One of the most seminal films in J-Horror: how good is it?
“How did the rumours about the video even start in the first place?”
“This kind of thing… it doesn’t start by one person telling a story. It’s more like everyone’s fear just takes on a life of its own.”
“Or maybe it isn’t our fear, maybe it’s what we secretly hope is true.”
I think I might be one of the only people with an outspoken love of Asian cinema who has, up until a week ago, never seen Ringu. It’s a film that’s so strong in the public consciousness, though, that one can get the impression that they’ve seen it only through parodies and homages. This was me.
A quick recap: Ringu follows Reiko Asakawa (Nanako Matsushima), a journalist who is investigating the mysterious death of her niece, who died shortly after watching an eerie videotape. Not believing the tale that you will receive a phone call immediately after, telling you you will die within the week, she watches the video herself – a decision she immediately regrets. With the help of her ex-husband Ryuiji (Hiroyuki Sanada), a university professor who can sense ghosts, and with a desire to protect her son (Rikiya Ōtaka), who can also sense ghosts, she races against time to end the curse, before it takes her and her family.
Ringu is one of the more (if not the most) iconic piece of Japanese horror. The first of several imports/remakes, the popularity of which ensured US audiences would get their own versions of The Grudge, Dark Water, One Missed Call, Mirrors and Pulse, this was, to a lot of people, their first taste of Japanese cinema. So when I went and saw it for the first time last week, I was actually a bit disappointed.
Don’t get me wrong: Ringu is certainly a good film, and a very well-made one. On top of the moody, suspenseful direction, it seems to, in good horror stye, touch upon contemporary issues. It’s not hard to see Reiko as a near-neglectful mother who dumps her son onto her father so she can go gallivanting with her ex-husband, or to see the film as a representation of fears of modernity, but like similar films like it (Pulse comes to mind), it cannot help but date itself. Imagine if you saw a Vincent Price film about a haunted film reel. That’s the effect Ringu has now. If I found a VHS tape, there is barely a chance in hell I’d find the technology in order to be able to view it.
Thankfully, it’s not all about the technology – this isn’t that movie about the website that kills you. The videotape is incidental; the curse could be on any object. It’s about what’s behind the curse, and the small but effective mythos behind it. The backstory of the girl in the well, Sadako Yamamura (Rie Inō), is strong – enough so to carry its own, and contrasts with the proceedings happening in the present day. Still, the focus rests on Reiko, and her family. She is interesting and likeable, like the rest of the main cast, and so unlike too many films in the genre, we find ourselves caring about her story. Her internal conflict between being a good mother and chasing down the mystery is present, and that’s what holds the bulk of it all. The fact that we spend almost half an hour with the character before she even discovers the tape is a testament to this.
Ringu’s biggest strength is in convincing us of what we’re watching. Video tapes created from the hatred of a vengeful spirit is a bit of a tough sell, but writer-director Hideo Nakata does the job well. The tape itself – arguably the most frightening thing in the film – is wholly convincing, filmed in a terrifying style that reveals just enough to raise more questions. The film builds its world nicely, like a rich campfire tale. There is an underlying terror that resonates throughout the film, though, even if it is barely noticeable in a lot of places. We can feel the dread, and the building tension in the fear that neither Reiko nor Ryuji will find the answer before it’s too late. When their son watches the tape, it provides us with one of the nicer and more tense scenes in the film. Reiko realising something is wrong, then pulling aside the door to find her child watching the tape is a very nicely-executed scene, which does a fair job of raising the stakes.
The problem is that, during her time searching, we know that Reiko is in no immediate danger. She has a time of death, so anything that happens between that becomes less of a horror film and more of a mystery, or a drama, neither of which are necessarily bad, but it means we have a film largely devoid of scares. It turns into a character piece, and a decent one at that, but most of the film, save for a couple of pieces of good imagery, doesn’t have you biting your nails and fearing for their lives. The risen stakes of having her ex-husband and then her son watch the video don’t actually do that much at first – after all, she needs to break the curse before she dies, and her ex and her son both watched the tape afterwards, so you let yourself believe that once she breaks the curse, it’ll be broken for them as well. It proves itself to be a more complicated than that once the third act gets underway, which means the film ends on a high, leaving you with a good taste in your mouth and, overall, a fond memory of the film as a whole.
Ringu is an important film; its influence in the genre both in the east and the west cannot be ignored, but while it does provide a solid hour-and-a-half of entertainment, its label as one of the most iconic horrors does it a disservice, launching it into a fame that isn’t undeserved, but rather unfitting. This is a film that is best seen the way the video within it is: underground, through word of mouth, as something different to the average horror schlock. The Ring is a great film, but I went in with overly high expectations. More fool me.
Verdict: A victim of its own popularity, Ringu very works well as a self-contained story, but less so as an icon of world horror.