“Not Your Grandmother’s ‘Vengeful Spirit'”

Review: Ringu (1998)

The thing you have to understand about the 1998 Japanese horror film Ringu is that it isn’t about revenge.

It isn’t about writing a wrong or having vengeance on those who have harmed.

It is, as stated by horror academic Katarzyna Ancuta in her article “Ringu and the Vortex of Horror: Contemporary Japanese Horror and the Technology of Chaos,” a film about knowledge:

Sadako’s insistence on killing her victims regardless of their attempts at appeasing her spirit demonstrates that if her behavior[sic] was intended to stimulate some sort of action, the action in question was not prompted by vengeance but by demand for reproduction and distribution.

Katarzyna Ancuta 23

Ancuta makes the case, citing Sadako, the villain ghost of the film, that due to the ghost’s disregard for the behavior of her victims–be they trying to atone or not caring–as well as her selection of victims, her actions are that of someone wishing to simply spread carnage rather than plot her revenge.

But to what end?

Ancuta, and myself for that matter, believe that aspect of “reproduction and distribution” is of paramount importance in understanding the film. Throughout Ringu the audience comes to learn the goal of the ghost is to create reproduction of the video tape featuring clues to her past. This isn’t an attempt to shame those who have done things to her but to spread her story.

And her story is that of modernizing Japan. World War 2 and the changes it brought was a watershed moment for that and other countries. Old ways, old governance, old traditions were giving way to more modern ones. The traditional spirituality of the people of Japan was giving way and being forgotten for the new world. A new world that had literally been dropped on them by the United States.

The ghost of Ringu lives in that liminal space between spiritualism and modernity, much as the demon of The Exorcist lived there. In The Exorcist, events kick off when we see modern men pulling spiritual artifacts from the Earth of the ancient world. In Ringu, we see spirits and demons fighting back to keep their hold over the attention and hearts of the Japanese people — their anger made manifest in a symbol of modern interconnectedness: the VHS tape.

Watching these films for Midnight Murderama has provided me with a unique perspective on them. I am seeing patterns emerge. The liminal space between natural/spiritual and unnatural/modern, between nature and man, comes up time and time again as a flash-point for the horrific events. Take Evil Dead–interlopers from the city into a wild space are literally fought by the forest. The Thing could be read modern man spitting in the eye of forbidding nature and incurring its wrath. To say nothing of The Happening or The Birds, which for my money are telling the same story.

Ringu is a classic film. Much loved and important both in its impact on Western horror but in its original reflection of Japanese anxieties, traditions, and fears in the late 90s. While it doesn’t have the polish or recognizable-to-Western-Audiences cast of the remake, it stands as horrifying, interesting, moody, and unforgettable.

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