Female Rage and the Mother-Child Relationship in Ring (1998)

Paper by Megan Hedges.

Ring (Hideo Nakata, 1998) is a Japanese horror film directed by Hideo Nakata and based off of the novel of the same name by Koji Suzuki. It was one of the first Japanese horror films originally released in the late 90s and early 00s that revitalized the horror genre in Japan and caused a global interest in the “J-Horror” genre, particularly in the United States. The film became a huge box office success when it debuted, netting $13 million in Japanese revenue and $19 million in international revenue, becoming one of the top ten highest grossing Japanese films of the year. The movie was remade in the West in 2002, launching a trend of Japanese horror films getting Western remakes. The 2002 remake also launched to immense success, reaching number 1 in the box office. The movie is based off of a novel of the same name by Koji Suzuki, but there are some key differences, including the gender of the protagonist and their child and the removal of most science fiction elements. The movie follows a female journalist and single mother named Reiko Asakawa (Nanako Matsushima) and her investigation into a cursed video tape that allegedly killed four teenagers, including Reiko’s niece Tomoko (Yuko Takeuchi). Her investigation leads her to the videotape in question and she watches it, only to find out that she, like the four teenagers, would die seven days after watching it. The investigation becomes a race against the clock, the stakes made all the more intense when Reiko’s son Yoichi (Rikiya Otaka) watches the tape after claiming Tomoko’s spirit told him to. Reiko enlists the help of her ex-husband, a university professor named Ryuji Takayama (Hiroyuki Sanada) in investigating the tape. The investigation leads them to the story of a psychic named Shizuko Yamamura who killed herself after being accused of faking her psychic powers. Her daughter, Sadako (Rie Ino), was killed by her presumed father and thrown down a well. Reiko and Ryuji deduce that to end the curse, they must find Sadako and give her a proper burial. They do so minutes before Reiko’s seven days are up and Reiko survives, relieved that they seemingly broke the curse. The next day, Ryuji is alone in his home when his television turns on by itself and Sadako’s spirit crawls out of it, killing him. Reiko realizes that it was not finding Sadako’s body, but showing the tape to someone else that saved her. The film ends with Reiko on the way to her father’s house, telling him she has a favor to ask him. The film explores themes of family dynamics, especially between mother and child, contemporary fears of technological advancement, the boundary between fiction and reality, and the way misogyny is alive and well in modern society.

The scene that will be analyzed is the scene (25:44 – 29:45) where Reiko Asakawa watches the cursed videotape for the first time. This scene features the videotape as a film within the film that has its own mise-en-scene, cinematography, and editing to analyze. By juxtaposing two shots together, editing filters over the footage, and using an intense soundtrack, director Nakata creates meaning and symbolism throughout the scene. The tape is a symbol of contemporary fears of technology and the boundary between what is fake and what is real, but also of female rage at male mistreatment of women. The scene’s place in the greater narrative structure as the movie’s first turning point also showcases the impact of familial relationships, particularly between mother and child, on a child’s life.

The scene begins with Reiko entering the rental office of the cabin the four victims stayed in before they died. She asks the rental manager if he remembers anything odd about the four teenagers or their stay, handing him a picture of them. There is a closeup shot of the picture as the rental manager examines it, before we cut back to Reiko’s face. While waiting, Reiko spots an unmarked videotape on the shelf of tapes available to rent. The camera cuts to a closeup shot of the unlabeled tape with a noise filter applied to it, accompanied by an unsettling screeching noise. Reiko asks about the tape and the rental manager examines it with another closeup shot of him holding it. This shot of the videotape juxtaposed with the very similar shot of the picture of the four victims draws a clear connection between the tape and the victims, reinforcing the connection in the viewer’s mind that the videotape, a symbol of technological advancement at the time, was connected to the four victims’ deaths. Reiko clearly makes the connection as well, as she then takes the tape back to the cabin to watch it.

The scene continues with Reiko entering the cabin. The camera dollies in to frame only Reiko and the television in the shot, emphasizing that they are the two most important things in the scene. Her actress’s acting shows how focused and apprehensive Reiko is to finally be watching the tape. The screen fills with the view of what is on the television, and a montage of images is shown: the view from the bottom of the well, a woman brushing her hair in a mirror intercut with another woman dressed in white reflected in the mirror in a different place, the Japanese word for eruption, multiple figures crawling and stumbling around in fear or pain, a person with their head covered pointing to their right, an extreme closeup of a human eye with the Japanese character “Sada” superimposed on it, and a well in a forest. Then, the screen turns to static. This montage is a series of images that were impactful on Sadako’s life. The mise-en-scene of the images is highly negative, and even the one positive memory (Sadako’s mother brushing her hair) is corrupted by the noise of the video tape and is intercut with the image of Sadako’s ghost, indicating that even Sadako’s positive memories became corrupted in her rage against the people who killed her and her mother.

After turning the television off, Reiko looks at the blank screen and sees the same woman in the white dress from the montage reflected in the screen over her shoulder. She quickly turns around to check, but when she does so there is no one behind her. This moment is just one of many where Reiko encounters fake events that seem plausible or real events which seem fake. After watching such a creepy video, and hearing about people who died after watching it, it seemed plausible for there to be an evil spirit behind her. After checking behind her, Reiko takes a moment, seemingly unsure what to do next. Then, she stands up and rushes to grab her purse, but stops when the phone starts to ring. She answers it apprehensively, but she only hears the scraping noise she had heard twice before. The scene also conflates what is real and what is fake by using the same sound effect three separate times, once non-diegetically and twice diegetically throughout the scene. The screeching sound of metal scraping is heard when Reiko first finds the videotape, when Reiko watches it, and when Reiko answers the phone after watching the video. The first time the audience hears the screeching noise it is clearly non-diegetic. Reiko and the rental manager show no indication of having heard such a jarring sound. That makes it all the more interesting that the second and third time the audience hears it, the sound is diegetic. Just like Sadako transcends the boundary between fiction and reality by crawling through the television at the end of the movie, even this sound effect crosses from only something the audience can hear to a sound within the diegetic world of the movie. The sound effect is also loud and startling, causing fear in both Reiko and the audience. These instances conflating fiction and reality are reminiscent of computer glitches, strengthening the technological symbolism as a source of fear.

All of these elements are the explicit mise-en-scene, cinematography, editing, sound design, and narrative that build the implicit meaning of the film. Narratively, this scene functions as the first turning point of the film, the point of no return that Reiko cannot come back from; she must break the curse or she will die. This is also the moment the true danger and biggest symbol in the film, the videotape, is revealed. The tape not only symbolizes the dangers of technology by imitating a computer virus in the way it spreads from person to person, but it also symbolizes female trauma and rage in response to her male oppressors.

Reiko and the audience encounter the videotape in the form of an urban legend multiple times before she actually finds it. The movie opens with Tomoko’s friend telling her a scary story about a videotape that curses the viewer to die one week after they watch it. Tomoko then confides in her that she had watched the tape in the legend exactly a week prior, and is killed by something the audience does not see while her friend is off-screen. The threat transitions from a fictional threat in an urban legend to a very real threat that results in Tomoko’s death. The framing of this scene intentionally hides the killer from the audience to add a layer of confusion; which parts of the legend were real, and which were fake? We find out Sadako’s story later in the film and are presented with the reality of a truth that sounds fake with her psychic powers that allow her to impart images onto a videotape. The whole movie deals with the themes that fiction can be powerful enough to become truth.

The videotape is a living time capsule of Sadako’s feelings of fear, pain, and hopelessness as she was trapped in the well due to her presumed father; a time capsule that wants to be experienced. Both of the onscreen female victims of Sadako’s curse successfully passed on the curse to others (although Tomoko only posthumously), while the male victim perished without passing the curse on. Sadako’s curse was not meant as unilateral revenge on the world; it was a tool for female victims to get revenge on their oppressors. Reiko is arguably oppressed by Ryuji and the male-oriented society she lives in; she and Ryuji are both full-time workers, but only Reiko bears the responsibility of caring for their son Yoichi, while Ryuji is free to fraternize with young females and live without consequences. The fact that the ending of the movie is hopeful in tone, despite Ryuji’s violent death, reinforces the idea that Reiko and Sadako are the victors and that their actions benefited each other in the end. Reiko even became Sadako’s mother figure in the second turning point of the film, when she found Sadako’s body and embraced it tenderly.
All of the explicit and implicit meaning scattered throughout ​Ring​ works together to build the most important theme of the film; the importance of the mother-child relationship and the relative unimportance of the father. This relationship is explored and emphasized in the two non-nuclear family units that are central to the narrative of the film: Reiko, Ryuji, and Yoichi and Shizuko, Ikuma, and Sadako. Sadako’s family unit is portrayed as the tragic inverse of Reiko’s family unit; the mother and child are tragically killed while the father survives. The framing of the narrative regarding these two families paints a clear picture of maternal importance in a child’s life juxtaposed with paternal unimportance. Without her mother, Sadako was doomed to a cursed death being killed by her presumed father and dumped in a well.

Without his father but with his mother, Yoichi was able to survive Sadako’s curse and presumably live a normal life from then on. Even narratively, it is implied Reiko sacrificed her own father for Yoichi’s survival, showing again the expendability of fathers. Everything Reiko does is for her son, and this prioritization is what ultimately is the key to his survival.
Ring​ follows a traditional three act structure to a tee, and it may not have been made in Hollywood, but it follows a classical Hollywood narrative structure as well. Twenty-five minutes into the film is the scene that was analyzed in this paper, the first turning point of the movie. This scene takes us from the normal world established in act one and takes us into the world of the supernatural where ghosts haunt and videotapes kill. Twenty-five minutes from the end of the movie is the second turning point, or lowest point, where Reiko and Ryuji are trying to find Sadako’s body before time runs out. It is literally and metaphorically the lowest point of the movie; Reiko and Ryuji must lower themselves deep within the earth to find Sadako’s body, but it’s also emotionally low as Reiko and Ryuji both believe Reiko is about to die. The narrative checks every box of being a classical Hollywood narrative, despite not being made in Hollywood. The characters are goal oriented and confronted by problems that they help each other to overcome, the movie is driven by causes and effects and answers all questions, and the structure of the movie is economical. There are even strict deadlines, like the seven day period before the curse would take effect. Despite not being made in Hollywood, ​Ring​ fulfills all expectations of a typical Hollywood movie.

There are many themes explored throughout ​Ring​ and touched on in this paper, from the difference between the dangers of technology to the difference between fiction and reality to revenge against the oppressor to the importance of mother-child relationships. The scene analyzed in this paper is intrinsically important to the narrative and meaning of this movie in the way that it sets up the last two thirds of the film narratively and thematically. It sets the groundwork for all four of the themes explored in this paper to be expanded upon. It also is the turning point of the narrative and understanding the meaning of this scene is essential to understanding the meaning of the narrative.

Works Cited
Bunch, Sonny. “Techno-Horror in Hollywood: Japanese Anxieties, American Style.” ​The New Atlantis,​ no. 14, 2006, pp. 137–140. ​JSTOR,​ www.jstor.org/stable/43152295. Accessed 23
June 2020.
“Ghosts in the Machine.” ​Modern Ghost Melodramas: “What Lies Beneath”​, by Michael Walker, Amsterdam University Press, Amsterdam, 2017, pp. 111–130. ​JSTOR​,
www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1pk3jns.8. Accessed 23 June 2020.
Nakata, Hideo, director. ​Ring​. Toho, 1998. Film. “The Prosthetic Traumas of the Internal Alien in Millennial J-Horror.” ​The Uncanny Child in
Transnational Cinema: Ghosts of Futurity at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century​, by Jessica Balanzategui, Amsterdam University Press, Amsterdam, 2018, pp. 185–216. JSTOR​, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv80cc7v.10. Accessed 23 June 2020.

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