Japanese folklore has long included ghosts who haunt the living because they died with anger, rage, fear, or some other strong emotion. Many of these myths include a young girl with long, black hair obscuring her face. In 1991, Koji Suzuki updated these stories in his novel Ring. This was made into a 1995 TV movie called Ring: Kanzenban and then again as a theatrically released film called Ringu in 1998 by Hideo Nakata. Ringu made some significant changes to the novel and became a huge hit, becoming the highest-grossing horror film in Japan.
It found an international audience on home video, becoming a cult hit in the United States and Britain. It spawned two sequels in Japan, plus remakes in both American and South Korea, and a line of audio dramas and manga. It also jump-started the brief Japanese horror (or J-horror, as it was affectionately called) genre in the U.S. Tartan Films created their own line of “Asian Extreme” releases because of the newfound popularity of Asian horror films. I still own quite a few of them.
It is hard to overstate just how thrilling Ringu was at the time. Horror in the 1980s and early 1990s in the U.S. had been dominated by the slasher genre. Bigger kills, bigger blood, bigger nudity were the rallying call of those films. Then in 1996 West Craven made Scream a brilliant, self-aware, almost-parody of those films that lovingly mocked the cliches of the genre. This, in turn, ushered in a slew of similar, but not nearly as effective films that created their own terrible cliches. Along comes Ringu with almost no on-screen violence, even fewer jump scares, and a serious, somber tone that is more about creating a mood than making you spill your popcorn.
In modern-day Japan, there is a rumor going around that if you watch a special videotape you will die exactly seven days later. When several teenagers mysteriously die on the same day, supposedly seven days after watching the video, reporter Reiko Asakawa (Nanako Matsushima) investigates. She learns that the rumors began in the coastal province of Izo. When she finds out that the dead teenagers rented a cabin in Izu, she heads that way herself. There she finds the videotape and watches. It is an odd mix of unrelated and disturbing images. As soon as it is over, she receives a phone call and is told she will die in seven days.
She enlists her ex-husband Ryūji (Hiroyuki Sanada) to find out where the videotape originated and hopefully find a way to lift the curse. Skeptical, Ryūji watches the tape then asks Reiko to make him a copy so he can study it. From clues gathered there, they learn of a woman named Shizuko (Masako), who supposedly had psychic powers and was exploited by a doctor, and her young daughter Sadako (Rie Inō) whose mistreatment and subsequent rage may have caused the curse.
One of the many things I love about Ringu is that it is set in the modern world where the supernatural is not a regular occurrence nor something seemingly believed in by most, and yet the threat of the ring is taken very seriously. When Ryūji learns about it from Reiko, he scoffs at first but never doubts how scared she is. He investigates it with a thoroughness and the film, while also skeptical, plays it realistically. As an audience member, this makes everything feel real. The film’s world isn’t one full of monsters. This makes it seems like our world, so that when things do go wrong it is more difficult to pull yourself out of it, telling yourself “it’s only a movie.”
Hideo Nakata carefully rolls out the tension. He imbues the film with dark dread. For most of its run time, we don’t see anything supernatural or even that scary, but we feel like something horrible could happen at any moment. In a cinematic world that at the time was constantly bombarding us with jump scare and extreme violence, this was a refreshing breath.
I’ve seen the film before, even own an old DVD of it, but I still sat on my couch breathing heavily as I watched it, terrified of what was going to happen. There is a scene in which the characters must crawl down a dark well and it's one of the scariest scenes I’ve seen in a long time. Because it doesn't rely on knife-wielding maniacs jumping out at you, but rather develops its characters and themes while still supplying an intense viewing experience, Ringu is much more rewatchable than so many other horror films from the time.
Though it feels quaint now, VHS tapes were still very much a part of the late '90s culture. DVDs were on their way to becoming the norm, but that was several years out. One of Ringu's themes is the mixing of this modern culture with the more traditional Japanese way of life. Likewise, Reiko is a modern woman who spends more time working than she does being a mother to her young son. The film seems to saying that while culture may move constantly forward, it could be devastating to forget the past. To find a horror film willing to grapple with such deep subjects is always interesting. That it does it so well while still being utterly terrifying is nothing short of brilliant.
Arrow Video has just released a special edition of Ringu that includes a new 4K restoration from the original negative, which was approved by the director of photography Junichiro Hayashi. Extras include a new audio commentary from film historian David Kalat, a new series of interviews from various critics and filmmakers about the Ringu series and its enduring legacy. There’s also a video essay, a video interview with Kat Ellinger on the career of Hideo Nakata, and the usual trailers, full-color booklet with an essay on the film. It should be noted that Arrow has also released a Ringu boxed set featuring the original Ringu plus its various sequels including Ring 0, Ring 2 and Spiral.
Ringu is an era-defining horror film that inspired numerous sequels and remakes and helped usher in the J-Horror movement. Its also a really great film and this new Arrow Video edition is quite wonderful.