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

A Boy and His Samurai (ちょんまげぷりん, Yoshihiro Nakamura, 2010)

Boy and his samurai poster 1Edo/Tokyo – what difference can a name make? A lot, it seems, but then perhaps not so much as you’d think. “Edo” was the seat of power in Japan from 1603 until it was renamed “Tokyo” during the Meiji Restoration, heralding a brand new era of modernity following more than 200 years of self-imposed isolation. Logically, there must have been people who went to sleep in Edo and woke up in Tokyo, but most of them didn’t nap for nearly 200 years. The hero of A Boy and his Samurai (ちょんまげぷりん, Chonmage Purin) didn’t exactly nap either, but he’s fetched up 200 years in the future, which, you have to admit, is very disorientating.

Divorced single mother Hiroko (Rie Tomosaka) is late getting her 6-year-old son Tomoya (Fuku Suzuki) out of the house and on his way to school so she’s less than interested when he suddenly stops in the street to stare at a severe man in samurai dress standing outside a supermarket. Assuming it’s some kind of advertising stunt, Hiroko drags her son away, but the man turns up again later wandering around their apartment block and seemingly very confused. Hiroko tries to help him, but he is extremely rude and intimidating, eventually demanding to be taken back to her apartment almost at sword point. Nevertheless, once everyone has figured out the man, who says his name is Kijima Yasube (Ryo Nishikido) and he’s a samurai retainer, is either quite mad or a time traveller, the trio being living together and trying to bridge their very different social values.

Those values have obviously changed a lot, but in many ways not enough. Hiroko has a regular job at an advertising agency but is disrespected by some of her colleagues because she can’t work overtime and has to leave early to make sure someone picks up Tomoya. We learn that the reason she divorced her husband two years ago is that while he pretended to be modern and progressive, he was unwilling to share his portion of the domestic burden and secretly wanted his wife to quit work and look after the house despite superficially encouraging her with her career. Hiroko figured it made no difference if he was around or not, so she left him and took Tomoya with her. Hiroko likes her job, but working also reinforces her individual identity (even if blending into the corporate) aside from that of wife and mother which has all too often been all that a woman is in a rigid and conformist society.

Indeed, when Yasube first arrives he adopts a superior tone and refers to Hiroko only as “woman”, viewing her as necessarily inferior by reason of sex while also reasserting himself as a samurai communicating with someone he assumes to be of the lower orders. Yasube is stunned to learn that Hiroko has a surname – a reminder that those of the lower orders did not (officially) have surnames until the Meiji Restoration. He now thinks she must be very noble, adopts a suitably humble tone, and resigns himself to accepting her hospitality in the absence of other options. He can’t get his head around her family situation or process the various motions towards sexual equality the modern world has produced. To him women manage the house and men protect it from outside. He finds Hiroko’s desire for independence strange and this new world uncivilised.

Nevertheless, he decides to give the Tokyo way a go by stepping briefly beyond himself – in return for room and board, he’ll effectively become Hiroko’s “wife”, managing all the domestic chores while she concentrates on her career. Yasube finds a strange affinity for domesticity, quickly getting to grips with white goods and taking recipe notes from cooking TV (to write them down with ink and a brush using classical Japanese script). Despite never tasting them before, he finds himself a natural baker providing sweet treats for all. However, Hiroko perhaps disappoints herself by accidentally slipping into the role of workaholic salaryman, suddenly embracing the art of overtime and leaving everything at home in the capable hands of Yasube without really considering his feelings even if he never seems to resent it.

Trouble brews when Yasube gets the opportunity to build a career of his own as a pastry chef. Hiroko, true to her word, is encouraging and obviously wants to give him the opportunity to fulfil himself, but the same situation recurs – Yasube becomes obsessed with his professional development leaving little Tomoya brokenhearted and missing his surrogate dad. The problem isn’t so much gender roles as a reluctance to fully commit by agreeing to share domestic responsibilities equally in recognition of equal commitment to a mutual endeavour. Then again, Yasube disappoints – his Edo ethics reassert themselves. he answers Hiroko’s pleas that he spend more time with Tomoya by suggesting she quit her job so he won’t be lonely while his wages can support them as a family. He thinks he’s saying something nice, confirming his loyalty to them as a father figure who will protect and provide, but it’s the wrong the thing to say and only goes to show that his “ancient” way of thinking is sadly not quite archaic enough.

Likewise, his old-fashioned parenting style of fatherly authority advanced with shouts and stares would likely not be approved by most today but it does uncomfortably seem to be accepted by the film, as if Tomoya needs male parental input rather than just benefiting from having a mum who’s less tired and stressed out for having someone to share her life with. He does, however, soften on exposure to Tokyo liberality, willingly embracing modern equalities in realising that there’s nothing wrong with a man supporting a woman and a child in ways other than the financial even if he eventually goes back on it when presented with the opportunity to reassert his male pride as a provider, declaring that domestic matters “no longer concern” him now that he has “other duties”. “Tokyo” still has a ways to go (where doesn’t?), but it’s moving in the right direction even if there are some who are content to be slow in catching up.


Original trailer compilation (no subtitles)

Policeman And Me (PとJK, Ryuichi Hiroki, 2017)

policeman 2The world of shojo manga is a particular one. Aimed squarely at younger teenage girls, the genre focuses heavily on idealised, aspirational romance as the usually female protagonist finds innocent love with a charming if sometimes shy or diffident suitor. Then again, sometimes that all feels a little dull meaning there is always space to send the drama into strange or uncomfortable areas. Policeman and Me (PとJK, P to JK), adapted from the shojo manga by Maki Miyoshi is just one of these slightly problematic romances in which a high school girl ends up married to a 26 year old policeman who somehow thinks having an official certificate will make all of this seem less ill-advised than it perhaps is.

Kako (Tao Tsuchiya) is only 16 and, truth be told, a little innocent, even naive when it comes to love though she desperately wants to get herself a proper boyfriend. Dragged by a friend to singles mixer where she’s abruptly told that’s she’s 22 for the next few hours, Kako is bashful and dutifully refrains from underage drinking or inappropriate behaviour. Against the odds she hits it off with handsome policeman, Kota (Kazuya Kamenashi), who still thinks she’s 22 and that her reticence is a sign both of shyness and of maturity. Inadvertently blurting out her real age, Kako blows things with Kota who, as policeman, has no interest in dating a 16 year old. However, leaving Kako to walk home alone after the last train has left through a dodgy area of town is not a good idea and she’s soon beset by a gang of moody boys! Luckily, Kota’s policeman instincts have kicked in and he turns up to save the day with some delinquent moves of his own.

Despite the age difference, Kota and Kako have a genuine connection but Kota is anxious not to do anything dishonourable or untoward. Thus, facing the prospect of breaking up with his teenage sweetheart, he abruptly proposes marriage! After all, when the government rubber stamps something it must be OK and no-one can be accused of doing anything morally wrong, right? The surprising thing is, Kota puts on a fancy suit and goes to break the news to Kako’s parents only to have them give up almost without a fight. Her father may be angry to begin with but he’s soon won over and left with nothing other to say than please look after my girl (and try not to get her pregnant until she’s finished her education).

Kako is then placed in the incongruous position of being both a regular high school girl and a married housewife. Kota is stationed at the local police box with two other officers – one an older guy and the other a young woman who both support him in his new life as a married man. The couple live in an improbably large house inherited from Kota’s late parents but their relationship remains chaste and innocent. Perhaps realising that this unusual union will not be welcomed by all Kako has not told anyone at school about her marriage whilst she goes about trying to rescue the sensitive delinquent, Okami (Mahiro Takasugi), who accidentally put her in the hospital before she was valiantly rescued by Kota.

Okami and Kota lock horns over several things from Kako to the rule of law but they have more in common than it might first seem. Kota, once a violent teen himself, is nursing a huge debt to his policeman father killed in the line of duty. Taking on his father’s mission, Kota has dedicated himself to serving and protecting even if he once rebelled against that very thing as the kind of teenage punk Okami currently aspires to be. Okami has his own share of troubles at home which explain most of his behaviour as well as his aversion to law enforcement but Kako sees straight through his tough facade for the damaged boy inside. Kota too comes to find him more of a kindred spirit in need of rescue than a danger to society who needs locking up and also views him as an ally in being another of Kako’s admirers.

Ryuichi Hiroki thrives on this sort of uncomfortable drama, bringing a touch of moral queasiness to an otherwise cute story of innocent romance. Kota and Kako never particularly deal with the elephant in the room aside from Kako’s worries that Kota sees her a little girl who needs protecting rather than a wife who wants to stand alongside him as an equal. Then again Kako is quite happy in a subservient role, playing directly into her romantic fantasies. Hiroki directs all of this in true shojo style, keeping it all very chaste and innocent, overcoming all obstacles related to the inappropriateness in the central relationship and reaffirming the fact that true love is real, occurs in unexpected places, and is waiting for every romantic young girl who dreams of a tall guy in a dashing uniform. Unrealistic? Perhaps, but that’s shojo.


Policeman and Me was screened at the 19th Udine Far East Film Festival.

30s trailer (no subtitles)