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RING: Award-Winning Horror From Japan
New franchise proves there's more to Japanese genre films than Godzilla.
By Norman England
January 14, 2000
What do you do? You've been handed a videotape by a friend who, for their sake, begs you to watch it. Only thing is, if you do, you will die exactly one week later unless you in turn pass it on for someone else to watch. It is this simple premise of RING, a recent horror film from Japan, which has taken Asia by storm and become the spearhead in a new wave of Japanese horror cinema. While American studios loudly trumpet that horror is hip againwith the emphasis on hip taking precedence over horrorRING, as with THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, leaves everything churned out by the Hollywood scream machine looking like cutting room floor droppings from TOY STORY 2. And it does so without blood, without violence, and without cheap shock tactics. Instead, RING engages viewers in an unsettling, gradually unfolding tale that builds to mind numbing terror fueled by its own built-in mythology. Welcome to Ring; welcome to the future of modern horror.
Produced by Asmik Ace and released by Toho Pictures, RING was unleashed upon the Japanese public in January of 1998. The movie turned out to be such an overwhelming hit that in early 1999 RING 2 was released. Managing to accomplish what most obligatory sequels are incapable of, RING 2 was even more successful than its predecessor; with ticket sales double that of the first. RING 0, third in the series, is set to open this coming month in theaters across Japan. The rest of Asia has been catching RING fever as well. Released last year in Taiwan and Hong Kong, its box-office beat SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, the James Bond film TOMORROW NEVER DIES, and even the then latest Jackie Chan film. Earlier this year South Korea produced its own version of the story, THE RING VIRUS.
As is common practice among hit films in this post-STAR WARS age, RING goods have been storming the nation putting Japan squarely in the midst of what can only be described as RING frenzy. A quick inventory of RING inspired by-products include: amusement park rides, video games, T-shirts, key chains, cellular phone straps, ash trays, coffee mugsyou can even get print club stickers taken of yourself standing beside RING's ghostly antagonist! Now, with an American production in the works, it is just a matter of time until the West, too, finds itself enthralled in what could be one of cinema's most horrific film series.
Sowhat is RING?
Centering on single-parent journalist Reiko, the story of RING begins with her investigation into the mysterious death of her college student niece found cringed in a closet of her home, the muscles of her face contorted with fear. Reiko soon uncovers rumors of a cursed videocassette, one that is said to kill. She eventually tracks the tape down and, despite the whispered stories circulating about the videotape, is unable to control her curiosity. She slips it into a video deck and watches it. Her TV crackles with blue static followed by a collection of ghastly, seemingly random images. Immediately following the viewing, her phone rings: it is a raspy female voice announcing her death a week away. Enlisting the aid of her skeptical, paranormally inclined ex-husband to uncover the tape's mystery, the two are led to the remote island of Ohshima. It is there they learn of a long dead woman with great psychic powers and her daughter Sadako, whose name appears briefly at the end of the video. It is up to the two of them to right the wrong done to Sadako and lift the curse of the video.
Like most solid, original ideas, RING was born of the word. Published in 1991, the novel was written by Koji Suzuki, Japan's top horror author, one often referred to as the 'Stephen King of Japan'. His second novel, RING became a publishing miracle in Japan. Between RING and its two follow up novels, RASEN (SPIRAL) and LOOP, they have sold more than five million copies in Japan. For an industry where businesses of twenty thousand are the norm, this kind of sales is enough to be labeled a true cultural phenomenon.
RING and RING 2 were directed by 39-year-old Hideo Nakata, who began his career making segments for the popular Japanese TV show TRUE HORROR STORIES. In 1992, he made his debut film with THE GHOST ACTRESS. It was these two credits that earned him the moniker, 'Japan's scariest director', which he solidified with the release of the two Ring films. Nakata empowers both RING films with a simplicity that belies the complexity of their linked stories, causing the viewer to be drawn deeper and deeper into their unfurling fright tales. One of Nakata's aims was to make TV a source of terror; key to this was the creation of the film's killer videotape, which formed the arc of the film: if it failed, the film failed. The video, it can be reported, succeeds in spadesfor the cursed tape is one of the most spine-chilling assemblies of horrific, surrealistic images ever committed to film. While not gratuitous, the video combines sights and sounds, ostensibly nonsensical, which produce a reaction in the viewer so base that if ever a video had the ability to kill, this would surely be it.
Extensive research and time was given to the video's production with several of the images used based on real world sources. One shot shows a man, his head in a white hood, as he points off screen. This was inspired from one of the most brutal serial killers in Japanese history, Tsutomu Miyazaki, who was apprehended in the mid-'80s. Miyazaki, when showing police where his victim's bodies were buried, donned a similar white hood before pointing them out. Other shots, in the best tradition of Bunuel's UN CHIEN ANDALOU, simply defy description, irking the viewer into a disquieted state of fear.
In addition to RING and RING 2, a film version of the novel's pseudo-sequel RASEN (SPIRLA) was released in tandem with the first RING. Before the theatrical release of RING, it had been produced as a TV movie, and just before the release of RING 2, the story was fleshed out into a ratings winning mini-series. All these stories center on the source of the killer video's power: Sadako. The upcoming RING 0 promises to tell the full story of Sadako and how it was that the unbridled rage within her manifested itself into the videotape.
In much the way that FRIDAY THE 13TH's Jason Voorhees and A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET's Freddy Kruger have become icons of modern American horror cinema, the character of Sadako has become the symbol of contemporary horror in her homeland. Yet, unlike those two symbols of evil incarnate, Sadako has more in common with CARRIE, having been victimized due to the ignorance of others rather than any inbred malevolence. Her appearance, too, is decidedly Japanese: her skin, a result of having lived thirty years in the base of a damp, sealed well, is a light blue pigment. The nails of her hands, broken away after repeated, unsuccessful attempts to claw her way out of her imprisonment in the well, are caked with dried blood. When calling on her victims, her face is obscured by long stringy jet-black hair with but a single, spastic, bloodshot eyeball visible behind the frizzy strands. Despite her diminutive size, or perhaps because of it, horror has never seen the likes of Sadako before.
Since its release, RING has gone on to acquire some prestigious international awards. This year it won the Golden Raven Prize (Grand Prix of the International Competition) of the Brussels International Festival of Fantasy, Thriller & Science-Fiction; the No. 1 Prize in the Asian Division of Fanta-Asia (held in Montreal); and Best Film and Best Visual Effect at Spain's Sitges International Film Festival.
While Western filmmakers travel the bumpy road of a love-hate relationship with horror, not sure whether to cut its throat through self-parodying fare (i.e. the umpteenth SCREAM and LAST SUMMER sequels), or to inject it with new life through original handlings of the genre (i.e. THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT and THE SIXTH SENSE), it is clear that the Japanese film industry, armed with RING, RASEN, TOIREI NO HANAKOSAN, the GAKKO NO KWAIDAN series, SAIMIN, (Hypnosis), and the upcoming ISOLA and RING 0 are in no way schizophrenic when approaching the subject within its fundamental horrific framework. To the Japanese, not only is horror as viable and workable as ever, it is entirely content with simply scaring its audience. And, in the end, isn't that really what horror is all about?