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-[Film Reviews]-, East Asian Cinema, Japanese Cinema

‘Ringu’ (1998): Watershed J-Horror and Its Many Bastard Children

Directed by: Hideo Nakata || Produced by: Shinya Kawai, Taka Ichise, Takenori Sento

Screenplay by: Hideo Nakata || Starring: Nanako Matsushima, Hiroyuki Sanada, Rikiya Otaka, Miki Nakatani, Yuko Takeuchi, Hitomi Sato, Yutaka Matsushige

Music by: Kenji Kawai || Cinematography: Junichiro Hayashi || Edited by: Nobuyuki Takahashi || Country: Japan || Language: Japanese

Running Time: 95 minutes

In one of the first essays on this blog, I discussed the still ongoing impacts of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975), George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977), and the subsequent death of the American New Wave (also known as “New Hollywood”) movement of the 1960s-1970s; I quoted author Lester Friedman from his book, Citizen Spielberg (2006), where he stated, “The creator cannot be held accountable for the illegitimate offspring of his original creation.” What that means, more or less, is a popular, often well made piece of art and its artist should not be blamed for the many, many lesser copycats that try to replicate their success, often to diminishing results; any influential, innovative filmmaker should only receive “credit” for their films’ successes and not the hordes of imitators that follow. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but as A Dose of Buckley has noted, it is also the laziest form of creation.

I have to remind myself of this dynamic every time I watch any film related to (1) the incredible success of William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973; I despise most demonic possession-related melodrama, as well as paranormal pseudoscience, seances, spiritual media, etc.), (2) the found-footage (FF) explosion of the 2000s prompted by The Blair Witch Project (BWP; 1999; I’ve only ever liked a handful of FF projects in spite of their FF format, not because of it), and (3) various Hollywood rip-offs of the Japanese horror (J-horror) wave of supernatural scary movies about creepy girls in white clothing with dark hair strewn over their faces.

Nanako Matsushima (left) and costar Hiroyuki Sanada (right) study an allegedly cursed videotape, not realizing they need to be kind and rewind!

The progenitor of that latter category is the subject of today’s review, Ringu (“Ring”), adapted for the screen by Hiroshi Takahashi from Koji Suzuki’s 1991 novel of the same name, and directed by Hideo Nakata; Ringu and similar Japanese psychological horror pictures (e.g. Audition [1999]) were part of a transition in the nation’s horror filmmaking away from violent slashers to subtler, more atmospheric pictures where much of the “spookiness” was left to the audience’s imagination. Around the same period, the aforementioned BWP became the most profitable American movie in history at the time, so both country’s had more or less shrugged off the repetitive slasher craze of the late 1970s-1980s in favor of various slower, paranormal crap (e.g. The Conjuring [2013, 2016, 2021], Insidious [2010, 2013, 2015, 2018]), which would persist through the 2010s. The uber-violent, gross splatter films of the 2000s were an exception to this (e.g. The New French Extreme, James Wan and Leigh Whannell’s Saw [2004-2010], Eli Roth’s Hostel [2005, 2007], etc.), but they burned out much more quickly than derivatives of BWP and the Hollywood remake of Ringu, simply titled The Ring (2002) and starring Naomie Watts; the latter was so successful (budget = $48 million; box office = $249 million) that it not only inspired numerous American remakes of other supernatural J-horror (e.g. The Grudge [2004, 2006, 2009]), but even outgrossed the original Ringu in Japan.

That “preface” is a long way of explaining (a) how influential the original Ringu was and is (Smile’s [2022] popularity this year drew comparisons to both it and It Follows [2014]), and (b) how I don’t blame Ringu for popularizing a horror filmmaking style I tend not to like. Point (b) is furthermore acceptable to me because Ringu is an effective horror film that is fun to watch; its sparse jump-scares are diverse and utilize few musical stings, it has a memorable, creepy atmosphere that director Nakata maintains throughout, female and male leads Nanako Matsushima and Hiroyuki Sanada, respectively, demonstrate great chemistry together, and its horror visuals are minimalist yet identifiable, culminating in one of the more iconic endings of any horror film of the last thirty years. Ringu is so much smarter and quieter than the legions of Asian and American knockoffs it inspired that it’s difficult to recommend, in truth, to most fans of the latter.

Unless you know next to nothing about scary movies, you should be familiar with Ringu’s basic premise: An urban legend circulates amongst a local high-school that a cursed videotape kills its viewers within a week after they watch it, and thereafter an investigative journalist (Matsushima) seeks out said videotape and discovers it contains evidence of murder, suicide, and psychic powers. The corniness of this McGuffin is balanced by screenwriter Takahashi’s detailed characterizations and smart pacing, not to mention Nakata’s restrained direction in combination with creative mise-en-scène. The camera barely moves throughout the entire movie, save for a slight pan here or there when an actor walks to the edge of the frame or when a vehicle whips by in a transitionary shot; instead of flashy camera movements or stylish oners, director of photography Junichiro Hayashi focuses viewer attention on subtle yet crucial scenery details in all elements of the frame, from foreground to back and understated lighting cues to ominous reflections. Ringu’s tension derives from this quiet mood, the feeling that something horrible might befall our protagonist’s when we least expect it, but from a creeping dread rather than a loud assault.

Ringu’s delicate, unobnoxious style is most responsible for its story not feeling dated, but is also the key element lost in translation from most of its new millennium descendants. While this subdued cinematographic personality has endeared it to film critics and cinephiles the world over, it also feels unlike any horror movie, major studio-produced or independent production, released in years. I would recommend Hideo Nakata’s most famous work, at least amongst Western audiences, to those who were turned off by the glut of paranormal thrillers indirectly spawned by it and The Blair Witch Project over the last couple decades. After all, those bastard children aren’t its fault, but its original creativity is!

Left: In one of the film’s rare but striking flashbacks, a mother discovers her daughter (Yūko Takeuchi) dead in a catatonic state. Right: Ringu’s iconic videotape recording contains numerous creepy, cryptic images.

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SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Quiet, creepy, and melancholic, Ringu argues that great storytelling and a committed directorial vision stand the test of time even if their subject-matter, a VHS tape for God’s sake, feels as dated as torture-porn movies. Characterizations are solid, but not as solid as the story’s clever diegetic mythology that weaves together Japanese spiritualism with the fear of technological change.

However… Ringu is so softspoken that most contemporary audiences accustomed to louder, more relentless horror will be baffled by it. I suspect fans of dramatic cinema may in fact understand it best.

—> Ringu comes RECOMMENDED.

? So, what is the prevalence of psychic abilities in this film’s world?

About The Celtic Predator

I love movies, music, video games, and big, scary creatures.

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