How Ringu Broke an Unspoken Pact with the Audience

Ringu is a terrifying J-Horror classic and it achieved this by subverting an unwritten rule...

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

In the early 2000s, a new movement in horror hit Western audiences. It came from Japan, was known as “J-Horror” and it was scary as all hell. Though not the first of the new wave, Ringu was definitely the breakout hit of the subgenre and the one that landed big, introducing us to the long haired creepy girl-ghost trope that would quickly become ubiquitous. It certainly wasn’t the first use of this kind of ghostly character in Japanese cinema, but for many viewers, the sodden, jerky, strange Sadako with her giant eye and torn up fingernails was a revelation.

More than 20 years later (the film had an anniversary release this month – though the actual 20th was last year), Ringu still wields immense power and that’s partly because of its unique relationship with the audience. Ringu cuts through “the glass screen” and in doing so it also breaks an unspoken pact with the viewer, one we didn’t necessarily even know we had made.

In Ringu, a cursed VHS tape will kill the viewer seven days after they’ve watched it. Reporter Reiko Asakawa (Nanako Matsushima) is looking into the case after three teenagers who had reportedly watched the tape all died at the same time with contorted expressions of horror on their faces. Reiko finds the tape in a cabin where the youngsters stayed, watches it, and later inadvertently lets her young son watch it.

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So begins a race against time to discover the history of the tape and break the curse before the seven days are up. The beginning of the movie is scary, the middle is an unfolding mystery, and the end – when we finally understand what’s gone down and Sadako makes her jangly way towards the screen, and then, horrifically, through the screen and into the room – well, it’s unbearable. 

Kabuki actress Rie Ino’o (who plays Sadako) was filmed walking backwards in that jolting, jarring way and the footage was reversed to achieve a truly uncanny effect. Sadako’s eye isn’t hers either, it’s not even a woman’s eye, but doubled in by a male crew member to further increase the oddness of the whole scene.

It’s scary and uncanny anyway, but there’s more to it than that. Modern audiences are completely used to watching scary movies from the safe side of the glass screen of the TV – subconsciously, we equate the glass screen with unreality.

This can be a bit of a problem for things that actually are real. Go to a lecture and hear a real person tell you about the atrocities going on in the world, to you, direct, in a room and it has a serious impact. Watch it on the news and it’s easy to pretend it’s not real. The glass screen keeps us one step removed.

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I love horror films, and sometimes people who love horror films are accused of having a certain bloodlust, of liking horrible things. But obviously, those films aren’t real. I can sit through A Serbian Film just fine, but the one time in real life I saw an errant dog get hit by a car on a busy main road I was absolutely distraught (he was okay by the way). And this isn’t just me knowing that A Serbian Film isn’t real. I’ve also watched documentary Evil Genius where you see (and this is horrific) a bomb go off around a man’s neck. He was not ok. But the dog getting hit by the car was way worse.

It’s the same reason why the movie Ghost Stories – which is good, clever, well performed, and makes good use of VFX and editing – isn’t as scary as the play. In the play of Ghost Stories, arguably the most effective segment is the one involving the night watchman who’s haunted by a creepy child-like spirit. In the film, it’s good, in the play its bloody terrifying. Because even though it’s obviously not real, we’ve seen something that is real and it’s in the same room as the audience. The same goes for The Woman in Black – she’s in the room with you, whether you know it’s fiction or not.

Ringu makes the audience unknowingly complicit. We see the video within the film in its entirety before we really know or understand all the rules. And in the original version at least, we have no idea what we’re looking at. A woman brushes her hair. Japanese characters shift and twitch like ants. A man with a sheet on his head points at the ground. An eye. A well. 

Even watching it again now, out of context, it’s unsettling in an almost primal way. It’s wrong but you don’t know quite why and now you’ve seen it, so you are cursed too.

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And of course it’s only a film and it’s not real. Or it’s not, until the moment Sadako pushes her way through the television screen. You thought you were safe behind the glass screen: well now you’re not. And the one thing you knew for sure – that it’s not real because it’s a movie – turns out to be the thing that has cursed you in the first place. Because you watched a film, and thought it wasn’t real, Sadako’s coming out of your TV to get you.

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It’s not the first movie to break an unspoken “pact” with the audience. Psycho did it by killing off its main star at the end of the first act (mirrored by Scream decades later). A Nightmare on Elm Street did it by telling the audience that actually, no, your bad dreams ARE real. And The Blair Witch Project managed it again by trying to convince us that the whole thing was real.

But none of them broke a pact as succinctly and brutally as Ringu, pushing the breach beyond the narrative and into the practical, technical, and physical.

As a personal aside: I first watched Ringu on television very late at night many years ago back before J-Horror had hit the UK hard. I’d never seen a J-Horror movie before, was completely unfamiliar with the tropes and was completely freaked out by it. I watched on a small old TV set in the bedroom and when the film finished, the TV had transformed into something to be afraid of.

The glass screen was broken, the curse felt real and I was terrified. I had to find a way to neutralize it, and the only thing I could think of to do was to prove it wasn’t real by immersing myself in the behind the scenes elements of the film. I read the book, tracked down other work by director Hideo Nakata and writer Koji Suzuki, sought out pictures of the actors out of costume and became mildly obsessed with J-Horror, attempting to get my hands on, or at least read about, ever weirder J-horror films.

A former iteration of this website was instrumental in that and, eventually, I started writing the odd reader review for them (I was a journalist at the time, but not a film journalist). After a time, they let me write for the front page, and from there I started doing interviews, narrative profile pieces, and set visits, which eventually led to my first job on a movie magazine, more than a decade ago.

More than 20 years after its release and Ringu still holds up as one of the scariest movies of all time. So scary, in fact, it literally frightened me into becoming a film journalist.

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