As someone who enjoyed both Ringu and Ju-on and their American remakes (but has never seen the numerous sequels), I was hesitant about Sadako Vs. Kayako. The title smacks of films like Freddy Vs. Jason or Alien Vs. Predator, and while I know those films have their fans, they’ve always seemed quite goofy to me. Thankfully, director and co-writer Kôji Shiraishi seems to be well aware of these concerns and has crafted a surprisingly enjoyable film with Sadako Vs. Kayako.
The film begins with two narrative threads that like the long hair on the titular ghosts, eventually become entangled. Yuri (Mizuki Yamamoto) and Natsumi (Aimi Satsukawa) are friends and classmates who are dozing off during Professor Morishige’s lecture on urban legends. Meanwhile, high school student Suzuka has just moved into a new house with her parents. It doesn’t take long for the college students to find a cursed videotape and for Suzuka to discover that the house across the street is haunted.
Even if you haven’t seen Ringu or Ju-on, you probably have absorbed enough knowledge to grasp the basic concepts behind the curses depicted in the movie, the ones which are eventually personified as Sadako and Kayako (and her son Toshio). Wisely, Shiraishi does not rely too much on exposition or origin stories, concentrating instead on new characters and creepy imagery.
And it is creepy. Even though we know they are coming, the ghosts are still spooky and they still kill with a shocking quickness. Still, the film does not take itself any more seriously than it has to, adding a level of self-reflexivity through the form of countless comedic moments and ridiculous characters, such as the spiritual medium Kyozo (Masanobu Andô) and his pint-sized sidekick Tamao (Maiko Kikuchi).
Although the ghosts still possess the same skills, Sadako Vs. Kayako updates the iconography without repeating its predecessors. It also incorporates modern technology into the mix with canny references to both the digital age and pop culture mania. For example, Professor Morishige not only teaches a class on urban legends, he also consistently hawks a book he wrote about them. He’s the embodiment of a fanboy: so infatuated with the possibility of encountering Sadako that he willingly watches the cursed tape in the hopes of meeting her. It’s as if she’s a celebrity and not a vengeful ghost, a wry commentary on horror fans’ love affairs with admittedly horrible characters like Michael Myers and Freddy Krueger.
The effects are beautifully executed and those who feared watered-down versions of the ghosts will be delighted at how they have lost none of their power to be both monstrous and murderous. Best of all, the actors play their parts with utter sincerity even as the film exploits its own horror tropes to evoke scares and laughter, often at the same time.
At a time when even non-genre film fans fear the return of the dreaded remake or reboot, Sadako Vs. Kayako shows that it’s possible to revisit the past in new and effective (and often scary) ways.
Sadako Vs. Kayako received its international premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on Saturday, September 17.