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Feature: The Ring

Ringing the Changes

Ring tales

We look back at the many incarnations of the Japanese Ring stories and anticipate the acclaimed new US version.

The CURSE of Sadako has manifested itself many times. The Japanese film Ring opens on the moonlit sea. The rolling surf dissolves into the electric dots of a TV screen, ancient undertows finding a home in today’s technology. The ghost has entered the machine. Two schoolgirls sit before the cathode light, talking about a silly urban myth of a video that kills anyone who sees it. Only one girl doesn’t find it funny. She saw a weird tape last week, and as the night deepens, she fears time’s running out. After a terrifying false alarm, she laughs it off... until later, when she’s alone in the dark and senses something ghastly behind her. She turns, tries to scream...

The Ring saga began as a novel by Japanese author Koji Suzuki. Born in 1957, he had won Japan’s Fantasy Award for a previous book when Ring became a bestseller in 1991. The first screen Ring was a television film, a reportedly poor version shown on Fuji TV in 1995. The movie followed three years later, part of a cross-media strategy by Suzuki’s publisher Kadokawa to revitalize their mass-market films. It paid off in spades. Distributed by Toho, Ring was a huge hit in Asian cinemas. (Appropriately, it also had tremendous sales on video.) It was especially popular with Japanese girls in their teens and twenties, who make up a large part of the country’s cinema-goers. The film made it to the west in festivals and enjoyed limited cinema release in Europe, where it picked up further fans.

Ring is successful for a simple reason – it’s scary. Its director Hideo Nakata has expressed disdain for the Horror label, describing the genre as a ‘way of polishing my craft’ and citing Alfred Hitchcock as his idol. Certainly, the Scream generation of Horror viewers will find Ring disconcertingly retro. There are no trendy pop songs, no Freddy Krueger quips, no smirking apologies for the subject-matter. Not a drop of blood is spilt.

The film treats supernatural horror with a subtlety and seriousness that vanished from popular Hollywood cinema in the ’70s. While later scenes recall (non-violent) parts of the first Omen, a better comparison would be the auteur spinechillers of Jacques Tourneur (Cat People, Night of the Demon) and followers of that tradition such as Robert Wise’s The Haunting.

Another likely inspiration is The X-Files, which premièred in Japan in 1995 (also the year of the Ring TV movie). Ring’s development as a mystery story recalls Mulder and Scully’s adventures, as well as older Horror films which use the format. A last source for Ring is Hanako, a popular Japanese children’s ghost-story about a malign girl spirit haunting a school toilet, tempting students into hell. As well as various book, comic and cartoon versions, there were two live-action Japanese Hanako films in the 1990s.

by Andrew Osmond

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