Sadako’s Secrets: Explaining “Ringu” at the Asian Art Museum
By Mark Frey (Kumamoto, 2002-06)
Ever wonder about the real back story of the legendary Japanese horror film, Ringu? In Summer of 2012, JET alum Mark Frey (Kumamoto, 2002-06) was invited to give two lectures introducing Ringu, and its American remake, The Ring, at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. In preparing for the lectures, he discovered that the movies, though modern in their presentation, were drawing from centuries of Japanese cultural history, including some of the country’s oldest and most gruesome ghost stories. In the following article, Mark shares some of his more interesting and unsettling discoveries. Read on…if you dare….
Do you remember the first time you saw the Japanese horror movie, Ringu? I do. I remember because the strange story in the movie was mirroring my own situation on JET a little too closely. I was living in the mountains of Aso, in the middle of Kyushu. For Halloween, I had the bright idea of organizing a sleepover for some friends further up in the mountains. These were the same dark mountains where tengu goblins and other awful things were rumored to still run around.
I’m embarrassed to say that it was long enough ago that videotapes were still in general use. So after a few hours of costumed revelry, we turned off the lights and put the Ringu videotape into the VCR. Soon we were watching some truly creepy happenings. At one point we were watching someone watching a cursed videotape in a cabin in some dark mountains that looked all too eerily like our own cabin. After watching some of the more disturbing images I’ve seen in my life, I slipped into my futon feeling a little unsettled. Right then my phone started ringing. I almost jumped out of my bed. “Unknown number,” the display said. I answered the phone…and exactly like in the movie…no one was there.
Safe to say, after that sleepless night, I would have been happy if I never had to think about that evil movie again. So imagine my feeling when the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco called me in the summer of 2012 and asked if I might not only watch Ringu again, but analyze it closely and give a couple lectures introducing it and its American remake, The Ring, at a pair of screenings they were hosting later that year in August and September. The nightmare was coming back.
I was also very flattered. The museum asked me to give these lectures based on the work I have been doing for JETAANC Kabuki Club, an open study group I started a few years ago to explore Japanese performing arts. In particular, the museum was interested in a series of classes I had led focusing on the Noh, Kabuki, Butoh, and chamber opera versions of two Japanese ghost stories, Sumidagawa and The Black Mound (Kurozuka).
The museum thought these classes related nicely to their Ringu screenings, which it was mounting as part of its “Phantoms of Asia” exhibition. The exhibition centered on a wide range of Asian art relating to ghosts and the supernatural, and so Ringu seemed like a perfect fit. I discussed the content of the lectures with the museum’s Manager of Public Programs, Allison Wyckoff. We decided that it might be interesting to present the audience with an overview of the traditions of Japanese art and film that the creators of Ringu were borrowing from when they made the movie..
In preparing for the lectures, I was surprised by many things. In the course of my research for Kabuki Club, I had discovered many unexpected things about Japanese culture and history. I suspected I would find equally unexpected things if I delved deep enough into the historical and cultural background of Ringu. I wasn’t wrong. My research, which drew from wide-ranging sources, suggested that Ringu was, in fact, drawing from long-standing traditions in Japanese art and film history, stretching back hundreds of years.
I thought that alumni and friends might also be interested in what I found, and so I am presenting some of my findings below. It’s my hope that they spark some food for thought when you next see these movies–maybe in a dark cabin in the Sierras?–making them more than just incredibly scary movies. Which, of course, they are.
**Spoiler alert** I will try not to give away any more of the story of Ringu than I have to. But there may be some spoilers in what follows, be forewarned!
Sadako as Pop Icon
As some of you might remember, Ringu came out in Japan in 1998, back before DVDs and digital media took over the media landscape. We all remember that if you wanted to watch a movie at home, you had to use a VCR. This, of course, is central to the story of Ringu. Sadako, the vengeful spirit at the center of the story, propagates her curse through videotapes. I suppose today, she would use a viral video on YouTube to curse her victims. In fact, this is the updated conceit of Sadako 3D, one of the many sequels to Ringu. Altogether, Ringu has spawned three sequels, one prequel, one Korean remake, and two Hollywood remakes, with another (the Hollywood remake of Sadako 3D) on the way.
What is more, Ringu kicked off a rebirth of the Japanese horror film as a genre, spawning a whole series of “J-horror” movies, most of which were remade by Hollywood, including Juon (The Grudge), Kairo (Pulse), Chakushin ari (One Missed Call), and Honogurai mizu no soko kara (Dark Water), along with all of their sequels. Vengeful Japanese spirits became big business.
They also became celebrities. Sadako, the ghost in Ringu, has become a pop icon in Japanese culture, much like Freddy Krueger from the Nightmare on Elm Street movies or Jigsaw from the SAW movies in America. Evidence of this is Sadako’s first pitch at a Marines vs Nippon Ham Fighters baseball game in 2012:
Sadako and the Dance of Darkness
Fans of the movie may not realize that Sadako’s appearance and movements were inspired in part by Butoh, a strange, grotesque dance form created in Japan after the horrors of World War II.
Click here to see one of the original Butoh dancers, Ohno Kazuo perform a Sadako-like dance, The Dead Sea.
Here is the founder of Butoh, Tatsumi Hijikata, in a pose that is evocative of Sadako’s disturbing appearance:
Sadako’s Ghostly Ancestors
Sadako’s appearance in the movie is initially shocking and unexpected. But she is actually drawing from a long history of Japanese ghosts. In particular, she shares many characteristics with classic yuurei ghosts. Yuurei are usually women with a white face, long black hair, and a long white kimono that trails off into mist where her legs should be. There is a simple reason for this appearance: this is how Japanese women looked when they were buried. Traditionally, Japanese women wore their hair tied up while living, but it was let down when they died. The body is dressed in a white kimono to show the purity of the person’s soul. The misty legs show that it is a spirit. Here are some famous yuurei ghosts from the history of Japanese art:
A famous example of a Japanese yuurei ghost who fits the general pattern is Okiku, from one of the most famous ghost stories, “Bancho Sarayashi.” Here is Yoshitoshi’s famous rendition of Okiku in the middle painting:
Okiku was a servant at the famous Himeji Castle in western Japan. A samurai tried to seduce her, but she spurned his advances. Enraged, he killed her and threw her into a water well. Okiku’s ghost haunts the well even today. Here is the actual well, which some of you may have seen while visiting the castle on JET:
Do you see the iron bars over it? Is that to keep us out? Or is it to keep Okiku in?:
The Well as a Symbol
There are a lot of stories in Japan about people dumping bodies into wells or about women committing suicide by throwing themselves into wells. Often, the stories involve men dumping a woman’s body into the well, such as happened to Okiku. In the case where the woman is trying to kill herself, it’s usually because of “man” troubles. So there is deep connection in Japanese culture between wells and troubled women.
The well itself as an object and place plays a very important role in Ringu. Because of it’s shape and character as a deep, dark, wet place, those with a Freudian bent could see it as a “yonic” symbol of female power. As such, it may be a locus of fear and wonder for men.
Whether you subscribe to these ideas or not, it cannot be denied that the well symbol has cropped up in many Japanese horror movies over the years. All of these movies are about sinister women ghosts. So might there not be a cultural archetype lurking here?
To illustrate my point, take a look at a few more examples from Japanese movies. This still is of the woman ghost in Onibaba, Kaneto Shindo’s classic horror movie from the 1960s:
In what is the reverse of what happens to Sadako, the ghost in Onibaba attacks men who pass by and throws them into a deep, dark, round hole:
Onibaba is based on a very old Japanese folktale called “The Black Mound” (Kurozuka, alternatively Adachigahara). As I mentioned before, JETAANC Kabuki Club explored the story as part of its “Black Mound Project” in 2012. (For more about this fascinating, gruesome story, visit JETAANC’s “Black Mound Project” page here.)
This shot is from Chakushin Ari 2 (One Missed Call 2). Another deep, dark, round hole:
What is more, wells hold water, which can also be a scary thing to many Japanese. Many Japanese believe that water is the pathway to the land of the dead. Water is used in Ringu and many other Japanese horror films to create an instantly spooky atmosphere for Japanese audiences.
Sadako on Celluloid
As an unholy spirit, Sadako shares many characteristic with ghosts that have appeared in Japanese horror movies over the years. Take a look at some of the patterns yourself:
Returning to Japanese folk tales, Sadako also has a lot in common with Oiwa, probably the most famous yuurei ghost in Japanese history:
Her story, usually called “Yotsuya Kaidan,” has been retold countless times in as many media, including Kabuki plays, manga, anime, and numerous movies. Like Okiku, Oiwa has a sad story. Her husband poisoned and killed her so that he could go off and marry another woman. Adding insult to injury, he nailed Oiwa to a door and dumped her into the river.
In the Kabuki version, Oiwa brushes her long black hair. We can’t see her face.
Soon, she is brushing out bloody clumps of hair, never a good sign. Suddenly, she sits up and we see that her face is horribly disfigured:
The image of a woman brushing her long black hair and the image of a disturbing eye suddenly revealed from behind long black hair obscuring the face are two key images in Ringu. Click here to see a video of the scene.
Oiwa, like Sadako, is a quintessential Japanese ghost for another reason: her desire for revenge. The origin of this can be found in Japanese beliefs about what happens after you die. As you know, many Japanese do not practice only one religion. Most are syncretic, believing in many different ideas, including strands of Buddhist, Shinto, Taoist, and Confucian thought. Whatever their spiritual leanings, most Japanese believe that when you die, your spirit is impure and unsettled. For the next seven years, you must purify your soul, detach yourself from the cares of the world, and achieve some degree of peaceful repose. In the meantime, you are floating between the world of the living and the world of the dead.
So, yuurei ghosts are usually spirits, usually of women, who are in this netherworld between the living and the dead. Some of them died with a strong attachment to something, making it difficult to achieve peace. They may be strongly attached to a thing or a person. Sometimes, though, they are attached to a strong emotion they were feeling when they died: hatred, jealousy, sadness, or rage. Their feelings prevent their spirit from becoming pure and peaceful. Some of these ghosts were hurt terribly by someone before they died, and now all they want is revenge.
These kinds of ghosts who want revenge are called onryou, the worst kind of yuurei. In most cases, onryou were women who were “done wrong” by a man. Often the man cheated on these women and then killed them. So the onryou ghosts come back to our world for one thing, plain and simple: revenge. Both Okiku and Oiwa are this kind of onryou ghost.
Click here to see the Kabuki version of Oiwa coming back for revenge.
Here is Okiku, the ghost who lives in the well, getting revenge:
Sadako, the ghost in Ringu, is like all of these onryou ghosts; she wants revenge for something terrible that people did to her.
Sadako’s Sisters Around the World
How is Ringu like other stories about evil female spirits? A good example a little closer to home is the Salem witch trials, which, as we learned in school, happened in Salem, Massachusetts about 300 years ago. The people in Salem convinced themselves that some of the women in their town were witches with evil powers. They eventually hanged and killed 15 of them for being “witches.” In Europe, too, women were burned at the stake for being different and weird.
In fact, there is a long history in almost every culture of the world of strong women with special powers being abused, imprisoned, tortured, and killed, usually by men who are afraid of their powers. Japan was no different. As a result, many of their ghost stories involve a woman being abused and killed. Then her angry ghost comes back for revenge as an onryou. These stories may have their origins in male shame and fear or else in female resentment and sympathy.
Sadako’s story fits squarely into this tradition. She was murdered by her father, that ultimate symbol of male authority. This opens up the possibility of a feminist reading in which Sadako’s rage avenges the injustices committed by men against women throughout history. There is a lot more we could say in this direction.
Interestingly, the American version, The Ring, undercuts this theme by making her mother, not the father, the one to push her into the well with the intent to kill her. Perhaps then The Ring says more about the complicated relationship between mothers and daughters than about power relations between the sexes? There is much more to be said here as well.
Based on a True Story?
What a lot of people might not know is that Ringu is actually based on a true story. I find this to be one of the creepier aspects of the story. Ringu is based on a book by the Japanese horror author, Kouji Suzuki. Suzuki in turn based aspects of his story on the real-life stories of two Japanese women. One, Chizuko Mifune, lived about a hundred years ago in Kumamoto Prefecture and was said to have the power of ESP.
In similar fashion to Sadako’s similarly-named mother (Shizuko), Chizuko became the test subject of a professor, in this case Tomokichi Fukurai of Tokyo University. Fukurai organized a public demonstration for Chizuko to show her psychic powers, much like Sadako’s father did in the movie. As in the movie, people present at the demonstration castigated her as charlatan. Chizuko fell into a deep depression and then killed herself, aged 25.
Turning the screw a bit further, just one year before Chizuko’s death, another psychic was born in Japan who would became famous for her gift of nensha. Nensha is the ability to use psychic powers to burn an image onto a piece of film–or into someone’s mind.
Her name? Takahashi Sadako.
Incidentally, the institute of parapsychology that Fukurai founded still exists, at Shingon Buddhist Koyasan University.
Samara: Sadako, American-Style
Impressed by the success of Ringu, Hollywood produced a remake, The Ring, in 2002. The director, Gore Verbinski, and production designer, Tom Duffield, moved the story to the American Pacific Northwest, and based the visual style of the film on the paintings of the American artist, Andrew Wyeth. Wyeth’s paintings are lonely, sad, and a little bit sinister. Scenes in The Ring are reminiscent of Wyeth’s paintings. In particular:
Oddly enough, Wyeth even painted a well:
In The Ring, Verbinski also pays tribute to Alfred Hitchcock. The tribute is direct in at least two scenes, one referencing Jimmy Stewart’s peeping tom from Hitchcock’s Rear Window and the other echoing the legendary shower scene from Psycho. Verbinski most likely admired Hitchcock’s ability to control and direct the emotions of his audience members, causing them to tie themselves in knots with a growing feeling of suspense and dread. (Incidentally, one of Hitchcock’s first films, a silent movie about a boxer, was called The Ring.)
In general, the American version of Ringu makes concrete and specific what the Japanese original leaves murky and ambiguous. More than one film critic, including Roger Ebert, has suggested that The Ring explains too much. The most striking example is Verbinski’s decision to reveal Samara/Sadako’s entire face at the climactic moment of the movie. In contrast, by revealing only a single, baleful eye, the Japanese version forces the viewer to imagine what the rest of Sadako’s water-logged, decomposed face must look like. By leaving much to our imagination, Ringu may be the more effective horror film. We always imagine worse monsters in the dark.
Ringu as Morality Play?
Because Ringu is a revenge tale, we need to consider revenge as a concept. People usually try to get revenge because they were hurt in some way and they want to get back at the person who hurt them. This is human nature. If someone gets revenge, we say “justice is served.”
But is it? Or does revenge only result in more pain and more violence? Does it turn into an endless cycle of revenge and violence? A never ending “ring” of violence? As you watch Ringu, you may want to think about whether Sadako deserves to get revenge on the world because of what people did to her. Or is she just hurting innocent people?
Given her unrelenting desire for violent revenge, is there a way to stop Sadako? Is there any way to bring her soul some peace? In some Japanese Buddhist traditions, there are only two ways to stop a ghost from haunting you. One is to perform an exorcism, usually by a priest (as in The Black Mound). The other is to try to resolve what is bothering the ghost. The goal in both cases is to bring its soul peace and enlightenment.
Is there a way to resolve what’s bothering Sadako? The protagonist of the film tries to bring peace to Sadako’s soul, but it doesn’t seem to work. Sadako’s spirit is still angry, still trying to kill people.
During the post-film discussion at the Asian Art Museum, someone suggested that Sadako might be stopped if someone refused to copy the tape, thereby ending the propagation of the curse. Though a good idea, I have my doubts. As Sadako’s father warns in The Ring, “She never sleeps.” One of the disturbing implications of the film is that Sadako didn’t become evil because her father pushed her into the well to die, but that he pushed her into the well because she was evil. Under this interpretation, he realized her true nature and wanted to protect the world from her diabolical intentions. This thought frightens me more than any other about the film.
At the museum, we also had a lively discussion about the question: If you watched the cursed tape, would you try to save yourself by copying the tape and give it to someone? On the plus side, you get to live. On the negative side, you just sentenced someone to death. Someone said they would copy the tape and give it to a terminally ill person. I thought this an equally creative and gruesome solution.
Ghosts Real and Imagined
Returning to that cabin in the dark mountains of Aso where I watched Ringu for the first time, it turned out that it wasn’t Sadako on the other end of the line that night. My “friend” revealed the next morning that he had called me as part of a prank. But, for one sleepless night, I wasn’t sure. For one night, it seemed possible that ghosts were real.
(Copyright Mark Frey. All rights reserved. All images are included for educational purposes according to “fair use” provisions of copyright law. No copyright infringement intended. Any image will be removed upon request.)