Ring (1998): “The Most Important J-Horror For Good Reason”

Hideo Nakata’s Ring is famously the film that triggered the western world’s awareness that yes, Asian countries do make horror films. It also famously triggered a slew of sequels and remakes, from the Korean The Ring Virus to the recent American Rings. It’s undeniably important in horror cinema, but being important does not necessarily mean being good. So at the distance of twenty years, what’s it like now? Did it deserve all the praise it originally got? Yes, it did; it isn’t flawless, but a rewatch makes all the clearer just what its virtues are.

The film’s story is about a journalist, Reiko, who is researching an urban legend about a cursed videotape which kills its victims a week after they watch it. It turns out to be rather more than just a legend when Reiko finds the video and becomes a victim herself. She has a week to work with her ex-husband, Ryuji, to find out who made the video and to escape the curse.

Ring works best as a mood piece, relying heavily on its cinematography and soundtrack. The structure of the film is geared towards accumulating tension, starting with the moment when Reiko watches the cursed video. The video itself seems completely nonsensical, being a collection of disparate images with no seeming rhyme or reason. The tape is VHS, and it’s degraded, so even when we know what we’re seeing, such as a woman combing her hair in front of a mirror, there is always a discomforting visual barrier between us and the image. For me, however, the most disturbing thing about the tape is never made explicit: if the tape has degraded, it’s probably been played a lot. Exactly how many victims have there been?

We only watch the video once. That’s enough; occasionally we see parts of it when Reiko and Ryuji are examining it for clues, but we only need one complete viewing to know that the video is something beyond human experience. It turns out that most of the images in the video are indeed clues, and they help lead Reiko to the truth behind the curse, but not all of the video can be explained by this. Even when we know as much as we will be told about the tape, there is something kept back. In fact, throughout the film, there always seems to be something kept back visually, which separates us from the complete truth. A good example of this is when we are shown an important flashback. During the flashback, the film takes on a monochrome and grainy quality that implies that normal reality no longer applies.

When we think of videos, we usually think of visual properties. But videos also have soundtracks, and on rewatching Ring I was just as impressed by the film’s soundtrack by Kenji Kawai. It matches the cursed video brilliantly. It’s disorientating and threatening, adding immeasurably to the feeling of doom that hangs over the film. Since it feels so unfamiliar, it gives the impression that it comes from somewhere different, somewhere unknown, and somewhere where our reality is out of joint.

There isn’t much in Ring that was particularly new, even at the time of its release. It’s not the first film about an urban legend being true, and even the film’s most famous scene has been done before, but the elements come together so well that the lack of novelty doesn’t matter much. However, Ring does have some real flaws. Nakata relies too often on jump scares, for example, and they feel at odds with the slow-growing tension of film in general. It’s strange that Reiko decides to watch the tape when she already has good evidence that there’s something profoundly wrong with it, even if she doesn’t quite believe in the curse. The plot is also carried in part by Ryuji knowing things that he shouldn’t know; he has some psychic talent enabling him to make these discoveries, but it’s pretty clear that this is just a plot contrivance.

These are just minor faults, though, and they are nowhere near enough to ruin the film. Ring is the most famous film of the J-horror sub-genre, and it deserves it because of the care and the skill that went into its construction. Whatever remakes and sequels it led to, it remains a triumph in its own right.




One thought on “Ring (1998): “The Most Important J-Horror For Good Reason””

  1. Adam Fairhall says:

    Nice appreciative review, but I don’t think Ryuji’s psychic abilities are a plot contrivance; assumptions of psychic ability are so rife in japanese culture and everyday discourse that it would seem weird for a Japanese supernatural film to not include such a character. At least, it fits naturally when the film is viewed in a Japanese cultural context. The way Ryuji’s abilities fail to save him is one of the film’s most horrifying aspects, and marks a difference between the kind of denouement favoured by east Asian horror and the redemptive resolutions favoured by Hollywood.

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