SHRIEK Women of Horror: Ringu

Ringu Ring sadako eye

by Evan J Peterson & Heather Marie Bartels

SHRIEK has moved to Naked City Brewery and Taphouse in Greenwood! Scarecrow Video continues to be a sponsor, providing us DVD usage and blog space. We will still have occasional events at Scarecrow, but we begin our new Sunday meetings this weekend, Sept. 11 at Naked City with Ringu, a Japanese franchise that ignited an American hunger for Asian horror. Tickets here:
Ringu (Ring) (1998)

Director: Hideo Nakata

Writers: Hiroshi Takahashi (screenplay), Koji Suzuki (novel)

Nudity: None

Major actors: Nanako Matsushima, Hiroyuki Sanada, Rikiya Otaka

Gore: almost none

Body Count: no spoilers!

Major Protagonists: Female and male

Villain/Antagonist: Female

Does it pass the Bechdel-Wallace test? Yes! Female characters dominate and consistently discuss the mystery, rather than men.

Evan says:

I am woefully underinformed on Asian horror and its influence on Western horror. I’ll open with that.

Nonetheless, the SHRIEK community asked for more international films and more POC protagonists. To fulfill these requests, I picked Ringu as one of the films we should watch and discuss in 2016. Because life is awesome, it turns out Heather is an academic authority on Ringu, having studied it extensively in context. I asked her to take the lead this month, and she suggested we pair Ringu, perhaps the best known recent Japanese horror film, with a highly respected and popular Korean film, A Tale of Two Sisters.

This opens up many possibilities for our discussions at the event. Will we discuss Kwaidan, Onibaba, Jigoku, and other classic vintage Asian horror, and the cross-pollination among the horror cinema of East and West? Is that reductive?

The fascination with Ringu is no surprise. Anime and manga have huge U. S. followings, and these industries and media have opened the gate to more and more American fascination with Japanese culture, then branching from there into Indian Bollywood, Korean Cinema, etc.

It’s also no surprise that many North Americans who enjoy our remake of The Ring are unaware that it was originally a Japanese film, and a popular Japanese novel before that. I think the 2002 Gore Verbinksi remake is weirder, more beautiful, and more fun than the Japanese original, but I want to expose more SHRIEK attendees to the original. We need to also look at it with context in mind; a hot deadbeat dad and a single journalist mom are not unusual in American cinema or American culture by 2002. However, these are groundbreaking characters for Japanese pop culture in the 90s.

The Ring, our version of it, brought some popular tropes of Japanese and Asian horror to America, especially:

*the female ghost with hair hanging in her face, looking possibly drowned (we can see this in illustrations centuries old). This type of ghost is commonly called yurei, and she’s usually restless due to a bad death.

*the fear of everyday technology as cursed or a gateway to the supernatural. Americans may think of cursed videotapes and telephones as silly, like Stephen King at his most campy. In the Japanese idiom, cursed technology is a staple of pop culture. I do not think we should reduce this trend to mere post-nuclear anxiety in Japan. I think there’s more to it.

After the adaptation of Ringu, America got an itch for Japanese and Asian horror: The Grudge, One Missed Call, etc. I look forward to exploring all of this with you on Sunday, Sept. 11, at Naked City Brewery in Greenwood.

Heather says:

Below is an excerpt from a paper I wrote in 2012, titled “An Argument for the Inclusion of South Korea’s The Ring Virus in the Ring Canon.” I know, I know, it’s a clunky title. The purpose of the paper was to argue that there is importance in South Korea’s version of the Ring story, at least in regards to culture and film history. For the September screenings at SHRIEK, we will be dipping our toes into what horrors Japan and South Korea have to offer and then discussing feminism, cultural norms, family and fear. Until then, I humbly offer a brief clip of my writing.

On the relationship between Ringu, J-horror and South Korea:

A cursed video tape that causes you to die seven days after viewing it. A woman desperate to discover the origins of the tape’s curse in order to save her son’s life. A psychic girl’s long and horrible death in a deep well. The basic storyline of the Ring films is well-known. Even those who have been too afraid to view the films (after hearing how the films terrified others) are familiar with the now iconic images of a ghostly girl with black hair in her face, climbing out of a television screen.

The first version of the Ring story in the North American idiom was Gore Verbinski’s 2002 film The Ring, and it was unlike anything fans of North American horror films had seen before. Due to the film’s distinctly un-Hollywood style, the majority of North Americans were aware that The Ring was a remake of the Japanese film Ringu from 1998, which was itself based on the 1991 novel  Ring, by Koji Suzuki. In fact, by 2003 one could walk into any generic video store in the United States and find Ringu on the shelves among the meager offerings of non-Hollywood films. Academics began writing about the films, comparing Japan’s Ringu and Hollywood’s The Ring and analyzing what made them so popular internationally. The term “J-horror” entered the vernacular of those interested in genre film.

Chika Kinoshita defines J-horror as “a group of relatively low-budget horror films made in Japan during the late 1990’s, such as the Ringu cycle.” (104, Horror to the Extreme) This specific meaning of J-horror is not what is often meant by horror fans—they use it to categorize any violent or scary film from Japan. David Kalat, author of the book J-Horror, extends the meaning even further to include films from Korea and Hong Kong. He argues that:

“…the genre is not exclusively Japanese. [Korean horror films] are so close in style and content to the Japanese ones there’s no good reason to coin a new term (K-Horror? Why bother?), and for that matter there are a handful of titles from Hong Kong as well.” (9, J-horror)

Kalat believes that Korean and Japanese horror are interchangeable enough that they should be put into the same category. I disagree with his assertion on the similarities between the two and believe his view to be an orientalist one that homogenizes the two nations and disregards the need to study their cinema within its individual cultural context.

South Korean horror has been ignored internationally until recently, with the rise of “hallyu,” the Korean New Wave. Films such as Kim Jee-woon’s A Tale of Two Sisters (2003),  Bong Joon-ho’s The Host (2006), and Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy (2003) have achieved international popularity and contributed to the increase in study and publication on South Korean film in general. In the essay “The Unobscure Object of Desire and Horror: On Some Uncanny Things in Recent Korean Horror Films,” author Seo Hyun-suk discusses a trend in Korean horror, what he refers to as the “thing film.” These are films that feature an everyday object such as a phone, cello or apartment that becomes haunted by a female ghost, who then uses the object to seek revenge or spread her resentment. In this essay, Seo declares the Japanese Ringu as the “likely precedent of the Korean object-driven fantasies.” While this may be true, there is something that makes me question the conclusion Seo has made: South Korea has its own version of the Ring story, Kim Dong-bin’s film The Ring Virus. The Ring Virus was released a year and a half after Ringu, in June of 1999,  but Korea’s strict laws regarding imports prohibited release of Nakata’s Ringu in Korea until after it had won an award in December of 1999, six months after the theatrical release of The Ring Virus. (32, 41 Horror to the Extreme)

This means that the first film version of the Ring story available in South Korean theaters was Kim Dong-bin’s The Ring Virus.  (Film pirating is not uncommon in Korea, so it would be safe to say that pirated copies of Ringu had made their way to South Korea in the two years since its Japanese release. However, I don’t believe the viewership of pirated copies of films is anywhere near as large as the viewership of films in theaters so I do not believe the effect of these pirated copies was large enough to have inspired an entire genre of Korean film.)

My question is why is The Ring Virus wholly neglected in the Ring canon, and in discussions of South Korean horror? Many scholars have written on Japan’s Ringu and North America’s The Ring, but I was unable to find one single paper about South Korea’s The Ring Virus while researching. As more people are beginning to look towards South Korean cinema as a point of academic interest, the hole left by the ignorance surrounding South Korea’s contribution to the Ring series, Kim Dong-bin’s film The Ring Virus, becomes increasingly glaring. This lack of awareness is especially odd when one considers that The Ring Virus is the closest of all the films to its source material, Koji Suzuki’s novel Ring, and includes such filmically taboo topics as rape and intersexuality.

Evan J. Peterson is a college professor, author, and journalist. He is a Clarion West alum, and he received his MFA from Florida State University. His writing has been featured in The Stranger, Weird Tales, Queers Destroy Horror, and The Rumpus. His books include The Midnight Channel, Skin Job, and Ghosts in Gaslight, Monsters in Steam: Gay City 5. He lives in Seattle with his werewolf, Dorian Greyhound.

Heather Marie Bartels is the Managing Director of the Rainier Independent Film Festival, graduate from the University of Washington Cinema Studies department, and host of the film and feminism podcast “Turn Up The Ladybro.” She spends most of her spare time introducing the uninitiated to the wonders of horror and finding the best ramen in town.


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