A Perfect Circle Or a Downward Spiral?

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Western audiences who had previously rather overlooked Japanese horror (especially outside weeaboo circles) suddenly became very excited by it. Though it’s likely that the massive commercial success of Resident Evil and the critical acclaim drawn by Silent Hill was a factor in this, both of those games set their story in the United States and played up influences from Western horror.

Though they were horror games hailing from Japan, they didn’t spawn the “J-horror” tag in the way that The Ring did. (Look, I know the Koji Suzuki novel the film was based on was called Ring, not The Ring… but they wrote it that way on the original posters. If the filmmakers didn’t want me to call the movie that, they shouldn’t have translated it that way.) Though it eventually spawned an American remake, the remake largely relied on the existing audience enthusiasm for the original Japanese movie to get greenlit in the first place.

The combination of Japanese horror aesthetics (in particular the appearance of Sadako), which Western audience were not particularly used to, plus a tasty urban legend concept to draw you in (the infamous “videotape where you die a week after you watch it” angle), plus the buzz from it becoming a monster hit in Hong Kong (where it outdrew The Matrix) all added up to it becoming a bit of a sleeper hit in Western markets, and now to mark 20 years of Sadako-flavoured cinematic nastiness Arrow have put out a boxed set containing Blu-Rays of The Ring, The Ring 2, and Ring 0: Birthday – plus The Spiral, the original The Ring sequel which… well, I’ll get to that.

Does Sadako’s curse still hold up in an era when VHS is a hipster retro-medium, or has it – like actual VHS tapes – ended up degrading after repeated viewings?


The Ring

Hideo Nakata’s 1998 adaptation of The Ring is not the first time the story had been filmed: it was preceded by a 1995 TV movie which was a significant hit when it aired, paving the way for the 1998 Ring-stravaganza which saw the new big screen adaptation released on the same day as The Spiral, which… well, we’ll get to that. It’s kind of a shame that Arrow couldn’t see their way to including the TV movie with their Blu-Ray release, since it’d be a really neat bonus feature, but it’s understandable why they didn’t consider it essential; whilst The Spiral was largely forgotten about, The Ring would be the Ring-related film which really caught fire internationally and prompted the J-Horror boom.

It’s often interpreted as expressing anxiety about technological progress, what with its psychic capabilities expressed through phantom broadcasts, mysterious videotapes, and Sadako (Rie Inō) crawling out through the television. I tend to think it’s something a bit different from that – it’s not so much a slam on technology as it is an update of traditional folklore and well-worn urban myths into a new technological context. The idea of a curse which you can only avoid by copying a videotape and passing it on is essentially an update of chain letter superstitions for the late VHS era, and chain letter urban legends aren’t a condemnation of the medium of writing, they’re just a story that uses it as a motif.

The grainy VHS aesthetic is, nonetheless, a really significant part of the film’s aesthetic, particularly when Nakata imposes a bit of grain or fuzz on the image to indicate that something psychic is happening. In some respects a Blu-Ray of the movie is doomed to lose some of its power; it’s a product of a standard definition age, about pre-high definition media, and whilst it had its run in cinemas in Japan its international success would have been based off DVD or VHS sales. There’d be a certain symmetry about watching a movie about haunted VHS tapes on VHS, and some of the shortcomings of the special effects would be less evident on less swanky home media; in particular, the iconic emerging-from-the-TV-set sequence has not aged especially well.

The central family dynamic in the film between journalist Reiko (Nanako Matsushima), her emotionally distant son Yōichi (Rikiya Ōtaka), and her ex-husband Ryūji (Hiroyuki Sanada) is an essential component of the film. On an obvious level, it provides motivation for Reiko and Ryūji to get to the bottom of the matter to save themselves and Yōichi, all of whom ended up seeing the tape after Reiko’s niece Tomoko (Yuko Takeuchi) was exposed to it and Reiko tracks the cursed VHS down.

However, there seems to be an unspoken story here. The awkwardness between Reiko, Ryūji, and Yōichi is acute even by the standards of a family where divorce has occurred, and at one point Ryūji outright tells Reiko that it might be better if all three die. It is eventually revealed that Reiko and Ryūji all have a certain level of ESP, which Yōichi has inherited, this allows them to have a vivid psychometric vision, in which Sadako shows up and interacts not only with the people in the vision but also Reiko herself, despite Reiko not having been there for the original incident.

This is an interesting angle, but the movie doesn’t seem to do that good of a job of developing it. Sure, it provides a basis for them to be sympathetic towards Shizuko (Masako), the deceased psychic who gave birth to Sadako possibly after a tryst with the doctor who was studying her powers, possibly with Deep Ones. But on the other hand, there’s a few too many instances of the movie using Reiko and Ryūji’s powers as a cheap way to short-circuit the investigative process by having them just stumble across information without really trying.

The Ring is at its strongest in its opening scenes, where Tomoko and her buddy Masami (Hitomi Sato) are talking about the urban myth and Tomoko’s one week stay of execution from Sadako runs out. For most of the sequence, absolutely nothing supernatural happens, and we don’t see the horror which Tomoko was confronted with, but it’s a great example of just dialogue between two characters in a mundane setting nonetheless creating an atmosphere of absolute dread. In that respect, it’s comparable to the “Man Behind Winkie’s” scene from Mulholland Drive. It sets up this huge mystery which the rest of the movie then dedicates itself to explaining, and unfortunately to my tastes ends up over-explaining.

Still, the idea of this wave of terror spreading across Japan as the tapes propagate themselves is a haunting one, and the film is replete with moments which stick with you – like the shot of an incoming storm off the coast of the island where Shizuko grew up, or the infamous video itself.

The Spiral

Picking up the story right where The Ring left off, The Spiral opens with depressed pathologist Andō – an old medical school buddy of Ryūji’s – contemplating suicide, since he still blames himself for the drowning death of his small son. He is jarred out of this morbid contemplation when he learns that Ryūji has died – and that he’s going to be tasked with doing the autopsy. A number of discrepancies – not least a numerical code on a piece of paper found during the autopsy – prompts Andō to realise that something was very off about Ryūji’s death, and draws him to Mai Takano (Miki Nakatani), the student that Ryūji had been banging in defiance of all academic ethics.

Then when Reiko and Yōichi turn up dead, Andō finds himself faced with the mystery of the cursed videotape. And yet it seems like the videotape is nothing to do with the new wave of deaths that are now taking place, associated as they are with curious respiratory symptoms. If Sadako is still active, it’s clear she’s changed her tune – but why, and what does she want in the long run?

As mentioned, The Ring and The Spiral were filmed in conjunction with each other; pretty much every character that appears in both movies is played by the same actor in each one (with one major exception I will get into later), and naturally The Spiral makes use of some of the sets previously used in Ring (specifically Ryūji’s apartment). However, behind the camera the two productions had a largely different crew; whilst Hideo Nakata directed Ring from a script by Hiroshi Takahashi, George Iida did the directing and screenplay for The Spiral, and like wise the two productions had different cinematographers, different soundtrack composers, and so on.

This leads to some tonal differences between the two movies which is frankly kind of bizarre for two movies that were produced at the same time to be companion pieces for each other. They look different, they sound different, and their handling of Sadako is astonishingly different.

Remember Sadako’s famous look from The Ring, steeped as it is in Japanese folklore around yūrei? The Spiral more or less does not use it at all, which is frankly kind of incredible considering that they were making this film right alongside The Ring and would presumably have been aware of the aesthetic decisions being made in that production. Whilst The Ring agonisingly avoids showing Sadako’s face, and leaves her silent, in The Spiral she’s showing her face and being chatty. In fact, she’s played by an entirely different person – despite having Rie Inō just as available as the rest of the cast of The Ring, Iida decides to recast her, bringing in Hinako Saeki to play a more conventionally attractive, smiling Sadako who’s down to fuck.

Now, this isn’t wholly pointless. There’s a new vector to spread the curse here, to go with a new motive for Sadako: now that her story is out, she doesn’t just want revenge, she’s after rebirth, and if she can see her way to coming back, she can bring back Andō’s dead son too.

That’s a fun idea, but it’s all rather confused by a muddled plot which includes either viruses which are the actual cause of Sadako’s curses or which Sadako’s curse spontaneously cause to develop in her victims (it’s really not clear which it’s meant to be), Andō and Sadako banging, Andō and Mai banging, IVF and children which mature astonishingly quickly to enable the resurrection of dead characters, random heel turns on the part of existing characters which end up making a total nonsense of their motivations, hints of a Scanners-esque rise of psychics across Earth giving rise to the next phase of human evolution, and so on and so forth.

This is incredibly incongruous when set next to The Ring, which I guess is why The Spiral struggled next to it – people expecting more of the same from the sequel were thrown by the striking change in tone. To be fair, some of this comes from the fact that Iida is being truer to the source material than Nakata was; in particular, I understand that the original Ring novel included some smallpox stuff, so the virus bits in The Spiral don’t come completely out of left field, whereas The Ring film cut that part.

Still, for two movies being produced alongside each other by the same production company to work at such cross-purposes is startling. The Ring more or less junked the more science fiction-rooted aspects of the original novel series and went with a pure ghost story, The Spiral remained true to the sequence, and the result is that The Spiral keeps trying to thematically call back to stuff which The Ring never actually did. It’s like the thematic and tonal discontinuities between The Force AwakensThe Last Jedi, and The Rise of Skywalker. In both cases you have two directors basically each doing their own thing and a production company absolutely failing to step in and enforce some kind of consistency of vision between the two projects. Sure, let each director add their own touch to the material – but at the same time, they need to be yes-anding each other, and if something needs to be set up in The Ring for The Spiral to rely on later, The Ring needs to do that.

The Ring 2

The Ring 2 kicks off shortly after the end of The Ring, much as The Spiral did, hoping that the viewer will agree to pretend that The Spiral doesn’t exist. After Reiko and Ryūji retrieved Sadako’s corpse from the well she’d been dumped into, the police need to handle the identification and call in her uncle Takashi (a returning Yōichi Numata – in fact, all the returning characters here are played by the original actors from The Ring, so it already has that advantage over The Spiral). In the course of this, Takashi has a momentary vision that suggests that Sadako’s psychic pull has not been quieted – and the police mention that the autopsy suggests that Sadako has only been dead for a year or two, and stayed alive in the well for some three decades fuelled by pure hate for the world.

Meanwhile, the tapes continue to circulate, Reiko and Yōichi are missing, and Mai is proactively undertaking her own investigation into Ryūji’s death. And whilst the one week curse still seems to apply, Sadako’s sinister power seems to be spreading beyond it. Masami, who was in the house when Tomoko was slain by Sadako, has been brushed by her power; institutionalised, terrified of televisions, when she comes in contact with a screen it allows Sadako to inflict a psychic attack on all the patients present. Mai seems to be seeing things – brief visions of Ryūji, for instance.

She’s also occasionally seeing Yōichi – but whilst at first it seems like that’s just another vision, it soon turns out that he and Reiko are still alive but keeping their head down. Reiko’s father is dead after watching the tape so as to save Yōichi from the curse. Yōichi is feeling pretty grumpy about everything that’s been happening – and when that grumpiness starts being expressed through psychic powers similar to Sadako’s, it feels like a terrible cycle is about to continue unless Mai can use her own psychic potential to resolve everything.

The Ring 2 outright ignores the entire rest of the novel series (and The Spiral itself) and takes the 1998 The Ring movie as its sole foundational source of canon to build on. Between this and Hideo Nakata returning to direct and all the original cast coming back – with Rie Inō being allowed to be Sadako again after bizarrely, unaccountably not being used in The Spiral – all the ingredients are here to produce something much more closely tonally connected to the first film.

On the other hand, such an approach carries with it risks. The Spiral fell flat in part because it had all of this stuff coming in from out of left field which doesn’t feel like it belongs next to all of this modern day ghost story material, and because it presented this totally bizarre angle on what the tape curse actually was which The Ring absolutely hadn’t laid any groundwork for. In short, it felt like it dumped all the rules and aesthetics and themes The Ring had worked with and substituted in something totally different.

The risk The Ring 2 takes by veering back from this and focusing more on developing what was present in The Ring is that it goes from being too radical to too conservative – a sequel which amounts to nothing more than shunting about The Ring‘s leftovers without doing anything new with them. For the first half hour or so, it feels like it might end up doing exactly that.

Returning scriptwriter Hiroshi Takahashi manages to save the day by leaning into the “more characters than just Sadako are psychic” stuff which was already present in The Ring and which I felt hadn’t really been fully explored here. The Ring 2 does not make that mistake: with Mai having enough psychic influence to get a little help from the dead here and there and little Yōichi having the potential to be another Sadako if he isn’t purged of the anger she has infected him with, there’s material there for a further story which completely supports what has been established so far in The Ring.

The conclusion also involves, finally, a visual to truly overtake the Sadako-coming-out-of-the-TV thing, and which looks magnificently terrifying even now. Without spoiling too much of the context, it comes about after Sadako has assimilated into herself the forensic reconstruction of her face the police have made using her skull. Between this and some really neat set-pieces, like the attempt at electronically-enhanced exorcism and the segment where Masami inadvertently creates a copy of That Tape during a psychic experiment, the movie makes excellent use of the mythology and imagery established in the previous film.

The Ring 2 also steers back from Mai and Ryūji actually having banged, an angle that The Spiral dove into hard. Though you can still interpret it that way (and it’s certainly an interpretation of their relationship that The Ring was very open to), she just describes herself as his assistant here, and whilst there’s clearly some form of emotional connection between them the full extent of it and nature of it is kept a bit more ambiguous and her being a keen mathematics student who happened to be his assistant and have a nice mentor-student relationship with him which Reiko just read stuff into in The Ring (since the former movie tends to prompt us to see her from Reiko’s perspective) is also a perfectly legitimate interpretation, which may make everything more palatable for some audience members.

On the whole, whilst The Ring was a movie I loved when I first watched it decades ago but feels like it’s lost some of its power in the intervening time, The Ring 2 didn’t impress me so much for much of its running time – it felt competent and entertaining but not fantastic – but between an excellently realised climax and some of the ways it depicts these psychic powers bleeding out into the world, The Ring 2 ends up being a rare example of a movie which seems better and better the more I think about it in retrospect, rather than being the sort of thing which is decent enough when you watch it but falls apart once you have a chance to unpack it.

I’m also quite impressed with the extent to which, whilst it dumped The Spiral‘s entire story and most of the new wackiness that The Spiral introduced, The Ring 2 at least had the decency to play with some key ideas from it – namely, psychic powers propagating further, which is still present here, it’s just handled more gently and subtly than it previously did. That’s more courtesy than you’d expect from a project essentially designed to wipe the movie version of The Spiral out of the continuity.

Ring 0: Birthday

Thirty years before the events of The Ring, Sadako (Yukie Nakama) is a young woman who is working as an understudy in an acting troupe whilst receiving therapy in the wake of the trauma of her mother’s suicide. Hostile forces are gathering, however. Journalist Akiko Miyaji (Yoshiko Tanaka) had been engaged to be married with a colleague, before her betrothed was assigned to cover that fateful press demonstration of Sadako’s mother’s powers and died in the chaos unleashed there. Gradually, she’s following up the case, and getting closer to tracking down Sadako.

Meanwhile, Sadako has issues within the troupe to cope with as well. The actress she’s the understudy for, Aiko Hazuki (Kaoru Okunuki), finds her deeply off-putting, and is jealous of her interactions with Yusaku Shigemori (Takeshi Wakamatsu), the troupe’s director. Costume designer Etsuko Tachihara (Kumiko Asō) also has reasons to be jealous, given that her boyfriend – sound director Hiroshi Toyama (Seiichi Tanabe) – is becoming increasingly infatuated with Sadako. And throughout the troupe, people are having dreams of a dark house and, next to the house, a dilapidated well…

When it comes to Ring 0: Birthday there’s some turnover in terms of personnel compared to the previous films here. Naturally, none of the modern-day cast appear; less obviously, we end up with yet another person playing Sadako, and most of the major behind-the-camera personnel have also changed (right down to the director – Norio Tsuruta here tackles his first non-direct-to-video film). The one point of continuity here is the screenwriter, Hiroshi Takahashi, who after cooking up The Ring 2 mostly solo once again sets about adapting material from the original Koji Suzuki books – this time, the story Lemon Heart from the collection Birthday, which brought together a clutch of stories filling in the gaps in the original trilogy (in this case, what Sadako got up to in between her mother dying and getting dumped in the well).

At least, that’s what it purports to be. The Ring took a lot of liberties with the original novel, but the two stories still have broadly the same shape – they just differ from the specifics. Ring 0, conversely, takes the “theatre troupe drama plus Sadako” concept and a few of the characters from Lemon Heart and tells a largely different story. That said, they are both trying to do the same thing, which is to give Sadako a sweet and loving boyfriend who cares about her very much.

This is, considering the preceding material, a rather bizarre idea. Sure, Sadako was a real human being and a murder victim and a person with feelings and dreams of her own, it’s not out of the question that she would fall in love from that perspective. However, in the movie series so far (even if you include The Spiral), Sadako has been this remorseless, impersonal avenger, a force of nightmare, and reducing her to a more realistic person with more realistic psychological motivations takes away some of that raw power.

Having not read the original short story, I can’t pass comment on how it handles this concept. As far as the movie goes, a bunch of its deviations from the short story seem intended to try and allow for Sadako to simultaneously be a nightmarish force of nature born of the union of her mother and an ocean entity on the one hand, for her to be a sad girl we feel sympathetic for and who can have a love story on the other hand.

The major departure here is the idea that Sadako responded to the traumatic humiliation and suicide of her mother by splitting into two separate entities – an evil one who took after her Deep One daddy, and the nice one who we follow for most of the movie (but who has spooky psychic stuff happening around them anyway). This certainly adds an imaginative and unexpected dimension to things which means the film has some unexpected twists and turns – like how the good Sadako is beaten to death by the rest of the theatre troupe after a disastrous opening night, leading into the final portion of the story – but is also a hell of a way to have your cake and eat it.

It’s also implemented in a very muddled fashion. You have all of these grim things happening in the vicinity of the good Sadako, which you’d expect to be the result of the dark side of her powers, except her dark side has been physically separated from her and kept in the attic quite some distance from the city where the theatre troupe are working – so what’s the deal there? I think the idea is that the two aren’t fully separated, and bad-Sadako is taking the wheel from good-Sadako at points (like when Sadako talks about having the director over to her apartment and not remembering what happened next – I am not sure whether this is meant to imply some kind of abuse or imply that bad-Sadako took over and banged the director so good-Sadako would get chosen for promotion), but it’s not really clear.

Now, ambiguity can be good in a horror context, it can give you a sense of mystery, I often criticise horror material which over-explains itself. However, it works best when you have a feeling that there is some kind of underlying logic to proceedings – it’s just tantalisingly out of the audience’s grasp. In other words, even if you don’t know how this stuff works, you need to have the impression that the storyteller understands this, and in respect of a lot of this stuff I don’t get that feeling – I instead get the feeling that the filmmakers are throwing arbitrary nonsense at me in the hope that something will stick.

The idea of a grand premiere performance which leads to ostentatious tragedy is also a deviation from the story – in which the main horror happens as the result of something that happens at a cast party, and unfolds gradually in the time following on from it. It creates a number of issues. Firstly, whilst the idea of a vengeful Etsuko locking Toyama out of the sound booth so she can play a tape of Sadako’s mother’s fateful ESP demonstration (and the death of the journalist that happened during it) during Sadako’s big solo speech is a great moment, the whole “embarrassed in front of a large audience, prompting a psychic backlash” angle is a little too obviously lifted from Carrie.

Secondly, it kind of breaks the continuity of the preceding films; it just doesn’t make sense that such a well-attended public event which ended in such ostentatious tragedy would not have had such a huge media footprint as to come up prominently when the characters are investigating in The Ring or The Ring 2, but nope, doesn’t register. Indeed, since she disappears down the well shortly after that (getting beaten to death by the other cast members doesn’t stick, and didn’t ping the authorities’ radar), one would think that anyone digging into the bizarre incident would have quickly realised she’d fallen off the face of the earth, and her disappearance would have involved much more of a public controversy, rather than the utter obscurity it seems to have in the preceding movies.

This is exacerbated by the fact that, after coming back to life again through reunion with her dark half, Sadako kills the entire theatre troupe (plus Akiko). Now, sure, all their bodies could be conveniently dumped in the ocean, but even so let’s break down what the general public would know about this:

  1. There is a theatre production blighted by multiple deaths prior to opening night – the lead actress and the director, specifically.
  2. Then, on opening night itself, some weird audio is played (let’s give the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt and assume that nobody in the audience aside from Akiko recognises the tape), the new lead actress has a breakdown, and a man who rushes on stage to help her suddenly drops dead. This is witnessed by over a hundred people or so audience members.
  3. Almost immediately afterwards, the entire troupe disappear off the face of the Earth, along with a journalist who was in the audience.

Are we seriously expected to believe that this would not cause a major media stir? Even if we assume that Akiko was the only journalist who showed up to cover the play – which is already a bit of a stretch given the controversies already involved with the production – you would think that with so many people witnessing one of the deaths, the story of points 1 and 2 would propagate quickly, and both the media and the authorities would pick up on point 3 very quickly. That wouldn’t necessary guide them directly to Sadako in the well, but it’d surely have a media footprint that would easily outstrip that of the ESP demonstration given by Sadako’s mother – yet, in the preceding movies, nothing.

Again, compare this to the story of Lemon Heart, which – based on the synopses I have read – presents a situation which could much more plausibly have gone uncommented-on at the time outside the immediate circles of those affected. It’s bad enough that Ring 0 creates this annoying problem with the overall continuity of the series, but to make this blunder when the very source material offers a solution for doing something similar in tone, but which avoids the crucial mistake is outright sloppy.

On the whole, Ring 0 is an awkward mess of a movie which, despite being fairly atmospheric early on, eventually comes unravelled as it tries to serve the contradictory ends of telling a new, fresh story not connected to the whole videotape curse thing whilst at the same time making sure that Sadako takes her tumble down the well on schedule, and in the process of doing so it kind of ruins Sadako’s power as a horror movie avatar of nightmarish death. It’s not the prequel The Ring deserved, and in retrospect I thought The Ring was at best okay-to-good, not great. so that’s saying a lot.

4 thoughts on “A Perfect Circle Or a Downward Spiral?

  1. I was kind of dissapointed when I watched the movie, after it was built up a lot (eg in criticisms of other movies) as one of the most scary and most intelligent ever… Its ok, but not even close to a masterpiece… rather simple twists, a very 90s premise and in the best case a routine execution. Don’t know why one should elevate Ring over many other 90s Horror-Movies.

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    1. I’ve seen some comments to the effect that (especially in American cinema) horror was in a bit of a slump in the late 1990s, so that may be a factor.

      There’s doubtless other movies from the era which are better and have been elevated over time, but as far as* major* commercial hits IIRC you had The Ring, Blair Witch Project, and not a hell of a lot else. When the pickings are slim and it’s harder to find more obscure material a competently-executed thing is going to stand out more.

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      1. but its not only the nineties… I find it as a point of reference in many recent amazon-reviews for other horror… It seems to have become a myth, that doesnt get reevalued.

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      2. Mmm, I definitely think there the movie’s reputation has been buoyed up by people remembering it being fairly good when it came out, and not going back to reconsider how it comes across now.

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