I’d never liked horror movies. Then I saw the Japanese film Ring in 1999. It really got under my skin. The Japanese have a wonderfully organic relationship with technology, and I think it is that understanding which makes the telephone, the television, and the VCR so spooky. Like the role of the telephone as a safe connection to reality in The Matrix, it just feels right. With the release of the American remake I wanted to know more, so I investigated the connection between the film and Japanese folklore. Here is what I found.
Okiku Kwaidan, or Bancho Sarayashiki
This famous story the one most obviously connected to Ring. Every Japanese I have asked knows the tale; there is even a school whose website shows Okiku’s grave. There are several variations othe story of Okiku or Bancho Sarayshiki, but the basic one is that a girl breaks a plate in a set of ten. For this, she is killed by being thrown down a well. In one variation, her mother is so distraught that she kills herself the same way. In kabuki version ofBancho Sarayashiki, the ghost of the murdered girl counts ceaselessly up to nine until her killer goes insane. Interestingly, in Kiku Mushi her form appears on beetles from the well, echoing the insects in the American Ring.
Oiwa, or Yatsuya Kaidan
The story of Oiwa is the source of the hideous eye of Sadako. Oiwa’s husband Iemon poisons her. Her ghost returns hideously disfigured, with swollen eyes, and drives him mad. The Kabuki version of the story, The Crest of Betrayal, is the source of Sadako’s long black hair. Directions to finding Oiwa’s grave are available online.
In both versions of the film, in the video Sadako/Samara appears in a mirror. In the book, she is capable of emerging from any reflective surface. The Asian Horror Encyclopedia entry about mirrors includes the following:
In Lafcadio Hearn’s tale, “A Mirror and a Bell,” the reader again learns that the mirror is the “Soul of a Woman.” Indeed the character for “soul” appears on the backs of many old mirrors. A woman donated an old mirror to a temple to be melted into a new temple bell. She regretted her donation but lacked the money to retrieve it. Even so, of all the donated metal, her mirror alone refused to melt, as she did not wish it to be destroyed. Since everyone knew who the mirror belonged to, she drowned herself out of shame. The mirror now yielded to melting but a legend about the bell and the woman’s ghost remained.
The ghosts of the dead are called ”yurei”, and these are clearly the images used for Sadako. Among their qualities, they wear a white funeral gown, a triangle of white over the face (as in the Japanese video), and they tend to lack legs (however, we can see Sadako’s and Samara’s legs – they are not concealed by the dress). Most are female, seeking revenge for something. Also: “In the theatre, yurei wore long kimono and had the signature outstretched arms and limp hands.” Here is more about the stories of Okiku and Yatsuya.
There was a real person named Sadako who claimed to be a psychic and on whom the story is presumably based. Two other famous people with the name were Sadako of the Thousand Paper Cranes and Crown Princess Sadako, the Emperor Hirohito’s mother.
This collection of Kwaidan, or ghost stories, has several with elements in common with Ring. If you plan to read them, do so before you look at my comments. They are: The Story of a Living Ghost, The Demonic Gift, and The Fortune Telling Doll.
In The Story of a Living Ghost, the ghost of a woman uses someone to get at someone else, as with the virus element of the tape.
In The Demonic Gift a man is presented with a cursed gift which must not be opened, just as the tape in Ring must not be watched. When it is opened, there is a warning of impending doom. As in the film it is the woman who opens it, but the man who dies. And as with Sadako and Yatsuya, eyes are a part of the horror. This is another place where the American version includes a possible asian reference missing from the Japanese movie – the box of fingers.
In the film, a video tells what will happen in seven days. The Fortune Telling Doll it is a talking doll which predicts the future. It must be appeased – which is what the journalist tries to do with Sadako. In the end, it seems to me that the curse is quite possibly passed on to someone else.
I didn’t run into any references to the following:
- the importance of the sea (this is quite clear in the Japanese title sequence, which compares the sea to television static)
- the fading of the victims before they died (in photos)
- that there was a group of victims, and they were fooling around at the cabin (though this is clearly standard in American horror)
- the deliberate perpetuation of the evil by the victims