The Ringu (1998)
The year is 1998: Japan launches the Nozomi Probe in its first bid to explore space, joining the likes of the USA and Russia. Megahit video game franchises Mario Party and Metal Gear Solid, both of which eventually spawned over 12 combined sequels, were released. Korean and Japanese relations at this time were also strengthened at this time, having once been strained during high historical tensions. This was a very eventful year, to say the least, as key political and cultural events happening around this time frame. Among the latter is something that tends to fly under the radar: the explosion of Japanese Horror movies, or the J Horror phenomenon.
Why is J Horror so scary?
Japanese Horror films have their own key qualities that separate them from their more traditional western counterparts – not as present are macabre scenes of blood and gore. Instead, what you could come to expect are spooky visions of the occult and paranormal. Ghosts, spirits, and paranormal activities are key authoritative figures present in many of the popular J-horror films. It is not surprising that this type of horror boomed in Western cinema, as its hype came with the release of the 1998 classic The Ring (リング, Ringu). This extremely eerie film included elements of horror filmmaking that viewers had never seen before.
Noh and J-Horror
Believe it or not, this flavor of the occult is deeply rooted in different aspects of Japanese culture dating back to the 1400s. Dance performances known as Noh came into the public entertainment scene, and were the popular form of theatre at the time. Here, actors clad in vibrantly designed costumes take the stage, acting out scenes from past events relative to the time in a poetic and artsy form.
Here’s where parallels are drawn between Noh and J-Horror: just like with the overarching themes made popular to the West by Japanese horror cinema, Noh’s stories involved the supernatural. Legends and folk tales were told through poetic song and language, with some actors dressed according to their roles. These costumes are famous for the mask worn by the leading character. They’re tailor-made and designed for their respective roles, which range from God to the Devil, to evil spirits, and even just a normal everyday man.
The Ghosts of Kabuki
If this somewhat rings a bell to you, you may have heard of “Kabuki Theatre”. Inspired by Noh, Kabuki theatre first popped into the performing arts scene in Japan in the 1600s. It takes many of the elements of the aforementioned but modified some aspects of it. Among the most popular changes are the presence of female actors (whereas Noh only had male actors), the use of heavy makeup and wigs as opposed to masks, and the existence of more modern plotlines that revolve around sex, romance, moral conflicts, and the like.
Similar to Noh though, Kabuki dance drama also puts a heavy focus on the supernatural through its different characters. Always present are concepts of deities, spirits, gods, and most important to this all, vengeful spirits.
Many of what influenced J-Horror stem from these performance arts from the 1500s. This has made its mark on a few aspects of Japanese pop culture, notably video games, manga, and modern cinema.
90s J Horror Pop Culture
Fatal Frame (2001)
The late 1990s also saw the release of some of the most prolific and famous video games that are still being played today. They have also emerged from Japanese video game producers such as Tecmo (Fatal Frame), Konami (Silent Hill), and Capcom (Resident Evil), all of which have spawned many sequels and even cinematic spinoffs adapted for western audiences. These games were released in 1999, 1996, and 2001, respectively, meaning that this time period coincided with the height of the J-Horror phenomena. The villains of Fatal Frame and Silent Hill, in particular, are generally demonic spirits and ghosts seeking vengeance on the main player.
J Horror in Manga
In the manga scene, Junji Ito’s name carries a massive weight behind it. He is considered the most prolific horror mangaka, having written classics such as Tomie and Uzumaki, with the latter being serialized during the year 1998. What are the common themes between the two, you ask? Nothing else other than revenge and the supernatural, of course.
Ito himself has stated that he is strongly drawn to paranormal phenomena; his works usually focused on characters that possessed extrasensory abilities. Ghostly apparitions are also a staple in his works, as for example Uzumaki’s characters deal with a curse of supernatural events which involve spirals that drain and hypnotize a town’s citizens. Being Ito’s magnum opus, as well as one of the best if not the best classic horror manga, you could see just how big the effect of the supernatural and paranormal have on the Japanese horror in this medium.
The Ring, the pinnacle of J Horror
The Ringu (1998), a supernatural horror film directed by Hideo Nakata, may be at the apex of Japanese horror cinema, having initiated the genre’s boom in the late 1990s and incorporating themes that have been developed throughout early Japanese performance arts.
The story follows an investigator that stumbles upon a case of a mysterious videotape that somehow kills whoever watches it after one week. First hearing about it from her niece, who went through this exact experience, Reiko Asakawa (Nanako Matsushima) curiously searches for the aforementioned videotape after hearing rumors about it from interviews conducted about the topic.
She then goes to the cottage where her late niece and friends allegedly spent a week before they were discovered dead, where she finds and watches the aforementioned video. She then receives a call with no one on the other end of the line immediately after seeing the movie, which featured difficult-to-understand symbolisms, indicating the one-week countdown. The remainder of the film gradually reveals the mystery of the video’s production, as Reiko and her ex-husband Ryuuji go to various locations in Japan based on clues obtained from analysing the video.
As it turns out, the video was made by Sadako, a girl with psychokinetic abilities who was killed by her father seeking vengeance. Her father beat her with a blunt object and shoved her into a well, from which she struggled to escape.
After discovering this, Reiko and Ryuuji devise a plan to appease Sadako’s ghost by emptying the well of water and removing her corpse from it. Reiko ultimately discovers the corpse after hours and hours of emptying this water, just before her one-week timer expires, rescuing her. Or so she believed, since a few days later, Sadako appears on Ryuuji’s television screen, becoming not just the film’s conclusion, but also one of cinema’s most famous sequences. Sadako ultimately appears to the audience after more than an hour of an incredibly tense and spooky environment, and her look leaves an imprint on anybody who views the film that they will never, ever forget. This was all it took to take Ryuuji’s life as he came out of the television.
The film finishes with Reiko learning the actual cause for her deliverance from the curse. She’ll be OK as long as she copies the video and presents it to someone else.
Because of its success in Japan, this film was adapted for American audiences. After this, additional J Horror films, such as The Grudge and Dark Water, were adapted for the big screen in the United States.
The Ringu is a Japanese horror film worth seeing if you’re looking for something different from the usual fare of jump scares and slashers. Hopefully, you won’t wake up to an unexpected phone call after seeing this.
Watch The Ring on BFI Player
The Ring is available on BFI Player, and is updated with new classic and contemporary Japanese films.
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