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

Blue Spring (青い春, Toshiaki Toyoda, 2001)

Blue Spring posterJapan is a hierarchical society, but that doesn’t mean there is only one hierarchy. Every sector of life seemingly has its own way of ordering itself, including high school. Back in the ‘80s, high schools became known as violent places in which angry young men took out their adolescent frustrations on each other, each hoping to be accounted the toughest guy in town. Toshiaki Toyoda, chronicler of millennial malaise, made his one and only “youth movie” in adapting Taiyo Matsumoto’s delinquent manga Blue Spring (青い春, Aoi haru), bringing to it all the nihilistic hopelessness of his earlier work tempered with sympathetic melancholy.

The action begins with a photograph of group of boys entering their final year of high school before embarking on a dare to decide who will be the new king of the school which involves hanging off a high balcony and seeing how many times you can clap before needing to catch hold of the railing or fall to your death. Cool and apathetic Kujo (Ryuhei Matsuda) wins easily with a new record, but seems indifferent to his increased status while his best friend and underling, Aoki (Hirofumi Arai), basks in the vicarious glow of suddenly being top dog. Meanwhile, Yukio (Sousuke Takaoka) – a silent and troubled young man, keeps his minion on the hook with promises of making him a fully fledged member of the gang while squaring off against Ota (Yuta Yamazaki) who is keen to talk up his growing friendship with a local mobster.

Despite a reputation for order and discipline, Asa High School is a lawless place where ineffective authority figures run scared of the hotblooded teens. Set in entirely within the school, there is little hint of the boys’ home lives but none of them truly believe there’s very much for them out in the world and know that the last year of high school is a final opportunity to be uncivilised with relatively few repercussions. The teachers, sadly, mainly agree with them, tiredly reading out the same dull text books while letting the kids do as they please because they lack the inclination to help them. Even those who do take an interest fail to get through, trotting out tired platitudes which do little to convince the kids in their care that their time at school matters or that they should want to work on their interpersonal skills and anger issues.

“People who know what they want scare me”, Kujo explains to a strangely sympathetic teacher (Mame Yamada) whose job it is to make the flowers bloom. He’s top dog now, but being made king has only made him feel powerless and uncertain. Suddenly, being the strongest seems like an irrelevance and this pointless violence an absurd waste of time. The problem is, none of these kids have any direction or hope for the future. They don’t believe education can be a way out, and being trapped in a stagnant economy makes them inherently distrustful of the salaryman dream that might have distracted their fathers. All they have are their fists and angry, adolescent hearts.

One by one their dreams are crushed – the baseball star doesn’t make it to Koshien, the sickly kid doesn’t show up for school, the yakuza goon is betrayed by a friend, the bullied underling moves up to bullying others, and a cross word between Aoki and Kujo threatens to ruin a childhood friendship. Asked for his hopes and dreams for the future, all Yukio can offer is a dedication to world peace and the Ultraman pose. Kujo, staring confused at the flowers, wonders if some are destined to wither without ever blooming only for his teacher to console him, melancholically, that he chooses to believe that flowers are born to bloom and so bloom they will.

Meanwhile, yakuza circle the fences like baseball scouts at a championship game, knowing organised crime is the traditional next step for handy boys who won’t graduate high school. Yet the tragedies here aren’t so much ruined futures and the futility of life as the failure of friendship. The boys fight and they hurt each other in ways other than the physical but lack the maturity to deal with their pain. Violence, self inflicted and not, is their only outlet and their only means of attracting attention from the authority figures so intent on ignoring their existence. Toyoda builds on the relentless sense of hopelessness seen in Pornostar but leaves with the weary resignation of one no longer young who knows that youth is dream destined to disappoint.


Blue Spring is released on blu-ray courtesy of Third Window Films on 13th May. The set also includes a very frank and often humorous commentary from Toyoda (in Japanese with English subtitles) as well as a “making of” from the time of the film’s release.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Tears for You (涙そうそう, Nobuhiro Doi, 2006)

tears-for-youComing in at the end of the “pure love” boom, Nobuhiro Doi’s second feature, Tears for You (涙そうそう, Nada So So) is presumably named to tie in with his smash hit debut Be With You, and continues in the same general vein but with a much less satisfying melodrama at its core. A complicated love story centring on a pair of orphaned step-siblings, Tears for You edges into some difficult, perhaps unpalatable, territory but neatly skirts around it with a childish innocence intended to enhance its romantic credentials. Starring the jun-ai icon Masami Nasagawa, the tragic heroine at the centre of Crying Out Love in the Center of the World, alongside the then up and coming leading man Satoshi Tsumabuki, Tears for You is never quite as heartrending as it would like to be but does its best to wring its sorrowful narrative for all of its inherent tragedy.

21yr old Yota (Satoshi Tsumabuki) is a young man with big dreams but he’s put lots of them on hold in order to take care of his younger step-sister, Kaoru (Masami Nagasawa), who has only him to depend on. Yota’s mother married Kaoru’s father when both the children were small but her new husband soon ran off leaving his daughter behind. The three of them continued as a tightly knit family until Yota’s mother became ill and passed away, making Yota promise to take care of Kaoru no matter what even whilst on her deathbed. The two then moved back to an Okinawan island to live with Yota’s grandmother until Yota came back to Naha for high school. Kaoru is now about to make that same journey but the siblings’ happy reunion also provokes a number of questions about the nature of their relationship and the course each of their lives will take in the future.

This being a “pure love” movie, tragedy is coming though Tears for You does its best to disguise where it’s coming from even if the eventual outcome is quite obviously signposted. The original barrier between Kaoru and Yota is raised by their nature as accidental siblings, not related by blood but raised alongside each other with a familial bond stronger than that of just childhood friends. This, of course, becomes a problem as they grow older and begin to find it difficult to draw the line between their familial love and a possibly romantic one which would allow their family of two to continue forever.

Yota, the self sacrificing older brother has indeed become everything to Kaoru – a brother, father, and friend all in one. Dropping out of high school early, Yota has been sending a pay check home since the age of sixteen, putting his own future to one side in order to provide for Kaoru. Determined that Kaoru should prosper and escape their lowly, poverty stricken island existence through getting to university and into a middle class profession, Yota has been working three different jobs. When it looks as if he’s about to be able to realise his own dream of opening a restaurant, it all comes crashing down around his ears as he realises he’s been duped by a con artist and is now on the hook to a gang of loansharks.

In addition to adding to his financial burdens, causing him embarrassment, and further deepening his worry about providing for Kaoru, the situation also creates instability in his romantic life when the father of his longterm medical student girlfriend finds out about his predicament and offers to help – but only at a price. Keiko (Isao Hashizume), he reminds him, is a middle class girl on track to take over her father’s clinic. Yota is a poor boy with limited expectations. The implications are clear and already known to Yota who has internalised a degree of shame over his lowly origins and lack of education which he overcomes through hard work and enthusiasm. Keiko is not the sort to worry about a petty class difference even if her father is, but his words get to Yota who has always felt Keiko is too good for him. She does, however, care slightly about Yota’s ongoing and complicated relationship with his younger sister whom, she fears, will always eclipse any other woman in his life.

As in all pure love stories, love is an impossibility, surrounded by unassailable walls of culture and fate. Though there is no blood relation between Yota and Kaoru, their familial circumstances make romantic love a taboo which leads the film into a rather odd corner in which the familial side of their relationship is the one which gains the upper hand as the love of a brother and sister eclipses that of a tragic missed opportunity. As such the nature of the heartrending conclusion does not reach the melodramatic heights of other genre hits, even if it adheres to the form in maintaining the “purity” of the love through the final impossibility of its realisation. Doi employs many of the same techniques he used so well in Be With You, artfully shifting between past and present and making the most of repeated motifs to bring home the circularity of the relationship between the pair of tragic lovers but never achieves the same kind of emotional depth. Nevertheless, Tears for You is a suitably melancholy weepy anchored by strong performances from its two leads which does ultimately prove moving even if not quite reaching the degree of melodrama implied by the title.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

And here’s the original song, Nada Sou Sou, in its cover version by Rimi Natsukawa which spawned a mini industry of its own encompassing two TV dramas and this standalone film (English translation):