Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Sadako vs Kayako

Sadako vs Kayako (2016)
Dir Kōji Shiraishi
Written by Takashi Shimizu and Koji Suzuki
Starring Mizuki Yamamoto, Tina Tamashiro

When I heard they were doing a SADAKO (THE RING) vs KAYAKO (THE GRUDGE) crossover spectacular, I was so excited I went back and watched literally every movie in both franchises. It seemed like a lark, until I started to realize exactly how much legwork that would entail. On the SADAKO/ RING side --adapted from the series of novels by Koji Suzuki--, you got THE RING: KANZENBAN* (1995), RINGU (1998), RASEN (1998), RINGU 2 (1999), RING 0: BIRTHDAY (2000), SADAKO 3D (2012), SADAKO 3D 2 (2013), and finally SADAKO VS KAYAKO, the film we find ourselves concerned with today. Oh, and also a Korean version from 1999 called RING: VIRUS. Feeling tired yet? I hope not, because we’re just getting started. On the GRUDGE (or, as it’s typically rendered from the Japanese, JU-ON) side, we have the two shorts that started it all, KATASUMI and 4444444444, both from 1998, followed by JU-ON: THE CURSE and JU-ON: THE CURSE 2 for Japanese TV in 2000. Then we have JU-ON: THE GRUDGE (2002) and its sequel JU-ON: THE GRUDGE 2 (2003). Then in 2009, JU-ON: WHITE GHOST and Ju-ON: BLACK GHOST, two spin-offs. Then in 2014 came JU-ON: THE BEGINNING OF THE END (perhaps the single most suspect horror subtitle since FREDDY’S DEAD: THE FINAL NIGHTMARE tried to convince us it would be the last time we saw our beloved slasher icon), which was followed by its sequel, JU-ON: THE FINAL CURSE, in 2015. And that brings us around to 2016 again, and SADAKO VS. KAYAKO. Oh, but we’re not done yet. Because there are also three American remakes of RINGU --THE RING, RING 2, and RINGS in 2002, 2005, and 2016, respectively. And not to be outdone, there are also three American remakes of the JU-ON franchise, those being THE GRUDGE (2004), THE GRUDGE 2 (2006), and THE GRUDGE 3 (2009).

Now, to confuse you just a little more: None of the JU-ONs have any obvious direct continuity with each other, they’re just an endless, endless death march of near-exact recitations of the same basic concept (and, often, the exact same fucking events) dragged out over the three increasingly agonizingly sequel pairs over the course of ten plus years. Only WHITE GHOST and BLACK GHOST stand out as being even remotely different; pretty much every other JU-ON movie is basically a faithful remake of the previous one, creating some sort of hideous human centipede of escalating repetition, milking the exact same concept and images completely dry. What is this brilliant fucking concept, you ask, that demanded new artists (and, often, series creator Takashi Shimizu) return to this same fucking thing again and again? Well, there’s this house, that’s haunted. And there’s a boy there, who stands behind you and meows like a cat, and then this lady with a broken neck crawls down some stairs and makes a gurgling noise. The end. EVERY. FUCKING. TIME. After the original two made-for TV sequels JU-ON: THE CURSE 1 and 2 in 2000, there is almost no new content in the entire series, and often even less. BEGINNING OF THE END somehow manages to rehash the exact same beats from its predecessor of nearly 15 years prior and yet still do even less with them. In 11 movies over 18 years, the JU-ON series has demonstrated an almost zen-like ability to utterly avoid any new ideas whatsoever, in a way which would be almost inspiring were it not so completely soul-deadening to watch. (The second of those two classic characters, incidentally, is Kayako --who we will eventually return to herein-- and obviously this idea that she crawls down stairs and gurgles is so endlessly fascinating it had to be explored in an impressive five remade sequel pairs, and now a crossover spectacular.) Oh, and if you think 11 movies was enough, don’t forget: there’s also novelizations of seven of the films, three comic adaptations, one graphic novel, and a 2006 American short film entitled TALES FROM THE GRUDGE. And a video game; presumably one where the protagonist walks endlessly around the same dull suburban house and gets meowed at.

The RING / SADAKO side of things is a little more twisted. Koji Suzuki’s novels, it seems, did not make for literal sequels; they turn meta and weird almost immediately. The movies sort of followed suit: the first sequel, RASEN, gradually dumps most of the mythos established in its predecessor in favor of some kind of crazy sci-fi apocalyptic virus metaphor. But then when no one liked that, series creator Hideo Nakata made a more direct sequel, RINGU 2, which ignores the events of RASEN and establishes a new continuity. RING 0: BIRTHDAY is a prequel to RINGU 2, of course, also based on a Suzuki story but not the same Suzuki story. But then 2012 brought a sequel not to RINGU 2 and RING 0, but to the original disowned RASEN in the form of SADAKO 3D, establishing a second canonical line of sequels which include RINGU 1, RASEN, SADAKO 3D, SADAKO 3D 2, and, of course, the film of the hour here, opposed by the alternate timeline of RINGU, RING 2, and RING 0: BIRTHDAY. And of course, neither of those two competing series includes either the original Japanese TV production or the Korean version, nor do any of them necessarily directly spring from the five Suzuki novels in the series, the manga, The American RING series, the two TV serieses (not to be confused with the TV movie) or the two video games. Confused? Let this helpful flow chart from wikipeda sort things out into a nice visually clear…

Oh. Nevermind.

By now you’ve probably forgotten why we ever started talking about this. Believe me, more than once during the many dark hours I spent grinding through GRUDGE sequels, I forgot there was ever once a world of happiness and meaning, let alone a specific reason I was doing this. But I made it through, and then I saw SADAKO VS KAYAKO. I did it. I survived.

I don’t need to tell you that it wasn’t worth it. Oh my sweet salty Jesus, no way in hell was it worth it. But after the nightmare of watching all the almost completely identical and grindingly unimaginative GRUDGE and RINGU/SADAKO serieses, I’m happy to report that SADAKO VS KAYAKO is the first evidence in either series that someone actually gets it. Duh, having two essentially identical long-haired female Japanese ghosts who curse you is already a pretty creatively barren idea, and teaming them up has the potential to be a hilariously dire exercise in seeing how much nothing you can put on the screen and still have it add up to nothing. In fact, the whole thing was first raised as an April Fool’s Day joke, which it arguably could have remained without really making the world significantly poorer for it. But miraculously, director Kōji Shiraishi (the excellent NOROI: THE CURSE [apparently Japan has like fifty synonyms for “curse,” like all the Eskimo words for “snow”]) seems to have approached the concept with the sense of hearty cheer that not a single fucking movie in either series seemed to realize might be a good idea previously. There’s an obvious commitment here to making this comically unnecessary team-up about as much fun as one could possibly have with these two not-especially-fun franchises, and it even manages to poke a little affectionate fun at them too, without slipping into parody. I never thought I’d be saying this about a RING or GRUDGE movie, but it’s a pretty entertaining, dumb time at the movies, and that’s certainly the absolute best possible scenario imaginable here.

A big part of its success is that it seems to inherently recognize that of our two basically interchangeable long-haired Japanese female ghosts, Sadako is obviously the more dynamic one. Sadako, you’ll recall, is the “Ring” girl (an adult in the Japanese version, so don’t get confused if you remember her as a child from the Naomi-Watts starring American remake) who got tossed into a well and now gets her revenge on the world through a haunted video that dooms you to a death at Sadako’s hands in a few days when she climbs out of a TV screen at you. Of the two basic conceits, that’s definitely more interesting than “crawls downstairs and gurgles,” and so, fittingly, SADAKO VS KAYAKO chooses to foreground Sadako, at least for the majority of the runtime, at maybe a ratio of 3:1. It doesn’t entirely ignore Kayako, who gets her own bodycount fairly early, but this is primarily the story of Yuri (Mizuki Yamamoto, THE BLACK BUTLER), a university student who has to try to get to the bottom of this Sadako business when her friend Natsumi (Aimi Satsukawa, THE SAMURAI I LOVED) mistakenly watches the cursed video. This leads her to a surprisingly rock n’ roll exorcist named Keizō Tokiwa (Masanobu Ando, BATTLE ROYALE, SUKIYAKI WESTERN DJANGO) and his caustic, blind child sidekick, who eventually come around to the idea that the most practical way to deal with this vengeful supernatural spirit is to pit her against another vengeful supernatural spirit and, you know, see how that all shakes out. Guess who he’s got in mind?

The simplicity of how Kayako and Sadako come to be at odds is a thing of elegant, hilariously blunt beauty. I love it, and that straightforward desire to entertain and not dither with convoluted bullshit is pretty characteristic of the film as a whole. Shiraishi doesn’t waste time with grueling, obvious backstories for the ghosts (like every single fucking sequel in both franchises have focused on up to now), instead opting to just start throwing setpieces at us and expecting us to get the gist of it, which is obviously the right call. It gets down to business quick, but with a subtlety playful quality that offers appreciation to the two franchises without necessarily making itself a slave to their more trying aspects. First sign you’re in good hands: the cursed “Ring” video -- usually a labored showpiece, even though virtually every version other than the first one sucks-- is coyly hidden for most of the movie; we see people’s reactions to it, but don’t see the video itself. Cute. And to give a little much-needed energy, everything is shortened a little; this time around, you only get two days instead of seven before Sadako comes to get you, and the video itself so short that one girl, playing on her phone and looking down, entirely misses it and ends up not being cursed! Take that, people who think you shouldn’t be dual-screening. When the video finally shows up it turns out to be disappointingly direct (no artsy Matthew Barney stuff this time), but at least directness is an improvement over the listless, draggy pace of most of the other movies. Plus, for the first time in either series, we also have some funny, mildly proactive characters who take the whole thing seriously without feeling too fancy to toss in a dry joke or two, which makes even the downtime between ghost attacks much more tolerable (though it wouldn’t be a RING or GRUDGE movie if there wasn’t at least a little draggy downtime).

It’s mostly content to grab bits and pieces from both franchises and use them in any possible way it can think of in order to try and wring out a little entertainment, a strategy which is, if not wildly successful, at least vastly more successful than anything which immediately preceded it in either franchise. It doesn’t get too bogged down with the specific continuity of either ghost, which is fine because they’re not very interesting anyway and any little germs of interest have long ago been run into the ground. But those who suffered through all the previous sequels, take heart: there’s a few subtle inside jokes thrown to you too, including a very funny bit --if you’ve seen 1998’s abortive sequel RASEN or the dully baffling Japanese RINGU 2-- where a character starts pontificating about the nutty mythos of those movies, only to have someone cut him off and just brush it aside with an “Anyway, whatever that meant…” I think that about sums it up. There’s no good reason for it to have come to this, but since we’re here, let’s just dump the clutter and focus on the good stuff.

Obviously when you see a movie with that “vs” in the title, you know you gotta lay down a modest wager to make this interesting. Always one to go for the long shot, I had some money riding on Kayako, just as I did for Freddy in FREDDY VS JASON back in the day. But this is Japan, so of course they end up (SPOILER) cooperating, in a pretty fun and agreeably goofy way where they merge together like the two Ron Silvers in TIMECOP and creating a hybrid mutant ghost named (of course) "Sayako," which would also have been a good celebrity couple name had they chosen that route. Having delivered that final bit of absurdity, the movie quickly dispenses with everyone still alive and drops the mic. The ending feels a tad abrupt, but then again, that also feels right in line with the movie’s general philosophy of getting to the point and then getting out. Which is probably something both franchises could have used about, oh, I dunno, 5 sequels ago, but is nonetheless welcomed now (the audience I saw it with at the AFI Spooky Movie Festival seemed to be having fun, at any rate, even hooting and hollaring a little bit, which would have been pretty much unimaginable in any previous sequel). If SADAKO VS KAYAKO can’t ultimately overcome the handicap of neither source material being, you know, actually good, at least it does a bang-up job building some energetic, enthusiastic trash out of their pieces. Plus, someone finally gives that fucking meowing kid what’s coming to him, and that alone might have been worth sitting through a half-dozen sequels for.

*“Kanzenban,” as nearly as I can tell, is a word which describes a particular type of complete collection of individual mangas, so I guess this is implying that it’s the full story, not just one chapter.

To hype the movie, these two titans of horror interrupted a baseball match for a little friendly exposition game, as you can see here. Because Japan.
Good Kill Hunting

The poster says: The Scariest Showdown In Horror History. Well, if you’re gonna lie, at least lie big.
100% accurate.
Well, Sadako is a character from Koji Suzuki’s novels, and he did apparently co-write the screenplay along with GRUDGE creator Takashi Shimizu (I say “apparently” because IMBD is a little cagey on the subject, crediting both of them only with “characters” and otherwise giving no screenwriting credit)
Yes, arguably the 5th sequential sequel in the RINGU/SADAKO series (and 12th overall) and the 9th sequel in the GRUDGE/JU-ON series (12th overall, discounting the short films)
Ghost / Curse / Crossover!
Well, Takashi Shimizu probably counts and co-writer/series creator. And apparently both Sadako and Kayako are beloved enough to justify a combined 25 sequels, which is approaching James Bond numbers.
No, like all the GRUDGE and RINGU movies, sex is never even alluded to, making this perhaps the only non-Godzilla Japanese franchise which has no rape.
Cat jumps out of cabinet for lame jump scare. But I’m pretty sure it’s a ghost cat.
Two ghosts, one haunted house
Yeah, which is more or less a new addition to either franchise. Some Grudges had a mild possession element, but this is the first time we’ve seen people go full-on whited-out eyes.
Natsumi goes a little nutty at the thought of her impending death and may well doom the world, though it’s never brought up again.
Yeah, actually (spoiler) Sadako and Kayako merge to become… I dunno, the Vultron of long-haired Japanese vengeful ghosts?
There’s not a lot to see, so no.
Getting cursed in Japan is about as easy as drunkenly finding your way to a karaoke bar, and exactly as hopeless once it happens.

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