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Ringu and the cinema of attraction

Sunday 18 July 2010, by Abla Kandalaft

Ringu was released in Japan in 1999 and was an instant hit. It became the highest grossing horror film in Japan at 15.9 billion yen ($137.7 million). Its reception in the UK was much more muted when it was released in a handful of art house local cinemas and then on Channel four in 2002. A few months later remakes where on the way in the US and in Korea as, mainly through word of mouth, its popularity gathered momentum. From a small number of horror fans, Ringu reached an international mass audience and ushered in a new genre of horror, conveniently placed under the umbrella term J-horror. Ringu is based on a novel entitled Ring that was released ten years before the film and although the book became a bestseller in Japan, there was never a demand for its translation into other languages until the film was made. Pertinently, the film significantly differs from the novel. Indeed, Ringu is a purely cinematic creation that would not translate well as a book.

Interestingly, Nakata utilises processes not dissimilar to those of early cinema, what Tom Gunning calls the “cinema of attractions”, a concept that “envisioned cinema as a series of visual shocks”. The term qualifies mainly films prior to 1906 in which plot or narrative was virtually inexistent and whose visual trickery was reminiscent of fairground attractions as the novelty of the medium was vastly experimented with. Like most horror films, the appeal of Ringu derives to a certain extent from images that produce shock and that can be free of any meaning. Fans and reviewers alike argue that the film is a prime example of psychological horror in that the horror itself is suggested rather than seen. Yet, a number of scenes are purely visual and can be experienced in themselves for their ability to shock.

I would say there are three scenes that in which meaning does not have to play a part for them to be visually stimulating; the deformed faces in the photographs, the screaming contorted bodies of Sadako’s victims and the obvious one, Sadako crawling out of the TV. These all have in common a sort of fairground attraction trickery, the meaningless distortions, the photographs transforming mistranslating reality, a TV image leaking into the real world. This is the penultimate sequence in which Sadako crawls out of the TV, which has become commonly known as “the TV scene”. The impossible movements of her body are themselves reminiscent of the fascination people drew from contortionists that were part of the entertainment in fairgrounds and still draw from unusual bodies. One viewer says the film scared him because “the character moves weirdly, looks and dresses in a way that is just scary as she comes out of the T.V”. One could also relate this sequence to the instance of trompe l’oeil, playing on the realism of the image and going one step further by having the character literally climbing out of the TV screen. This scene is oddly reminiscent of the Lumière film The Arrival of a Train. Countless stories are recounted of viewers covering their faces, huddling back in their seats or even running out of the room.

In the cinema of attraction, there are further shocks and thrills to be acquired from the actual shift of still to moving image. During the Lumière projection, still photographs gave way to movement, a delay astonishing the spectators. This can be related to a common reaction on the part of the viewers. Many claim, “It all happens in the background, you look at the screen and think nothing is happening, but then you look closer and you see something moving”. Overall, in Ringu, we get to watch Sadako’s film four times. The last sequence is a still image of a well and, each time, the sequence lasts longer until at the very end, squinting, we see something white emerging from the well, before the screen goes blank.

These effects owe much to the intricate montage, the best instance of which is that of the video itself, of Sadako’s film. Usually, the meaning of the image is reinforced by its association with another image. However, in a sort of reversal effect, in this sequence, the montage removes any literal meaning, instead producing affect. For example, we see a shot of a mirror reflecting a woman brushing her hair, and then it cuts to a split-second shot of a mirror on the other side of the wall reflecting the silhouette of a little girl and then reverts back to the woman. A priori, each shot is mundane, but the fact that the second shot is so short surprises the viewer and doesn’t allow for a clear picture of the girl, producing a troubling, scary image.

Yet, the unfolding narrative equally provokes suspense. Attraction and narrative by no means exclude each other. Recent analyses of horror film trends have shown that viewers judged the quality of films on the basis of original, imaginative plots, and on their ability to generate tension and suspense, largely preferred over shock and revulsion. Although the accurateness of such findings should not be over-emphasised, they do go some way in explaining the popularity of Ringu and similar films.

The gap between the novel and the film is surprisingly large. Had Nakata been faithful to the novel, it would have been a thriller at most, or possibly even a drama. He chose to make the most of basic cinematic devices reminiscent of early film to create a horror classic.

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