The Fantasia 2019 International Film Festival is off to a great start with the North American premiere of Hideo Nakata’s Sadako, the latest entry in the Ringu (Ring) cinematic universe. Drawing on the novels of Koji Suzuki, the original film in the franchise, Ringu (1998) was an international hit and introduced a generation of Western movie fans to J-Horror. Sequels and prequels, plus an English-language remake, soon followed, but Sadako is a cut above most of those successors, and demonstrates that the well (sorry!) has not yet run dry on this franchise.
Mayu Akikawa (Elaiza Ikeda) is a successful psychiatrist—in fact, we first see her with a patient who can’t sing her praises highly enough (pay attention—that patient will be back). Mayu also works with children, and soon a new patient arrives at the hospital: a strange, silent young girl (Himeka Himejima) who is the only survivor of a high-rise apartment fire. The circumstances of that fire are horrific enough in their own right—the girl’s mother, who has kept her daughter locked in a closet, torched their apartment in an attempt to kill her. And why did she do that? Because she was convinced that the girl is the reincarnation of Sadako, the vengeful ghost of the Ringu franchise, and, like Carrie’s Mom, thinks fire is the best way to rid the world of the evil that is her daughter. And that’s all in the first seven minutes of this film.
Meanwhile, Mayu’s brother Kazuma (Shimizu Hiroya) has dropped out of school and is staking his future on becoming a YouTube star, something that does not please his more serious sister. He’s had some success making goofy videos, but needs to try something new since nothing is more fleeting than Internet fame. Kazuma has the bright idea of doing first-person reporting from supposed haunted locales, because everyone likes a good scare. He chooses as his first venue an apartment building where there was recently a deadly fire, and of course it’s the same building where his sister’s new patient used to live. Kazuma finds plenty of creepy stuff within the burned-out apartment, but something goes wrong and he disappears, suggesting the fire didn’t have the intended cleansing effect.
Mayu has a particular bond with her new patient, because she and her brother are orphans themselves, having been abandoned by their parents and raised in an children’s home (in one scene with the young Mayu, you could easily mistake her for her patient). She observes things about the girl that no one else does—for instance, that she has telekinetic powers—suggesting they are on the same wavelength. The two plot lines run in parallel, so that as Mayu and Kazuma’s partner try to find out what happened to him, they are also solving the mystery of Mayu’s new patient.
From the opening frames of Sadako, Nakata demonstrates his mastery of horror tropes, creating suspense through a series of shots that are alternatingly innocuous and threatening. Ceiling fixtures and cast shadows have never looked as ominous as they do in this film, and besides being a thoroughly enjoyable horror film, Sadako is a lesson in how to create tension using the simplest of means. There are a few boo scares in Sadako, but that’s not what the film is really about, and viewers who just want to jump out of their seats might prefer to wait for the next installment of the Paranormal franchise. On the other hand, the psychological relationships among the characters in Sadako have a depth that’s rare in horror films, with Ikeda in particular showing admirable range.
Sadako is a worthy addition to the Ringu franchise, but one that will appeal most strongly to people already familiar with the previous films. Viewers new to Sadako’s story, on the other hand, may well feel that they started reading a novel at chapter 12, while everyone else has already read the whole thing. | Sarah Boslaugh
Film still(C)2019 “Sadako” Film Partners.