By Jonathan Wojcik
ENTRY 30: RING
Maybe you're disappointed that our penultimate entry is going to be something as familiar as Ring; a film that has been referenced or ripped off tens of thousands of times since its American remake terrorized the box office in 2002, bringing Japanese horror into the global mainstream and changing the face of cinema forever.
But the more familiar something has become, the easier it is to forget what made it so memorable to begin with, and not everyone knows just how different the 2002 film is from Hideo Nakata's 1991 original, or how closely that follows Koji Suzuki's 1991 novel, or that it was released simultaneously with a poorly received sequel, or just how far off the rails the franchise would eventually go. In fact, this is the first movie we've featured that truly spawned a "franchise" at all, one so convoluted it gives us an almost overwhelming volume of material to cover...so I'm not so sure I can really do that justice, to be honest, or how much of it I should even take as canon.
For now, we're just going to start with the first Japanese theatrical film, and wing it from there:
Ring begins with two high school friends, Tomoko and Masami. Tomoko is regaling Masami about a local urban legend we all know and love: that anyone who views a legendary cursed videotape will receive a tell-tale phone call that they will die in seven days. Tomoko and some friends apparently found an alleged copy of this tape and watched it precisely one week prior, and of course Masami assumes her friend is just trying to scare her. Neither of them take the story seriously, but while Masami gets some snacks from the kitchen, the television turns itself on, and we don't see what happens to Tomoko...but we see Masami's look of horror when she returns to her friend.
This is how a professional journalist, Reiko Asakawa, learns of the legend and believes there may be more to it than just a childish game; Tomoko was her own niece, and at the girl's funeral, Reiko learns that three of Tomoko's other friends died on the very same day in entirely different locations. She discovers a recent history of equally unexplainable deaths, and that the teens were last together - indeed exactly seven days before their deaths - at a resort hotel.
Reiko retrieves a reel of photographs the four had taken of their trip, and it turns out that their faces are warped in every photo taken in their final seven days. It doesn't affect anyone else in the images...only the four kids who are now dead. Following her leads to the resort itself, she finds a strange, unlabeled VHS the staff retrieved from their room. Man, if only she knew what a pop culture classic she had in her hands! Let's ALL watch it!!!
I (should probably be ashamed to) admit that I actually was a little more partial to America's "The Ring" on some points, maybe because of the nostalgia goggles, I don't know, but the cursed tape itself is a lot subtler and eerier in the original, its imagery including:
-A view of a cloudy night sky through a circular portal (for example, a well)
-A woman brushing her hair in a mirror, which switches locations on the same wall between frames.
-A wall of Japanese writing, floating and shifting around one another.
-A vague scene of people crawling, shuffling or otherwise struggling to "climb" nearly flat ground.
-A man standing in front of the ocean, pointing off-screen, with a towel covering his head.
-A closeup of an eye blinking.
-A shot of a small stone well out in the woods (you know the one!)
Reiko seems momentarily dazed as the footage ends, and momentarily sees a figure behind her in the reflection of the television screen. Of course there isn't anybody really there, but her phone rings, and all that comes out of the receiver is a static screeching sound.
Now fully convinced that something unexplainable is happening, Reiko enlists the help of her ex husband, Ryuki Takayama, a university teacher and apparent psychic. As for why they're divorced, he's the kind of guy who sarcastically mocks her as soon as she confides in him that she believes she's having a paranormal experience. Or, if you take the original novel as canon to the film, he's implied to be sexually abusive or willing to "joke" about having been, among other highly alarming and misanthropic behavior. Reiko, please, this cannot possibly be the best person you thought you should turn to. Is it? Oh, god, is that actually the least deranged human being she's acquainted with?!
Well, he's not as big a creep in the film, no, and he changes his tune once Reiko talks him into taking her photograph. He knows a lot of photography and film, and he knows there's no logical reason why her face should be the only thing blurring out. She allows him to watch a copy she's made of the tape after some convincing, and together they spot a number of oddities. The shot of the mirror, for instance, should be reflecting the camera itself, but there's none to be seen, and there's garbled speech faintly hidden in the scene of the towel man, which most English versions of the film translate as Frolic in Brine, Goblins be Thine.
The message is in the dialect of Izu Oshima, an island off the coast of Japan, and they begin a search for anything strange in the island's recent history, quickly discovering the case of alleged psychic Shizuko Yamamura and her suicide some years prior.
...But the night before Reiko and Ryuji are to depart for the island, Reiko awakens to the sound of television static, and finds to her horror that her little son Yoichi is watching the tape, claiming that the late Tomoko told him to. Now, it's even more urgent to understand and possibly thwart the alleged curse.
In Oshima, the pair learn that the psychic woman had been the subject of ESP research by one Doctor Heihachiro Ikuma, and enjoyed short-lived celebrity for her unexplainable talents until a public controversy lead to her suicide. She is survived only by her brother, Takashi, still living in a familiar home with a familiar old mirror on the same old wall, but he initially refuses to answer any questions.
The following day, Ryuji finds Takashi by the seaside and starts a private, honest conversation with the lonely old man, explaining that innocent lives may be at stake. Takashi cryptically confides in Ryuji that almost every member of his family dies in the sea, and that his sister, hated by locals, used to stare out at it for hours at a time.
Ryuji begins to pry about Shizuko's powers, admitting to having psychic visions of his own, and questions the man about having made money off his sister's fame. Panicking, Takashi tries to flee from the interrogation when Ryuji grabs him by the hand, just as Reiko arrives. As if on cue, all three (and the audience) experience a vision of the past.
We are transported back to Shizuko's final, fateful public demonstration, interrupted by a journalist who calls her a fraud. As the rest of the gathered reporters begin to bombard her with accusations and questions, the man who started it is instantaneously stricken dead on the spot. This incident began the shame and demonization that would drive the woman to take her own life, but as she flees from the panicked crowd, she screams at someone else off-screen for having killed the man, a name most of you should know by now: Sadako!
Breaking briefly from this vision, Takashi calls Sadako a "monster," which is when Reiko has a vision of a little girl, face hidden behind long, black hair, reaching out and grabbing her wrist tightly. The girl's hand has no fingernails, and when the vision ends, a dark handprint remains in Reiko's arm.
According to Takashi, Doctor Ikuma took Sadako after her mother's death, but he isn't certain where.
Reiko's search appears to have hit a wall, until she has the revelation that when she and Ryuji watched the video tape, there wasn't any phone call; it only rang for her when she viewed it at the cabin, which is one of those details scrapped by the American remake. They now suspect the cabin is connected, but there's only one day remaining for Reiko.
Takashi is willing to take them straight home by boat, during which he says that his sister didn't just stare out at the sea, but used to quietly speak to it. The one time he listened more carefully, he says, it wasn't any human language.
Returning to the cabin, Ryuji follows a psychic pull to none other than an old, covered well in a crawlspace beneath the newer building, and upon touching it, Reiko has a vision of Doctor Ikura murdering a more mature Sadako years after her mother's death, taking an axe to the young woman's skull before pushing her into the well. The "cursed VHS tape" is, essentially, the psychic girl's pain and rage manifested into physical form, and Reiko is certain that it will continue taking lives until her murder is recognized.
With the clock ticking, they take turns descending into the well and emptying it out with buckets, searching for any trace of the dead girl. There are scratches and entire human fingernails still embedded in the filthy walls, and eventually, finally, Reiko finds skeletonized human remains in the mud, still draped with black hair.
This is right when Reiko's time is up...and she doesn't die. Solving the mystery of Sadako's death, they assume, has set her spirit free and broken the curse, saving not just Reiko but her son. Right?
But, the next night, Ryuji is at home writing when his television buzzes to life. It's familiar footage, but it goes on just a little longer, lingering on the shot of that old well long enough for a figure to begin climbing back out of it...
We all know (or have a general idea) what happens next, as Sadako slowly approaches the screen and crawls out of the television. It's not as dramatized and intense as the more famous remake, and ultimately creepier for it; she's a real, physical presence, not a flickering TV-static phantasm, and the moment Ryuji dies, screaming and convulsing, is the moment he sees into her big, bulging eye.
Reiko doesn't know what to make of Ryuji's death. Why was she spared, but Ryuji died exactly on-schedule? She realizes her child may have only days left to live if Sadako's rage has not in fact been calmed. She's at a loss until she searches Ryuji's home for anything she might have missed, and her reflection in the television shows what appears to be Ryuji, with the towel over his head, pointing to a duffel bag containing the two VHS tapes; the one she originally watched, and the copy she made.
Reiko deduces that the only escape from the curse is to copy the tape and show it to someone else...and that's where the original film ends.
First thing's first: this has been a thread throughout these reviews, but this is not actually a "ghost" movie. In all official versions of Sadako's story, she was in fact still alive when the original videotape was born. Not a videotape "haunted by her soul," nor a videotape that "calls her from the spirit world," but an object imbued with the rage of an almost godlike mind. It's even implied to have never been a normal, blank tape at any point, but to have come from nothing, her rage materializing the object itself. It's a little piece of her mind escaping that well in a form that can keep perpetuating itself, and keep avenging its creator indefinitely.
Sadako is plenty peculiar enough to make our list even if you only think of the tape as a sort of weapon or tool she's created, but if the tape is an extension of her conscious will then it's really more like an "appendage" than a "creation," isn't it? She began as a person, then she became a person and a video tape, then her original form died and the video tape began to circulate as copies, so I think it's just as fair to frame Sadako as a person who became videotapes, or our "monster" as videotapes that were once part of a person, if you like. There's no concrete boundary you can really draw between now-dead woman and short film.
But we mentioned at the beginning that this is our first Bizarre Movie Monster to drive a significantly greater franchise, and depending on what you choose to take as canon, there's still a little more going on here...or a lot more going on here. Maybe. Maybe not? Uh, it's complicated.
The original novel trilogy by Koji Suzuki goes much darker, much stranger places than most of their adaptations, as can often be expected of the jump from page to screen. Over the course of Ring and its sequel Spiral, it is revealed that the VHS tape is actually not the sole transmissive agent of the affliction at all; once you have viewed the tape, you begin to spread it in media you create, with Reiko's diary actually having killed Ryuji and her son. The actual mechanism of death has a secret of its own as well, in that it's not just metaphysical.
(Disturbing Content Warning)
This is where the content warning becomes relevant, because in this continuity, Sadako lives to eighteen years before she's assaulted by a doctor who had grown obsessed with her. He discovers that Sadako is also intersex, something Sadako has been taught to be ashamed of. When she lashes out at him with her mind, he strangles her and throws her down the well believing her to be dead.
Neither are aware at the time that the doctor had previously contracted smallpox, and it is this that becomes the conduit of Sadako's rage, her psychic will combining the virus with her own DNA to create an infectious new extension of her being. This ring-shaped virus that can be transmitted telekinetically, generating a small tumor in the victim's throat that kills them within one week.
More outrageously, it is possible for Sadako to biologically reincarnate through this modified virus, impregnating a viable host with herself and copying her entire consciousness into the embryo.
If you weren't aware already, you may be shocked to know that the direct film adaptation of Spiral was filmed simultaneously with Ring and released to theaters the exact same day, a marketing experiment that ultimately failed hard enough for it to go down as the "forgotten sequel." Is it even appropriate to think of it as "sequel" if it came out at the exact same time? It's more like they split one giant movie into two little movies and expected everyone to just buy twice as many tickets. We really dodged a bullet that this didn't catch on, though in video game fandom they just call that "DLC" these days.
Things get a little weirder, maybe too much weirder, in the finale book Loop, which revolves around a computer simultation of reality intended to observe the creation of life. The convoluted storyline holds that this virtual world created the ring virus that eventually broke out into the real world, and that the events of the previous two books, Sadako and all, may have only happened in this simulated world, which means the entire "curse" we're familiar with is...essentially a very angry algorithm. I heard all this many years ago, but the details are still a little unclear to me, and I really don't know what to make of this being the original intent of the creator. That's something I've always had difficulty rejecting - the guy who made up Sadako, in my mind, is kind of irreversibly the highest authority on her, isn't he? - but I feel like we can all agree this revelation is unnecessary, at best, and it does seem like the author has come to view it as only one possible truth.
After the success of Ring and abysmal performance of Spiral, director Hideo Nakata would begin work on a brand new, alternate sequel to the first film without Suzuki's involvement. Less well received but not entirely panned, it would take us through the aftermath of the first film as detectives search for the whereabouts of Reiko, the truth of Ryuji's death and how to stop the still-circulating curse. Though it wasn't previously confirmed how long Sadako survived in the well, this film would horrifically posit that her broken body lay conscious in that slimy pit for thirty years.
Instead of a third film, this continuity would eventually have a prequel story, Ring Zero, which would follow the life of Sadako and adapt many details from her literary backstory, albeit with the peculiar new idea of her having "split in two" after the ESP demonstration. Expanding on her uncle's strange statements from Ring, it would be heavily implied in this film that Sadako's "real father" wasn't at all human, and tied in some way to the ocean. Yes, the film-only continuity decided to go a little more Innsmouth than Matrix. One Sadako inherits more of her human mother's mind, essentially a "good" Sadako, while the other, more malevolent Sadako is kept prisoner by their adoptive father, who chemically inhibits her powers and her growth until, of course, the two ultimately merge back together and engage in a telekinetic massacre before their attempted murder and confinement to the well.
...Oh, but wait. In 2012, Koji Suzuki released a new Ring novel, "S", which expands further on the "computer simulation" storyline and holds that the Ring media franchise in our own world is itself an extension of the virtual Sadako's manifestation into reality via the mutated smallpox virus, and this would have a loose film adaptation that same year, Sadako 3D, both stories featuring attempts to "clone" Sadako that go horribly awry, developing as ghoulish long-limbed women who keep being disposed of down a real well, I guess because they're expected to follow the "script" of the original character and stay down there and die. Well, alright then! This story would continue into Sadako 3D 2, so apparently more than one person enjoyed Sadako 3D enough to pay for it. I will say, mutant Slender-Sadako is a fun design in its own right.
...Getting dizzy, yet? That's too bad, because in 2019, Hideo Nakata would return to the franchise with a new film simply called Sadako, which serves as the direct sequel to his Ring 2, and this story finally involves what seem like explicit "ghosts," though it seems pretty much only psychics can leave them behind, and also has Sadako attempting to reincarnate in the body of a new little girl.
This brings us to Sadako DX, released in October 2022 - just over eight weeks before I posted this review. And what is Sadako DX, you might ask? Which of three or four film continuities does it tie into? Don't worry! Director Hisashi Kimura, as a newcomer to the property, opted to start from scratch with his very own brand new, slightly more self-aware and satirical reboot continuity that brings Sadako's into the age of digital streaming. I am told it's not a bad movie, but I'd also like to bring some attention to the fact that I did not dive into the continuity started by the American remake, which went off on its own path, or the video games, or the various manga.
Sadako - or "Samara" in that U.S. canon - is at the end of the day just one of those characters that many different storytellers have had their own fun with, and we shouldn't worry too much about what aspects of her should "really count" or why. She remains creative even when boiled down to her most constant core elements, or those only present in the very, very first story: a child born under mysterious circumstances, with brainpower so abnormally vast that she is capable of perpetuating herself through the circulation of media. It's another of those concepts normalized so much in the years since, we forget there was a time the idea was ever brand new.
Is she also, canonically, a digital simulation of a hybrid mutant fish girl that manifested into reality by an intelligent viral cancer? That really is all for you to decide; we've already seen a psychokinetic sentient tire that simultaneously exists in multiple levels of meta-narrative, a puppet that may or may not qualify as its own entity according to the feelings its creator projects onto it and a parasitic mutation of the English language that may have mutated its movie into another, different movie. Don't think too hard about it.
But I will say, if Sadako began as a digital entity that became self-aware enough to materialize as a physical monster...there's conveniently already a name for that: