In Japan, the “lord of the rings” is female, dressed in white with long black hair. The girl’s name is Sadako, an evil ghost child who first appeared in Koji Suzuki’s 1991 horror novel “The Ring” and went on to lead one of the biggest horror franchises of all time.
To this day, Sadako remains an immediately recognizable figure, popular Halloween costume and one of the most dreaded nicknames for school-age Japanese women. I personally know three women who cut off their long hair in fear of being called Sadako during elementary school. Almost two decades later, they still shudder at the name.
The premise of “The Ring” is deceptively simple. First, there is Sadako, who had been thrown into a well. A videotape turns up and it soon transpires that anyone who watches the tape suffers a gruesome death seven days after seeing it.
In 1998, “The Ring” became an A-lister-studded movie starring Nanako Matsushima and Hiroyuki Sanada that grossed more than ¥1 billion.
In 2002, Sadako was renamed Samara and appeared alongside Naomi Watts in a Hollywood remake also called “The Ring,” which was directed by Gore Verbinski.
A less-successful effort was the sequel (also starring Watts) that was released three years later and directed by Japan’s Hideo Nakata, who directed the first “Ring” movie. Nakata was presumably brought in to work his box-office magic but, when that failed, “The Ring” fever abated.
Still, the phenomenon spawned a new cinematic genre called “J-horror” and paved the way for other Hollywood remakes, most notably the “The Juon” (“The Grudge”) franchise.
Last year, America got its third “Ring” — “Rings,” which finally opens in Japanese theaters (titled “Za Ringu: Ribasu,” or “The Rings: Rebirth”) on Jan. 26. Directed by F. Javier Gutierrez, I’m happy to report that even after all these years, “Rings” has retained that unique flavor.
Samara is still around, striking terror into the hearts of people who watch her secret on the cursed videotape. And true to the original Japanese movie (and the subsequent Hollywood remakes), the female protagonist who battles Samara is an ace team player with a strong sense of self-sacrifice. Bearing the weight of the world on her shoulders, she doesn’t seem to notice that the very person who is supposed to support her — her boyfriend — is about as much use as a bloody nose.
The strength of women
According to Suzuki, women — and, more often than not, mothers — are expected to do all the heavy lifting to save their loved ones in the world of “The Ring” — and almost always at the cost of their own lives.
In the case of “Rings,” heroine Julia (Matilda Lutz) is so devoted to her boyfriend, Holt (Alex Roe), that when he stops responding to her text messages she hotfoots it over to his college to find out what the heck is going on. There she discovers that Holt is part of an experiment conducted by a mad scientist-type professor named Gabriel (Johnny Galecki), who has digitized the Samara tape and is showing it to his students, fully aware of the seven-day curse.
The professor reasons that if anyone dies, it will prove the existence of the supernatural. On the other hand, in a half-hearted way he wants to prevent widespread carnage, and so he decides to restrict the viewing of the tape to his own circle of students.
Men, it seems, are rarely cast in a good light in the “Ring” franchise, while women routinely pick up the pieces and restore world order.
Consider the last scene in the original “Ring”: Nanako Matsushima’s character is on her way to her father’s house to show him the tape. She knows that by doing so she’ll die and he’ll die, but it’s the only way she can save her young son. It’s a tough decision, but the women in “The Ring” always put their children first.
Incidentally, Suzuki was one of the first ikumen (men engaged in child-rearing and homemaking) to go public — that is, he stayed home to write and take his kids to day care while his wife went out to work.
Suzuki once told me in an interview that he realized the wondrous strength of women when he had to do “a mother’s work.” Compared to women, he said, “men are absolute wimps.”
Suzuki’s favorite heroines are working mothers with children to raise and protect, usually from the curse of other children, or teens abused by a parent.
In the latest “Rings,” Gutierrez takes the “Ring” formula and recasts it in a millennial-friendly format. Consequently there’s less emphasis on the family and more stress on issues surrounding social media.
Julia wants to protect Holt but, eventually, she also wants to “understand” and “help” Samara. That seems like taking self-sacrifice a little too far, even for a “Ring” heroine. Julia’s own motives for that remain murky, while the latter half of the story becomes heavily psychoanalytical.
Does “Rings” work? While the segment about digitizing that fated tape and turning it into a science experiment is interesting, “Rings” doesn’t really follow that up, and the further the story progresses, the less relevance it seems to have. Most damaging of all is that the fright factor is not as powerful as in the other “Ring” iterations, and in the process of transferring VHS tape to a computer screen, Samara’s evil mojo becomes fragmented and significantly diminished.
In the end, however, “Rings” redeems itself, at least in the eyes of Suzuki, who issued a statement to the press that simply said, “It is faithful to the original story and very scary.”
The final scenes are a throwback to that scene in the original 1998 Japanese version and the sight of Julia resolving to save her loved ones is a spot-on channelling of Matsushima, driving to her father’s place with the Sadako tape. For fans of “The Ring,” this trip down memory lane may actually bring tears to the eyes.
Welcome back, Sadako — we certainly missed you!
A short primer on ‘The Ring’ franchise
There are seven movies in the “Ring” franchise, four made in Japan and three in the United States. Sadako has quite a shelf life, considering that her normal mode of existence is in a VHS videotape that necessitates a working VCR to bring her to life. Here are the titles, in chronological order:
“The Ring” opened in 1998. Directed by Hideo Nakata, “The Ring” stars Nanako Matsushima, Hiroyuki Sanada and Miki Nakatani. Of the trio, Matsushima and Sanada’s characters fail to survive Sadako’s curse. However, Nakatani, who played Sanada’s lover, appears in the sequel “Rasen” (“The Spiral”).
“The Spiral” was also released in 1998, just after “The Ring.” Directed by Joji Iida, “The Spiral” starred Koichi Sato and Miki Nakatani. This time, Sadako transplants herself in the body of Nakatani’s character, Mai, and sets out to wreak all sorts of havoc.
“The Ring 2” opened in 1999. Directed by Hideo Nakata, “The Ring 2” stars Miki Nakatani and Kyoko Fukada. “The Ring 2” was supposedly created to replace “The Spiral,” which performed relatively poorly at the box office. In it, Nakatani’s Mai battles Sadako, who lived in the fated well for 30 years before finally dying and then morphing into an evil ghost.
“Ringu 0: Basudei” (“Ring 0: Birthday”)was released in 2000. Directed by Norio Tsuruta, it stars Yukie Nakama and Kumiko Aso. Based on a short story by Koji Suzuki, “Ring 0: Birthday” tells the tale of a 18-year-old Sadako when she was an aspiring stage actress who had yet to be touched by evil.
“The Ring” opened in 2002. Directed by Gore Verbinski, “The Ring” stars Naomi Watts, Martin Henderson and Brian Cox. This was the official Hollywood remake of the original “Ring” and the poster featuring Watts’ screaming face appeared all over Japan.
“The Ring Two” was released in 2005. Directed by Hideo Nakata, “The Ring Two” stars Naomi Watts, David Dorfman and Sissy Spacek. Nakata’s foray into Hollywood didn’t exactly cause fireworks but, by now, J-horror had become an established thing.
“Rings” opened in the United States in 2017. Directed by F. Javier Gutierrez, “Rings” stars Matilda Lutz, Alex Roe and Johnny Galecki. In the latest installment in the franchise, Samara goes digital, boding unspeakable evil for smartphone and tablet users everywhere. “Rings” (“Za Ringu: Ribasu,” or “The Rings: Rebirth”) opens in Japan on Jan. 26.