Dir. Hideo Nakata (1998)
The original cursed videotape, Ringu is the Japanese classic about a girl who kills people one week after watching a video.
CAUTION: MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS
Every single person in America has seen The Ring. It’s one of the most popular horror movies of all time, and it’s often cited as one of the scariest films ever made. I decided to face the original and the American remake in an epic showdown to settle, once and for all, the absolute best version of The Ring. We’re gonna start with the Japanese original, Ringu (it’s actually just Ring, but the Americanization of the Japanese pronunciation makes it sound like Ringu, so that’s what it’s called in America.) Then, we’ll analyze the American remake in its own featured review, capping off the series with a brawl-to-the-wall faceoff between the two films! But hold your proverbial horses, folks… this is but part 1 of the epic 3-part miniseries.
To start with, if you aren’t a fan of J-Horror or, like most folks this side of the very-large-pond-that-is-actually-the-Pacific-Ocean, you simply haven’t seen any Japanese horror films, you should definitely give it a try. The Japanese have a special way of making things a little extra unsettling. A lot of horror tropes come from their culture, and the folk monsters in Japan are as weird as you can possibly imagine (no, seriously… the stuff in their films are the LESS weird things in their folktales). In this film, adapted from a novel by Koji Suzuki, one of these legendary folktales is brought into the modern era by making it a ghost who haunts its prey through a cursed videotape. The legend, essentially, is that anyone who dies with extreme rage can come back as a ghost and terrorize the living. The actual legend involved is the exact plot of The Grudge, another J-Horror movie that was adapted for American cinemas. However, Ringu is concerned with a particular little girl who falls into a well and yada yada, you know the story.
Sitting too close to the television is soooo bad for you.
The Japanese film is extremely similar to the American entry, which is not incredibly common for foreign films that are adapted for America. In fact, you could be excused for thinking this is a shot for shot remake. It’s not, but it’s close enough. The Japanese version is beautifully shot, and it was also done on a shoestring budget of a little over a million dollars. It quickly became the highest grossing horror movie in Japanese history, and it held the title for almost a decade. Ringu is scary, to be sure: the music is supremely creepy and lends to the feeling of anxiety and unease that permeates the extremely competent cinematography. This movie even feels like an American movie. If you’ve watched a lot of Japanese horror films, you know that that’s not usually the case either. The one area it lacks most is that it’s much slower than the American film, much more of a mystery than a horror through most of its runtime. However, it’s also a more complete film than most J-Horror, so even where it lacks its an improvement over most of its fellow Japanese films.
The actors do a stellar job of portraying the fear and confusion that comes from being haunted by a real-live ghost tape. As the main character, a reporter named Reiko who is trying to track down the origins and truth behind the mysterious videotape, gets closer to finding her answers, things become more and more unsettling and disconcerting. When she tracks the ghost victims to a cabin where they stayed and manages to get her hand on the actual cursed tape, she foolishly plays it immediately and brings the curse down on herself. The video she watches is extremely creepy, and its produced in such an amateur fashion that it is way more believable than the American version, which often reads more like a David Lynch short than a cursed videotape. It’s not as viscerally scary, though, and it definitely lacks the punch that The Ring’s video packs. However, she receives the same phone call, warning her that she has a week to live. You all know the story from here, so I won’t go any further down the plot rabbithole.
J-Horror is known for its scary visuals and culturally-relevant ghosts, and the extent to which is scares you personally is the extent to which the visceral images impact you personally. While Japanese horror filmmakers seem to be the masters of the jump scare, they also are extremely adept at creating a sinister atmosphere and a frankly upsetting cinematic ambience. As the mystery unravels, and each day is announced with the ringing of an unsettling bell, Reiko becomes more and more convinced that she needs to resolve the ghost’s dilemma lest she be ghost-killed. As time passes, we’re pretty sure she’s fucked as well unless she figures out how to rid herself of the curse. It’s this impending inevitability that gives the film its ominous aura and leads us to the actual fear the film generates in the viewer. Something is off; we know it, we feel it, and eventually we’re powerless to resist it. We can’t help but identify with the family drama we are caught up in, as Reiko deals with an ex-husband that she has purposefully involved in the process as well as the fact that her child might also be in danger. They’re a practically American family, which is why the film translated so well for American viewers.
When I did this as a kid, I was watching the staticky channels too…
Of course, that leads us to the differences in the two films, which we will discuss in more detail later. There is something about Japanese cinema that is respectful of its audience in a way that American cinema generally is not. They don’t need to bash you over the head with the scary visuals like American horror does; some things are better left unseen, imagined instead of exposed. There is a certain amount of mystery involved in Japanese horror, like you’re watching a film that time forgot from the days of Old Hollywood that is somehow in color. Watching a classic like One Missed Call or Audition makes us feel like we’re watching a real story. It manages to include us into the viewing. It’s not a horror movie we’re watching but real life, and a terrifying one at that. Ringu invites its audience to feel this same feeling, and its all the better for it. In fact, it’s one of the cornerstones of Japanese horror and one of the first films that enticed American audiences to consider the genre as a whole. It’s a forefather, not an imitator. This lends it an air of credibility that so many films lack and is the primary difference between the original and its Yankee imitator.
Who this movie is for: J-Horror lovers, Fans of the American remake, Little girls who didn’t fall down a well and can still watch movies
Bottom line: Extremely creepy and effective, this one is a must-see, if only to appreciate the subtle differences between it and the American remake. We’ll see in our Head-to-Head analysis which film comes out on top, but for now, Ringu is an outstanding film that is a great introduction to the world of J-Horror. An all-time classic in the best sense, and not to be missed.