Two weeks ago, what started as a "Ringu vs. The Ring" article slowly evolved into a full-blown review of "Ringu". After getting bogged down with various details about the review for a week, I decided to start fresh. Flip-flopping between either writing a review or a comparison article, I find that to do justice to the genius of "Ringu", there is no doubt that I have to compare it to the American remake, "The Ring". Therefore, it becomes apparent that combining my views of both movies is the best way to overcome this predicament. So, for the benefit of those who have not watched either movies or have watched only one of them, please be aware that this review will contain plenty of spoilers and comparisons between "Ringu" and "The Ring". You have been warned!
With its seemingly simple yet far-fetched premise, "Ringu" exploded from obscurity in a big way when it first premiered in Japan back in 1998 and has gone on to attain cult status with horror fans all over the world. Long before Hollywood came calling, "Ringu" took the Asian continent by storm and even managed to win awards at various film festivals. With the taste of sweet success still fresh, it is only natural that business sense takes over from common sense and cashing in on the craze with sequels and prequels becomes a high priority for the filmmakers. Sequels or even prequels, for that matter, are generally a bad idea and are seldom able to replicate the success of the original movie. All the movie follow-ups to "Ringu", unfortunately, suffer horribly from this fate.
Since the successful American debut of "The Ring" last year, there has been a lot of interest in tracing the origins of the movie that started it all, "Ringu". Unfortunately, the entire "Ringu" saga has a long and convoluted history. Let's start from "Ringu"'s innocuous beginning as the first in a trilogy of novels. Written by Japanese horror author Koji Suzuki, "Ringu" was first published in 1991 and became such a hit that it created a whole new literary sub-genre in Japan, called "psycho-horror". Earning the rather lofty title of "the Japanese Stephen King" after the success of "Ringu", Suzuki went on to complete the trilogy with "Rasen" in 1995 and "Loop" in 1998. A year later, an anthology of three short stories based on the "Ringu" universe titled "The Birthday" was published. Before its theatrical debut, "Ringu" was first adapted into a made-for-television movie called "Ring: Kanzen-ban (The Complete Edition)" in 1995. Another two forgettable television series followed much later but "Ringu" only gained worldwide prominence when the theatrical movie was released in 1998. A slew of prequels and sequels were released in the next two years--"Rasen", "Ringu 2", "Ringu 0: Baasudei" and "The Ring Virus"--but none could ever match the original's unexpected success.
Despite being adapted from Suzuki's novel, the movie "Ringu" is surprisingly quite different from the source material. Almost everything, from the main character to most of the story has gone through massive refinements. The fundamental idea of the killer videotape stays the same but in the novel, the cause of the deaths is not so much supernatural but rather, it is biological. Reiko Asakawa (Nanako Matsushima), the heroine in the movie version is originally portrayed as a male character in the novel. Changing the main character's sex to a woman exposes both the movie's strength and also its only weakness. Playing up the generic damsel-in-distress angle only serves to weaken the movie's integrity by succumbing to its low-budget horror genre roots. However, by making the character of Asakawa independent, intelligent and strong-willed, it more than offsets the movie's slow descent into the depths of obscurity. To further illustrate how different the movie is from the novel, even the infamous scene of Sadako crawling out of the television screen is actually the idea of director Hideo Nakata and screenwriter Hiroshi Takahashi. The novel's version of the evil Sadako is not as straightforward as depicted in the movie. In the novel, Sadako suffers from a condition called "Testicular Feminization Syndrome" and is in fact, genetically a man! Now you know why the filmmakers had to stray so far away from the novel's original story!
"Ringu" starts off with the mysterious death of four teenagers who are rumored to have watched a supposedly cursed videotape that according to urban legend, will kill those who watch it within a week. One of the dead teenagers' aunt, a news reporter by the name of Reiko Asakawa, decides to investigate the deaths and she inadvertently ends up watching the same videotape. When all the signs point to her having only a week to live, the race is now on for Asakawa to uncover the origins of the videotape by deciphering the jumbled set of eerie images and discover the reason behind its deadly rampage. Compounding her dilemma is the fact that both her son and her ex-husband have also seen the videotape and are also on the same timetable.
The first half of both movies are so strikingly similar--even down to some of the camerawork--it feels as if the director of "The Ring", Gore Verbinski, is paying the ultimate tribute to his predecessor, Nakata. One particularly powerful scene from "Ringu" that stands out from the rest is when Asakawa's son, Yoichi (Otaka Rikiya) meets her ex-husband, Ryuji Takayama (Hiroyuki Sanada) under a drenching monsoon storm. No words are spoken between them and using only their facial expressions to communicate to the audience, a hint of an uneasy past relationship slowly bubbles to the surface. It is only much later in the movie that the nature of their relationship is revealed, engulfing the audience in a blissful "Aha!" moment. That same scene, much to my relief, is faithfully recreated in the remake, though with much less intensity.
Plot-wise, both "Ringu" and "The Ring" follow similar paths until the principal characters uncover the secret behind the videotape. That is when the story diverges in totally different directions. It is here that I have to question the wisdom of the remake's total divergence from "Ringu", which keeps the plot simple and does not try to over-explain the origins of the videotape. I applaud "The Ring"'s effort in trying to stand on its own and to fully explain the videotape's origin but in doing so, it creates unintentional complexity and burdens the unsuspecting audience with layer upon layer of useless pseudo-logic. If a moviegoer has to do a double take and go "Huh?" more than once in the movie, I am sorry pal, game over. Advocating "Ringu" as your run-of-the-mill dumbed-down horror flick is far from my goal but there are merits to keeping things simple. For example, Sadako's psychic bloodline and the circumstances surrounding her death are made more plausible by having it explained in a succinct manner. In contrast, the latter part of "The Ring" introduces too many plot twists and anti-climaxes that ultimately get the film nowhere. Verbinski's dark and disturbing imagery is a delight to watch but at some point in the movie, creating those images begins to take precedent over the story, losing its much-needed focus right at a critical moment in the film.
"Ringu"'s success as a horror film is a direct result of it possessing the following two important attributes: careful pacing and vagueness. Under the direction of Nakata, "Ringu"'s intentional slow pacing can be seen as a double-edged sword. On one hand, it creates an atmosphere of dread and foreboding as the clock starts to wind down on the seven-day deadline, slowly but surely building up the tension as it goes and setting the stage perfectly for the astounding ending. On the other hand, some may find it boring very early and lose interest before the movie even starts to get interesting. In this case, one's impatience will lead to regret. Whether the pacing is intentional or not, it works to the film's advantage rather than impair it. Vagueness may not seem like a good trait to be associated with a movie but for "Ringu", it works wonders. "Ringu"'s vagueness when it comes to explaining the sinister connection between the videotape and Sadako keeps the plot unpredictable until the very end. Even after the movie ends, some questions are still left unanswered. "The Ring" made the mistake of trying to explain away all the ambiguities found in "Ringu" and this only serves to dampen the story's intensity and removes the aura of mystery from the movie. Anyone watching "Ringu" will also notice that Sadako's face is never revealed, preferring to let the audiences' own imagination run wild as to what lies beneath the flowing black hair. No amount of makeup or prosthetics could ever replace the horror that lie in our own minds.
"The Ring", even with its Hollywood-sized budget and special effects cannot begin to measure up to "Ringu". What "Ringu" lacks in polish, it makes it up with plenty of guts and a simple storytelling technique. Running just over 95 minutes, "Ringu" tells its story straight up without all the fluff. Instead of relying on blood and gore for cheap scares, "Ringu" scares you with mind games, revealing little tidbits of information at a time and pushes the audience to extrapolate on what lurks around the corner. As "The Ring" over-thinks its way around the plot and has to muddle its way through until the end, "Ringu" lies in wait while building-up the tension and finally goes for the jugular when you least expect it. Sensational!
Dreamworks has done a remarkable job with this video transfer. Featuring anamorphic widescreen with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1, the video images are almost immaculate and the colors are rendered naturally. However, black levels are a bit on the forceful side in several scenes. Grain is present in the video, which reflects "Ringu"'s low budget production but this slight defect actually adds a good amount of rustic charm to the horror-filled atmosphere of the movie. Being a foreign language movie, "Ringu" offers a choice of three subtitle languages: English, French and Spanish.
Digitally remastered in Dolby Digital 5.1 (a Dolby Surround 2.0 mix is also available), the outstanding audio track creates the optimum environment for a late night scare-fest. Turn off the lights and let the surround channels envelope you with eerie sonic effects that is guaranteed to send a chill up any hardcore horror fan's spine. Unfortunately, those effects are only used sparingly throughout the movie. Watching a foreign language film with anything other than the original language audio track should be a crime and fortunately for us, only the Japanese language track is featured on this DVD.
Extras? What extras? The term "bare-bones DVD" is definitely created for discs like "Ringu". Instead of even featuring the expected trailer for "Ringu" as an extra, Dreamworks decides to promote their other releases with trailers for "The Ring", "8 Mile" and "Catch Me If You Can".
My dog ate the DVD insert! Has Dreamworks suddenly gone cheap with its DVDs?
As a horror film, "Ringu" is certainly not perfect but it comes frighteningly close. Not since "The Exorcist" have I been genuinely disturbed by a movie. By keeping the plot simple and easy to comprehend, "Ringu" succeeds at a level that is truly remarkable. All the ominous signs like a low budget, relatively unknown casts and a plot that features a killer videotape would immediately point to the production of a low-grade B-movie. However, director Nakata manages to transcend all these shortcomings and produce an unassuming yet horrifying movie that will continue to frighten audiences for years to come.