By Aaron Rourke (Melbourne, Australia)
Showing that movie franchises never truly die, this interlocking of the Japanese phenomenons Ring and Ju-on (The Grudge) may sound like a tacky and desperate attempt to wring cash out of two forever-in-decline series, but Sadako vs Kayako bucks the trend, eliciting much fun from its seemingly tiresome premise.
Opening as a new entry in the Ring series, we see a social worker discovering the body of a lonely pensioner who has witnessed the notorious ‘cursed’ video tape, but inadvertently views it herself, sealing her own fate.
The story then focuses on university students Yuri (Mizuki Yamamoto) and Natsumi (Aimi Satsukawa), who are enjoying a break from class. Natsumi asks Yuri if she can convert her parents’ wedding video to DVD, as Natsumi wants to surprise them on their anniversary. To do so, the two visit a nearby second-hand shop to find a VCR, and Yuri manages to buy one at an incredibly cheap price. But once she sets the machine up at her apartment, Yuri and Natsumi find it still has a tape inside, and curious to see what’s on it, Yuri puts the tape back in and presses play. Yuri is immediately distracted by a phone call, so only Natsumi witnesses what’s on the video, and it completely unsettles her. The phone then rings, setting Sadako’s curse in motion.
The two students visit professor Morishige (Masahiro Komoto), who is an expert on urban legends, and has even written a book on some of them. When he is told what Natsumi has viewed, Morishige is delighted, believing he has finally found concrete evidence that justifies his obsessive work. This call for help will firstly lead them to a noted shaman, then to a more unconventional duo, Keizo Tokiwa (Masanobu Ando) and young, blind Tamao (Mai Kikuchi), who have powers of their own.
Paralleling these events are those of high school student Suzuka (Tina Tamashiro), who has just moved into the area with her family. The place they have purchased (at a price too good to be true) is unfortunately located next to the house where a series of murders took place decades ago, as well as a number of residents going missing in more recent years. There is talk that it is haunted by vengeful spirits, specifically the wife and son who were killed by the unhinged husband.
Although warned to stay away, Suzuka of course does the opposite, and entering the creepy abode places her under Kayako’s deadly curse. These separate stories eventually weave together, with Keizo and Tamao coming up with a plan that will hopefully lift both curses off their potential victims, one that involves the two spirits going head-to-head.
I came to this film with low expectations and much trepidation, seeing it as nothing more than a cheap cash-in, riding the wave of other popular franchise mash-ups like Batman vs Superman, Alien vs Predator, and especially Freddy vs Jason. This deep-seated feeling of dread was exacerbated by the diminishing returns of both series over the years. Ju-on (2004) was a genuinely scary film, and while the sequel wasn’t anywhere near as good, it remained entertaining. The U.S. remake, while a major hit (and directed by the original’s Takashi Shimizu), was poorly reconstructed for a western audience, eliminating that sense of the unknown which made its Japanese counterpart so terrifying. More sequels followed (both in Japan and the U.S.), but the thrill had definitely disappeared.
Ring endured a similar journey. The 1998 original was slow-burn horror at its very best, and its incredible success lead to two sequels, a prequel, a TV series, a Korean and a U.S. remake, the latter of which spawned two sequels of its own. The prequel was immensely disappointing, and the U.S. redux, like The Grudge, drained every ounce of horror from its set-up by over-explaining everything, not helped by Gore Verbinski’s annoying predilection for over length. Japan attempted to reboot the franchise in 2012 with Sadako 3D, but inferior writing, poor performances, and a wrongly appointed director (known primarily for romantic comedies) saw this tech-savvy Ring fall flat. There was a sequel in 2013, but it offered little improvement, and ended up being even sillier than its predecessor.
It’s these preconceptions that make Sadako vs Kayako such an enjoyable surprise, and credit must go to writer/director Koji Shiraishi, who has built a successful career specialising in the horror genre. Capitalising on the Ju-on craze himself with Ju-rei (2004) and Noroi the Curse (2005), Shiraishi achieved notoriety in 2009 with Grotesque, a harrowing, overtly graphic film that was banned in many countries. While it did target audiences that enjoyed the Saw and Hostel series, Grotesque also contained a disturbing examination of contemporary moral ambiguity that placed it above its bloody peers. In 2014 Shiraishi released A Record of Sweet Murder, an unusual entry in the found-footage genre that was almost entirely filmed in one take.
Shiraishi has triumphed by cleverly addressing the high-concept material in two distinct ways. Firstly, he has not just lazily thrown both franchises together, hoping the idea alone will be enough to intrigue movie-goers. Instead Shiraishi has used Ring as a foundation, building a strong-enough story in which he can then inject a Ju-on sub-plot, organically bringing both worlds together. Secondly, Shiraishi knows exactly what tone to aim for, fully aware that a completely straight-faced approach will not work. The director makes sure not to ridicule each series, but implements a sense of fun that allows viewers to accept what is happening on screen with an appropriate level of fondness and goodwill. Entertainment is the key here rather than fully-fledged scares. It is even a smart move to shoot the film in widescreen, making us genuinely believe that two famous universes have indeed connected.
If one pays attention, Shiraishi even changes particular details of each legendary curse, playfully remoulding them in a manner urban myths can experience over time through unreliable, generational hearsay.
Performances are nicely pitched from a cast who are all conscious of the production’s chosen path, but stand-out turns do come from Ando (Battle Royale, Karaoke Terror, Sukiyaki Western Django) and Kikuchi, as the psychic pair who try to bring these spirits’ reign to an end.
Sadako vs Kayako will most likely not bring any new fans to the worlds of its titular characters, but for those who have become disheartened by the multitude of sub-par entries that have filled both long-running franchises, this latest instalment will be an unexpected shot-in-the-arm. One just hopes that its abrupt, open-ended finish is another self-referential touch rather than being the real thing. After delivering the goods this time around, it would be a pity if the film-makers once again went one follow-up too far.