Sadako vs. Kayako
Japan (2016) Dir. Kôji Shiraishi
Ladies and gentlemen, it’s time for the battle of the long, black haired vengeful female spirits of the afterlife! In the red corner, from the musty old cursed video tape first seen in Ringu it’s Sadako Yamamura! And her opponent, in the blue corner, from the back of the attic of the old house in Ju-On: The Grudge, it’s Kayako Saeki!
What brings these two J-horror icons together? University student Natsumi Ueno (Aimi Satsukawa) asks her friend Yuri Kurahashi (Mizuki Yamamoto) to transfer her parents’ wedding video onto DVD. They need a video player and find one in an old junk shop that happens to have a tape in it, which they play out of curiosity. Earlier that day the girls attended a lecture by Shin’ichi Morishige (Masahiro Komoto) concerning the urban legend of the cursed video tape which people die two days after viewing it.
As Yuri is busy with her phone only Natsumi watches the video and is spooked by its content, moments after which Natsumi receives a freaky phone call. Meanwhile Suzuka Takagi (Tina Tamashiro) and her parents move into the area, just a few houses away from a fabled house where rumoured uxoricide, possible infanticide and suicide took place.
Whether viewed as an inevitability or a desperate attempt to cling onto past glories, this meeting between the two queens of the most successful J-horror franchises of the past two decades has a certain cachet in terms of the curiosity factor yet with an emphatic caveat emptor that it might be cheesy as hell and potentially underwhelming.
Considering how diluted the films became as the sequels rolled out, this is less a cynical dismissal of the idea and more an astute observation. To assuage our worst fears the story and script needs to be tight and convincing but instead it relies heavily on contrivance while coming up short on explanations and resolutions. Providing a few nifty jump scares, the remit of the original characters is intact but they face unintentional comic opposition.
The first contrivance, which in all fairness is perfectly functional given the “curse” aspect, is the old video player Natsumi and Yuri bought which belonged to an elderly woman who was found dead by her social worker at the start of the film, who also perished when the video player sprang to life of its own accord.
If leaving the tape in the machine wasn’t bad enough, the staff at the junk shop apparently knew it was cursed, the young assistant boasting about watching the tape – two days earlier. Guess what happens next? The other coincidence shoehorned into the plot was Morishige, who in his lecture begged his students to sell the video tape to him if they should ever find it. What are the odds two of them could oblige him the next day?
When copying the tape over to DVD doesn’t break the curse for Natsumi, Morishige calls in the exorcists, which is where the comedy enters the fray. The exorcising ceremony is just too daft to be taken seriously, although the possessed assistant who snaps her own neck is a cool visual.
It gets worse when the big guns are called in, Keizo (Masanobu Ando) and his young blind psychic Tamao (Mai Kikuchi), the latter a great throwback character that could easily have been a creation of Takashi Miike. Keizo’s flimsily conceived solution to get rid of Sadako is to have her face off against Kayako, whom he is also investigating, in they hope they will destroy each other.
Digressing slightly, the rules appear to have changed since the first Ringu film as back then, Sadako gave her victims seven days notice instead of two. Also, the footage is different with Sadako (Elly Nanami) appearing in a decrepit building instead of a well. Kayako (Runa Endo) still crawls down the stairs emitting her death rattle while Toshio (Rintaro Shibamoto) torments anyone who enters the house, leaving the trickier victims to his late mother.
However, what is noticeably missing is the motive for these two supernatural slayers to fight each other, something Kôji Shiraishi doesn’t try to engender until the last minute. Without spoiling anything, they are brought together through circumstance but without just cause to start a feud. The ending it has to be said is rather interesting and whilst it has potential to continue the story in a number of possible directions, it will require some careful planning and ideas that honour both the original premises and the minutiae.
If this puts the future of Sadako vs. Kayako in an uncertain position, this film itself is also in one with regard to audience interest. For fans of one or both of the originals, the script sets out to appease them the most, delivering what we would expect from these iconic characters. Newcomers, fair weather fans and the mildly interested will find only a glancing introduction to both bizarre worlds in the clunky expository dialogue.
Presentation wise, the obvious difference between this and Ringu – made 18 years earlier – is the technological advancements, addressed in recent sequels such as Sadako 3D, likely to endear Sadako to modern audiences who find the sparse atmosphere of the original too lacking. Kayako’s theatrical debut in 2002 means she fares a lot better, but both characters retain their need for the physical performances to enhance their scariness.
Kôji Shiraishi has a long string of gory, violent and graphic horror credits to his name, most notably Grotesque which has the ignominy of being on the few titles banned in the UK in the 21st century! Despite this reputation, the gore factor is minimal here with the emphasis on mood and jump scares to unnerve the audience, which may disappoint the more bloodthirsty viewers.
Sadako vs. Kayako is an anomaly in that it is better than it has nay right to be yet is also a messy, unfocused and contrived frustration. Optimist or pessimist, both viewpoints are served well here.