I watched Sadako vs. Kayako this week. In my experience, horror movies that pit two antagonists against each other are more slapstick than scary — think Freddy vs. Jason, Alien vs. Predator — but this one was rammed full of effective scares, as the stars of Japanese horror classics Ring and Ju-on (The Grudge) battled over the mortal souls of their victims.
No spoilers here, but even before going into the theater, it was clear who the real winner was going to be. Ju-on’s Kayako held her own, with her cat-calling son Toshio in a particularly creepy role, but J-horror’s true star is still Sadako: she of the long, lank, dark hair, the creature down the well, the figure responsible for reanimating the corpse of horror movies at the turn of the millennium.
Sadako is a malevolent force, absolutely without mercy, and evil to her core. She kills her many victims by forcing them to commit suicide for fear of her appearance, or — when she does appear — by simply frightening them to death, whereupon their faces are contorted into a rictus grin of terror. But while Sadako is hardly a sympathetic figure, she’s adored in her native Japan, the country that birthed her and took her on as something of a mascot.
I saw Sadako in person last year. I didn’t watch a cursed videotape — who has a VHS player any more? — but spotted her instead during the Halloween celebrations at Universal Studios Japan. The holiday sees the park invaded by actors playing zombies and Resident Evil-themed events, but Sadako’s the star of the show, appearing to "haunt" multiple attractions. She popped up behind the host at the Terminator 2 attraction, killing the lights moments later, before four actors in Sadako costumes (at least I hope they were actors…) appeared to teleport her presence around the movie theater to the giddy shrieks of the mostly teenage audience.
She even beat out Jaws on his own ride. The huge shark lunging toward our flimsy craft was an afterthought to my fellow riders when Sadako appeared in a darkened boathouse, jerking her way along the dock toward us. My younger ridemates were scared and hiding their faces, but they were also giggling, calling "Sadako!" like they were in the presence of a celebrity. And while she might not be real, she certainly is that celebrity. Sadako was brought out alongside Kayako to throw the first pitch at a recent Nippon Ham-Fighters baseball game — an honor that hasn’t been extended to Freddy Krueger, Pinhead, or the masked Scream killers.
Perhaps this affection from Sadako is because Japan is a nation that likes seeing transgressors get their comeuppance. Sadako’s victims have to sit through a full — and very spooky — videotape in order to qualify for her visitations, an ordeal scary enough to have any sensible person reaching for the remote. In Sadako vs. Kayako, the protagonists even have the concept of a cursed tape explained to them in graphic detail during a college lecture, the day before they track down an ancient VHS player and watch the ooky tape inside.
This is the same country that birthed the phrase "the nail that sticks out gets hammered down," advice not to break from societal norms and do things like talk loudly on trains, make a fuss at restaurants, and oh, I don’t know, maybe not seek out and watch obviously haunted tapes? Sadako could serve as a kind of societal enforcer, doing the things that people who would otherwise tut at their obnoxious peers wish they could do.
There’s precedent here in Japan’s older folklore. Like any country, Japan has thousands of ghost stories born from superstition and generations of unscientific early history, but many Japanese spooks are a lot more pragmatic than you might find elsewhere. Hanako-san, for example, is the ghost of a young girl in a red skirt that haunts bathrooms. She serves as a perfectly fine scary story on her own — indeed there are movies made about her horrifying presence — but friends of mine have used her as a warning to their kids. "Leave the bathroom clean, or Hanako will eat you!"
Japan’s yokai, too, bridge the gap between the supernatural and the rather more mundane. Not quite ghost, not quite monster, yokai can inhabit everyday objects, mimicking umbrellas, lanterns, and crockery. Other yokai warn people away from real-world dangers — like the kappa; the terminally polite, cucumber-loving goblin creatures that live in ditches at the side of rice fields, and sometimes drag unwary children to a watery doom.
Or perhaps Japan has adopted Sadako simply because it’s proud of her undeniable influence on horror. Ring — and the subsequent wave of excellent J-horror movies like Ju-on (The Grudge) — helped redefine a genre that, in the west at least, had spun into self-reflexive post-modernism by the late 1990s. Sadako inverted the horror stereotype, replacing masked and musclebound psychopaths with a little girl in a dress, an apparently innocent figure somehow imbued with a demonic and unknowable menace that tormented loners like Michael Myers and Jason Vorhees couldn’t really match.
Ring had an immediate impact, with Sadako’s tendrils visible in fellow Japanese movies that followed (Kairo (Pulse), Dark Water, One Missed Call), and across Asia, in South Korean movies like A Tale of Two Sisters, and in Hong Kong’s The Eye. Kayako herself is a child of Sadako, a tragic and vulnerable figure turned into a supernaturally powerful beast by primal forces of rage.
Sadako vs. Kayako doesn’t redefine horror in the way that the original Ring did. It takes the same well-worn tracks as its many predecessors, using haunted tapes, haunted houses, and two well-known horror heroines to tell its story. But its ample scares show how effective J-horror remains, especially by setting much of the action during the day, or in supposedly "safe" locations. It might not be new, but it’s a fitting tribute to the reigning queen of horror, as well as her understudy.
Five stories to start your day
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