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It Goes On and On: The Ringu Blu-ray Collection

Like a lot of people, I watched the American remake of The Ring when it hit theatres in 2002. And, like a lot of people, it was pretty much my first exposure—albeit indirect—to Japanese horror cinema, the occasional Godzilla movie notwithstanding. It wasn’t until a few years later, when I was working at a video store, that I saw the Japanese original from four years earlier for the first time.

Back then, I liked the American remake much better. For years, I held it up as one of the rare instances in which an English-language remake improved upon its foreign predecessor. But I also didn’t revisit the Japanese version (which, for the purposes of this review, we’ll stylize as Ringu) until I received this set from Arrow Video. Arrow has been releasing a myriad of different blu rays as of late. All of them quite good.

“I’ve got a deadline to meet.” – Ringu (1998)

Let me start out by saying that the American version of The Ring is still quite good, and it might still be my favorite of the two. The American version has a more active protagonist and brings with it a very specific digital sheen and washed-out color palette that is pretty immediately iconic. It also adds in horses, which I find creepy, so that doesn’t hurt.

Yet, for all that their beats are nearly identical, both the American and the original Japanese versions have their own very different strengths, and both are really excellent in their own right.

Hideo Nakata’s original film is less stylized than its American counterpart. It aims more for a sense of realism, at least most of the time, and as a result it—like Dark Water, which would come out a few years later, adapted from source material by the same novelist—is more of a spooky drama than what we nowadays tend to think of as a “ghost movie.”

Sure, there are a few scare scenes, but for the most part the film relies on the simplicity of its set-up to achieve its tension. It’s not about ghosts jumping out and saying “boo;” it’s about the characters knowing their fate and being all-but powerless to prevent it, and how they cope with that.

Whichever approach you prefer, there’s no denying that the central conceit of Ringu is one of the most ingenious horror ideas of the modern era.

Combining the power of urban legend with viral memes, fears of multimedia communication technology, and the age-old motif of harmful sensation, the idea of the cursed tape is a potent cocktail on its own.

Add to it the nihilism of the film’s ending (in either version), which turns the traditional ghost story on its head by providing a grudge that lasts not just beyond death but beyond the laying to rest of some unburied (literally or figuratively) crime—and you have something timeless.

The thing I remembered most about Ringu from the first time I watched it was a scene in which the protagonist’s ex-husband says something along the lines of, “Remember those psychic powers I’ve always had.”

I couldn’t tell you, today, whether what I watched that first time was a bad translation, or I just wasn’t paying attention or was pretty stupid back then, but the psychic powers play a huge role in the story here—not just in this first installment, but in the subsequent ones, as well.

It’s probably the place where this film diverges most sharply from its American counterpart, narratively speaking. Sure, in the American version we get some background on Samara suggesting that she could do things—put images in peoples’ minds, project them onto other media.

Here, however, the psychic power motif goes far beyond that. Sadako’s mother had powers, and Sadako’s are orders of magnitude beyond hers. She could make a person die just by willing them dead. If she had such an ability in life, no wonder she could spread such a curse with her death.

Our protagonist’s ex-husband Ryuji has psychic powers, too. We’re given indications of them almost as soon as we meet him, and it’s implied that they’re at least some of what drove the two apart in the first place. Through him, we see much of the film’s backstory via psychometry. He also passed his abilities to his son, which is why the kid is so precocious—a trait that’s not given any attention in the American version, save that little kids in scary movies are always precocious.

Rather than a throwaway deus ex machina to get some exposition to the audience—which is how I remembered it—Ryuji’s abilities give us an understated link that runs through Sadako and her mother to Ryuji and his son, and shows how isolating such “gifts” can be. As much as later films in the franchise will try to give more attention to Sadako’s tragic backstory, it is the way that these extrasensory abilities isolate each individual character that generates the most pathos for Sadako’s plight in this first film and the one that follows it.

Ringu Blu-ray
Photo Courtesy of  Basara Pictures

“You can’t link a video that kills to a tumor on a blood vessel.” – Spiral (1998)

Before you even start watching it, Spiral is a whole other weird animal—kin to the genetically engineered glowing rats that show up in the background of the film. While it’s ostensibly a sequel to Ringu, the two pictures were shot concurrently and released in theaters on the same day. They share some of the same cast, but look very different thanks in part to having different directors. Where Ringu and its other sequel, Ringu 2, which I’ll cover next, were directed by Hideo Nakata, Spiral is directed by Joji Iida, who had previously contributed the screenplay to a TV movie adaptation of Koji Suzuki’s novel Ringu in 1995.

Where other sequels to Ringu—and even Ringu itself, to some extent—deviated from the novels upon which the film was based, Spiral hews as closely as it can to the plot of Koji Suzuki’s follow-up book. However, because it wasn’t nearly the success of its sibling/predecessor, Spiral was left behind when another sequel to Ringu came out just a year later, this one tracing the events of the first film more closely and abandoning the novels.

To make matters even more confusing, the 1998 version of Ringu wasn’t the first time that Koji Suzuki’s novel had been adapted to the screen. The 1995 TV movie version of Ringu also hewed more closely to the source novel and incorporated more of the “pinky violence” stuff that was apparently in the book. I haven’t seen that movie, but from what I’ve read about it, at times Spiral feels more like a sequel to that adaptation than it does to the Ringu of 1998, which makes sense, given that Iida worked on both.

For instance, Sadako here is not the sodden yurei that we’ve come to expect, appearing instead as a normal-looking and even seductive young woman whose face we consistently see. As in the novel, Spiral begins with the autopsy of Ryuji, who died in the previous installment. Performing the autopsy is our new protagonist, Dr. Mitsuo Ando, a pathologist who went to medical school with Ryuji. Just before the grisly autopsy scene, we see Ando contemplating slitting his own wrists, distraught at the loss of his young son, who died by drowning. All Ando has left are a few strands of his hair.

To say that the plot of Spiral is more convoluted than that of Ringu is an understatement. Here, the haunted video tape is all but forgotten in a storm of weird, pseudoscientific explanations.

It seems that what is killing all the people who watch the tape is a virus that is somehow transmitted through the tape itself. One scientist compares it to “optical data exchange” on a computer. “Your retina takes in DNA data from the video and reconstructs the virus in the body,” he says, though he immediately scoffs at his own conclusions. What’s more, the nature of the ring-shaped virus is essentially smallpox, a reveal that, I gather, makes sense in the book, but seems largely pointless in the movie.

Spiral doesn’t stop there, though. It seems that, in addition to the ring-shaped virus, there is a “broken” virus that works like sperm cells and allows Sadako to not only be reborn via Ryuji’s ex-lover Mai, but also to reproduce perfect clones of other people, who grow in a matter of hours or days to the age they were when they died—all of which is revealed only in the film’s breathless coda.

The throwaway line from the first film about how Ryuji regretted having a child—presumably because he had passed along his psychic talents—becomes a major plot point here. And, through Ando, much of the movie becomes a weirdly melancholy meditation on fatherhood and genetics.

Where Spiral works best is when it is doing what horror movie sequels so seldom do and exploring the grief and confusion that would follow in the wake of an unexplainable, supernatural death like the ones in Ringu—that it does so frequently by veering into melodrama only goes so far toward weakening it.

It’s also about the only thing that Spiral has in common with Ringu 2, the sequel that would come out just a year later. The two films are heavily preoccupied not with the main characters of the first film, but with how their fates affect other characters who knew them, spreading outward from the initial “impact” like ripples in water—a metaphor that is not only thematic, but also apt. By the film’s weirdly apocalyptic-yet-laid-back ending, though, it’s easy to see why studios would have wanted to go a different route when the franchise took off—especially given that the next step in the novels involved virtual reality.

Ringu Blu-ray
Photo Courtesy of  Basara Pictures

“This experiment is dangerous.” – Ringu 2 (1999)

Just a year after Ringu hit theaters, director Hideo Nakata was back for the new sequel, ignoring both the novel and the 1989 film Spiral and instead picking up anew where Ringu had left off.

It’s particularly weird to watch Ringu 2 on the heels of Spiral because Miki Nakatani is back in both films, playing the same character—Mai Takano, Ryuji’s assistant and love interest—but she has very different arcs in the two films. While she became sinister over the course of Spiral, here she is very much our protagonist, along with a reporter colleague of Reiko’s, a police inspector, and an overzealous doctor.

Much of the first part of the film is given over to the mystery of what happened after the events of Ringu. Ryuji is dead under mysterious circumstances, the remains of Sadako are in the morgue being reconstructed via photographic overlays and a clay model, and Reiko and her young son, Yoichi, are missing. In her apartment, there is a smashed TV and the burned remains of a copy of the tape in the bathtub.

Trying to figure out what happened to her friend and lover, Mai and Reiko’s colleague Okazaki begin investigating the cursed tape. Along the way, they eventually run into Reiko and Yoichi. Mai takes an immediate motherly interest in Yoichi, who has been dramatically changed by the events of the previous film—he is essentially possessed by Sadako, replacing the cursed tape in acting as a medium for her rage and fear.

Here, as in Spiral, Mai shares Ryuji’s gift of psychometry, which helps us along with some of the exposition and also helps to explain why she seems to survive while the others do not—a question posed to her even by the ghost itself, before the end. Along the way, we spend a lot more time learning about how mysterious and powerful Sadako was in life, with the weirdest revelation being that she appears to have somehow been alive in the well for most of the thirty years that it’s been since she was dumped down there, only dying about the time that the cursed tape began to circulate.

Through characters like Dr. Kawajiri, we also see a more pragmatic approach being taken to the phenomenon of the cursed tape. Not the “ring virus” explanation that we were given in Spiral, though. Instead, Dr. Kawajiri seems to regard the ghost as nothing more than a form of energy, one that he can channel into a safe medium; in this case, a swimming pool—events once more reaching their climax in water.

The sequence in which Kawajiri hooks Mai and Yoichi up to a bunch of ridiculous electrical equipment next to the pool—along with the tragic and violent denouement that follows—is one of the film’s most striking moments. It also showcases the technophobia that has always been a part of the Ring franchise, along with something else—a distrust of authority.

After all, it was the paternal doctor figure who killed Sadako in the first film. Here, the police inspector and the doctor both act as though they have matters in hand, when, ultimately, they don’t. Faced with the reality of the situation, a rictus-grinning Dr. Kawajiri takes some of his own machinery and dives into the pool—electrocuting himself.

Before the credits roll, we’re treated to a longer sequence with Sadako than we got in the previous picture, as her Butoh-inspired movements drag her up the side of the well, where she comes face-to-face with Mai. Instead of the peeled-open eye that became famous from the first film, however, the face that confronts us this time is the clay reconstruction that was buried at sea earlier in the movie, an uncanny touch rendered all the more strange as Sadako begins to speak.

Fundamentally, it is love, not technology or expertise, that will win the day. Or, perhaps not love, perhaps just empathy—which is, after all, what both Ryuji and Mai’s power really is.

Photo Courtesy of  Basara Pictures

“Inside it was pitch-black.” – Ringu 0: Birthday (2000)

As it pretty much inevitably must, this prequel expanding on Sadako’s tragic origin story waters down the inchoate rage of her curse in its effort to tell a tale that is Carrie by way of The Ring. In this version, Sadako is a young adult who sees dead people. She joins a theatre troupe as a form of therapy, but cannot find acceptance among their number—partly because people seem to end up dead after they cross her.

The first of the series—not counting Spiral—not to be directed by Hideo Nakata (he was apparently offered the project, but turned it down), Birthday has an entirely different texture than Ringu and Ringu 2. I’m not an expert on film texture, but if I had to hazard a comparison, I’d say that it looks and feels like it was shot-on-video—or like it was made for TV.

In order to present us with a version of Sadako that is a misunderstood loner in the Carrie archetype, the screenplay, by franchise stalwart Hiroshi Takahashi, offers the notion that, at some point in her youth, Sadako actually split into two people.

One is the poor girl who we see trying to fit in among the theatre troupe, the other is the black-haired wraith that we’re all familiar with from the other movies. Leaning heavily into something that has been implied in every prior adaptation—that Sadako’s father is something other than human—this film never really provides us with any more answers about who or what Sadako actually is than we’ve previously been given.

Naturally, the Carrie-at-prom-night scene of the film is the premiere of the play, where Sadako has gotten the lead due, in part, to the mysterious death of the previous leading lady. Here, she is violently confronted with her past, but the expected telekinetic fireworks don’t manifest. Instead, Sadako is beaten to death by the members of the troupe. But we in the audience know that this can’t be the end of the story.

That’s where the “second” Sadako comes in, as they bring the corpse of the “regular” Sadako with them to confront her evil doppelganger. Which proves to be a mistake in the film’s kinetic—at least compared to the sedate rest of the movie—climax, which finally ends up with Sadako in the well, as we always knew it must, but not before wracking up a body count much higher than the previous films.

Ringu Blu-ray
Photo Courtesy of  Basara Pictures

“I’m still scared, a bit.”

It bears remembering that even Ringu 0 was released two years before the American remake hit theatres, as the phenomenon of Ringu spread like a virus to kick off the J-horror boom in the United States, an event whose reverberations are still being felt today in movies like the blockbuster Conjuring franchise.

As such, perhaps the biggest service being provided by the very attractive Arrow Video Blu-ray set —which features several of these films on the format for the first time in the U.S.—is the ability to do what I did and watch all four of these flicks in close proximity.

This not only lets us appreciate things like the lovely chiaroscuro lighting of Nakata’s installments—one of the essays in the booklet that accompanies the box set compares Ringu 2 to a Val Lewton film, and I wouldn’t necessarily disagree—it also lets us look at the films as a vibrant, living tableaux, rather than our own faded memories of a VHS tape we watched years ago. For fans of the form, like myself, what could be better than that?

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