Sadako vs. Kayako (2016)

Sadako vs. Kayako first published by

Sometimes to understand the present, you need to plunge headlong into history. Back on the eve of the new millennium, Hideo Nakata’s Ring (1998) would introduce the world to Sadako Yamamura, an unquiet spirit who wreaks her revenge from the world beyond via a cursed videotape. Updating traditional Japanese long-haired ghosts and ‘curse’ narratives with a smattering of technophobia, Ring spawned numerous sequels and remakes (not just Hollywood remakes, either), and also inspired rival franchises (with their own sequels and remakes). Most popular among these was Takashi Shimizu’s Ju-on: The Grudge cycle, with its modern suburban Tokyo house haunted by the implacable phantoms of Kayako Saeki and her son Toshio, who had been murdered within.

The big innovation in Ring was to have Sadako visit her vengeance upon later generations virally, via electronic media, so that her reign of terror was adaptable – associated not just with her past trapped down a well, but with the inventions of the future. Accordingly the films captured not only our anxieties about the irrepressible persistence of unresolved issues from the past, but also our alarm at the overwhelming rapidity of progress. Yet the truth is that in 1998, when fear about the all-digital Y2K virus was already on the horizon, the analogue vehicle of Sadako’s haunting was already itself a moribund medium. By the time Ring had become available for home release, most of us were watching it on DVD rather than VHS (although seeing it in the latter format would certainly have added a frisson to the experience). Put simply, the Ring series was, right from its earliest beginnings, running on obsolescent tech, and ultimately as backward-looking as any self-respecting ghost story.

That was then, this is now. Franchise-fusing spinoff Sadako Vs Kayako arrived in 2016 – the same year that saw the official end of VHS as a viable format, with production of commercial Video Cassette Recorders formally ceasing. So Sadako’s mythos, once so fresh seeming, is now well and truly ossified, and in need of new forms – or as Shin’ichi Morishige (Masahiro Komoto), a university professor specialising in urban myths (and hilariously trying to flog copies of his self-published book on the subject to his students), says of the ”Cursed Video’: “If it did exist, these days it would be all over the Internet.”

Indeed, we live now in different times – a digital age where the ‘deliberate’ pacing of the original Ring will no longer cut it, where the playing of a VHS requires the purchase of a used VCR from a secondhand store, and where the digitisation and online distribution of Sadako’s cursed clip represents the greatest viral threat of all. Writer/director Koji Shiraishi understands this well, and so takes a tongue-in-cheek approach to his materials, pastiching the past in search of a future for it. Any film with ‘Versus’ in its title raises expectations of the postmodern merging of different story worlds, and Sadako Vs Kayako delivers postmodern hybridisations and recombinations in spades, even throwing in references to the slit-mouthed women, legless ghosts and exorcists that have populated Shiraishi’s other films. The ringing of the changes is signified by the cursed VHS clip itself, now completely different in content from the one in the original film – and while watching it still guarantees a tinnitus-inducing phone call from Sadako followed by the death of the viewer, this doom comes in just a brisk two days, rather than the full week’s reprieve in Ring.

As the clock ticks inexorably towards the demise of Morishige’s students Yuri (Mizuki Yamamoto) and Natsumi (Aimi Satsukawa), epicene exorcist Keizo (Masanobu Ando) and his young blind associate Tamao (Mai Kikuchi) step in to help – or maybe just for the spiritualist lulz (they are a very odd couple). It is Keizo who hits upon the titular – yet inherently batshit – idea to “have two evil ghosts fight each other”, and so the ring is set for the grudge match from hell. Meanwhile, schoolgirl Suzuka (Tina Tamashiro) has moved in next door to the abandoned Saeki home, and is being drawn in dreams towards its damned interiors – from which no one ever returns alive. Soon Yuri and Suzuka will be joining forces to end their respective curses – even if that might just lead Sadako and Kayako to make a common cause of their own in a new, monstrous guise.

Right from the outset, Sadako Vs Kayako confounds its source templates, drawing its waters from more than one spring. In the opening sequence, a district welfare officer lets herself into a house whose occupant has not been responding – and until the very end of the scene, we are not sure whether we are witnessing the lethal handiwork of Sadako or of Kayako. The similarity between these two grudge-bearing wraiths extends to the revelation that there is, hidden improbably behind the Saekis’ suburban abode, a familiar-looking well in a desolate wood – the perfect stage for their climactic unification.

While the film cuts to the chase in reprising what Sadako (Elly Nanami) on the one hand, and Kayako (Runa Endo) and Toshio (Rintaro Shibamoto) on the other, do to their victims, it takes its time bringing them together and building to the final bout – a joyously insane amalgam of clashing elements mutated into something of Lovecraftian proportions, with a promise of a new spin-off franchise. It is all broadly scare-free and utterly ridiculous, but Shiraichi embraces the absurdity with delirious enthusiasm, showing us how the horror stuff on which we have all been raised might combine and blur into a recognisable but new entity. And now that these two iconic demonesses have been uploaded within the film, it seems entirely apt that they should be available to be digitally streamed on Shudder, so that you can let their memento mori into your own home.

Summary: Sadako and Kayako may be turning in their graves, but who wouldn’t want ring-side seats to the hilariously unhinged grudge match that ensues?

© Anton Bitel