[Fantasia Festival 2019 Review] Sadako

Screened at the Fantasia Festival 2019:

In typical franchise fashion, the narrative of The Ring/Ringu films has become a confusing mess of sequels and offshoots, reboots and crossovers. In 1998, Hideo Nakata took a novel and created an international phenomenon. Interestingly, a sequel named Rasen was immediately released…and immediately ignored. So Nakata came back the following year with a sequel to his original film called Ring 2/Ringu 2. And while he would leave the Japanese Ring films (but would direct the American sequel to the American remake of The Ring), the story would continue in a prequel, TV series and offshoots like Sadako 3D and the eventual crossover event with Ju-On’s Kayako.

It’s all very confusing. So much that someone even created a timeline on Wikipedia:

So it’s 2019 and Hideo Nakata has returned to the phenomenon he helped create with Sadako, a true sequel to 1999’s Ring 2. The results are kind of mixed.

In a psychic’s apartment, a little girl (Himeka Himejima) is kept hidden in a closet, under padlock and chains. Her mother Hatsuko Sofue (Rie Tomosaka) calls her the reincarnation of Sadako as she tries to burn down the apartment with the girl in it. But Sadako intervenes and the girl ends up walking the streets, dazed and confused.

Meanwhile, a clinical psychologist named Dr. Mayu Akikawa (Hiroya Shimizu) works with a familiar patient named Masami Kurahashi (Hitomi Satô, reprising her role). Now, you might be wondering how Masami is in Sadako since she was killed in Nakata’s Ringu 2 back in 1999…and reader, I’m just as confused as you presumably are. I had to rely on an outside source who can read Japanese to figure out that…well, they’re just as confused online, too. But in an interview, it sounds like her death was kind of retconned (she’s quoted as saying, “Oh yeah, I survived!”).

Moving on!

(C)2019 "Sadako" Film Partners

(C)2019 "Sadako" Film Partners

Mayu’s brother Kazuma (Hiroya Shimizu) has given up on going to school to pursue a career as a livestreamer, making silly videos that the kids seem to enjoy. And before you know it, the two siblings separately cross paths with the mysterious girl, the burnt apartment and the ghost of Sadako. With the death toll rising and her brother missing, Mayu is forced to come to terms with her relationship with her brother and solve the mystery of the girl’s connection to Sadako…before it’s too late!

Working from a script by Noriaki Sugihara (who also wrote Sadako 3D 2), Hideo Nakata returns to his Ring roots in a very streamlined fashion. In some ways, Sadako seems to have lost the flavor of those first two movies, as it strips away most of what made The Ring fascinating to me. Gone is the cursed video tape…and the curse in general. And while the narrative does touch on Sadako’s history, it doesn’t really add much to it and instead feels a bit like a retread. It strips away much of the past two decades of storytelling and repurposes Sadako as your typical avenging ghost, this time of the YouTube generation.

The first half is devoted mostly to developing Mayu and her relationship to her missing brother, as well as her work with the mysterious girl who ended up in her care. Mayu is an interesting, if a fairly typical level-headed, character who acts more like a mom to the silly and freewheeling Kazumo. Between Mayu and Kazumo, the little girl and her mother and the history of Sadako, the concept of family is an intriguing theme that doesn’t really get explored much. You’d think these three different generations of family members would make an interesting story, but too much of it is wasted on side stories and retreads of the original Ring. Instead, it falls back on ghost tropes and J-horror tropes, unfortunately. I miss the weirdness of the first two Rings.

Worse, it’s boring.

It’s hard to not see this as a cash-in, in spots. Which sucks to type. That said, Nakata shows he still knows how to craft a good set piece and uses Sadako more ruthlessly than I remember in the past. This could have helped usher Sadako into a new era…if only it were more interesting.