Back in the late 90s, Asian horror was virtually unknown to Western audiences. The few titles that did reach Europe and beyond back then were probably bootleg copies with bad dubbing and even worse picture quality, perhaps contributing to an air of skepticism and meh attitude towards Asian cinema.
Indeed DVDs were somewhat of a novelty in those days. They had certainly not yet become as ubiquitous and commonplace as they are now, and thus VHS tapes were still in circulation. And for better or worse, a cursed VHS tape would become a novel way to kill by entities from the great beyond.
The long-running Ring franchise will soon be expanded with a new installment, due to premiere in a few days’ time, if not already in the cinemas.
Rings will broaden the series’ mythology, and Sadako’s implacable and shambling appearances will once again exact revenge on the living.
The film franchise began in Japan in 1998, with Hideo Nakata’s original Ring, though the mythos existed in printed form since Koji Suzuki’s 1991 book. The movie is undoubtedly a classic of the macabre, made even more unsettling by a method of killing which is terrifying and oh so personal, as the final blow is delivered via such an ubiquitous object as a TV screen.
The Ring draws inspiration from a number of sources and traditional myths from Japan’s own folklore, which was (and perhaps, still is )virtually unknown to all but the most hardcore of historians and fans of the supernatural.
Read on and learn how Sadako’s curse existence ties with the legends from the Land of the Rising Sun.
Okiku and the Nine Plates is one of the best known Japanese folk tales.
In the classic version of this tragedy of broken trust, abuse of power, and hauntings from beyond the veil of death, a humble and beautiful maid named Okiku works as a servant for a samurai lord called Aoyama.
The samurai is taken by his servant’s beauty, and attempts to seduce her multiple times. Okiku steadfastly refuses, however.
Enraged by the unrequited attentions, Aoyama crafts a plot to discredit Okiku’s worth as a servant.
The samurai owns a precious collection of ten Dutch plates, which Okiku is in charge of safekeeping. One day, after the maid cleans and puts the precious plates away, he sneaks into the kitchen, takes one of the plates, and hides it in his own bedchamber.
There is trouble in Aoyama’s mansion the next morning. When the other maids learn of the missing plate, Okiku is called to the samurai’s presence, as she was supposedly the last person to have handled the valuable crockery.
Okiku keeps counting the plates, one to nine, over and over again. The tenth plate is nowhere to be found. Okiku breaks down in front of her Master, as the plates were her responsibility.
Aoyama speaks in soothing tones, and says that he can forgive her, if she becomes her lover. But once again, Okiku refuses.
Aoyama plunges into a fit of rage, and in a moment of madness, kills Okiku with his sword. After slaying his servant, he throws the lifeless body into a well outside his home.
But when darkness comes, there is a stir at the bottom of the well. Aoyama goes to see, and up comes the sobbing sounds of a woman counting one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine… There is no ten. Instead, whatever dwells down in the well lets out a terrifying and otherworldly shriek.
Okiku’s vengeful spirit rises from the well, obsessively counting the plates that she was in charge of safekeeping in life. And in lieu of the missing plate, she utters a shriek to taunt her former Master, night after night, until the samurai plunges into madness, thus realizing her revenge.
There are different version of this tale, which has been told in Japan since the 12th century. As Western culture began influencing Japanese’s way of life -including its folklore-, certain elements changed, but the core of the story -the cursing- remains.
And if one jumps about 600 years forward, we find that many old wells and aquifers around Japan became contaminated with an odd-looking parasite that became known as ‘Okiku’s bug.’ The parasite’s anatomy looked as if its body was wrapped in black silk threads. Traditional folklore saw this as a reincarnation of Okiku. Ever since then, Okiku would be represented as a beautiful girl with long black hair, arms tied behind her back, and the lower body being that of a worm.
Dim souls: From Okiku to Sadako
We mentioned the word yurei. In broad terms, this concept is analogous to Western ghosts, though there are some local nuances.
Yurei is actually a compound name: Yu, meaning ‘hidden,’ or more commonly, ‘dim’, and rei, meaning ‘soul,’ or ‘spirit.’
In Japanese culture, every person has a rei, a soul. When the person dies of natural causes, or when his or her time is due, the soul simply awaits for the rites that will enable it right of passage and thus join its ancestors in peace. If the ritual is done in the right way, the rei passes on and cannot return to the land of the living.
However, if someone meets a violent or untimely end -through murder or suicide, for example,- the soul becomes a yurei that can find its way to the physical world. Murder or suicide victims are usually full of strong emotions at the point of death: Hate, fear, or sorrow, for instance. These emotions bind the spirit to the world it left behind, and the last thought at the moment of death will become an obsession that will lead to a haunting until such emotion is resolved. If it is not, the haunting will remain.
Traditionally, the lower the social rank of the person was, the more powerful and cruel the curse would be. Hence Okiku’s desire for revenge against the samurai who wronged her in life became so strong.
Japanese yurei are visually distinctive. Their manifestations wear long white garments resembling the traditional burial kimono. Yurei are usually represented without legs or feet, or at the very least, these are covered by the long kimono.
When they move, yurei’s arms hang outstretched close to their body.
And there’s one more trait that distinguishes a yurei. Their hair is long and jet black.Japanese women would normally wear their hair up, except during their own funeral, when the hair is allowed down.
Sadako’s curse: An onryo bent on vengeance
And so we’ve come full circle to this moment, just like in the iconic image that Ring takes its name from.
It is now plain to see how Sadako came to be. The ghostly pale hands, the white garment. That hair. And the well, of course.
The influence of Japanese folklore is strong.
The female name Sadako itself combines two words: Sada (chaste) and ko (child). This is an important clue. The original Ring book upon which the 1998 Japanese film version is based upon hints that Sadako was intersex, and thus could not reproduce. This allows the viewer (or reader) to infer that Sadako lived through the curse she bestowed upon the tape, and so her sentient essence could pass from one copy of the tape to another, enabling her to potentially live on indefinitely.
The entity known as Sadako is portrayed as an onryo, a vengeful spirit bound to the world of the living by a strong desire for revenge against those who did her harm.
Interestingly, onryos are almost exclusively female. Hailing from seemingly innocent, tame, and loyal humans while living, they become extremely violent and dangerous spirits from the world of the dead, and those who did them harm will pay the price.
Sadako’s motivations vary, depending on which timeline one looks at. In the ‘classic’ Ring, it is implied that she was murdered by her father and thrown down the well, where her onryo rose from, vowing revenge against the world. It is also hinted that Sadako’s true father was a sea demon.
But irrespective of the timeline, Sadako’s onryo always returns to harm those who wronged in life.
Rings: Sadako’s legacy lives on
The Ring franchise blends horror and rich mythology in an exhilarating cocktail of supernatural goings-on. The character of Sadako indeed features in plenty of ‘Scariest (moments, characters, etc.) lists around.
The legacy and the sheer visual power of the chaste child’s first appearance through a TV screen will linger in people’s minds long after we switch off our own televisions.
Rings hits theatres in early February.