Original release: January 31st, 1998
Running time: 96 minutes
Country of origin: Japan
Original language: Japanese
Director: Hideo Nakata
Writers: Hiroshi Takahashi, Koji Suzuki
Cast: Nanako Matsushima, Hiroyuki Sanada
Among the many stories featuring the Japanese vengeful spirit otherwise known as Onryo, there was a particularly popular tale that went through quite a bit of evolution in the past 250 years. The name of the female ghost haunting the story with the familiar white face and long black hair was Okiku. Her unjust death and subsequent return started as puppet show, then moved into Kabuki theatres and she also became a popular subject for Japanese woodblock artists and painters. The story has been changed and re-told many times, but there are two key elements that are featured in most versions: 10 plates, one of which is stolen or broken, and a deep well into which Okiku is thrown and left to die. Her ghost audibly counting the plates at night, tormented by the missing tenth, is a truly unsettling idea.
In 1998, Hideo Nakata brought the tormented Okiku not only into the mainstream of Japan, but the rest of the world. His J-horror titled Ring became one of the most successful Japanese films of all time, but more importantly, a traditional storytelling device from Kabuki theatres entered mainstream cinema and left its mark on it. Although only loosely based on the folk tale with leaving the ten plates out of the story altogether; its core motif of a tormented spirit returning from the depths of a well where she was left to die remained the source of scares in the film.
Adapted from the novel of the same name by Koji Suzuki, Ring takes a modern approach to an old idea, incorporating modern technology of the time into the plot. Of course, the modern technology is not so modern to our eyes fifteen years later; the vengeful spirit in Ring settles down inside the good old VHS tape where it haunts the unsuspecting viewers from. Apart from using technology for the ghost instead of ordinary objects or houses, there’s another interesting update applied to the concept, which is to put the story in the context of an urban legend that brings back those pre-internet years of the 80s and early 90s. The story of a mysterious cursed videotape that kills the viewer seven days after watching it, spreads mostly by word of mouth and Reiko (Nanako Matsushima), a local reporter also needs to look at old newspaper articles for clues when investigating the death of her niece and two other teenagers who died at the same time under unexplained circumstances.
Reiko soon ends up watching the tape herself before fully understanding the consequences and from then on the countdown begins as she teams up with her ex-husband to figure out how to stop the ghost from climbing out of a television. The idea of the cursed video is fascinating in that we too, are made to watch it along with the protagonist. It’s a very well-made scary little footage riddled with clues and having to watch it in the context of the story is a very strangely unsettling experience. Knowing that watching this could come with dire consequences and yet our eyes are glued to the screen is the inevitable reaction that was smartly engineered by the film makers. In fact, the footage is available separately on the DVD – but it comes with a ‘disclaimer’ saying that the distributor is not responsible for any injuries or deaths that occur after viewing. It made me laugh, but knowing how obsessive and impressionable the human mind can be at times, I’ve a feeling the disclaimer wasn’t at all meant to be a joke.
I only have one little issue with Ring, which is most likely derivative of research I have done on the Onryo concept and to be fair; it doesn’t diminish the quality of the film in any way. However, it’s something of a departure from the traditional vengeful spirit and this also distinguishes Ring from the other two popular films based on the concept; Dark Water (2002) also made by Nakata, and Takashi Shimizu’s Ju-on: The Grudge. It’s only Ring where the spirit is given supernatural powers before becoming a ghost. The antagonist is said to be a powerful psychic prior to being thrown into the well whereas in other stories the power of the spirit beyond death comes from its rage and inability to rest. If I wanted to nitpick, I could say that the pre-existing extrasensory perception somewhat diminished the significance of the ghost – but I won’t.
Hideo Nakata’s Ring spawned a “forgotten sequel” that later became non-canon when replaced with the real sequel Ring 2, a prequel, both Korean and American remakes, but most importantly this is the film that’s responsible for all of us being familiar with the image of the vengeful spirit with her frighteningly cold eyes, white face and long black hair. This iconic image, just like the cursed video in the film that needed to be copied and shown to others to ensure the viewer’s survival, went on to become the antagonist in many more horror films.
I find the cursed video concept incredibly smart with a brand new level of fright; image within image that we watch from a voyeuristic perspective, only hoping that we won’t end up with a nasty visitor seven days later like the unfortunate characters in the film. The idea that the antagonist directly targets the audience is a subtle, brilliantly twisted way to break the fourth wall. Although I saw Ring before a few years ago, I only watched the cursed video as a separate footage in the DVD menu four days ago for the first time – I have three more days to live.
Arpad is a Film Studies graduate and passionate photographer (he picked up the camera and started taking stills just as he began his studies of moving pictures). He admires directors that can tell a story first of all in images. More or less inevitably, Brian De Palma has become Aprad’s favourite filmmaker.
Then there’s Arpad’s interest in anime. He was just a boy when he saw Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind on an old VHS and was hypnotised by the story of friendship, devotion and sacrifice. He still marvels at the uncompromising and courageous storytelling in Japanese anime, and wonders about the western audience with its ever growing appetite for “Japanemation”.