Ring 0: Birthday/Ringu 0: Bâsudei (2000/2005) **
It’s completely backwards by any sane reckoning, but true nonetheless. With one glaring exception (which we’ll be discussing elsewhere), the quality of any given Ring movie is roughly inversely proportional to the resemblance that it bears to anything actually written by series originator Koji Suzuki. You will search far and wide before you find anyone who prefers the 1995 TV version of Ring (which, for the most part, follows the novel fairly closely) to the theatrical version written by Hiroshi Takahashi and directed by Hideo Nakata. Among the sequels, meanwhile, Rasen (far and away the most faithful of all the Ring movies to its source material) is almost insultingly awful, while Ring 2 (which was created as a deliberate disavowal of Rasen and, by extension, of Suzuki’s entire vision of where the story was supposed to go following the death of Ryuji Takayama) makes a fair approach to the greatness of Nakata’s Ring— at least until the plot frustratingly self-destructs in the final act. And of course, we should all count ourselves blessed for the fact that there’s still little indication that anybody has ever seriously considered filming Loop, the atrociously stupid third novel in the series. That leaves what seems likely to remain the final film in the original Japanese cycle, the prequel Ring 0: Birthday. Like Rasen, Ring 0 was based directly upon Suzuki’s writing— specifically, upon the short story “Lemon Heart,” which appeared in a collection of Ring-related scraps entitled Birthday— but like Ring, the tale was at least somewhat altered and refocused by Hiroshi Takahashi. Of the remaining unfilmed Ring writings, “Lemon Heart” was in many respects the most promising, as it did not tie in too explicitly with any of the goofy crap from which Asmik Ace were hoping to distance the movies by 1999— the genetic reincarnations, the sentient smallpox, the (God help us) computer-simulated parallel universe. “Lemon Heart” also seemingly reflected a belated realization on Suzuki’s part that the features of his original tale that primarily captured people’s interest were the cursed videotape and the arguably tragic monster who created it. This did not mean, however, that the world was exactly waiting with bated breath to find out what Sadako had been up to during her short-lived career as a stage actress in Tokyo, and “Lemon Heart” is ultimately no less pointless than the other dilations upon minor plot-points from the novels with which it shares the pages of Birthday. The same observations basically apply to Ring 0 as well. It was probably the best Ring prequel we could plausibly have hoped for, but it still succumbs wholeheartedly to the disease endemic to its kind, devoting its energies to answering questions no one was asking and offering less than satisfying explanations for things that were best left to innuendo and conjecture.
Though it begins with a token prologue, tying the movie thematically to its predecessors with a conversation between two teenage girls regarding cursed videos and nightmares about someone being murdered and tossed down a well, the real focus of Ring 0 is upon a time some 30 years earlier, when Sadako Yamamura (Yukie Nakama, who previously had a small role in Gamera 3: Revenge of Iris) was alive and at least sort of well. Hell, she wasn’t even wearing her hair all down in her face, or at least no more so than any shy nineteen-year-old girl in the late 1960’s. This is not to say that Teen Actress Sadako doesn’t have plenty of problems, mind you. From the moment we first see her, she exudes an aura of absolutely heartbreaking loneliness and misery, and there’s got to be some reason why she’s seeing psychiatrist Dr. Wataru Kuno (Ryuji Mizukami). And given that Sadako observes not one but two ghosts hanging out in Kuno’s waiting room, I believe we can guess with some confidence at the general nature of the problem that has brought her into the doctor’s care. Nevertheless, Sadako assures Kuno that she’s been doing better ever since she joined up with the acting troupe, and it’s just barely possible that she’s telling the truth when she says it.
On the other hand, her relationships with the rest of the drama company seem to be somewhat strained. Writer/director Isamu Shigemori (Takeshi Wakamatsu, from Fruits of Passion and Angel Dust) appears to have designs on her that go well beyond his professed intention of making her a star. Aiko Hazuki (Kaoru Okunuki), the actress whom Shigemori has cast as the lead in his play, The Mask (which, from what we see of it, looks rather like an Edwardian interpretation of Eyes Without a Face), is jealous of the attention the new girl’s been getting, and treats Sadako with open hostility. And in general, everybody but sound engineer Hiroshi Toyama (Seiichi Tanabe) finds Sadako strange and off-putting. As Aiko tells fellow actress Kaoru Arima (Kamen Rider: All Around the World’s Junko Takahata), she keeps getting the feeling that someone or something is standing just out of sight behind Sadako, and ever since Sadako showed up, she’s been having recurring nightmares about a ruined house and a decaying well. Interestingly enough, Kaoru and Etsuko Tachihara (Kumiko Aso, of Pulse), Toyama’s girlfriend and the theater’s head costumer, have both dreamed the very same thing of late.
Nor are the members of Shigemori’s theater troupe the only ones expressing an uneasy curiosity about Sadako and her background. Akiko Miyaji (Yoshiko Tanaka, from Godzilla vs. Biolante and Godzilla and Mothra: The Battle for Earth), a reporter for Chuo Nippo, has been running all over Japan recently, attempting to track down the Yamamura girl. First she goes to Oshima Island to talk to Sadako’s relatives. When that proves unavailing, Miyaji swings by Sadako’s old elementary school for an interview with one of her teachers. Mrs. Sudo (Kazue Tsunogae, of The Discarnates) is perfectly willing to cooperate, but she hasn’t much information to share. She doesn’t know where Sadako went when she left Oshima, nor can she tell Miyaji what has become of Heihachiro Ikuma (Daisuke Ban, playing a much more significant role here than he had in Ring or Ring 2), the disgraced psychologist who was generally believed to be the girl’s father. Sudo can’t even find a photograph of Sadako in the school’s records. All she can offer is her recollection of Sadako as a strange and troubled girl, and a curious story about the time she may or may not have foreseen the death by drowning of fourteen classmates in an unexplained swimming accident.
If you’re wondering why Miyaji is so interested in Sadako and her family, the conversation she has with Dr. Kuno when she somehow traces her quarry to him will provide some hints. Miyaji has with her an audio recording of the experiment that ended Ikuma’s career, set the previously celebrated psychic Shizuko Yamamura (Masako) on the road to madness and suicide, and mysteriously claimed the life of one of the reporters before whose scrutiny it was conducted. That reporter had loudly declared Shizuko a fake, turning what had been a peaceful exercise into something approaching a riot before suddenly dropping dead, his heart simply ceasing to beat. Furthermore, every single reporter in the room that day died equally inexplicable deaths over the ensuing decade. But what seems to interest Miyaji more than anything else is the weird, almost metallic squealing noise that begins on her tape just a few moments before the first heckler’s death. If Miyaji is to be believed, the curious sound appears on no other recording of the experiment. Kuno doesn’t understand what the reporter is driving at, and patient confidentiality rules prevent him from telling Miyaji anything about Sadako anyway. Miyaji leaves the office empty-handed.
Meanwhile, back at the theater, the Sadako-related strangeness is escalating, with ultimately deadly results. During a dress rehearsal for The Mask, Aiko is accosted by a little barefoot girl in a white dress, who somehow walks straight through the players gathered on the stage without attracting any notice from any of them; Aiko is dead of sudden heart failure by the time she gets her cue to take the stage. Toyoma happened to be playing a sound effect tape at the time, and he doesn’t know what to make of it the next time he cues that tape up, and finds it now marred by a sharp, metallic squeal. Shigemori quickly appoints Sadako to take Aiko’s place in the play, a turn of events which doesn’t win the new girl any more friends among the other actors. Then Etsuko has an encounter of her own with the spectral little girl, although hers is merely frightening, rather than instantly lethal. For some reason, Etsuko draws a connection between Sadako and the juvenile phantom, and she too attempts fruitlessly to extract information from Dr. Kuno. Etsuko’s visit to the doctor leads Miyaji to discover Shigemori’s theater, and the reporter drops in, asking to be introduced to Sadako. If we hadn’t already been thinking Miyaji was up to no good, then her ineffably threatening demeanor toward the young actress during this meeting would convince us. Finally, Shigemori realizes that he’s heard the name Yamamura before, and gets it into his head to try using what he now remembers to extort sexual favors from Sadako. Unfortunately for him, he does so within earshot of Toyama, who has by now fallen enthusiastically in love with the girl. Toyama rushes to Sadako’s defense, and Shigemori is accidentally killed in the resulting struggle. So when opening night rolls around in about twenty hours, there will be a dead body hidden in the wings, a reporter with some kind of vendetta in the audience, a potential lynch mob of actors who have always thought the worst of Sadako backstage, and a freshly scorned girlfriend up in the engineer’s booth just itching for any conceivable excuse to light the fuse on the whole thing.
That’s the first half of the movie, and during that first half, Ring 0: Birthday makes a very respectable showing for itself. What might have played as just another pedestrian rip-off of Carrie is invigorated by a most unexpected cross-fertilization with The Phantom of the Opera, and while it’s difficult to imagine how anything we’re watching might eventually tie in with the Ring mythos as we have hitherto understood it, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There are lots of unobtrusively neat ideas, like the squeal that shows up whenever Sadako’s powers are employed in proximity to a tape recorder. I like the implication that the video curse of the earlier installments in the series is really a controlled outgrowth of a psionic side-effect. At least equally intriguing is the subplot revealing that the girl who can kill with a thought also has the power, when she’s in a better mood, to heal with a touch. As for the other half of the main creative partnership, the first half of Ring 0 shows director Norio Tsuruta to be a credible successor to Hideo Nakata, whose style he draws upon without slavishly copying it. The first appearance of the ghostly little girl is somewhat mishandled, but Etsuko’s backstage encounter with her is one of the best quietly creepy horror movie moments I’ve seen in ages. And Yukie Nakama is great. She understands something that the majority of performers miss, which is that the most convincing way to play a deeply troubled character is to underact the part within an inch of its life. I defy anyone with the slightest capacity for empathy to watch this movie without yearning to hug Nakama and assure her that everything’s going to be alright.
The trouble with Ring 0 is that the first half of the movie is then followed by the second. After The Mask’s calamitous opening night, the moody and understated hybrid of Carrie and The Phantom of the Opera makes its exit with a sonorous “Elvis has left the building,” to be replaced by a riff on The Dunwich Horror that, for most of the next 50 minutes, makes Daniel Haller’s thoroughly botched version look positively engaging by comparison. Rie Inou, who takes over from Nakama for the climax, turns in what might be her best, most disturbing rendition of Sadako yet, but it matters not a bit when the movie around her appears to have suddenly started channeling the spirit of Crazy Lips. While the audience reels from a line of expository dialogue so breathtakingly stupid that it will remain lodged in their brains for all time, the action of Ring 0 degenerates into a band of armed imbeciles running around in the woods and “Aaaarrgghhh”-ing away their final moments with a comic exaggeration that would do Graham Chapman proud. Inou’s performance deserved so much better, and frankly, so did we.
This review is part of what might be the most determinedly masochistic B-Masters Cabal roundtable in which I’ve yet participated, a loving (well, maybe not quite loving) look at the travestastic results which so often attend the film industry’s attempts to make lightning strike twice. Click on the banner below to see what horrors were suffered by the rest of the gang.