Ringu (1998)

Two teenage girls are home alone, enjoying the baseball game. (They chose to watch it on TV). One, Masami (Hitomi Sato) tells the other, Tomoko (Yuko Takeuchi) a story. Once upon a time, a little boy took a trip down to Izu, by the sea. He went out to play, and set the VCR in his family’s cabin to record a favorite TV show. But the channels in Izu are different from the one’s in Tokyo. The little boy should’ve come home to two hours of fuzz.

Instead, he found a strange, vaguely unsettling program on the tape. It ended. The phone rang. The little boy picked it up and heard a woman’s voice. “You will die in one week,” she said. And so he did.

Tomoko catches a slight case of willies at this harmless little urban legend. Turns out she and three other friends took their own trip down to Izu last week. One of their number found a strange, unmarked video cassette. They watched it. It ended. The phone rang, but no one was there. That was one week ago, to the day.

Thus begins Ringu, the highest grossing horror film in the history of Japan. Once a novel by Koji Suzuki, Ringu is now a trans-Pacific franchise machine, with visions of this story littering the landscape. Manga, short-anime (most of its more like fanime) two sequels and an American remake…with a sequel of it’s own in post production. Director Hideo Nakata gave us this version all the way back in ’98. Amazing how slow Hollywood can be

Back to the girls. Masami goes to the bathroom, leaving Tomoko in the kitchen. The TV clicks on, seemingly all by it self. Tomoko turns it off, only to find it on again moments later. Freeze frame. A s”pooky” negative wash-out effect (the kind so-loved by America’s Most Wanted) overlays Tomoko’s face. Bye, bye.

Enter Reiko (Nanako Matsushima), who will be your Reporter for the remainder of the film. After a hard day’s work digging into this whole “deadly video” thing, Reiko comes home to her young son, Yoichi (Rikiya Otaka), and begins to prepare. Reiko is Tomoko’s aunt, you see. And Tomoko has succumbed to a bad case of Death, cause unknown. (Sudden Teenage Death Syndrom? “STDS?”)

Quiet prodding reveals that three other classmates have recently bit the bullet as well. Tomoko’s surviving friends are more than a little anxious. Seems all three of them spent a night out in Izu and watched this creepy video…

Interest perking, Reiko strikes out for Izu, eventually finding the teenager’s cabin. There she finds the Videodrome and begins to hail the New Felsh…wait. No. She finds an unmarked videotape in the main office. Its contents cannot be described. Afterward, the phone rings. No one on the other line; just a high, insect buzz. Just like on the video.

Creepy? You bet. Creepy enough to convince our heroine that some urban legends might just be true. Creepy enough for her to call up psychic, ex-hubby Ryuji (Hiroyuki Sanada) for an assist. Together, they spend the rest of the film digging into the Virile Video’s origins, a convoluted legacy of psychics, doctors, murder, and curses from beyond the grave.

Take a gander. All of the Rising Sun’s greatest horror hits are here. The horrors of the past multiplying their way into the present. Impeccably modern characters besieged by ancient, otherworldly evils. (Evils that seem to have an affinity for the sea. Shade of Lovecraft, anyone?) All capped off with a cultural image that defines Japanese horror: the Haunted Well.

Personally, I think the film’s distinctive, Japanese flavor can account for much of its American hype. And while it can be very eerie, I cannot in good conscience give Ringu any special awards for spook. I came away from a first viewing more confused that unnerved, for several important reasons.

After all, just what are the mechanics of this video curse? When did the dead get their broadcasting license? Are there no, more immediate, avenues of post-mortem revenge? Not that I don’t shiver at the thought of a cursed videotape. If I’d watched this movie at, say, age six…well, we probably wouldn’t be here. From the perilous heights of today I can look upon the idea with enough dry detachment to find it both interesting and flawed.

Oh, there are Startling Revelations a-plenty, and by film’s end we have a much better idea of the video’s origin. Not that this necessarily helps. With any luck, you’ll be too caught up in the movie to remember any of this. I don’t mean to trash Ringu. It is an effective film. Despite what some people thing, it is not, by any stretch, the Greatest Frickin’ Horror Movie ever made…and it is not (thank the Gods) Japan’s answer to The Blair Witch Project.

Made by competent, skilled professionals, Ringu is a case study in effective horror film making. Nakata, rather that numbing us with the false scares, tits, and Evil POV cams of his American counter parts…remains comfortably invisible for the duration, letting the bulk of things rest on his actors. Horoshi Takahashi’s script aids them mightily in the task, giving both leads remarkably human characters that never stray down the dark paths so common in modern horror.

Opening scenes between Reiko and Ryuji are believable awkward. And while they are forced to bond by the extraordinary circumstances of their quest, they do not rekindle their Forgotten Love. Nor do we fade out on a comfortable, blithely happy family unit as they return to their failed and useless lives. Evil does not merely roll over and play dead for the sequel. Quite the opposite. Ringu has the courage construct a universe where you can never really beat the Reaper. At best, the crafty human might be able to negotiate a temporary truce. For that, I thank the movie makers, and the breath of fresh air they’ve created…though this theme is, from what I understand, commonplace in Japan. So it goes.

But that’s a whole other rant. Good and bad elements mingle freely in this movie, like they do in most genre fiction. It’s only fair they do the same in this review. As refreshing as their arcs are, the characters themselves remain pretty much fixed. Only Reiko goes through a perceptible change, as she descends into Lambert-ish hysterics (earning a “get-a-hold-of-yourself” man-slap to the face from of Ryuji). This, as you might guess, is hardly revolutionary.

At least Our Heroes have the intellect to reason through their supernatural difficulty. More praise to all involved for this. In spite of it, thankfully, they remain flawed human beings. Reiko is constantly pawning Yoichi off on her aging father. Not that Ryuji gives two shits about the poor kid, or his distressingly-short shorts. The Malevolent Movie’s origin is equally fraught with betrayals, backstabbing, and fear, but that’s par for the course. As every Spider-fan knows, watching good guys fumble problems can be very interesting.

And while the supernatural elements seem to wax and wane with each new plot requirement, there’s no denying the power at this movie’s core. It’s a good, creepy yarn, and you and I both know we won’t be seeing one of those any time soon.


3 thoughts on “Ringu (1998)”

  1. I remember seeing Ringu 2 not too long ago.

    There were elements from Exorcist II (!) in there. Hokey science come into play to combat the supernatural, hooking the two main characters into a machine and having them put on special headgear.


    1. Oh, I’ll believe it. Especially considering the fact no one went to see Ringu‘s actual sequel, Rasen. It’s a problem horror franchises run into sooner or later, particularly when they try to explain Why All This Horror is Happening. Look at what Michael Myers went through over the course the Halloween series – from plan ol’ psycho to Long Lost Brother to Messiah of the Murderous Neo-Pagans. Then there are those sudden expository dumps about Jason and Freddy in the no-really-we-mean-it-this-time “final” chapters of their series. The less said about those, the better for everyone…which is probably why I plan to discuss them at length. Eventually.

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