariest thing I’ve ever seen. Although recently suffering from a series of profound economic depressions, Japanese culture has been going through a renaissance – not least in the horror gene and Ring is just one of a number of effective films that have come West such as Battle Royal and Uzumaki.Ring was based on a trilogy of best-selling Japanese novels. The film, costing only just over a million dollars to produce, was released in 1998 and went on to become the number one film in Japan and several neighbouring counties that year. It then went on to be critically acclaimed at many international film festivals. Spawning several film sequels, including a prequel, the story had also inspired differing versions in many media including a radio drama, two television series and a mini-series, a number of manga (Japanese comic books) and a video game.

In the original film reporter Asakawa Reiko (NB: Japanese names have the family name first and the given name last) is investigating the latest urban myth that is spreading among local teenagers – a video that kills anyone who watches it. Then she learns her niece was apparently a victim, dying suddenly from a heart attack, her face twisted into unnatural rictus of pure terror. Asakawa’s discovers that three of her niece’s friends all died the same way at the exactly the same time. Her further investigations lead her to a holiday cabin in Izu that her niece and friends stayed in and on to discover the actual tape. Curiosity gets the better of her and she watches it. Now Asakawa’s only got a week to solve the origin of the video and try to break the curse. And then even more urgency is added to her quest when, as she sleeps, her young son watches the video.

Captive viewer

Captive viewer

The video that she/we see is incredibly disturbing, a mini-masterpiece on its own and it is worth taking a bit of time to examine it. For a start the footage is blurred and grainy, interrupted by flashes of static like a multigenerational copy. The soundtrack is largely white noise but out of that rise a number of metallic screeches – the screenplay describes them as ‘metallic insect noises’ – that cut right through you. We are presented with a number of disjointed images, visual non sequiturs. First static. Then a pale disk on a dark background – the moon? No, streaks of cloud scud across the disk and we see perhaps a face? Then we see an oval mirror where a women is brushing her hair. Suddenly the mirror flicks to the other side of the screen. Almost instantly the mirror flicks back to its original position, but in that one moment we see reflected a small figure in a white gown with long dark hair obscuring their face. This is replaced by a swarming mass of kanji (characters used in the Japanese language) only ‘eruption’ is translated on the subtitles. This is followed by a view of a confusing group of crawling, stumbling, people, some moving in reverse. Then we see a figure stood motionless by a shore, head shrouded with a white cloth, pointing off to one side at something we cannot see. Then a close-up of an alien-looking eye – there is single small white kanji reflected in the large black pupil – sada (chastity). The screeching gets louder and finally we see a small stone structure against a background of trees, a well. Repeated viewing throughout the film dulls the impact somewhat, as some of the images are explained, but the first time is mind-blowing.

Asakawa enlists the help of her ex-husband Takayama Ryuji to discover the truth behind the video. The slowly discover the meaning of some of the images on the tape. Hidden in the background static during the ‘eye’ scene is a phrase that uses words of a certain Japanese dialect: “If you keep playing in the water, the monster will come for you.” (That’s according to the screenplay apparently – the English subtitles have it rather more poetically as: “Frolic in brine, goblins be thine.”)

The women brushing her hair is identified as Yamamura Shizuko, a notorious psychic who, back in the 60’s predicted a volcanic eruption in the region the dialect comes from but was then accused by the news media as a fraud. Already an unstable personality, traumatised by this she committed suicide by throwing herself into the volcano.

Heart stopping terror

Heart stopping terror

Asakawa and Ryuji travel to Oshima island, the birthplace of Yamamura Shizuko, in search of clues. They find out Shizuko had a daughter, who mysteriously disappeared thirty years ago, named Sadako. Most Japanese girl’s names end in either -mi (‘beauty’) or -ko (‘child’) – Sadako thus means ‘chaste child’. Sadako was a tremendously powerful psychic, able to kill at will – in fact killing a reporter who pilloried her mother at a public demonstration of her talents. Although the film ostensibly indicates that Sadako’s father was Ikuma Heihachiro, a psychiatrist who treated Shizuko and investigated her abilities, we also learn that Shizuko spent much of her time alone sitting on a local beach staring into the sea and the film strongly hints that her daughter was perhaps sired by some non-human sea-dwelling entity to produce some kind of Lovecraftean half-man half-sea-demon.

Asakawa and Ryuji learn that Ikuma tried to murder Sadako by throwing her down a well, sealing it, and leaving her for dead. The cursed video was in fact created by Sadako in vengeance for her imprisonment using her psychic powers to ‘burn’ onto it her thoughts and memories. With nothing left to try Asakawa and Ryuji resolve to find the well and recover Sadako’s body in the hope of appeasing her spirit. They realise that the well must be located at the cottage on Izu, where Asakawa’s niece first watched the video with her friends. With only a few minutes to spare they frantically try to drain the well. They find Sadako’s skull and then are overjoyed, suddenly realising that the deadline has passed, and they are still alive.

However there is one final devastating twist that pushes Ring into a new direction in its coda…

Watching Ring is genuinely unsettling experience and has none of the catharsis of a ‘normal’ horror film experience – it defies closure. A successful blend of horror tropes, in Ring we have the ‘urban legend’ coming true, the Asian ghost story, even a touch of Videodrome and Poltergeist in its twisting of the passive comforts of television viewing. Like Japan itself it is a blend of old and new, the traditional and the innovative.

Throughout there is a stark, bare visual style. The mostly naturalistic acting very quickly creates a strong bond with the characters and we are drawn into their plight. As a lead we have a well-rounded young women who had been dragged into something beyond her control – one of the reasons the film was so popular with Japanese female teenagers, a much greater audience for horror than in the West. Instead of ‘what’s that noise – I must go and look’ stupidity, she behaves, worryingly, like you think you would do yourself in the same situation. Also her estranged relationship with her ex-husband is treated realistically – just because they are working together they don’t automatically fall into each other’s arms as you would expect in a Hollywood movie.

There are no scenes of ‘stalk and slash’. Instead, avoiding cheap shock tactics and with great restraint, the film instead uses suggestion, situation and atmosphere, even the weather or simple things like blurred photographs, to slowly build up a cloying, claustrophobic, feeling of complete dread that builds to a climax that had me worrying I was going to expire from a heart attack myself.

There is some very subtle special effect work and exactly right use of a spare score (by Kenji Kawai who is most well know for his excellent work on Ghost In The Shell) to emphasise the terror. Also while the film uses naturalism for most of its running time at key moments it swaps to a dramatic style that seem more reminiscent of the traditional form of Japanese theatre Noh – where the actor’s wear masks and use exaggerated body language to convey emotion – to heighten the effect as we step from the normal to the unnatural, from the rational to pure inexplicable horror, from life to death.

As an aside there is some factual basis for the story. There was a Japanese female alleged psychic, Mifune Chizuko, who was investigated by a psychology professor at the early years of the twentieth century. There was also an infamous public demonstration where, as in Ring, the psychic was accused of being a charlatan. Mifune was so traumatised by this she later committed suicide (this time by poison) at the age of only 25.

A year before Mifune’s death there was born another psychic that would later rise to prominence for her gift of nensha (the focusing of will to produce an image on photographic film or other medium). Her was name Takahashi Sadako.

In an unusual move, the production company Asmik Ace Entertainment hired to separate crews to produce Ring and its sequel Rasen (Spiral), and then released both films simultaneously. However where as Ring was huge hit Spiral was slaughtered by the critics and did poorly at the box-office. It was never released in the west and is now not really seen as a ‘proper’ Ring sequel. The director of the first film, Nakata Hideo, chose to completely ignore it where he came to make Ring 2.

The main character in Ring 2 is no longer Asakawa Reiko, who’s disappeared, but Takano Mai, Takayama Ryuji’s assistant who appeared briefly in the first movie. She teams up with another reporter to carry on Asakawa’s investigation.

Unfortunately Ring 2 is a bit of a mess itself. The film screws around with what made the original so successful by adding a large dose of pseudo-scientific rational to the supernatural events and finally ends up dissolving into incoherence.

However there are several strong individual scenes. For instance the police are trying to reconstruct Sadako’s face from her skull but flashes of ‘something’ on the model keep interrupting their work. A famous Japanese actress, Fukada Kyoko, has a cameo – she ‘mutates’ into Sadako as a reporter repeatedly fast-forwards and rewinds video footage of her from an interview. There is a survivor of a ‘Sadako attack’ from the first film living in an asylum and there is fine scene when she passes a television and the screen is distorted and begins to show a picture of a well, the well. Perhaps the most chilling scene is one of the simplest. Takano goes to Asakawa’s empty apartment which is completely normal, except why has the screen of the television been smashed in? And why that mass of black melted plastic in the bath?

As the plot progresses it seems that Asakawa’s son has gained Sadako’s powers. These powers, and the effect of the video, are also being investigated by a team of doctors – all mad-science with some sort of babbling about ‘energies’ given as an explanation.

Eventually several characters end up at the inn where Sadako grew up. One of the doctors performs an experiment to try and raise the curse. Several die but there is a kind of a happy ending, though it does not make a great deal of sense.

There were reports of a ‘haunting’ on the set of Ring 2 during filming, the story being featured in a segment of the popular Japanese television show Unbelievable (the title of which is a apt summery for the film).

Ring 0, the next film in the series, a prequel to the original, is much better. Director Norio Tsuruta takes up the reins, lending an appropriately different feel to the other two, a long way from the dark unsettling atmosphere from its forebears, but not the worse for it. Ring 0 is subtitled Birthday though that should perhaps be ‘Birth Day’ as this looks at the origin’s of Sadako.

We start with a close-up of Sadako’s eye, but instead of ‘in-human’ this time’s it’s all too human belonging to a rather attractive, if frail, young women. We soon discover that she was an outcast during her childhood and considered strange, suffering from the same psychological problems as her mother. She joins a drama troupe, and falls in love with one of the workers there. One of the most terrifying ‘monsters’ of cinema suddenly has all our sympathy.

There is plenty of horror, but not the choking dread of the first film – this is more of a tragic love story combined with a mystery. The ‘curse’ is here but this time it infects the reel-to-reel tape recorders used to provide the sound effects for the drama troupe’s stage productions – then on into the very ‘medium’ of theatre itself.

The ending is horrifying, for Sadako herself as she, and we, experience the full terror of her imprisonment. And before then we have had a series of blinding plot twists and the switch from natural to even more unnatural ‘drama’ to even greater effect.

As stated earlier the original inspiration for the films were a series of best-selling books: the trilogy of Ring, Spiral, and Loop by author Suzuki Koji. A fourth book, Birthday, is a series of short stories that includes ‘Lemonheart’ the basis for the movie Ring 0. The exception, Ring 2, used an original story by director Nakata Hideo and screenwriter Takahashi Hiroshi.

Although there is rumoured translation of at least Ring in the works, none of the books have yet appeared in English so for the following I’m relying on secondary sources. Although much of the following does sound pure pulp, remember that the series was hugely successfully – the first book sold 3m copies.

There were a number of changes made between the books and the films, not least the fact that the main protagonist of Ring the book is male though still named Asakawa. Also the books, with the possible exception of Ring 2, are actually much more science-fictional than the films.

The main change is with regard to the character of Sadako and the cursed videotape. In the books Sadako is not a girl at all, but actually a hermaphrodite, although still appearing to be a beautiful young women. Unlike in the film Sadako doesn’t turn up to induce a heart attack in her victims, they instead die from some kind of virus. A virus that is spread by watching the videotape

In the book, Sadako was not thrown into the well by her ‘father’ Ikuma Heihachiro, but by a young doctor named Nagao Joutarou. Nagao was also the last-known patient in Japan to be treated for smallpox. Out alone with her one day, Nagao raped Sadako. Afterwards, noticing her vestigial male genitalia he is overcome with revulsion. Suddenly ashamed at having been discovered, Sadako launches a telepathic attack. Nagao retaliates by strangling her and throwing her into the well. As in the film her malign influence extends beyond her death and is eventuality recorded onto a video tape in one of the rental cabin built over the well after her death.

However in the book Sadako not only wants revenge, she wants life as well. She uses her power, that can operate on a cellular level, to create a unique virus. With the smallpox virus, passed on to her from Nagao, and the female and male genetic material she has due to being a hermaphrodite, Sadako creates a carrier that allows her to transmit her DNA to a host victim. This either kills through the creation of a lethal tumour or in one case allows the rebirth of Sadako…

The second novel Spiral goes into self-referential overdrive. Reborn, Sadako ensures that a report written by Asakawa is published as the book Ring. This is the new carrier of the curse. The book becomes a best-seller. A film adaptation is in the works staring Sadako herself. The human race is doomed…

Things get really loopy in the third book Loop. Unfortunately I can only find only a few details on this part of the series, but what there is sounds intriguing. The world has fell victim to the ‘Human Cancer Virus.’ Futami Kaoru, who has lost both his father and girlfriend to the virus, travels to America in search of a cure. In the deserts of New Mexico he uncovers a top-secret project called Loop. Ostensibly a study into the lengthening of the human life span, it is in fact an entire artificial reality, existing solely within a massive computer system. The events of both Ring and Spiral both occurred in this new reality…

The US rights to Ring were eventually acquired by Dreamworks and their version is due to be released later this year (January 2003 in the UK) as The Ring with a screenplay written by Ehren Kruger (Arlington Road) and Scott Frank (Minority Report) and directed by Gore Verbinski (The Mexican). Naomi Watts, recently in Mulholland Drive was eventually found for the lead after the role was turned down by Jennifer Connelly, Gwyneth Paltrow and Kate Beckinsale. Veteran make-up and special effects artist Rick Baker is also on board. The action has been transferred to the coast of north-west America and is set in and around a farm that breads horses that have suddenly started dying under mysterious circumstances.

Advanced reports indicate that the adaptation is going to be pretty faithful to the Japanese version and reports from previews have be very favourable. I obviously hope that this latest incarnation of Ring will be as good as the original film but somehow I don’t think anything can ever match it. Once seen you’ll never look at a television the same way again.

Written by Fearful Symmetry

July 3, 2009 at 3:08 pm

Posted in Article

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