Ringu vs. The Ring: The Culture Cycle
By, Kristin Grady
Before you die, you see the ring. The chilling concept of a lethal film has universal appeal because of cinema’s profound effect on our psychology. American remakes of Japanese horror films became popular in the early 2000’s after the release of The Ring (2002), based on the 1998 independent film Ringu. Kansei Engineering is a Japanese method of technological development which requires a product to appeal not only to the reason of the buyer, but to their senses as well. Born (perhaps unconsciously) from this concept, a VHS tape can record family-oriented home videos or the hideous visions of a deranged psychic child. The constant evolution of Japanese technology reflects the cyclical nature of the cursed video tape, which must be passed on like a deadly chain letter.
Dreamworks applied spectacular graphics, additional creative plot points, and positive character development to this low-budget, yet intensely frightening feature. Americanized versions of Japanese films have been progressively gaining respect for their inspiration. The Ring borrowed numerous characteristics from Ringu, many improved upon by advanced digital effects and more in-depth storytelling. Today, accusations of cultural appropriation arise whenever Americans remake a foreign film. Though it is unfair to judge a nearly twenty year old film through the modern lens, the question may still persist, where is the line between cultural appreciation and appropriation?
Ringu is a quiet, subtle film that builds to a horrifying conclusion. The title is a reference to the villain Sadako’s cyclical murder hauntings, rather than the upward view from the bottom of a well. Ringu’s superb cinematographic visuals were constructed with the geometric sophistication and serene presence of its graphic novel basis. Japanese audiences are accustomed to this tranquil, contemplative cinematic style. Audition (1999) has a similar delicate aesthetic contrasted by shocking violence.
According to IMDB trivia, the $1.2 million production budget was provided by director Hideo Nakata, who expertly crafted a universally popular film with relatively finite resources. Many Americans were introduced to Ringu after seeing The Ring, so prior references definitely changed their viewing experiences, despite cultural differences. Ringu has a cult status in the United States, so even though we aren’t all used to Japanese filmmaking styles, the film has enough innate cultivation of fear to have global appeal.
Side-by-side comparisons of Ringu and The Ring show visuals artfully curated from the original, impressive technical complexities, and a more pronounced cinematic presentation. Japanese culture is still very male-dominated, so this update shows several progressive scenes where Rachel has more agency and character development than Reiko. The “Into the Well” scene is exemplary of this change. Before entering the well to retrieve Sadako’s corpse, Reiko breaks down crying and is abusively smacked by Heihachiro. Rachel gets pushed into the well by a possessed tv, but immediately starts looking for the corpse rather than a way out.
The Ring made no overtly racist depictions of Japanese people, despite borrowing the style and plot of the film, then changing the location and races of the characters. Switching the race of the character doesn’t always necessarily perpetuate stereotypes, but white actors still hold the majority of starring roles in Hollywood films. Casting choices are often based on what sells rather than a conscious racial bias, so the whitewashing of The Ring could be weighed against the general capitalist nature of the film industry. The answer to the question of whether this remake hurts or helps the cause of eradicating racism in the media is vaguely subjective, and ultimately up to the viewer to decide.
Sadako vs. Samara
The villain is always the best part of a horror movie. Samara was the most popular Halloween costume in 2003. Sadako is still eerily crawling through a plethora of Japanese sequels, gaining a hero/villain status akin to Gojira (Godzilla). Both characters are ghosts of little girls who were murdered and thrown in a well. They seek vengeance through a cursed video tape, created via their psychic spirit photography projection powers. In life, they used these powers to burn torturous images into the minds of victims until fatal fates befell them. In every cultural context, little girl ghosts are inherently terrifying.
Ghosts are an integral aspect of Japanese culture. Vengeful spirits known as yūrei must be placated to the point where the government protects their shrines. Ringu’s villain Sadako is based on the legend of Okiku, a servant girl who was murdered (or committed suicide, depending on the version) and thrown in a well. Okiku’s well is real, located next to Himeji castle, a protected site. The lasting legacy of Okiku appears in a variety of Japanese art forms, but Sadako has become the most prevalent due to the modernization of her ancient inspiration and global distribution.
Sadako’s unnatural movements are based on Kabuki, an influential Japanese dance form and one of the many stylistic incarnations of Okiku’s ancient tale. Sadako more closely resembles a Butoh dancer, which is a ghostly performance art form evolved from Kabuki, dedicated to the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The color white is associated with death in Japan, hence Sadako’s white dress. Long black hair and flowing white garments are typical in depictions of yūrei. Ringu’s villain gets very little screen time, but her appearances inspire all-consuming horror. We sense her non-corporeal presence contrasted by the very real threat of her murderous pursuit. Overall, Sadako is iconic in the horror movie villain lexicon, emulated in countless films since 1998, because buckets of blood and all the liquid latex in the world can’t make up for an expertly crafted character.
Samara gets a more detailed backstory than Sadako, in addition to more screen time. We get to see her alive, a timid child being interrogated by doctors who don’t understand her psychic powers. She has the shoulder hunch of an abuse victim, looking so cold and isolated in that bare room. Immediate sympathy arises. Until…
You don’t want to hurt anyone.
But I do, and I’m sorry, it won’t stop.
Humans have collective empathy for villains, no matter how terrifying, because they reflect the evil in us and we seek the good, for our own redemption. Eastern and Western religions preach a variety of dogmatic views of the afterlife, but a battle between good and evil always exists in our metaphysical forms. Horror movies provide a catharsis for that internal tension in every culture where cinema exists.
Sadako and Samara are sympathetic villains because they didn’t choose to be villains, they were born that way and were made into yūrei, eternally trapped in a vengeance-seeking cycle of death. They share a basic appearance, identical psychic powers, methods of attack, and similar plot points. Was Sadako’s race changed to an American preference for northern European descendants in starring roles, or were the producers hesitant to portray a Japanese character as the villain? Was it a gray area between both? Nevertheless, we can still appreciate each of these tragic spirits individually, regardless of their race.
The Murder Scene
Both Sadako’s and Samara’s parents found an extremely violent solution to their child’s problem. The murder scene in Ringu is perpetrated by Sadako’s father, who clubs her over the head before pushing her into the well. This shot is long-distance, grainy filtered to appear old-timey, and has a bit of a cartoony sound effect that gives away the low-budget creation of the film, but it is no less shocking to see a parent murder a child. Homicide rates are relatively low in Japan, so Japanese audiences must have been exponentially more horrified than an American audience numbed to the violence in cinema.
“All I ever wanted was you…” Samara’s mother whispers after wrapping her daughter’s head in a plastic bag and bashing it with a rock. A long shot down the well shows Samara was still alive as she fell and drowned. The severity of violence was increased to match American tolerance (due to our 24-hour panic-inducing news cycle) and the gender change of the murderous parent may have been inspired by numerous real life maternal infanticides in the US. Each scene has its own cinematic merits, Ringu making the most of fewer resources, and The Ring achieving a visually stunning sequence built on that basis. Race isn’t an issue in either scene. This is a culture-transcendent human instinct to destroy what we don’t understand, even our own offspring.
The TV Scene
Ringu and The Ring share a climatic scene…
Ringu creates a shadowy, hopeless aura of impending doom. Sadako arises from the well in a perfectly white dress because she’s a yūrei, a spiritual apparition, rather than a zombie. The low-budget production style utilized creative cinematography/editing techniques rather than digital renderings to portray this disturbing climax. At the peak of horror, Sadako’s lashless, bloodshot eye stares at us from behind a curtain of stringy black hair, projecting her eternal rage into our souls.
Color is the most obvious difference between these two scenes. Blues and greens reminiscent of crashing computer screens splash this scene with our inherent terror of technology we don’t understand. Samara seems to have brought the digital appearance of her tape into the real world with her. We don’t know if Samara is a ghost, a zombie, a psychic projection, or a combination of all three, and that unknown is petrifying. Samara’s face appears half-covered by her hair as it was in her interrogation scene. She looks up at us and her expression contorts into murderous rage. We feel Noah’s impending doom, but we also get the irrational sense Samara will slip through our screens next.
The adaptation of Ringu says a lot about the dominance of the US film industry on the global market and how studio budgets can augment independent films for the better. It also highlights the merits of Japanese filmmaking styles, provides advanced digital updates, and contains a lot of universal themes for all nationalities to enjoy. Educated horror fans generally enjoy both films, so whether you liked The Ring or not, it’s best not to get caught in a loop about it.
Kristin Grady is a freelance writer, video editor, and graphic designer in Hollywood. Check out more content on imaginationforsale.blog!
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