Friday 13 January 2017

We Don't Go Back #29: Ring, Ring 2, Ring 0 (1998-2000)

As different as our cultures are, I think Japan and Britain are more similar than we sometimes realise.

We're both island nations that used to have empires. We have populations centred around reasonably large cities and one massive sprawl that carries with it its own centre of gravity. And both countries have a rural landscape that is very much lived-in. People have lived there and have worked that land for thousands of years. There isn't a place that hasn't been seen by human eyes. There isn't a patch of land that hasn't been walked by human feet. And while each country has its own historical mainstream religion, in the the rural places folklore, paganisms and heresies persist.

The landscape is rich in psychic leavings exactly because it has never really been uninhabited. The distance of the countryside is temporal, a distance of belief, of feeling. This is the soil in which folk horror grows, wild as berries.

A land with layers of history is a land full of obsolete technologies.

I remember the old Bush radios, the transistors and ancient bits of circuitry that mouldered in my Dad's garage. The weird archaeology of it, the way that the ZX Spectrum we had when I was a kid is even more archaic now than these things were when I was young. All these things have ghosts.

In 70s Britain, that combination of technology and haunting gave us The Stone Tape. In 90s Japan, the same impulses produced Ring.
The woman in the mirror.
I've been meaning to look at some Japanese folk horror for a while; and the most obvious and popular example of this is Ring (Ringu, directed by Nakata Hideo, from a novel by Suzuki Koji). I'm also going to bring in its sequel Ring 2 (also directed by Nakata), which isn't quite as good as Ring, and its prequel Ring 0: Birthday (directed by Tsuruta Norio), which isn't as good as either of them.1

Ring was hugely popular in the UK from the beginning, a legitimate crossover hit that reached fans of genre cinema and fans of international cinema alike, so much so that I remember being stunned that so many of my American friends hadn't had an opportunity to see it. And aside from the whole thing where it got a DVD release in the UK years before it did in the US, I think part of Ring's immediate popularity in Britain is due to commonalities in what scares us.

Ring is of course the one that starts with an urban myth about a cursed videotape.
The pointing figure.
Someone looks down a well, seen from below. A woman brushes her hair; the mirror moves by itself. A crowd of agonised figures crawl up a slope. A figure, face covered by a white cloth, pointing. A newspaper headline, the letters moving like ants in a hive. Someone says something about sea water and goblins. A single kanji reflected in an eye. A well in a clearing.

The film stops, and then your telephone rings. In exactly one week, the telephone rings again, and the ghost of the video comes to get you. You die of horror.

It's the same as a chain letter I once received when I was a kid. Pass this letter on, receive good luck. Don't pass it on, meet with catastrophe. These things, I remember, were taken seriously enough back then for presenters on national TV to tell you on screen not to pass them on. They were cruel hoaxes, they said. They were lies. There was something panicked about these insistences.2
Reiko and Ryuji rewatch the video.
In Ring, of course, although the video is the stuff of teenage myth, it's not a hoax. The haunting is real. In the first few minutes of the film, two girls, Tomoko and Masami, talk about the curse. Then Tomoko reveals she saw the video a week ago. Inevitably the curse takes her.
The first time we see the tape.
Asakawa Reiko (Nanako Matsushima), a single mum and a journalist, is one of Tomoko's relatives. She wants to get to the bottom of why the girl died. She finds a copy of the tape. She watches it. The rest of Ring (and Ring 2, the action of which picks up a few days after the end of Ring) plays out the consequences of that decision. Reiko and her ex-husband Takayama Ryuji (Sanada Hiroyuki), a maths lecturer who apparently has some psychic sensitivity, have a week to find out where the tape came from, and when Reiko and Ryuji's young son Yoichi watches the tape too, their terror extends beyond simple self-preservation.

The video is not the haunting. It is an access point to a wider haunting, centred on the mystery surrounding the death and disappearance of a girl called Sadako, which is apparently an old fashioned, prissy sort of name, and more or less exactly equivalent to calling a western girl "Chastity". Sadako's mother had psychic powers, and an attempt to demonstrate them scientifically ended in tragedy. After her mother committed suicide by throwing herself into an active volcano, Sadako appeared to have shouldered the blame. She was herself murdered, pushed into a well, and now her vengeful ghost potentially marks anything touched by human hand. The land. Everyday objects. Machines. This is more or less exactly the entire thesis of The Stone Tape, but unlike the inchoate forces of Kneale's story, Sadako is a solid, all too real figure fuelled by malevolence and rage, whose manifestations extend far beyond contact with the media she infects.
Reiko and Ryuji engage in a frenzy of desperate, dread-filled detective work, eventually finding the well into which Sadako was pushed and allowing her body the respect of a burial. Were she simply the vengeful spectre of a wronged girl, this would lay the ghost. Reiko and Ryuji discover that this is not the case.

Although a child, murdered in living memory, Sadako is also the product of something much older, tied to the land in other ways. Her mother, it seemed, spent too much time by the sea, and the implication is that Sadako's father was something unhuman and old that rose from the waters.

But the subject of folklore should not invade the mundane, and the daughter of the strange woman and the ancient pagan thing is a mistake, and she works by rules that extend beyond the simple moralities of modern people. Modern kindnesses will not appease her wrath.
Mai and Okazaki.
Ring 2 is mostly the outworking of this, bringing about the deaths or incurable trauma of most of the surviving cast, including several characters who were merely peripheral in the first movie and have significantly expanded roles in the second. The lead is handed to Takano Mai (Nakatano Miki), Ryuji's postgrad student who is working out what happened to Ryuji and tries to track down Reiko. Masami, who witnessed Tomoko's demise at the beginning of the first movie, returns, now a psychiatric patient, traumatised by her experience. Okazaki (Yanagi Yurei), one of Reiko's junior colleagues, takes on a larger role too (and a terrible fate of his own, which comes – and it really isn't fair on the poor chap – from his failing to watch the tape). It's refreshing to see the deaths and traumas of a horror film being represented as having a wider effect on the community.
It makes the victims seem more real, and consequently the film feels more real. Nobody is disposable. Bit parts become people with lives of their own. But the price of this is that it's nowhere near as focussed as that first movie and the climax is overwrought rather than intense and just tips a tiny bit too far across the silly/scary line, without really having the sense of dread inevitability that Ring carried.
Sadako the teen.
Ring 0 goes back in time and tries to tell the story of how Sadako (here played by Nakama Yukie) became the vengeful ghost. Here, rather than be the preadolescent she seems to be in the other movies, she's a willowy, shy teenager in an amateur dramatics society with a tendency to see ghosts and uncontrollable psychic powers. What starts out as a pretty good coming-of-age horror with much in common with Carrie ends up coming unhinged towards the end, as the weight of explaining exactly how this young woman is the same person as the deformed adolescent who got chucked down a well becomes too much for the story to take.
Aiko was just sitting there, minding her own business. 
But all have efficient scares and each carries the constant theme of decency on its own not being enough to stop the horror. Although it's possible to read the Ring movies as existing in a moral universe where simple kindness and compassion are foolish and pointless, it seems pretty clear to me that Sadako's implacable wrath is perverse, that nature is wrong, and that even the action you have to perform on a basic level to avoid the curse is possibly morally indefensible and recognised as such in the films (and may not even be adequate as a means of escaping the curse). These are some pretty bleak movies. And the original definitely stands up to a rewatch. It's still frightening.

The Ring movies link the countryside and its paganisms with the trappings of a modern age, and then moves beyond them, makes these things as archaic as stone circles and steam engines and phonographs. VHS tapes and cathode ray tubes with their analogue snow are the past now. There isn't an opposition between archaic and modern, there is a continuity, and all things that have seen the touch of humanity can be haunted, all can be part of the geography of horror.  

1Ring's other sequel, Rasen (1998, concurrently released with Ring and later discarded in favour of Ring 2), I'm not going to write about, since I haven't seen it. The same goes for for the numerous other sequels and spin-offs in the franchise, the most recent of which appears to be Sadako vs Kanako, in which she faces off against the ghostly villain of the Grudge (Ju-On) franchise, Freddy vs Jason style.

And I'm not going to write much about Ring's unnecessary and inferior American remake (although I can't help thinking "unnecessary and inferior" and "American remake" are so often conjoined as to be an tautology in most cases) a film so pointless that the original film was held back from release in the US for some years so the remake would have a reason to exist.

Don't get me wrong, The Ring (2002) isn't a bad film. It's just more or less the same film, only with white people, no subtitles, and an extra half hour to run, most of which is direct spoken exposition. And a movement of the setting to the USA, which doesn't entirely work. That's all there is to say about it. (back)

2I think they knew it. How else does one account for the peculiar power of Ghostwatch? (back)