Viral Video, Traumatic Therapy: Hideo Nakata’s Ringu and the Attempt to Cure the Future by Inoculating Us with the Past

by Sigmund Shen

Note: Page numbers from the print version are indicated in brackets and should not be considered part of the text of the article.

[page 64] This essay is an argument that Hideo Nakata’s horror landmark Ringu (1998)1 can be read as an allegory for the attempts by Japanese writers, especially journalists, to encourage informed public discussion of certain events that transpired during World War II, some of which were subsequently hidden by the postwar governments of Japan and the United States. To develop this argument, I draw from historical accounts and contexts, textual analysis and comparisons, and psychoanalytic theory. I then consider resultant questions about the potential psychological and political functions of horror cinema. The essay is divided into seven sections, numbered as “days.”

Day One: The worktable

The image below is not from Nakata’s Ringu (1998), but an unrelated picture that appears on several English-language websites.1.5 None of these sites supplies a source attribution. The author of one of the websites has not responded to my queries. The author of a second one told me she can’t remember where she got it.

[page 65] I asked my mother, Amy Shen, whether the English caption matches the Chinese one, and she confirmed that it does:

“Jia poa - mu dze - ar chi” (“dissection” – “mother baby” – “both bodies”)

“Xiao Ling - Ji So” (A surname [“Ling”] that sounds Japanese – “Surgeon,” a possible Japanese professional title of Chinese origin)

“Ba wo de xiao har - do sa le” (“did [something to] my child” – “even it was killed”)

“Gu nyang bay chang jien” (“gentlewoman had been raped”)

“Ho hwai yun” (“conceived baby afterwards”)

“Yo bay tse yen ying - ar yi tong sa le” (“furthermore in the lab” – “even the baby was killed”)

The image appears to have been scanned from a creased page. The source was in Chinese, with a colored English caption superimposed later. There is a certain air of authenticity in the age and weathered condition of the furniture, and in the drab, institutional interior and finishings of the room. The proximity of the large, bright window to the worktable would not provide ideal light conditions for a “staged” photograph, but it would afford enough illumination (and ventilation) for an actual workspace, at least during the day.

On the end of the worktable nearest the camera, there is a bowl filled with a fluid, and next to it, tools. To describe the things that appear to be on the further end of the table would be more difficult. There is at least one confusing, asymmetrical mass. The people standing around the table are clearly wearing surgical masks and gowns.

We will revisit this photo at the end of this essay, on Day Seven.

Day Two: A haunting nightmare

There are two traditions in horror cinema that Japanese filmmakers have made their own. One is the atmospheric “slow burn” of chillers like Kaidan (1964), where ghosts exact righteous vengeance from flawed individuals. These films posit an orderly universe where karmic balance is enforced. The second tradition is marked by transgressive nihilism. In shockers like Guinea Pig: Devil’s Experiment (1985), traumatizing images call attention not only to individuals, but also to an expansive, communal guilt. They suggest the audience’s own complicity in a desire to witness deviance, suffering, and death. Ringu combines elements of both traditions. Koji Suzuki’s source novel had been published eight years earlier, but as of 2015, Nakata’s treatment remains the highest grossing [page 66] horror story in Japanese history. It inspired an American remake, which I will discuss below.

To viewers familiar with Hollywood slashers, the opening of Ringu seems unsurprising. Two teenagers share a rumor in hushed tones, laugh nervously at prohibitions, and are supernaturally made example of. Upon the mysterious death of one of the girls, her aunt, a journalist named Reiko Asakawa, decides to investigate. She finds an unlabeled videotape with surreal images, and hears an urban legend that the tape will cause its viewer to die within seven days. After her estranged husband and their child also view the cursed video, the two divorced parents embark on a search to dispel the curse.

In the next seven days their investigation takes them to a remote island where, forty years previous, a psychiatrist named Dr. Ikuma had conducted experiments on humans with paranormal abilities. One of his subjects, Shizuko Yamamura, bore him a daughter named Sadako. Dr. Ikuma then went public with the results of his research. But when journalists criticized the parents, the young Sadako psychokinetically murdered one.

Later, Yamamura foretold a volcanic disaster on the island. After it erupted, the villagers ostracized her, and she committed suicide. Dr. Ikuma then murdered their daughter and sealed her body in a well. This tragic history turns out to be the meaning of the cursed video, which was created by Sadako’s ghost.

With the seven day deadline almost upon them, Reiko and her ex-husband exhume Sadako’s corpse. Reiko compassionately embraces the remains, and she survives her deadline. But the next day, Sadako’s ghost still murders the ex-husband. The ultimate revelation is that the only way to escape the curse is to copy the video and show it to someone else. That person, of course, will need to do the same. Sadako Yamamura’s interminable rage cannot be abreacted: it can only be displaced.

In Gore Verbinski’s Hollywood remake, The Ring (2002), the antagonist “Samara” is given a malicious quality that is not clearly ascribed to the Japanese Sadako. In the Japanese film, the discovery of the well and Sadako’s remains turns out to be a red herring. It does lead to the ex-husband’s death, but only by misleading the principals into ending their research into the charm. In contrast, the American counterpart of Reiko’s son, who has communed with Samara, is terrified to learn that his parents have exhumed her remains, and implies that the ghost deliberately tricked them into opening it. Sadako’s victims’ faces are frozen in expressions of fear, while Samara’s have mutilated masks of pain. Sadako attacks the journalists to protect her mother, but Samara is never shown attempting to protect anybody. Samara is also painted as an exotic from the [page 67] inscrutable Orient. Her mother “wasn’t supposed to have a child,” but did so after she sought out unnamed treatments in Asia.

Thus, when comparing the two versions, Sadako is not depicted as necessarily “evil.” Indeed, the author Suzuki once stated flatly “I don’t believe in evil.”2 Could the ghost’s supernatural rage have socio-historical, rather than moral or “natural” causes?

Nakata’s film weaves together secrets and guilt in an insular island community in the 1940’s, a discomfort with journalists, the practice of scientific experimentation on humans, and the proliferation of “chain mail” in its 21st century incarnation of “viral video.” Ironically, ever since the Rodney King case in 1992, “viral videos” have been associated with the drive to objective journalistic knowledge that Nakata’s narrative distrusts, as if the film’s plot and themes are acting out an ambivalent desire to at once suppress and uncover the truth.

To inoculate the body politic against her revelation of the truth, Sadako’s father must “poison the well” by turning her into a monster.3 But instead of committing suicide as her mother did, Sadako’s ghost stages a return of the repressed, conscripting Reiko Asakawa to reopen this “cold case” and broadcast the truth one spectator/victim at a time. What better person to recruit than a journalist?

But that twist ending, where Asakawa’s embrace of the skeleton fails to resolve its trauma, warns that even our unraveling of the historical truths behind Nakata’s film may not “liberate” anyone. Perhaps, like Reiko Asakawa, we will find ourselves trapped in the chain of letters, spreading the infection until history itself has been changed.

Day Three: Ancient monsters, modern terror, and poison(ed) women

Japanese fantasy movies frequently evoke the nuclear attacks of 1945 with ambivalence. In Ishiro Honda’s Godzilla (1954), for example, there is a disorienting sense of regret. Dr. Serizawa, the scientist who destroys the monster, even commits suicide. One clue to this regret can be found in a distortion of the mushroom cloud symbol that appears in Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro (1988). In this fable, a family move to the countryside, where their wish for the recovery of the hospitalized mother is answered by a nature spirit, who one night performs an animistic ritual that causes a giant tree to burst out of the ground, its trunk like the stem of a mushroom, its canopy billowing up and across the sky like clouds of smoke. The next morning the tree is gone, but a single sprout has been born. Later, visual anagrams of the tender sprig, such as a cucumber, an ear of corn, and a bag full of nuts and seeds, become associated with the magical recovery of the girls’ mother. In this way, the appearance of a [page 68] young plant is used to simultaneously commemorate and abreact Hiroshima, like laying flowers on a grave.4

Totoro, other animés such as Pom Poko (1994), and 1980s television dramas such as NHK’s tremendously popular Oshin (1983) associate rural, premodern Japan with nostalgia and loss. The opening of Japan by Commodore Perry in 1854 triggered the Meiji Restoration, and Japan’s transformation into both an industrial power and a colonial one. As Daniel Barenblatt puts it in A Plague Upon Humanity:

[I]t had been only a few decades since Japan had suddenly emerged from isolation and medieval backwardness, and the governors of Japan had dodged the bullet they feared most: becoming a colonized nation […]. The possibility of this fate had become clear to these feudal rulers back in 1853, when a surprise gunboat flotilla of ironclad U.S. navy frigates haughtily steamed into Edo Bay […] and out onto the deck planks stepped Commodore Matthew Perry. […] The Meiji Restoration of 1867—68 marked the beginning of the process by which Japan’s leaders sought to guard their nation’s sovereignty and culture by adopting Western technology and institutions. (97—99)

Thus the nuclear attacks are meaningful as the end of a narrative arc from 1854 to 1945. Traumatized by the initial meeting with Western colonial powers, Japan’s leaders tried to consolidate the power of the monarchy by joining the aggressors, leading to the cataclysmic end of the war.

The tragic ghost’s name echoes the story of a young Hiroshima girl named Sadako Sasaki, who was two years old on August 6, 1945, and became one of the earliest to contract leukemia from fallout. Sasaki’s story became well-known when she attempted to survive by invoking a folk belief, senbazuru, by which folding a thousand origami cranes earns one wish. Thus, like the girls in Miyazaki’s film who summon nature spirits to bless their bedridden mother, and like the famous Sadako who tried to fight cancer with origami, the nuclear attacks symbolize the end of a magical, pre-industrial era.

The name “Sadako” – meaning “chaste child” – also resonates with another from 20th century Japanese cultural history: Sada Abe. As a child, Abe was sold into prostitution. She fell in love with a client named Ishida and then strangled him. Abe then cut off a “souvenir” to keep with her always. This strangely innocent story of obsessed love, recounted in In the Realm of the Senses (1976) led to the name “Sada” assuming supernatural associations. The story goes that she carved it on Ishida’s corpse, and later, rumors of sightings led to “Sada panics” that would grip the countryside and disrupt traffic.5 Christine Marran notes the similarity of the portrayals of Abe with the dokufu or “poison woman” figure in literature that reached its height of popularity after the arrival of [page 69] Commodore Perry.6 Although Abe and her victim were in love, her most famous act became known as a rebellion against patriarchy: Japan scholar Donald Richie notes that in later years, drunk men would bully Abe by joking about guarding their privates near her.7 Such gender trouble would have been intensified in the context of Japan’s rapidly changing social roles to comply with Western mores.8

All these stories hint at a guilt in the mournful wish for an old world that was betrayed during the Meiji Restoration and ruined at Hiroshima. Ringu claims a part of this heritage through afterimages of the stories above: a dangerous yet tragic girl’s name, a ritual that fails to save a life, an island community visited by fiery disaster, and a regretful scientist.

In The Wages of Guilt: Memories of War in Germany and Japan,10 Ian Buruma tells of a memorial for the Nanking massacre, where a guestbook entry describes feeling “haunted,” that “the dead should speak,” and that the “victims of Nanking should rise and attack us Japanese” (128). But there appears to be another historical subtext in Ringu, one associated with a specific communal guilt, more threatening to the Japanese and American occupation authorities, that is correspondingly more distorted in the film and in the historical record.

Day Four: A scientific method

Daniel Barenblatt reports that from 1894 onward, Japan “quickly distinguished itself as a world-class center of medical research in the new field […] of microbiology” (94):

By the 1930’s Japanese culture had gone into a moral tailspin. A country whose conduct with regard to humane and ethical treatment of prisoners of war had once been among the world’s best was now speedily building its first bio-war weapons programs and using both prisoner POWs and civilian prisoners as human guinea pigs along the way. Japan […] had abandoned its traditions of battlefield honor and mercy that had existed in the old samurai code. (Barenblatt 101)

This work was led by a division of the Imperial Japanese Army named Unit 731. Its research led to germ bombs dropped on Chinese villages. But the experiments themselves were unimaginably cruel. Subjects were drenched with ice water to study frostbite, killed by poison gas and pressure chambers, infected with plague, and vivisected without anesthetic. Barenblatt writes of women prisoners who were raped by researchers; and even of infants who were used as research specimens (Kristof 54). [page 70]

After the war, leaders of Unit 731 rose to prominent positions including “Governor of Tokyo, president of the Japan Medical Association and head of the Japan Olympic Committee.”9 Many more were quietly pardoned and compensated by the U.S. occupation authorities in exchange for their data. Like the oft-repeated German refrain, wir haben nichts gewusst, Japanese civilians were not supposed to know of the practices of Unit 731 either. But the evidence suggests that during the war, it was an open secret:

In a 1946 postwar interview with an American military investigator, Dr. Ryochi Naito, one of the leading Unit 731 experimenters, testified that so many civilian doctors worked for the BW program that knowledge of the human experiments and use of germ warfare became widespread within Japan’s medical and scientific research communities. […] ‘Most microbiologists in Japan were in some way or other connected with Ishii’s work,’ Naito said, and it quickly became ‘common knowledge throughout Japan … that humans were used for experimentation at the Harbin installation.’ (Barenblatt 46-47, emphasis added)

The Japanese government denied the program existed for years. Like the murdered Sadako Yamamura, the victims of Unit 731 were hidden from public discourse. But they could not be repressed forever. In his study of memories in Japan and Germany, Ian Buruma describes a monument in Wittenberg:

Four square plates, rather like an oddly shaped manhole, are lifted slightly from below by probing bronze fingers. […] The bronze fingers suggest the victims of antisemitism rising from a mass grave. They also suggest something more abstract, more in keeping perhaps with a monument of warning: shameful memories which cannot be repressed, which claw their way into our conscience, like a constantly recurring nightmare. (203)

Buruma quotes a Japanese writer as saying that the Japanese, like the Germans, “live with the dead” (220). As Frederick Dickinson points out in his essay, “Biohazard: Unit 731 in Postwar Japanese Politics of National ‘Forgetfulness,’” the incalcitrant denials have been cited by western writers to portray Japanese culture as conformist and unreflective. But Japan’s mainstream press and communist movement had openly discussed Unit 731 as early as 1946. There were books published in the 1960’s and 1970’s on the topic, television documentaries by 1976, a best-selling serial novel by Seiichi Morimura named The Devil’s Gluttony in the years leading up to the publication of Suzuki’s Ring novel in the 1980’s, and a few years before the release of the film in the 1990’s, an educational exhibit accompanied by former 731 personnel (Dickinson). [page 71]

Day Five: The return of the repressed: journalists, novelists, and backlash

The courage and risk of each of these efforts should not be treated lightly. Suzuki’s wife was a high school Japanese history teacher, and Buruma documents the harrowing ordeal of historian Ienaga Saburo, who fought for twenty-seven years against state censorship of his high school textbook that referred to Unit 731 (199-201). The backlash against the movement to educate the public about Japanese war crimes was frightening. Barenblatt tells us that in 1952, an insider’s account of a candid speech given by Shiro Iishi about the necessity of Unit 731 had to be written anonymously, “the work of a conscience-stricken BW veteran who to this day remains unidentified” (42). It is not hard to imagine why the writer has not come forward. Ken Yuasa, a surgeon who joined the traveling educational exhibit in the 1990’s, says, “If you made a disagreeable face, when you returned home you would be called a traitor or a turncoat” (151). During the war, Imperial Army memos warned that “a person even suspected of dissent against the Japanese regime or harboring subversive thoughts became a candidate for shipment to the experiment chambers of Unit 731” (59). A generation later, the conspiracy of denial had not completely subsided, and in the 80’s and 90’s, it began to flare up into a right-wing nationalist backlash.

Journalists in the 80’s and 90’s were in a double bind – obligated by professional responsibility to uncover the truth, while threatened for questioning the national cause during wartime. Right-wing groups delivered threats to Seiichi Murimura, the author of the fictionalized Unit 731 novel Devil’s Gluttony. In response to their ire, Kadokawa, one of the largest publishers in Japan, halted publication of the book, and local police at one point provided Murimura with protective custody. The reputation of these right-wing groups preceded them: “the mayor of Nagasaki prefecture was, indeed, shot in [the] 1980s, because he had referred to the Emperor’s responsibility for World War II. [. . .]”. Morimura was also criticized for illustrating his book with photographs the authenticity of which he could not verify.11

Right-wing movements in Japan share an element in common with those in the U.S. – the fear that the act of abandoning time-honored social constraints on human nature will take society one step closer to its inevitable collapse. The twist ending of Ringu – where the only way for Reiko to free herself from the curse is to spread it to others – seems to reflect this fear, expansively projecting the evil of the past into an apocalyptic future. Nakata’s choice of final image, a panoramic shot of Reiko and her son driving down a mountain, with gathering storm clouds in the distance, was directly inspired by the ending of James Cameron’s [page 72] Terminator (1984), where a little boy tells Sarah Connor “A storm is coming” in front of an ominous tableau of land and sky. But this final note of looming terror is not consistent with the film’s – or the novel’s – internal logic. Asakawa’s ex-husband died only because he failed to share the secret, not because there was anything inherently deadly about the knowledge itself. If everyone watches the video, the “infection” of the virus will become as normal as mitochondria. This “epidemic” would simply hold Reiko Asakawa to her professional honor as a journalist. In Verbinski’s remake, one character says, “What is it with reporters? You take one person's tragedy and force the world to experience it... spread it like sickness.” But isn’t the vicarious experience of tragedy supposed to purge the soul of terror?

Day Six: The cursed video and the festering well

Such an understanding would require interpretation of the cursed video itself, to try to identify the censored elements of the socio-historical context. Unit 731 doctors, interviewed after the war, describe their memories of work in terms that evoke the surreality of dreams:

Dr. Tono said that the American prisoners, upon first seeing the white-coated medicos coming toward them, ‘didn’t struggle. They never dreamed they would be dissected.’ […] ‘There was no debate among the doctors about whether to do the operation – that was what made it so strange’ […] Sometimes I look at my hands and I remember what I have done with these hands. What’s really scary is, I don’t have any nightmares of what I’ve done.” (84, 183)

A lack of nightmares could speak to such a powerful repression that any latent dream content has been distorted beyond conscious recognition. One way of accomplishing this repression while expressing the urgency of the wish is by burying a film within the film and then threatening a deadline for cracking the code. Like E. Elias Merhige’s Begotten (1990), Sadako’s video has an aged quality, as if to convey the impression of something both long forgotten, and, like a cave painting or a fading dream, difficult to decipher. There is no music to soften the illusion, only the grating noise of a pail floating on a rusty winch and pulley into and out of a well. Like Luis Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou (1929), it includes a close-up of an eye, only in this case, the eye is not sliced; it is instead, like Sada Abe’s name carved on her lover’s corpse, inscribed with the name “Sadako.” Both of these earlier films are without speech, so that Ringu’s allusions to them can be taken as evoking something forbidden: in other words, something punishable. Although a forbidden object is frightening, it is at the same time an object of unconscious desire. This sense of a [page 73] communication that is simultaneously prohibited and alluring (or at least, urgent) is signaled by the image in Sadako’s video of a man whose head is covered in a shroud, but who is mutely pointing at something offscreen. The camera’s eye does not pan to follow his finger.

What is that secret? In the simple, manifest content of Sadako’s dream, one is the forgotten story of her family tragedy, part of which is the mother who was driven to suicide after foretelling a volcano’s eruption. Indeed, one image of a mass of kanji characters, crawling like insects, is translated by the English subtitler as “eruption.” And after the “eruption” image, there is a shot of crawling human figures. But there is no lava. Stranger, some of the people are crawling downhill as if to escape the “eruption,” but others are making their way up the incline.

A Chinese survivor of World War II recalls the raid of “a Buddhist temple, commandeered by the Japanese doctors and technicians and transformed into a makeshift vivisection laboratory. [The researchers] also pulled terrified and ailing Chongshan villagers into nearby fields and vivisected them there, out in the open” (Barenblatt 161—162). The crawling people could evoke wounded victims, their confused and random movements a sign that their fear compels them to move even when an escape route is not clear. It could also show the disorienting and debilitating effects of plague in villages where bombs filled with carrier fleas were dropped.

If the secret here is human suffering from war, then guilt for Unit 731 could be caused by the desire to disguise that suffering. But guilt, which Freud defines as fear of punishment, is not sufficient to provoke the sensation of horror. In “Approaching Abjection,” Julia Kristeva theorizes that the horror of Nazi war crimes comes not only from the suffering, but from the uncanny deception that accompanies it:

[…] a terror that dissembles, a hatred that smiles […] a debtor who sells you up, a friend who stabs you. […] The abjection of Nazi crime reaches its apex when death, which in any case, kills me, interferes with what, in my living universe, is supposed to save me from death: childhood, science, among other things. (4)

A father who kills his daughter, a doctor who kills his patient, a decomposing corpse in a well full of drinking water: all of these would be examples of such a reversal. But the reversal alone isn’t enough. It is what Kristeva calls the “shame of compromise” with authority, “a brutish suffering that ‘I’ puts up with […] for ‘I’ deposits it to the father’s account […]: I endure it, for I imagine that such is the desire of the other” (2). Her naming of the subject’s desire to fulfill the father’s desire associates horror with the perverse pleasure described by Lacan. [page 74]

Like scientifically dehumanized beasts, some crawling backwards as if deranged, these images, combined with the perverse pleasure of horror, may bring to mind the craven “beastmen” in H.G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau. “‘I carried the […] bodies of those you slew. I am your slave, Master. […] What the Master wishes to kill the Master kills,’ said the Dog-Man with a certain satisfaction in his voice” (186-187). By becoming almost human, the “beastmen” learn how to grovel, how to degrade themselves, how to rejoice with the pleasure of the master. This is a way of understanding not just the subjects, but also the medical workers of Unit 731, puppeteered by their own community and employers to carry out and live with unspeakable acts.

The remaining content in Sadako’s cursed video is the well where her body is hidden – its winch heard on the soundtrack, its slimy innards and crumbling exterior viewed through muddy grain. Before Reiko’s ex-husband is killed, there is a tiny but riveting addition: Sadako’s pale hands at the rim. Then, in an homage to Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983), Sadako emerges from the glowing image and into the doomed character’s reality. Like the moment when the opposite intrusion took place, and Asakawa descended into the well to embrace Sadako’s skeleton, the fear was triggered by a failed displacement: the irruption of the repressed real into the socially constructed narrative of history. Unit 731 tactics included poisoning real wells in rural China, contaminating them with typhoid. The novel explains that Sadako’s curse itself is a hybrid between a human ghost and the eradicated smallpox virus. Just as typhoid bacteria would do in a wet, enclosed environment, her suffering and rage fester until they become powerful enough to engulf the world in the exponential spread of the viral video.

Like the unconscious, the festering well, a rich soup of repressed secrets, pathogenic activity, and mounting supernatural rage, becomes more dangerous the longer and the more tightly it is kept shut. But dangerous to whom? Maybe the disruption of the TV viewer’s living room by horror is one way to transcend the perverse cycle of history. Maybe the ending of Ringu is not apocalyptic, but evolutionary, the water at the bottom of the well symbolizing a hybrid fluidity that enables new life.

The first shot of the film is of the sea. Later, Reiko is told that “Sadako came from the sea.” These moments allude to a more explicit scene from the novel: after the war, Sadako’s mother Shizuko watches as Occupation forces on Oshima Island desecrate a religious shrine of pre-Meiji Japan, dumping a religious figurine into the sea (Suzuki 191). This occurs around the time of the one-year anniversary of the nuclear bombing, the narrator noting that it was “1946, on a night toward the end of summer” (189). Shizuko asks a man to row her out to where the statue [page 75] was dumped. Telling him to avert his eyes, she sheds her kimono, dives into the murk, and finds the idol by the glow of its eyes. After that night, as if possessed, or infected, by the second sight of the statue, Shizuko becomes a clairvoyant, which leads to her tragic liaison with Dr. Ikuma and the birth of Sadako.

In its uneasy eroticism and metaphysical, almost cosmic loneliness, the story of Shizuko’s naked quest for the statue at the bottom of the sea echoes the Marabar Caves section of E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India, where Mrs. Moore loses her will to live, and Miss Quested imagines her rape. Both Mrs. Moore and Shizuko make it to the dark heart of the world, and neither ever really makes it back. But whereas Mrs. Moore’s fear at the caves is explained as the anxiety of the colonizer, Shizuko is haunted by the spell of an icon of her own nation’s traditional past, as if punishing the hubris of the revolutionary social changes begun in the Meiji Restoration.

Day Seven: The bad fathers and the inoculating disease

The last symbol we’ll examine is the death of Sadako’s mortal body. Barenblatt tells us that in the research labs, “method of murder for some experiment subjects was a strike to the head with an axe” (29). In the film, Sadako’s scientist father kills her with a strike to the head, either with an axe or a club of some kind. But in the original novel, she is murdered by a different person, also a doctor, who had become the last Japanese survivor of smallpox before the virus was eradicated. He infects Sadako with the smallpox virus by raping her. It is then revealed that Sadako is a hermaphrodite, with no uterus. The impossibility of her ever bearing a child, along with the smallpox virus’s instinctual desire for self-replication, are condensed in the curse that compels viewers to reproduce the videotape. With this information in mind, we will revisit the mysterious photograph we saw in Day One.

The captions make two separate claims. The first is that the photograph is of a team of Japanese doctors vivisecting a human subject, and the second, that one of these doctors had earlier impregnated the subject with the fetus she was carrying at the time of her murder. If this photograph is authentic, and if this essay has built a reasonable case for allusions to socio-historical context in Nakata’s Ringu, then we can take another look at Dr. Ikuma’s character. Like Surgeon Ling in the photo caption, he is also conducting human experiments. Like Surgeon Ling, he also impregnates the subject of one of his experiments. And like the Japanese surgeon, he also murders his own child. Near the end of the film, our journalist Reiko sees a vision of Dr. Ikuma coming up behind [page 76] Sadako, clubbing her, and then pushing her unconscious body down the well. Reiko cries out, “Her father!” Like everyone who encounters Sadako’s video, we don’t know if the photo / caption is genuine, and as mentioned above, the use of questionable images was one of the reasons why Seiichi Morimura received death threats after publishing The Devil’s Gluttony. But if we believe it’s true, then the condensation of Dr. Ikuma and Surgeon Ling could be read as a filmic return of horrific truths that have been repressed by history.12, 13

In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud associates the death instinct with cancerous replication (40—9). But sexual desire is not that different from the death instinct – it is obsessive; it is marked by longing for the lost past of prelapsarian peace at the breast; and it mindlessly strives for repetition of one’s own genetic identity. More than a half century after the fictional volcanic eruption and the all-too-real tragedies of World War II, Sadako has returned, hacking into the collective culture with her viral video, and transforming each of her victims into the equivalent of a trojan-infested zombie PC. She harnesses this power to uncover a traumatic repressed cultural memory of genocidal policies that were carried out in the name, not of religion or even of imperialism, but of objective, scientific knowledge itself. The journalistic effort to uncover the crimes of Unit 731 is a struggle to come to terms with knowledge that right-wing activists would rather send death threats than allow to be spoken.14 Like the ghostly pattern of viral DNA that is injected into a child’s body to prime its immune system to resist corporeal viruses, Ringu can be seen as a cinematic gene therapy, an elaborate effort to inoculate the Japanese national consciousness against the shocking trauma of history. Could its compulsion to recreate the psychological horror of war help to save us from having to repeat history? If you believe it can, then show this essay to someone else within seven days

Support for this project was provided by a PSC-CUNY Award, jointly funded by The Professional Staff Congress and The City University of New York.


1. The Japanese title for Nakata’s 1998 film translates as Ring, but to more clearly distinguish the different versions, I refer to Suzuki’s novel as Ring, Nakata’s film as Ringu, and Verbinski’s remake as The Ring. For simplicity, I have used the English release titles of all foreign films.

1.5 China Underground. “35 rare images of the infamous Japanese experiment unit 731 in China.” 17 Oct. 2012. Web. [and several others]

2. “Interviews (Koji Suzuki).” Interviews. 25 Apr. 2003. Web.

3. The premise of this argument makes Sadako similar to Private Chelsea Manning, who became radicalized by her experiences in Iraq, lost faith in the [page 77] corporate media, attempted to share what she had seen with the world, and was consequently criminalized, gaslighted, and locked in solitary confinement.

4. Miyazaki’s other work, such as Castle in the Sky and Nausicaa, Valley of the Wind, carry much more explicit Hiroshima metaphors in stories that involve weapons of mass destruction, and when Tonari No Totoro was first released, it was paired in a double feature with Grave of the Fireflies, a bleak drama of children orphaned during World War II. The appearance of a tiny sprig to symbolize rebirth is also used in the wartime anime Barefoot Gen, though that story unambiguously deals with recovery after Hiroshima, and is missing the complex visual rhyme of the rapidly blossoming tree.

5. Johnston, William. Geisha, Harlot, Strangler, Star: A Woman, Sex, and Morality in Modern Japan. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005. Print.

6. Marran, Christine. Poison Woman: Figuring Female Transgression in Modern Japanese Culture. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2007. Print.

7. Richie, Donald. "Sada Abe". Japanese Portraits (2006 ed.). Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing, 1987. Print.

8. Buruma reports a story of a Japanese man who took Westerner to see a sex show featuring “Japan’s biggest penis,” and ruminates on how the performer’s difficulty to sustain an erection in the Westerner’s presence reflects the humiliation of the war and occupation (66-67).

9. Kristof, Nicholas. "Unmasking Horror." New York Times. 17 Mar. 1995.

10. Buruma, whose compelling book nonetheless exudes a neoliberal condescension reminiscent of Christopher Hitchens right after 9/11, is part of a school of western commenters who have participated in sweeping observations about Japanese culture’s willingness to acknowledge the crimes of the past.

11. Ms. Kaori Ishikura and Mr. Taizo Yamamoto provided me with notes from their translations of <> and <> among others.

12. There is not enough space in this essay for an investigation of how the two “bad fathers” resonate with both Japan’s abandonment of its feudal traditions and the fraught figure of the Emperor, but Emperor Hirohito was a practicing marine biologist with his own laboratory in the Imperial Palace, a fact which could associate him both with Dr. Serizawa who experimented on fish to devise the weapon that destroyed Godzilla, and Shizuko whose daughter Sadako, we are told in the film, “came from the sea.” The same treaties with the U.S. occupation forces which absolved the ringleaders of Unit 731 also assured the continuation of the Emperor’s reign.

13. There are numerous intriguing studies of Ringu in English-language scholarly studies, but none speculates explicitly about the film’s allusions to World War II history or the Meiji Restoration itself. In articles by Nicholas Holm, K.K. Seet, and Valerie Wee, for example, the film is analyzed for its depictions of women and children; the influence of Japanese folk traditions, especially pertaining to ghosts and demons; orientalism in the politics of film adaptation (between Nakata’s film and Gore Verbinsky’s The Ring [2002]); and the cultural and philosophical effects and implications of social and visual media use and spectacle. [page 78]

14. John Culbert, in his study of the perverse abandonment / embrace of moral responsibility in the conclusion of Ringu, concludes that this mixture of guilt and righteousness is endemic to social reality, at least under modernity:

Responsibility to the other must bend, then, to the necessity of betrayal and infidelity in a shared error that provides the basis for an ethics beyond morality. […] Her inexplicable evil dictates death because she is herself the spectral manifestation of what we have relegated to the world's zones of death. This phantasmatic misrecognition of the monster resembles that which enables the racist to see in the other someone less than human or marked for death; these misrecognized others are put to death in all innocence by people who, as Hannah Arendt says of murdering colonists, “somehow were not aware that they had committed murder.” (qtd. Mbembe 24)

Although Mr. Culbert’s fascinating essay does not specifically reference aspects of World War II history, his argument may serve as a reminder and warning that the banality of evil is a transnational phenomenon, and perhaps, a transhistorical one.

Works Cited

Barenblatt, Daniel. A Plague upon Humanity: The Hidden History of Japan's Biological Warfare Program. New York: Harper, 2005. Print.

Buruma, Ian. Wages of Guilt: Memories of War in Germany and Japan. Phoenix, 2002. Print.

Culbert, John. "The Well and the Web: Phantoms of Community and the Mediatic Public Sphere." Postmodern Culture 19.2 (2009). Web. 28 Oct. 2016.

Dickinson, Frederick R. "Biohazard: Unit 731 In Postwar Japanese Politics of National 'Forgetfulness,'" Japan Focus. 12 Oct. 2007. Web. 28 Oct. 2016.

Forster, E.M. A Passage to India. Harcourt, Brace, and Co., 1924. Print.

Freud, Sigmund. Beyond the Pleasure Principle. New York: Bantam Books, 1959. Print.

---. Civilization and Its Discontents. New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1962. Print.

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Holm, Nicholas. "Ex(Or)Cising The Spirit Of Japan: Ringu, The Ring , And the Persistence of Japan." Journal Of Popular Film & Television 39.4 (2011): 183-192. Academic Search Complete. 28 Oct. 2016.

“Interviews (Koji Suzuki).” Interviews. 25 Apr. 2003. Web. 28 Oct. 2016.

Joji, Iida, Hideo Nakata, and Norio Tsuruta, dirs. Ringu: Anthology of Terror. Dreamworks, 2005. DVD.

Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. New York: Columbia UP, 1982. Print.

Kristof, Nicolas D. “Unmasking Horror, A Special Report: Japan Confronting Gruesome War Atrocity.” New York Times. 17 Mar. 1995. Web. 28 Oct. 2016.

Marran, Christine. Poison Woman: Figuring Female Transgression in Modern Japanese Culture. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2007. Print.

Merhige, E. Elias, dir. Begotten. Theatre of Material, 1990. Film. [page 79]

Schreiber, Mark. "O-Sada Serves a Grateful Nation". The Dark Side: Infamous Japanese Crimes and Criminals. Tokyo: Kodansha, 2001. Print.

Seet, K. K. "Mothers And Daughters: Abjection And The Monstrous-Feminine in Japan's Dark Water And South Korea's A Tale Of Two Sisters." Camera Obscura 24.71 (2009): 139-159. Academic Search Complete. 28 Oct. 2016.

Suzuki, Koji. Ring. Vertical, 2004. Print.

Wee, Valerie. "Visual Aesthetics And Ways Of Seeing: Comparing Ringu And The Ring." Cinema Journal 50.2 (2011): 41-60. Academic Search Complete. 28 Oct. 2016.

Wells, H.G. The Island of Dr. Moreau. New York: Signet Fiction, 1996. Print.

Wu, Tien-wei. "A Preliminary Review of Studies of Japanese Biological Warfare and Unit 731 in the United States." Web. 28 Oct. 2016.

MLA citation (print):

Shen, Sigmund. "Viral Video, Traumatic Therapy: Hideo Nakata’s Ringu and the Attempt to Cure the Future by Inoculating Us with the Past." Supernatural Studies, vol. 3, no. 1, 2016, pp. 64-79.