Is this the one that started it all?
While Hideo Nakata's Ringu may not be the film singly responsible for the current Western fixation on the Asian horror market, both it and its American remake The Ring are certainly huge contributing factors. It seems that every Asian horror movie that has generated the slightest buzz since the success of these films has been snapped up for U.S. distribution and the inevitable (and usually inferior) Hollywood remake. However, we got lucky with The Ring, which turned out to be a highly effective and atmospheric horror movie -- and we have Ringu to thank for it.
But while each film has its unique strengths and weaknesses, claiming one is better than the other is a case of apples and oranges. While The Ring may provide a richer horror atmosphere rife with moody and rainy visuals, the general story that unfolds within both films seems to fit much better within the context provided by Japanese mythology. Both films are good, but unfortunately, the films are also similar enough to each other that seeing one of them nullifies most of the scare value of the other. But if you've never seen either of them, I'd suggest picking up Ringu first (and avoiding the sequels to either film like the plague).
Nanako Matsushima plays Reiko Asakawa, a television reporter working on a story about a rumored videotape full of eerie images and sounds that purportedly kills anyone who watches it within 7 days. When both she and, inadvertently, her young son end up seeing the tape, she enlists her bitter and estranged ex-husband, Ryuji (Hiroyuki Sanada) to help her unravel the mystery before the specter of the videotape comes for her and her boy.
The main plot points, and the order in which they unfold, are virtually identical in Ringu and its American remake. The real differences lie in the nuances, both cultural and directorial. Both films have some creepy and effective scenes, but Ringu benefits from a more streamlined plot that works well within the confines of Japanese mythology but seemed somewhat shoehorned into The Ring's American environs. Perhaps the opening sequence populated by mostly giggling Japanese girls doesn't quite carry the same weight as the freaked-out expressions on the faces of their American counterparts, or the hissing static of the television. However, Ringu's explanation of the mystery tape's origin, and the creepy images found on said tape, are more intriguing. Ringu's horrific atmosphere may be subtler than that of its westernized offspring, but it is ultimately used to a more resounding effect.
Unfortunately, Ringu's status as a trendsetter means that new viewers may not fully appreciate its scary bits because they have been so widely emulated in nearly every Asian horror film to hit U.S. shores since. If you've seen the creepy female ghost with long black hair covering her face once, you've pretty much seen them all. If you're lucky, you got to see it in Ringu first. That said, Nakata's film uses this particular chestnut to better effect than most, and the final moments of Ringu stand as one of the most terrifying moments in horror movie history.
Although the Japanese horror market is currently cursed with an overabundance of these familiar elements, Ringu is a prime example of how even the familiar can be used effectively to create something unsettling and terrifying. For every ten Ju-Ons, you'll find a gem like Ringu, or the Korean film A Tale of Two Sisters -- and those gems are well worth seeking out.