Hideo Nakata’s Ringu (1998) remains one of the most popular and enduring films of the J-horror genre. The idea of a cursed videotape might seem quaint in these days of viral videos and creepy memes (looking at you, Momo), but Ringu and its vengeful wraith Sadako is still damn scary. For the opening film of Fantasia 2019, Nakata returns to the franchise he made popular with Sadako, a reconfiguring and updated sequel to the original Ringu concept, and the first Ring film Nakata has directed since 2005.
Sadako opens with a fire, as a young girl (Himeka Himejima) trapped in a closet is nearly incinerated by her mother, who believes her to be the reincarnation of the wraith Sadako. The girl winds up in a mental hospital, where she’s nursed by Mayu (Elaiza Ikeda), a young doctor. Meanwhile, Mayu’s brother, Kazuma (Hiroya Shimizu), a wannabe YouTube sensation, has decided to up the ante of his streaming site by filming a video inside the burned-out apartment building where the girl was nearly killed. When Kazuma vanishes and the video he made is deleted, Mayu scours the internet for a copy of the video and clues to her brother’s disappearance.
Sadako hits all of the needed beats for a decent J-horror film, developing the Ringu mythos outside of the confines of the original films. It doesn’t skimp on the scares, at least in the beginning: the film opens with a clear delineation of the stakes, with the girl, who may or may not be a Sadako reincarnation, facing isolation and hatred before her mother attempts to kill her. Her story provides the focus for the first part of the film, as police officers and hospital doctors attempt to piece together what happened in that apartment and where the girl even came from. the second plot strand of the viral video is less well-developed, though, and Sadako sacrifices some of the more interesting facets that a YouTube iteration of the curse presents. As Mayu searches for her brother’s final video, the tension lies in what it will mean when she discovers it. Here, Sadako drops the ball, relying instead on some fairly worn and even hokey tropes that fail to summon the same kind of terror, or even a facsimile, of the original film.
Perhaps it’s that Ringu is itself such a product of its time. Haunted videotapes are scary but video itself was more difficult to come by than a streaming video in these days of autoplay. There’s a deliberateness to the original film that’s terrifying because it’s so seductive—a cursed video is a temptation in a way that a viral video is not. All of Ringu’s subsequent iterations, including its many remakes, reimaginings, and direct sequels, pale in comparison to the spare terror the original conjures. We already know what the monster looks like and the rules that govern her, so the question is how to consistently make her presence into something terrifying as well as unique. Because the film evades answering some of its own questions—including a strange insert scene of another group of YouTubers who record similar images to the ones in Kazuma’s final video—it comes off almost as an episodic aside, a set up for potential future stories, rather than a story in its own right.
This is unfortunate, because Sadako does have some things to recommend it, including strong performances from its central cast and the intriguing possibility of a second, or reincarnated, Sadako herself. The theme often present in J-horror, of the collective crimes of generations coming back in the form of vengeful ghosts, are present here too, and make for some of the more intriguing developments of the Ringu/Sadako story. The fun of horror is sometimes in its very predictability, the tension between what we know is coming, wanting it to come, and when it will actually happen. But Sadako is also overly predictable, striking beat for beat in a way that becomes, after a while, mundane.
It’s a shame that Sadako doesn’t make more of its themes and potential, because there is so much there. Nakata finds some tension and horror, but this latest film feels too much like a retread of Ringu and even, in places, Dark Water. Dare I say that the poor wraith deserved a little better than this?
Sadako is now showing at Fantasia 2019.
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