Released in 1998 and exported to the United States in 2003, Hideo Nakata’s Ring (or Ringu) captures a world on the precipice – not just of a new millennium, but a whole new era. The proliferation of high-speed internet, file-sharing, the rise of social media, and an increasingly connected world would have profound implications on culture and society in every conceivable way in the decades to come. Nakata’s nightmarish vision of a vengeful spirit and a deadly curse perfectly encapsulates this transition.
Ring, and its primary antagonist Sadako Yamamura, anticipate many themes that would come to dominate 21st-century horror: the rise of J-horror; the popularity of remakes and endless sequels; anxieties around technology; and, most importantly, themes of virality and contagion, as evidenced by the ubiquity of zombie movies in the 21st century.
Sadako embodies all of these tensions as well as a number of other contradictions: analog/digital; past/future; male/female; fact/fiction, and East/West. She represents the totality of a particular moment, never settling into one position where she can be safely codified and dismissed. She is an allegory of the fulcrum between the 20th and the 21st century, as humanity collectively tumbled into the digital rabbithole of the Information Age, never again to be the same.
Ring follows Reiko Asakawa (Nanako Matsushima), a journalist investigating a series of bizarre deaths of a group of teenagers including her niece Tamako, who we see die in the movie’s cold opening.
Asakawa’s investigations lead her to a resort on Izu Pacific Land Resort, where the deceased teenagers had visited a week before their deaths. She comes across an unmarked videotape containing a series of seemingly senseless surreal images, which she watches.
After involving her ex-husband and father of her child, Ryūji Takayama (Hiroyuki Sanada), the pair are led to the island of Ōshima. Once there, they discover the story of Shizuko Yamamura, a psychic who gained great local renown after predicting the eruption of a volcano; Dr Heihachiro Ikuma, a professor of parapsychology, who tries to exploit her for his own fame; and Sadako, Shizuko’s daughter, who caused the death of a number of reporters with her own psychic powers.
A revelation causes Reiko and Ryūji to realize Sadako’s body was hidden in a well beneath the cabin where Reiko first watched the cursed videotape. They unearth her bones, only to realize that she’d survived the 7-day deadline, leading them to think that the curse had been lifted – that Sadako’s spirit had been laid to rest, her unfinished business concluded.
This turns out not to be the case in the film’s final moment, when Ryūji is killed following a terrifying face-to-face encounter with Sadako, after climbing out of his TV set. Reiko realizes that duplicating the tape is what saved her life, assuaging Sadako’s fury. The film ends with Reiko driving to her father’s house to get her father to watch the tape and save her son’s life.
While Sadako symbolizes a number of 21st-century fears and anxieties, Sadako most strongly represents anxieties around media and technology, particularly visual technology like cameras, TVs, and film, as well as themes of virality and contagion. Technological shifts often result in new fears and anxieties and even, at times, cosmological shifts. Historians often credit the invention of the telegraph with the rise in Spiritualism in the 19th-Century, as argued by the media historian Friedrich Kittler in his influential Gramophone Film Typewriter, noting “the invention of the Morse alphabet…was promptly followed by the tapping specters of spiritistic séances sending their messages from the realm of the dead.”
Media theorist Jeffrey Sconce elaborates further in Haunted Media, stating “Talking with the dead through raps and knocks, after all, was only slightly more miraculous than talking with the living yet absent through dots and dashes; both involved subjects reconstituted through technology as an entity at once interstitial and uncanny. Spiritualism attracted the belief of many converts because it provided a technically plausible system of explanation for these seemingly occult occurrences.”
Voices translated into electricity and transmitted down long wires isn’t that much more far out than dead voices rising from the ether. It’s like that famous adage from Arthur C. Clarke: “any advanced form of technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
Although Sadako represents numerous technological anxieties in one spectral form, she is most closely linked with the camera, as is reinforced repeatedly throughout Ring via related symbols, imagery, and plot points. First and most obviously, when a victim falls prey to Sadako’s curse, the image flashes to negative, as if they were being trapped and imprisoned on film. It’s as Dr. Kristen Lacefield argues in her essay “Media Anxiety in the Ring Phenomenon”: the intensive fear of rings that structures these films translates into larger fears about the loss of subjectivity to the camera and the extinction of “self” that occurs when an image is stolen from the temporality of its existence, captured, and then re-projected via the lens of the camera or the projector.”
This connection is made even more overt via the repetitive use of the image of the lid being closed over the opening of the well, which serves as the cover of the American remake, which resembles the pupil of an eye. Add in the fact that Sadako can imprint images directly onto film with her mind, and it’s as if she herself becomes a camera.
In light of this, Sadako is the perfect representation of our fears and anxieties around the proliferation of images in the 21st century and their detachment from the subject. She is the personification of our collective neuroses around our photographic appearance; our mammalian response to the uncanny grotesquery of photo filters and their impact on our psychology, so chillingly symbolized by the smudged, distorted faces of her intended victims. She even presages the coming Deep Fakes, when our likenesses can be created, manipulated, and exploited even without a picture. At present, there’s not much we can do about it, either. The existence of Deep Fakes, and the psychological unease they conjure, are as inescapable as Sadako’s curse.
Sadako’s association with cameras and photography unveils the medium’s inherent spectrality, its invocation of the subsequent loss of subjectivity and identity, as well as its inherent reminder of mortality, as noted by literary theorist Roland Barthes in his treatise on photography Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. ““[T]he photograph represents that very subtle moment when I am neither subject nor object, but a subject who feels he is becoming an object; I then experience a micro version of death; I am truly becoming a spectre.”
Ring’s other main technological touchpoint is the television, and the film’s most striking and memorable moment is Sadako oozing out of Ryūji’s television to exact her vengeance. Sadako’s unearthly visage serves a poignant metaphor for the increasingly malignant role played by new media in the last 20 years, which seems to be oozing into our living rooms more so than ever before.
The other prevalent theme throughout the Ring movies and novels is that of virality and contagion, particularly in the original novels by Koji Suzuki. In the books, much is made of the fact that Sadako is the last person in Japan to be infected with smallpox. The word virus occurs repetitively throughout all three of the Ring novels, especially in regards to the duplication of the cursed videotape.
Sadako’s reason for existence is not justice from beyond the grave but simply replication. In this, Sadako is a poignant personification of the quest for viral fame. The cursed videotape is a stand-in for all of the shocking, disturbing images buried deep in the bowels of YouTube and link-sharing sites like 4Chan and Reddit, for all the listicles and hot takes we’ve consumed since the coming of the internet.
Although it deals with a wide variety of modern themes, Ring is a decidedly pre-modern film, and despite wrestling with many modern themes and anxieties, it does so from a decidedly analog world. Reiko browses paper newspapers for details of the teenagers’ deaths. Landlines shatter the silence with their alarming klaxon, despite the fact that cellphones were already prevalent in 1998. The internet is never even mentioned. With the clarity of hindsight, Ring might be viewed as the last gasp of the 20th century, staring in terror at the onrushing chaos that’s about to descend.
Published 4 Apr 2023
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