Infectious Atmospheres: The Horror of Japanese New Media in Ring
Ben Van Welzen
Viewing scenes of viewing: an estranged couple studies a mysterious and apparently lethal videotape
When Sadako (Rie Inō) emerges from the television screen in Nakata Hideo’s film Ring (Ringu, 1998), the viewer sees what has been happening to themselves over the course of the whole film: the onscreen world pierces the proverbial fourth wall and enters into the world of the viewer. Ring follows a journalist named Asakawa Reiko (Matsushima Nanako) investigating a cursed video tape that has doomed her to die in seven days unless she finds some way to break the curse. With this premise, the film maintains an awareness of the film medium itself since it is indeed a video causing all of the deaths in the town. Furthermore, Nakata begins to blur the line between the film’s diegesis and our own world, forcing the cold atmosphere to seep through the screen and infect our viewing space. In doing so, Ring realizes a Japanese fear of new media and technology while simultaneously revisiting the Japanese kaiki eiga, a classic horror genre of Japanese cinema characterized by slow pacing and moody atmospheres. By emphasizing the tactility and physicality of audiovisual media, Nakata transforms cinema itself into a haunting and invasive force that embodies the generation’s fears of new media overtaking their lives.
In his article “What is Film Atmosphere?” Robert Spadoni asserts that “rather than [anthropomorphizing] a film by giving it a mood … it is preferable to spatialize it” and that “the sense of a film as a dynamic, unfolding, volumetric entity is reinforced by one of it possessing an atmosphere” (50). Ring has an undeniably oppressive atmosphere over its entire runtime and, with Spadoni’s assertion in mind, that atmosphere does not just provide a mood but rather characterizes the implied three-dimensional space of the film’s body. What, then, about the atmosphere of the cursed tape itself? The two scenes in which Nakata shows characters viewing the tape provide insight into the spatial atmosphere of the tape and how that leads to an implication of the viewers – both the viewers of the tape and the audience of Ring.
The first of these scenes takes place when Reiko visits the cabin in which the tape had previously been watched. From the outset Nakata implicates us with Reiko’s perspective when, as she talks to the receptionist, a POV shot tilts down a shelf of multi-colored videotapes that lands on a blank spine lying crooked in the corner. The film then cuts to a close-up of the ghostly white tape where a layer of static covers the image and a piercing screech dominates the sound track. With this close-up, the tape begins to take on its viral qualities as described by Carlos Rojas in his article “Viral Contagion in the Ringu Intertext.” Specifically, Rojas mentions “the distortions that contaminate this footage of the discovery of the tape mirror the static found in the video itself” (6) and thus the tape has infected our screen before Reiko has even watched it. The static and the screeching sound also define an aura around the tape which, according to Gernot Böhme, “is ‘something which flows forth spatially, almost something like a breath or a haze’” (quoted in Spadoni 60). Therefore, the tape’s static-covered and screeching atmosphere escapes the bounds of its screen and becomes an aura around the tape itself within the world of Ring. The aura with its accompanying sound arises again when the receptionist takes the tape out of its case and accompanies Reiko as she takes it into her cabin.
Sadako (Rie Inō) breaches the barrier of the screen in an eerily self-reflexive moment
Upon entering the cabin, the mise-en-scène becomes bleak and empty; the white walls lack any decoration and force the viewer to fixate on the only object of any character: the television. As the non-diegetic screeching finally fades out, diegetic sound emanating from the static on the TV fades in, thus associating our screen with Reiko’s and creating a shared viewing experience. Moreover, once she begins the tape, her screen becomes flush with ours forcing the two to be one and the same. Once Reiko begins the tape, the screen still shows static which, “rather than signifying an absence of content,” Rojas notes, “is part of the text itself” (6). Therefore, this static sets forth the video’s overall atmosphere before any supposedly real content appears, and its fuzzy appearance provides something of a texture to the screen, thus providing the “tactile” nature required for establishing a rich atmosphere (Spadoni 52). Once the video ends and the camera escapes its grasp, the following medium close-up of Reiko in a breathless trance puts the camera close enough to the TV to reveal its curvature. The static on the convex CRT screen turns its content into Spadoni’s aforementioned “volumetric entity” (50), thus confirming the video’s spatial atmosphere bubbling out of the TV’s frame. When Reiko turns the TV off, a close-up of the screen’s reflection reveals Sadako supposedly standing behind Reiko, though it also appears as if the two reside within the space of the screen itself, especially since Sadako is not in the cabin when Reiko turns around. Thus, the atmosphere of the tape has officially engulfed Reiko. Finally, as Reiko runs out of the cabin, the camera does not follow her but stays behind in the cabin, the blank mise-en-scène again drawing our eyes to the TV in the center of the frame. A sound bridge of rain, which sounds eerily like static, then begins well before the film cuts to the next scene, suggesting the atmosphere of the tape has left its bounds of the TV and now travels freely in the open air. The screen within the world of Ring has been broken.
The only other time Nakata directly shows a character viewing the tape occurs halfway through the film when Reiko and her son Yoichi (Ōtaka Rikiya) stay at her father’s house. In this new setting Ring begins to adapt the strategies in the aforementioned scene to not only show how new media has invaded the world but also how that invasion relates to Japanese tradition and culture. Unlike the modern locales up until this point of the film, the mise-en-scène of Reiko’s father’s house looks traditionally Japanese; the tatami mats and mattresses on the floor as well as the sliding doors with misty mountains painted on them are elements of a distinctly Japanese home. Notably, filmmaker Kurosawa Kiyoshi claims that kaiki “aren’t mainly about horror … they’re atmospheric, moody” (quoted in Crandol 299), which precisely describes the atmosphere in the beginning of this scene. The camera sits still, the lighting is dim, and the most frightening element is the offscreen voice of Reiko’s dead niece. Soon, though, the reserved style reminiscent of the kaiki eiga dissipates as imagery from the cursed tape begins to resurface. As Reiko looks at the figure next to her, Nakata superimposes the pointing man from the video to reveal Reiko’s association of this figure with the man. However, once the superimposition ends, it reappears, but this time as a full dissolve, making the image from the tape overtake the diegesis of the film. The static-filled atmosphere of the tape, and new media in general, has thus replaced the kaiki eiga atmosphere. Then, when Reiko opens the door to the next room, the invasion of new media has completed; within the dimly lit, traditionally Japanese mise-en-scène sits a television set, causing our gaze to fix onto the screen just like Yoichi watching it. Furthermore, the quiet kaiki eiga aesthetics have been obliterated by the blaring strings and quick cuts – almost like a jump scare – as Reiko discovers her son in front of the TV. Finally, like the earlier scene, the TV screen becomes flush with ours and the richly textured, static atmosphere of the cursed tape assimilates into the atmosphere of the film.
As these atmospheres continue to pervade the spaces within the tape, the film, and our own viewing spaces, they begin to embody specifically Japanese fears of new technology and media invading the everyday lives of Japan at the turn of the millenium. As a culture, Japan consistently faces the struggle between tradition and modernity, and the rapid expansion of technology in the time of Ring’s release exaggerates this dichotomy. The videotape itself was still relatively new at the time and was the first way audiovisual media embodied an ownable, physical form for a mass consumerbase. Therefore, as seen in the first scene discussed in this essay, the aura around the cursed tape realizes the monstrous capabilities feared by the Japanese masses. Spadoni mentions that “films and their audiences breathe each other” (61), which Nakata directly shows after Reiko views the tape and begins to breathe again after holding it for the duration of the video. Herein lies a horrifying thought for those afraid of new technology: media directly sucking the life force out of its user.
While Ring concerns itself with its timely matters of the rising digital realm, in a broader sense, it belongs to a wider discussion of Japanese development and progression. In his article “Development of Mass Media in Japan & Its Background,” Iwasaki Ieo notes that in the second half of the 20th century, “the advancement of mass media … contributed in no small measure to the economic development of Japan” (5). Iwasaki also asserts that “in Japanese homes’ living rooms, TV took its place like a family member” that informed, entertained, and induced consumerism (5). As such, new media became inseparable from Japan’s economic institutions and individual lifestyles, but Japan also led East Asia in its spree of innovation. According to Iwasaki, “Japan successfully achieved modernization of other Asian countries” ever since the Meiji Restoration, which occurred towards the end of the 19th century (5). Therefore, the new media from which Japan could not escape grew at an unprecedented and seemingly uncontrollable rate relative to the neighboring countries.
A few years after the release of Ring, the aforementioned Kurosawa Kiyoshi further confronted Japanese fears of new media with his film Pulse (Kairo, 2001), which expands and elaborates on the themes of Ring. Kurosawa’s film shows a world in which ghosts haunt the real world through the digital space of computers and the internet. Coming out only three years after Ring, the subject of Pulse itself demonstrates the rapidly changing landscape of mass media in Japan; within the short gap between films, the country’s primary medium and its corresponding fears shifted from TV to the internet. Like TV, though, the internet remained entwined in Japan’s economic affairs. Iwasaki states that “when the Internet began to spread among the public, there were concerns about the possible ‘digital divide’ (economic gap between Internet users and others)” (7). Therefore, the internet continued TV’s trend of being an uncontrollable force from which Japan could not separate itself. However, Pulse’s larger scope reveals the rapidly escalating danger of new media in the eyes of the Japanese people as time goes by. Whereas the ghostly force in Ring can only be transmitted by taking the time to copy the tape and subject someone else to it, the ghosts in Pulse can travel across the country and take new victims in an instant. Furthermore, with a faster transmission comes a larger spread: the victims of Ring are confined to a handful of people within one city whereas, by the end of Pulse, the ghosts have triggered an apocalypse. As mass media evolves, the more dangerous it becomes and the more fear it induces.
From a formal standpoint, while Ring certainly deviates from many of the kaiki eiga aesthetics as shown in the second of the two above scenes, its new genre of J-horā revives many of the older genre’s themes. In “The Ghosts of Kaiki eiga,” Michael Crandol says “an atmosphere of an Othered time and place distinguishes kaiki films from the rest of the horā genre” (299). In the current moment of endless digital revolution, the digital realm is the most horrifying of all Othered times and places. Therefore, the static atmospheres unique to the new media that bear over the film characterize it as a modern kaiki eiga. Kurosawa, who has expressed interest in the kaiki eiga as shown earlier, also retains the spirit of the genre but inserts modern themes. Pulse never sacrifices the dreadful mood and atmosphere of a kaiki eiga but updates the settings and ghostly forces to align with the new fears of Japan. It thus creates a paradox of modern ideas set against traditional aesthetics, a representation of the conflict Japan faces as it continues to modernize. Both Ring and Pulse use the clash of kaiki eiga and modernity to confront Japan’s fears of losing its unique tradition to the powers of new media.
Since the release of Ring and Pulse, the trend towards expanding mass media has only increased. Copying and sharing content continues to get easier as time goes on, so the world of the media has space to grow further. However, unlike at the turn of the century, the digital does not have to rely on the stagnant television set or computer screen to escape; millions of mobile screens across the globe provide portals for the horrifying digital forces.
Crandol, Michael. The Japanese Cinema Book. Edited by Hideaki Fujiki and Alastair Phillips, British Film Institute, 2020, pp. 298–309.
Iwasaki, Ieo. “Development of Mass Media in Japan & Its Background.” Japan Spotlight, vol. 157, 2008, pp. 5–7. https://www.jef.or.jp/journal/pdf/157cover01+.pdf.
Rojas, Carlos. “Viral Contagion in the Ringu Intertext.” Oxford Handbooks Online, 2012, doi:10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199731664.013.015.
Spadoni, Robert. “What Is Film Atmosphere?” Quarterly Review of Film and Video, vol. 37, no. 1, 22 July 2019, pp. 48–75.