Back in 1998, a fellow named Hideo Nakata directed a horror film called Ring (AKA “Ringu”), which reintroduced the world to the terror of ghost girls with long stringy black hair draped over their faces. I say reintroduced, because this story is based off a book of the same name by Koji Suzuki–and it’s all loosely based off the famous Japanese traditional ghost story Bancho Sarayashiki. FUN FACT: The classic NES game Monster Party features a haunted well boss; that’s a nod to Bancho Sarayashiki. The whole thing with a woman getting tossed down a well and becoming a ghost is from Bancho Sarayashiki. I just like saying Bancho Sarayashiki.
Ring is likely more well-known among many of you by its American remake: The Ring (which showed up in 2002). This film did well enough that a bunch of other Japanese horror movies got remade the same way over the next few years. The J-horror craze has come and gone, but it lives on in the hearts of its cult fanbases. I’m going to just focus on the original versions of these movies this week, and what better film to start off with than Ring?
I’ve seen Ring several times now, and I seem to like it a little more with each viewing. Everything about it just seems right. The story is clever. The pacing is great. The atmosphere is strong. The characters are memorable. There are some truly iconic scenes that play out (such as the tape’s video, the protagonist’s struggle inside the well, or the climactic Sadako-TV sequence). And that ending? Fantastic.
Let’s start with the story. Ring is about a curse. If you watch the haunted video tape, you will get a phone call. This ring marks the start of your final seven days of living. Because in seven days, a ghost is going to show up and kill you! It’s simple, but still offers a lot for the characters to work with. What is the meaning of all the imagery they see in the video? Who is this ghost, and how did she die? It’s a psychological mystery that will end in horror if they can’t work out how to lift the curse before time’s up. Everything about this setup works perfectly for a steady build-up of tension.
Ring is a good example of what constitutes horror films from Japan. It works at a slow but calculated pace. The scares are not constant–in fact, there are perhaps only a handful of them. But perhaps instead of focusing on the moments that are scary, it’s better to look into the ominous dread that makes up the other 95% of the film. With essentially no violence and minimal gore, Ring does not aim to gross you out or throw wild jump scares at you. It leaves you with this uneasy feeling. A confusion over why everyone has to die, and a situation that works so perfectly for getting you to wonder how you would react if in the main characters’ shoes.
In a way, J-horror like Ring is actually more drama and tragedy than it is horror. The film takes the time to let us understand what kinds of people Reiko and her ex-husband Ryuji are, and really shows us how they’re feeling throughout this nearly hopeless scenario. So even when setting aside everything about how scary the film may be, there’s still an interesting story to be had here.
But yes, at the end of the day the true star in all of this is Sadako, Japan’s most famous ghost. I feel that she really must have caught everyone by surprise back in the day, just as she did with all the characters in the film. She’s not readily explainable. You can’t see her face. She’s silent. And as soon as she shows up, you’re dead. It’s not even clear how you die. Rather than a monster out to get you, Sadako is an unstoppable force. Your only hope is…
Well, I won’t spoil it if you haven’t seen this yet. Get on it! The ending is one of the best there is. Really leaves you with a “what would you do?” that hits you like a train. Sometimes the horror is more than just people dying–it’s also people making very unsettling decisions.