(These notes were first used for an education event in 2002)
Based on the 1991 novel (with the same title) by Suzuki Koji, the film Ringu by Nakata Hideo was released in Japan in 1998. By this time there had already been a TV adaptation in 1995.
The event assumed that students had just watched the film in the cinema. If you haven’t seen the film, please watch it first. The following outline reveals the whole plot.
Reiko, a television journalist, interviews some high school girls who tell her a story about young people who have died after viewing a ‘weird’ videotape. Attending the funeral of her niece Tomoko, who has died suddenly, Reiko realises that she was one of the young people in the story. Reiko decides to investigate and drives down to the Izu peninsula where she views the tape left behind in a holiday cabin and becomes convinced that she herself is now in danger. Returning to Tokyo she contacts her ex-husband, a university scientist. He agrees to join the investigation, viewing the tape and tracking down a voice on the recording through its local accent and dialect.
Reiko and Ryuji discover that the tape refers to events dating back forty years to the eruption of a volcano on Oshima Island and the suicide of a psychic woman Shizuko. According to the story, Reiko will die seven days after her first viewing of the tape. Fearing her son’s safety Reiko takes Yoichi to stay with her father. She is shocked to discover Yoichi watching the tape – he tells her that Tomoko told him to.
Reiko and Ryuji travel to Oshima Island where they confront the father of Shizuko. Putting together their research and a series of psychic ‘visions’ they realise that the power of the videotape comes from Sadako, daughter of Shizuko and (possibly) Dr Ikuma, the scientist who had seduced her. They determine to go back to Izu to find Sadako’s body. Seven days after viewing the tape, Reiko returns to the cabin with only hours to go before the ‘deadline’. The pair find the well and the remains of the body. The curse appears to be lifted, but the next day Ryuji is visited by Sadako’s ghost and dies of fright. Reiko realises that she has escaped only because she copied the tape and showed it to Ryuji. She hurries off to copy it again for Yoichi . . .
We chose this film as a case study for a number of reasons. It is an almost ‘pure’ genre film – a rarity in modern cinema. It offers a familiar kind of story, but in a very different cultural context. Ring is a Japanese horror film that draws on both the traditional Japanese ghost story and the sorts of contemporary ‘urban myths’ that we all hear being discussed amongst friends. It is a horror story without ‘gore’ and depends on building up tension through fear of the unknown. It has been suggested that the film both draws on American horror films and in turn has influenced them. Comparisons have been made with the low-budget Blair Witch Project and Ring itself has been remade in Hollywood (opened at No 1 in America in October 2002) Ring isn’t in any way a ‘difficult’ film (it is a straight commercial entertainment, but in the UK its Japanese production context kept it out of the multiplexes). It certainly benefits greatly from detailed study.
Ring is an ‘investigative’ narrative, in which the protagonist tries to find out what has happened. But the investigator is also under threat from the ‘unknown’. The narrative follows a Hollywood formula and falls into three main sections:
- in the first act the ‘disturbance’ of the sudden deaths draws Reiko into the investigation. Her viewing and the subsequent viewing by Ryuji then place the pair in danger.
- in the central section, the pair uncover the story of Shizuko and Sadako and realise what they must do.
- in the third, ‘climactic’ section, the pair are in a race against time to find Sadako and lift the curse. But there is a coda to the film following the ‘false’ ending.
The three sections of the film are complemented by the triangular structure of the locations of the actions. Reiko travels from Tokyo to Izu, back to Tokyo then to Oshima, back to Izu and then back again to Tokyo.
(Unlike the detective story or ‘whodunnit’ in which the audience may have knowledge about the villain, we too know nothing about Sadako. This makes the narrative more like the ‘investigative journalist’ type story.)
Genre and narrative shape
The ‘elements’ of the story are familiar from the universal structure of the horror film. In the opening section the seemingly ‘ordinary’ pattern of events is revealed as having a sinister sub-text. Reiko’s decision to watch the tape (alone in a darkened cabin) is typically foolhardy in the context of the horror film. Reiko is unaware of how the scene is being presented to us with its shadows and disturbing soundtrack. The investigation and the race against time are again typical genre elements. The narrative is linear in the sense that the mystery is on one level resolved – but there is no happy ending and no ‘closure’.
The practice of producing a sequel to a commercial success is well-known in Hollywood, but few American films would make the requirement for a sequel so obvious (a sly nudge at the end of a narrative that has been largely resolved is much more likely). It is worth noting here that the story of Ringu was first a very successful series of novels, then a television series and finally a film. The producers made the odd decision to make a sequel, Rasen, using a different crew at the same time as making Ringu. But Rasen failed completely. Ringu 2 was then made at the same time as the ‘prequel’, ‘Ringu 0’, two years later in 2000. Ringu 2 (again directed by Nakata Hideo) was also successful. There was also a Korean re-make, before the Hollywood version.
Narration and characters
The protagonist of the film is clearly Reiko. It is important in this film that we learn about the background only as she does. True, we see Tomoko’s death at the beginning of the film, but we don’t know what has caused it. The ‘narration’ does require Reiko to go through the rather ‘clunky’ process of saying aloud what she is thinking (e.g. when she has a psychic flash in which Ryuji’s ghost (?) points to her bag to indicate that there are two tapes). Overall, however, the process of narration is quite unobtrusive. Despite the relatively slow pacing of the scenes, the narrative appears to move forward very quickly – partly because there is a great deal of plot information to absorb.
(Names: We refer to ‘Reiko’ here. This is her ‘personal’ name. Only her aunt uses this name. Her ex-husband uses her maiden ‘family name’, Asakawa – this is customary in Japan.)
Genre Iconography and setting
Ringu is a commercial Japanese film, produced in a country with a culture that mixes ‘high technology’ and modern consumer culture with traditional beliefs and customs that appear strange and exotic to many in the West. Reiko and Ryuji live in Tokyo apartments that do not look very different to those in Europe or North America. Similarly the cabin in Izu could be in the American West. Yet on Oshima Island and at Grandpa’s house in the country, the traditional style of eating at low tables and sleeping on bedrolls on the floor is still followed. The connection to a tradition of ghost narratives dating back hundreds of years is easy to accept. The choice of video and telephone technology as the source of terror appears to point towards North American films like Poltergeist or the Canadian Videodrome (the demonic tv set) and Scream (victims terrorised over the phone). But it is also possible to see television as a ‘cancerous’ growth that destroyed the Japanese film industry (in the 1950s, the world’s largest). The film effectively utilises the three central features of the Japanese environment. The large Japanese population (127 million) lives in very densely populated cities in small apartments. There is comparatively little land for agriculture, much of the interior is wooded mountain country and isolated resorts like those in Izu and on Oshima Island are popular. Finally Japan is a ‘community of islands’ and the sea is tremendously important as a source of food and communication.
Narrative and characters
One of the interesting facets of the film is the lack of information about the former relationship between Reiko and Ryuji. There is a strange scene between Yoichi and his father on the pavement outside Reiko’s apartment – Yoichi appears to be going out in the rain, at night alone, to leave his parents together. Father and son at first do not speak. Ryuji then asks if his son is going to school – clearly he does not have close contact. This prompts the question – what caused the marriage to break up? Why does Reiko turn to Ryuji for help? Is it because he is Yoichi’s father? (Think back to Yoichi’s behaviour at the funeral.) The joint parental concern certainly makes for an important element of the narrative. Or is it that Ryuji is both knowledgeable and psychic – the perfect investigator? What do we make of Reiko as the central protagonist? The filmmakers changed the book’s investigator to a woman (Pete Tombs – see Resources – states that this was important as modern Japanese horror films often use female heroes). But does she sacrifice her own independence and become reliant on Ryuji? It’s worth remembering here that Japanese ghost stories commonly feature a woman who has been abused by men. We might expect a female investigator to have more understanding of what has happened and on the island of Oshima Reiko appears to become part of the psychic process when her arm is gripped by the presence of Sadako. By contrast, in the editing suite it is her professional expertise that helps her see that the video is unusual.
At first glance, the film seems to lack a definable style. Few images impress through visual composition. The most memorable are those that feature Sadako and Yoichi, the rather unnerving little boy. This observation is not a criticism of the performance of Matsushima Nanako (Reiko) or Sanada Hiroyuki (Ryuji). Rather, it is to suggest that the unobtrusive style works so well that we are swept along in the story, free from the sometimes gimmicky images of much Hollywood horror. There are few ‘expressive’ camera movements and only a handful of obvious ‘special effects’. Some critics put the style down to the low budget and it is certainly the case that in the sequel, the same director uses a more ‘expensive’ style, more akin to Western expectations of a horror film. Whether this is successful or not is a matter of taste. The overall feel of the film comes from a combination of:
- mainly night-time shooting with good use of shadows and available light sources
- even pacing with relatively long takes
- muted but powerful performances by the actors
- imaginative use of music and sound effects
(It is debatable as to whether modern Japanese films are in any way influenced by the compositions of Japanese painting styles, but it is worth noting that Japanese scripts are read from right to left and down columns, rather than scanning left to right. Notice how Reiko reads in the newspaper archives. Could this affect how Japanese audiences ‘read’ images?)
It is difficult from a European perspective to understand fully the themes of Japanese genre films. To the extent that they might ‘borrow’ ideas from Hollywood horror and ‘teen’ or ‘high school’ films, elements of films like Ring might look familiar. But Japanese culture is quite different to that in America in a number of ways:
- the religious beliefs of Japanese people (mostly Shintoist, some Buddhists) evoke different ideas about life and death. (See Tombs (00) on the release of horror movies during the Festival of the Dead in July and August.)
- Japan has a strong family structure and a general deference to older people. The population shows a profile much like parts of Western Europe – with people living much longer and more pressure on a smaller proportion of young people. Young people in Japan face a highly pressurised experience of education. Possibly as a result, youth sub-cultures are often represented as obsessive and extreme. ‘Teen horror/action films’ such as Battle Royale (Japan 2000) may be commenting on this phenomenon.
- the position of women in Japanese society is also different. Although there has been a ‘liberation’ of women to match changes in the West, Japanese society is still arguably more ‘patriarchal’, expecting more forgiveness for male behaviour and more deference from women.
- Japanese attitudes to sex and violence are quite different to those in the West. What in the West might be considered ‘hardcore’ material is more freely available. However, this does not mean the society is ‘degraded’ or that is violent or licentious. The crime rate is low by Western standards and Japanese society is generally ‘calm’ and ‘ordered’. Are any of these ‘differences’ evident in Ring? How does Ring compare with the two highly successful Western ghost stories of recent times, The Sixth Sense and The Others?
(Even by the end of Ring, the motivation for Sadako’s attacks on innocent viewers of her tape are not clear. Common themes such as revenge or lust for power become more evident in the sequel and prequel.)
The film is targeted towards a youth audience in the sense that it picks up upon the idea of the urban myth and plays with the fascination with horror and ‘true crimes/mystery’ that has been a traditional strength of youth cinema across the world. In Japan and much of Eastern Asia, the Ring films have been massive box office sensations, matching the success of the earlier book and television versions of the narratives. Having seen the film, you can comment on whether the European tendency to put all foreign language films into an ‘arthouse’ or ‘specialist’ category is justified.
References and Further Reading
David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson (1997, 5th edition) Film Art, London and New York: McGraw Hill
Gill Branston and Roy Stafford (2002, 3rd ed) The Media Student’s Book, London: Routledge
Carol Clover (1992) Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the modern horror film, London: British Film Institute
Mark Kermode (2000) Review of Ring in Sight and Sound, September (included on DVD)
Nick Lacey (1998) Image and Representation, London: Macmillan
Nick Lacey (2000) Narrative and Genre, London: Macmillan
Kim Newman (2000) Edinburgh Festival Report on Ring, Sight and Sound, August
The ‘Guardian Unlimited’ website (www.guardian.co.uk) has three very useful articles on Ring and Japanese horror films by Pete Tombs (‘Oh, Noh… Japan has the horrors again’, 18/8/00) and Steve Rose (‘Nightmare Scenario’, 20/9/02).
Ring, Rasen, Ring 2 and Ring 0 are all available on DVD in the UK from Tartan Video.
Essay or discussion questions on Ring
1. What makes Ring a horror film? Identify the codes and conventions of the traditional horror film that are present in this film.
2. How is the ghost of Sadako represented in the film? What are the memorable features of the ghost image? How do they refer to the narrative and any possible theme of the film?
3. Does the Japanese setting of the film mean the story is told differently than it would be in a Hollywood film? (When the Hollywood film is released you could compare the two.)
4. Is Reiko an ‘ordinary young woman’ or a ‘hero’ figure?
5. When Sadako’s body is found, the story might have ended – what is the pretext for carrying on the story? How does the director make sure we know that it will carry on – i.e. what do we expect from a final shot in a film, what don’t we get here?
6. The sequel, Ring 2 was made two years after the first film. Think back over Ring – what kinds of ‘narrative information’ were given out to provide the basis for continuing the story – e.g. is there any explanation for the death of Ryuji? Besides Reiko and Yoichi, who else knows at least something about what has happened, and may be concerned to follow up the story?
If you want to find out more about Ringu and the whole J-horror cycle of films, see this free download from The Media Student’s Book website.