It is a common adage that art imitates life. We see an echo of the times it was created in every piece of art we see. Works of literature written in the ancient and medieval times are generally considered authoritative sources on traditions of the time. The trend has continued to the times we live in as well as modern media of arts, like movies. Artists often work in metaphors and allegories. Animal Farm is not actually about an animal farm. I think the most glaring example of a work of art being a sly commentary on the state of affairs is the fascinating world of horror movies.
The idea of horror as an aesthetic in the Arts is nothing new. Going as far back as possibly 500 BCE, Natyashashtra identifies “Bhayavah” (terrifying) and “Bibhatsa” (disgusting) as two of the nine basic emotions that a work of art can evoke. The text provides a detailed description of the emotions associated with these two aesthetic styles and even which colours can be used to represent them on the stage and costumes. Every horror movie or work of art you can think of, falls squarely within the ambit of these two emotions (bhava), be it paranormal horror like The Exorcist, or slasher flicks like The Hills Have Eyes. Sure, you have the odd Scream (dir: Wes Craven, 1996) but at its core, horror as a genre exists to scare and sometimes, disgust you. In particular, I have always wanted to dive into one very important horror movie in a very interesting movement to explore not only what it appears to be on the surface but also the layers of meaning hidden in subtext.
The movie is Ringu (Japan, 1998). The Japanese film industry was not unknown in the US and European film circles. The US occupation of Japan (1945-1952) helped create channels of art exchange and Japanese cinema escaped the academic circles and began entering the homes (or theatres) of even casual cinemagoers. Movies like Rashomon (1950), Tokyo Story (1952) and Godzilla (1954) firmly cemented Japan as a premier movie making industry in the eyes of the world. Some of the most iconic Hollywood movies are remakes of Japanese films. The Magnificent Seven (2016) was a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954) while A Fistful of Dollars (1964) was a remake of Yojimbo (1961). One could even argue that Star Wars was inspired in a big way by Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress (1958). However, Japanese movies fell off the map and were largely ignored by Hollywood through much of the 80s and early 90s. All of that changed with the arrival of Ringu (1998).
The movie follows Reiko Asakawa, a reporter who is investigating a bizarre urban legend. According to the legend, there exists an unmarked video tape and whoever watches it gets a phone call and dies seven days later. When she discovers a string of deaths allegedly linked directly to the tape, she sets out to uncover the truth. She watches the video tape, realizes that it is truly cursed, and she only has seven days to live. She enlists the help of her ex-husband to solve the mystery behind it and now must race against time to save herself and her son, who has also watched the tape unknowingly.
Ringu (1998); Basara Pictures, Toho, Imagica
Ringu I think is the most tense movie I have ever seen, barring maybe the South Korean film Cold Eyes (2013). Everything is shot in long, leisurely takes, and the movie lets tension build. It does not depend upon jump scares. At the same time, it gives and withholds information masterfully, playing out as equal parts mystery and horror. Even though I had seen spoilers for the movie years before I actually watched it, it did not take anything away from the experience. I would even say that knowing some of the plot points heightened my excitement for what was coming next. The sting in the tail, the twist ending, is also masterfully done and like all good horror movies, Ringu also ends without closure (John Carpenter’s Halloween, anyone?).
However, if you look closely at the movie and the time at which it came out, there is so much more going on beneath the surface. There is the constant theme of technophobia that characterized the J-Horror genre during that time. There is a cursed video tape, you get a phone call, the screen gives way and becomes the tool of your demise. Here, the curse is dependent on technology to manifest itself. Even the eventual resolution of the curse is dependent on technology. Contrast it to most of the other classics of the horror genre, and the boundary between technology and the supernatural is very solidly established in Ringu.
The late 90s were a complicated time. The Y2K crisis was on the horizon and no one knew what it even meant. There was this whole new thing called the Internet that the kids were talking about and the rhetoric around it was very similar to how AI is talked about these days. Will it lead to mass employment? Will people stop leaving their homes? Will it upset our way of life? It was at this time that Ringu, and really the whole J-Horror movement, happened. Even the ideological successors to this movie were movies like Kairo and One Last Call, the horrors in both inextricably linked with technology. Kairo (2001) was about a ghost that spreads through the Internet and affects people in real life. One Last Call (2003) is basically Ringu, just swapping out the video tape with a voicemail. Movies in this phase of J-Horror were all cleverly disguised allegories surrounding the mistrust towards technology.
Ringu (1998); Basara Pictures, Toho, Imagica
I can hardly think of any other movement which mixes technology in such an intimate manner to a supernatural horror story. The idea of Technophobia was a feature of J-horror almost exclusively. It was non-existent in other industries until its introduction by Japanese filmmakers. The Exorcist does not banish the demon with an app, Annabelle is not gotten rid of by installing a software patch. But Ringu blurs the line between technology and the supernatural till it is non-existent. And that is the true genius of Ringu.
I believe this is a feature all classics of the horror genre share. They are always about what the society at the time fears. We can map this trend clearly. Right at the end of the hippie movement of the 60s and early 70s, horror movies turned premarital sex into a taboo. In fact, it was such a common trope in the movies at the time that many recent movies have poked fun at it (Cabin in The Woods, Scream). What made the movies resonate, beyond the masterful direction and our own base fascination with violence, was that they tapped into the fears plaguing the status quo of society at the time. If we look at the modern movements in horror, the trend has continued. Take for example the movies being produced by Blumhouse Studio. A key element there has been turning your own safe sanctuary into the object of horror. If we compare them with movies from a few decades earlier, the horrors always happened in an unfamiliar location. A camp, a beach house, a trip to the mountains. Not anymore. Now your own space is what is trying to kill you and the horrors have come knocking at your door. A mere coincidence they sync perfectly with the arrival of Donald Trump on the world stage, with his anti-immigration rhetoric? I am not insinuating he was elected because you watched The Purge, I am merely noting the similarities.
Ringu (1998); Basara Pictures, Toho, Imagica
This, I think, is also the reason why we do not get many good horror movies from India, and more specifically in the Hindi film industry. For one, many horror movies made in the country till recently were blatant rip-offs of movies from the West. Barring Tumbbad (2018), I can’t think of a single horror movie which had a truly Indian setting and successfully so. For some reason, even movies set in India somehow end up looking like they were shot in a Scottish castle (looking at you, 1920). Secondly, the absolute refusal (or unwillingness) to tap into the times we live in is what has plagued horror movies in the Hindi industry. Movies from the south (Pisaasu, Pizza) are faring better but the limited market and budget inhibits their explosion onto the scene. Even so, from a technical standpoint, these movies are still a fair way away from the atmosphere building accomplished by the masters of the craft.
Ringu, despite being a supremely competent film, was obviously helped by a lot of pieces that fell in place at the right time. Spiral, the sequel to the movie that released in the same year, received such a tepid reaction that it was removed from the continuity altogether and the new sequel retconned the ending given by Spiral. However, the key to being in the right place at the right time presupposes being someplace. Even if Ringu happened at the right time by pure accident, it became such a sensation only because it had enough merit as a movie to break through the clutter and speak something primal to the whole world.