Sadako (貞子, Hideo Nakata, 2019) [Fantasia 2019]

(C)2019 "Sadako" Film PartnersJust over 20 years ago, Hideo Nakata’s Ring became an international phenomenon and kick started a J-horror boom that continued to define the nation’s cinematic output for the following decade. The J-horror boom, however, eventually imploded after a series of diminishing returns turned the figure of the long-haired ghost into something of a self parody. Even so, Sadako has continued to haunt Japanese cinema like the malevolent spirit we all know her to be and now she’s back with a brand new curse.

Adapted from the 2013 novel Tide by Ring author Koji Suzuki (though in actuality an almost entirely original story), “Sadako” (貞子) is set firmly in the present day and twenty years after the mysterious chain video curse took so many lives. Our heroine, Mayu (Elaiza Ikeda), is a clinical psychologist working in a regular hospital where she tries to help those with physical ailments maintain their mental health. New to the job, she is currently struggling with a doctor’s major dilemma in figuring out how to keep a personal distance from her patients who have a natural tendency to latch on to a caregiver even while knowing that the relationship must necessarily remain a professional one.

The trouble starts when a mysterious, mute young girl is brought into the hospital. Mayu is unable to get through to her and she doesn’t even seem to know her name but the mystery is partially solved when the police turn up with evidence that suggests the girl is the daughter of a woman who set fire to her apartment, killing herself and five others in a danchi blaze. Prompted by the detectives, the girl reveals that the woman was indeed her mother who referred to her as “Sadako” though the girl states that it is not her name. In any case, the police are none the wiser. Meanwhile, Mayu is also dealing with a personal problem as her feckless younger brother Kazuma (Hiroya Shimizu), who had given up his studies to become a YouTube star, has gone missing after filming himself exploring the “creepy” abandoned apartment building where Sadako was kept in confinement by her apparently “freaky” mother, a failed psychic.

The original Sadako curse might have been well and truly played out, but Sadako once again decides to get out of her well and shame mankind with a very particular mission of highlighting persistent child abuse and neglect which, sadly, continues to be a pressing social issue in contemporary Japan where several child abuse scandals have made headline news in recent months. This time she doesn’t really appreciate being caught on video which is where Kazuma gets himself into trouble, but is busying herself calling the souls of all abandoned children to a creepy cave which used to be a shrine for the souls of ascetic monks who died while undergoing spiritual training on the island.

Meanwhile, Mayu bonds with the little girl who seems to sense her own innate sense of loneliness as a woman who was herself “abandoned” as child. Raised in secret by her mother who was convinced she is the reincarnation of the legendary “Sadako” and feared her strange powers, the little Sadako remains somehow trapped between the human world and the supernatural, in need of rescue by a sympathetic, maternal figure.

Perhaps in keeping with the 20th anniversary celebratory nature of the project, Nakata sticks largely to late ‘90s aesthetics complete with a familiar J-horror score, muted colour scheme, dimmed lighting, and generally eerie atmosphere. He is not attempting to reinvent the wheel but only to turn it a few more times, even having one of his victims baldly recite the “original” Sadako legend for Mayu’s benefit before adding a few new details as she goes about her investigation of the creepy cave. Nevertheless, the archetypal long-haired ghost maintains her appeal as she evolves once again, revamped for a new generation’s anxieties and re-emerging from the well of despair with rage and vengeance on her mind. Filled with creepy dolls, scattered sutras, and a healthy amount of plot holes, Nakata’s return to the Ring franchise cannot recapture the magic of the original but does its best to ape its charms with yet another exploration of flawed motherhood retooled for more a more anxious age.


Sadako screened as part of the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Singapore release trailer (English / Simplified Chinese subtitles)

Images: (C)2019 “Sadako” Film Partners

Dark Water (仄暗い水の底から, Hideo Nakata, 2002)

dark-water

Review of Hideo Nakata’s Dark Water first published by UK Anime Network.


For good or ill, the J-horror boom came to dominate Japanese cinema at the turn of the century and if anyone can be said to have been instrumental in ushering it in, director Hideo Nakata and novelist Koji Suzuki, whose landmark collaboration on The Ring has become symbolic of the entire genre, must be at the head of the list. Dark Water (仄暗い水の底から, Honogurai Mizu no Soko Kara) finds the pair working together again on another supernaturally tinged, creepy psychological thriller. Neatly marrying the classic J-horror tropes of freaky children and dripping wet ghosts, Dark Water also embraces aspects of the uniquely Japanese “hahamono” or mother movie which prizes maternal sacrifice and suffering above all else.

Yoshimi (Hitomi Kuroki), a nervous middle aged woman, is in the middle of a messy divorce with her exceedingly smug salaryman husband. Despite having been less than present during the marriage, Yoshimi’s husband now wants full custody of the couple’s five year old daughter, Ikuko (Rio Kanno). In order to aid her case, Yoshimi quickly finds an apartment and starts looking for a job. All seems to be going well except for the mysterious dripping stain on the ceiling which the building manager doesn’t seem very interested in fixing. Before long, strange events begin unfolding including unexplained puddles, a mysterious red children’s shoulder bag which keeps reappearing after being thrown out, and brief sightings of a little girl in a yellow raincoat….

Nakata opens the film with what is in effect a flashback sequence as Yoshimi waits for her own mother to pick her up from primary school. It quickly becomes apparent that Yoshimi’s relationship with her birth mother was an imperfect one which later ended in neglect and abandonment. Yoshimi continues to have frequent flashbacks to her childhood and harbours and intense fear of inflicting the same kind of damage her mother inflicted on her onto her own daughter. Ikuko is also left waiting at school when Yoshimi is kept late at a job interview – something which is eventually used against her in the court case. Though Yoshimi’s aunt reassures her that she’s doing a much better job than her mother did for her, Yoshimi is filled with doubts as to her suitability as a mother which are only further compounded by her intense love for her daughter and fear of losing her.

On top of her maternal worries and residual abandonment issues, Yoshimi also has a history of mental distress which her ex-husband uses to discredit her. It’s open to debate exactly how much of what appears to be happening is actually happening and how much a manifestation of a possible nervous breakdown, but aside from the supernatural shenanigans there are also real world dangers to consider including the missing posters for a girl who was around Ikuko’s age when she disappeared two years previously. The primary school headmaster is convinced that the girl was abducted by a third party but it also transpires that Mitsuko, like Yoshimi and as Yoshimi fears for Ikuko, was abandoned by her mother.

When it comes right down to it, Dark Water lays the blame for its supernaturally tinged evil firmly at the feet of divorce and family breakdown. The supposedly progressive primary school in which the main aim is to allow children freedom of expression is quick to tell the already overwrought Yoshimi that the “strange behaviour” they’ve been witnessing in Ikuko is essentially all her fault because of the divorce and disruption to Ikuko’s home life. Similarly, the central supernatural threat is born of maternal neglect, a symptom of the selfish individualism of the mother who has chosen to leave her child behind. Yoshimi has been jettisoned by her controlling ex-husband and her only thought is to keep her daughter with her, yet she is being made to pay for a social prejudice against atypical families such as those resulting from a “selfish” decision to dissolve a marriage.

Dark Water cleverly recasts Yoshimi as an idealised mother willing to sacrifice all to protect her child. As the situation intensifies, Yoshimi begins to feel as if she’s becoming a toxic presence in her daughter’s life. Rather than risk the same fate befalling her own daughter as has befallen her, Yoshimi opts to make herself the last link in the chain of abuse, freeing her daughter from her own baggage. In contrast with both Yoshimi and Mitsuko, Ikuko will always know that her mother loved her and will always be with her even if protecting her from afar.

Nakata conjures up a supremely creepy atmosphere filled with everyday horrors. The run down apartment complex in which Yoshimi finds her (presumably very reasonably priced) apartment is an unsettling world of its own with its strangely moist, dripping walls, eccentric residents, and rapidly decaying exterior. One of the most effective and visually interesting entries in the J-horror genre, Dark Water perfectly mixes creepy, supernatural horror with psychological drama culminating in a final sequence which doesn’t stint on the scares but proves emotionally devastating in the process.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Monsterz (2014)

Monsterz_2014Hideo Nakata is best remembered as one of the driving forces of the J-Horror boom of the late ’90s thanks to his hugely influential Ring movies. However, despite a few notable hits including Dark Water, his career has seen something of a slump following a foray into American filmmaking with The Ring 2 – a sequel to the remake of his own Ring (though entirely different from his Japanese language Ring 2 completed in 1999). Monsterz sees him helming a remake of another foreign property – this time the Korean sci-fi thriller Haunters.

The film begins from the POV of Monster no. 1 (played by Tatsuya Fujiwara), who narrates much of the story and refers to himself solely as “monster”. Blindfolded, a small boy is dragged home by his mother only to be discovered by his abusive father who beats him and berates his mother whilst insisting “the monster” needs to die. At this point the blindfold comes off and the boy controls his fathers actions eventually persuading him to snap his own neck. Beginning to also control his mother, the boy stops short of giving her the same treatment and wanders off into the rain. Fast forward 20 years and the monster is now a criminal mastermind who uses his time freezing and mind control capabilities to make a living as a bank robber. However, one day he discovers someone who seems to be immune to his powers (Takayuki Yamada) and his whole world is shaken. The monster sets about removing this threat to his supremacy but it appears his opponent is also “a monster” – a man with super healing properties who cannot die! It takes a “monster” to fight a monster but which one will come out on top?

Yes, lots of predictably comic book style action adventures begin as the two guys with opposing super powers face off against each other. The most interesting aspect of the film is that it’s mainly told from the point of view of the otherwise unnamed “monster” though Nakata’s attempts to make him a sympathetic anti-hero never quite work out despite Fujiwara’s committed performance. The film’s ending is also unconventionally unresolved (though also very true to its American comic book roots) with a pleasing note of tolerance and inclusivity thrown in. However, that is in part facilitated by the lack of tension in the central dynamic – the two opposing forces are at a perpetual stalemate which only ends up feeling, well, stale – in a word. The monster’s freezing and mind control powers are impressive but the action sequences are much of a muchness and just get bigger rather than more interesting.

Having said that the action sequences aren’t unexciting, there are some impressive moments (bar the odd use of dodgy CGI and green screen). The main problem with the film is a slight mismatch in tones between Nakata’s portentous doom laden fatalism and the playful lightness of its comic book inspiration. The conventional hero, Shuichi, takes second lead here with his gang of sidekicks – otaku Akira and flaming queen Jun offering odd moments of comic relief. Though actually the role of Jun is another interesting inclusion as, despite offering a stereotypically “gay” character camping things up spectacularly, Jun is also presented fairly normally as a valued friend and comrade of the hero. His sexuality is merely a character trait, never a joke in itself which is a refreshing element particularly in a Japanese film. In the end, Monsterz aims to offer a message of tolerance and inclusiveness – that, oddly, there are no monsters and would be no villains if we could all just learn to accept each other’s differences and live together in harmony. However, the message is a little hamfisted and clumsily delivered and, some might feel, out of place in an action orientated film such as this.

Very typical of the comic book movie genre (though perhaps more Fantastic 4 than Dark Knight), Monsterz is middling mainstream fare which, while mildly diverting, fails to offer anything particularly memorable. A fine way to spend 90 minutes, Monsterz never outstays its welcome and offers generally high production values plus Nakata’s trademark visual flair but is unlikely to satisfy more genre savvy fans.