directed by Hideo Nakata, George Iida, Norio Tsuruta
starring Rie InÅ, Yukie Nakama, Daisuke Ban
One of the most susccessful and important Japanese horror films of all time, Ring, and its various sequels have been collected on an opulent 3 disc box set. The original film, and its three sequels Ring 2, Hasan, and Ring 0 have lovely transfers and features a vast collection of extra material that demands a buy or upgrade from any J-Horror enthusiast. These films have some odd naming quirks. The English word Ring is the original novel’s title but due to a Japanese grammar rules ring is pronounced “ringu” and hence the Japanese title for the film. There are some translation issues with the other titles as well, so for the sake of clarity I will use the film titles as Arrow Video presents them.
Ring, based on a novel by Koji Suzuki is built around a simple yet deviously ingenious clever plot device. An urban legend is going around that there is a videotape that if you watch it, a week later you will die. But there is an out, get someone else to watch it and you’re off the hook, but they’re on the clock and marked for death. The films mix of folklore, urban legend, and technology to create a new form of viral horror. The term viral applies to the way the haunting and curse of Sadako, the girl in the well, exacts her revenge like a viral infection. You no longer have to go to the haunted house or conjure spirits on a Ouija board, you simply have to watch a video tape to attract the attention of malevolent forces. The original four films made in Japan between 1998-2000 were largely responsible for the short lived but highly influential J-horror boon. Apart from these films Ring has been remade and sequeled in the US and Korea and Sadako has made numerous Japanese tv and film appearances and been referenced and parodied countless times in different media around the world.
The sequel brings us into murky waters as there are two sequels, Ring 2 (Ringu 2) and Spiral (Rasen). Both films pick up where the events of the original movie left off, but take such divergent paths to continue the story. Producers of Ring were so certain of their success they commissioned this sequel and actually released them concurrently. Ring was a massive hit and Spiral was to be kind of a disappointment. The film delved deep into the mythology of Koji Suzuki’s source novels which deviated greatly from the original film. It attempted to make sense of the Sadako killings through medicine and science rather than the supernatural. Audiences didn’t buy it. They wanted a more traditional sequel and Toho studios were quick to comply. They brought back the first film’s director and screenwriter to get things back on the right track. They shouldn’t have bothered. Ring 2 is so terrible that people watching it want to die. The entire movie is a cinematic run-on sentence. Yet Spiral is the film that is considered the “unofficial” sequel. Neither is a satisfying follow up to Ring, but at least Spiral is a good horror movie, a bad sequel that contradicts too much of the original, but an interesting and entertaining movie. Ring 2 by all rights should have been a franchise killer.
Ring 0: Birthday is third sequel that decides to go the prequel route and focus on Sadako’s story from Sadako’s perspective. Sadako at the beginning of the story is a far cry from the vengeful spirit spreading her viral vengeance across Japan at the close of the 20th century. Here she is a painfully shy girl attempting to heal from trauma by performing as an understudy in a play based on Georges Franju’s 1960 macabre classic Les Yeux sans Visage (Eyes without a Face). Yukie Nakama’s sympathetic portrayal of Sadako in contrast to what we know she is going to become adds palpable moral tension due to her inevitable and tragic three decade imprisonment in the well. Ring 0 :Birthday is easily the best film of the cycle and even though we know what evil she will eventually unleash you cannot help but feel deep sadness for Sadako as she begins her 30 years in the well before her justifiable revenge is unleashed via video tape.
This Blu-Ray with its 4k restoration of Ring and 1080 transfers of the other three films alone make it a worthy upgrade from the bare bones Dreamworks DVD set. But since this is an Arrow Video release the films are accompanied by a prodigious selection of extras.
Film historian and author David Kalat does audio commentary on Ring. If you are looking for a scene by scene narration commentary you will be disappointed in this commentary, but if you are looking for a deep dive into the history and influence of the film you will be enthralled.
Australian author Alexandra Heller-Nicholas brings her expertise in gender and horror to the audio commentary for Ring 0: Birthday. She does a splendid job of pointing out and interpreting some of the more nuanced themes of the film that may not be obvious on casual viewing including the moral ambiguity of the film and the toxic femininity unleashed on Sadako and the use of technology both in Sadako’s vengeance and in the creation of the maleficent girl in the well.
“The Ring Legacy” features interviews with Andrew Kasch (Crystal Lake Memories: The Complete History of Friday the 13th), professor/filmmaker Rebekah McKendry, Ph.D, author Alyse Wax (The World of IT) break down the entire Ring cycle from the Sadako character’s roots in folklore and Kabuki to the source novels, to the impact of the film on horror cinema in Japan and around the world that continues even now. Kasch, McKendry, and Wax really dissect the films and what makes them work and how American studios would buy up any Asian horror property for remake in the wake of the success of Gore Verbinski’s The Ring remake. This business model also opened a market for Asian horror in the west.
“A Vicious Circle” has Diabolique Magazine editor in chief Kat Ellinger making her usual, exhaustively researched, takes into the career of director Hideo Nakata. With Ring as a springboard she delves the cultural and religious traditions of Japan versus the west and how the views of death and the spirit world in Buddhism and Shinto are far different that Christian views which heavily influence their horror. She discusses how Hideo Nakata became an unlikely horror icon as he idolized blacklisted American director Joseph Losey (Modesty Blaise) and made horror films as his way into the industry, but created a new style of horror films quite different from the extreme body horrors popular in Japan in the 1990s, taking the classic folk horror traditions and modernizing them with not only technology, but also elements of social commentary.
In the video essay “Circumnavigating Ring” author Alexandra Heller-Nicholas (Satanic Panic) analyzes the evolution of the Ring cycle, especially through the films’ female characters and she posits the films are connected by the theme of motherhood, especially the ramifications of the corruption of motherhood through abuse or neglect.
“Spooks, Sighs and Videotape” is a video essay by film critic Jasper Sharp (Behind the Pink Curtain) is a scholarly piece tracing the long haired ghost archetype to the vengeful female Onryo ghost tradition in literature, folklore, and theater that became a worldwide phenomenon with Sadako in Ring. The video contains a staggering amount of posters, artwork, photos, and film clips to illustrate the history of Japanese ghost women.
A number of trailers, some behind the scenes footage, and naturally the cursed Sadako video are also included. The extras on this set are more than just some fan service it really is film school in a box. I don’t think a university theory course on these films would be any less thorough than what the experts provide on this collection.