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[Guest Review] ‘Sadako vs Kayako’ is a Love Letter to J-Horror

Sadako vs Kayako

Guest Review By: Andrew Campana

It should be immediately noted that this film started off as a joke—a fake April Fool’s Day trailer on the website of the latest Ju-On movie, teasing the ultimate face-off between the main villains of J-Horror’s two most popular franchises. In December of last year, though, it was announced that Sadako vs. Kayako was to become reality, premiering in theatres across Japan on June 18th, 2016.

After the disappointments that were both series’ recent entries—2012’s Sadako 3D, 2013’s Sadako 3D 2, and 2015’s Ju-On: The Final Curse—it is certainly reasonable to be skeptical about this film and its central crossover gimmick. It would be hard not to be delighted by an appropriately viral marketing campaign (ranging from Sadako and Kayako facing off in a baseball stadium to Kayako and her son Toshio’s wonderful Instagram page), but what chance could there be of this actually being a good movie?

I’m happy to say, however, that the curse of mediocrity has been broken: Sadako vs. Kayako is excellent.

In Sadako vs. Kayako, directed by Koji Shiraishi (also behind the wonderful found-footage horror film Noroi), a college student, Yuri, comes across what turns out to be a cursed videotape stuck in a dusty VCR in a thrift store. Both her and her friend Natsumi—fresh out of a university lecture on urban legends that culminates in the story of Sadako—realize what has happened once they watch the tape and receive the dreaded phone call, dooming them to an inevitable death in just two days. In a parallel story, a high-school student Suzuka wanders a bit too far into the abandoned Saeki house where a horrible murder was rumoured to have taken place, making her the target of the curse of the vengeful Kayako. Keizo, an exorcist, and Tamao, a young psychic girl, find out about Yuri and Suzuka’s respective predicaments, and hatch a plan to pit Sadako and Kayako against each other and rid the world of them once and for all.

After 25 years of novels, films, manga, TV series, video games, radio dramas, and theme park attractions, Sadako Yamamura of Ringu and Kayako Saeki of Ju-On have become worldwide horror icons—Sadako, with her long black hair and penchant for coming out of television screens, and Kayako, with her chilling death rattle, together began the J-Horror boom of the early 2000s. Sadako vs. Kayako takes their fame as a given: while none of the characters are completely sure at first whether or not to believe they are true, the stories of Sadako and Kayako’s hauntings are portrayed as common knowledge within the world of the film. This self-awareness is foregrounded from the beginning; as mentioned before, the second scene is a university lecture about vengeful female ghosts in Japan, with PowerPoint slides about the kuchisake-onna and eventually on the cursed videotape and Sadako herself. Any J-Horror fan would be hard pressed not to see a bit of themselves in the lecturer, Professor Morishige, a Sadako-obsessive who’s thrilled that the cursed tape is the real deal.

This is not to say that the whole film is an exercise in audience-winking, though visual and thematic homages to moments in past movies from both series are plentiful, and the film’s creators clearly made sure the film was fun to watch above all. Sadako vs. Kayako carefully balances horror and wry humour, without letting the later needlessly overtake the former. The film also actively plays with the shifting nature of urban legends, keeping some commonplaces from Ring and Ju-On the same while bringing others into question (Ring‘s seven-day deadline from phone call to death, for example, has become only two days, making the urgency even greater). In this way, the creators make affectionate nods to the film’s predecessors, but aren’t beholden to them, letting the needs of the story dictate the “rules” rather than the other way around. Moving back and forth between the two parallel storylines keeps things compelling, weaving together the strengths of each franchise: the grim procedurals and the blend of science and Shinto of the Ring series, the fear-even-in-daylight and clever use of foreground and background of Ju-On, and just so, so much black hair everywhere.

Credit must also be given to how much care went into crafting the film itself, especially after some lackluster entries in both series. Sadako vs. Kayako is beautiful to look at—production values are very high, with wonderful special effects, camerawork, make-up and costume design, especially when it comes to the two titular horror icons. The acting is also strong all around, but special kudos must be given to the actress and dancer Runa Endo’s wonderful physicality as Kayako, Masanobu Ando as the cocky exorcist Keizo (an actor best known for playing the terrifying Kazuo Kiriyama in Battle Royale), and the 10 year-old Mai Kikuchi as the blind psychic, Tamao.

The film pays off with a horrifying, jaw-dropping climax that filled the crowded Tokyo movie theatre with audible delight. One is left with the distinct impression that, almost two decades post-RinguSadako vs. Kayako is not an attempt to be the scariest film in either series, but it also isn’t a campy homage played only for laughs. It’s better than that—it’s a love-letter to J-Horror itself.

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  • Saturn

    But is it a sequel to the Ring/Ring2/Ring : Birthday or Ring/Rasen/Sadako universe, and the same with the Ju-On series, is it a sequel to the original Ju-On (curse), Ju-On (Grudge) or the more recent 2 Ju-On reboot movies?

    • darklordofgorgoroth

      It’s a spin-off. You could easily watch Ringu 1 and Ju-On 1, and nothing else, before watching this one. It doesn’t have any baggage whatsoever from any sequels, prequels or remakes. In other words; back to basics. 😉

      • Saturn

        Good to hear.
        I’ve seen some of the Ju-On movies (the first 2 curse movies, the first 2 grudge movies) but kinda fell behind in regards to the others in the series.
        Glad to hear that I don’t have to watch all the movies in the franchise first – not enough hours in the day!

  • KainSonofDeath

    Will this be shown at any movie festival or is curretnly a japan only film?

  • AphroditeBoy

    Thank you for a great review! As a huge fan of J-horror (it’s what got me into horror to begin with), I’m Looking for forward to this. Hopefully there is a version with subtitles available soon!

  • alwayswipetwice

    Holy fuck, I’m even more excited than I was! Hopefully we get a Region 1 home release soon. Thanks, Campana!

  • KSE1977

    At the end does the One Missed Call ringtone play on somebody’s phone?

    • Saturn

      Nah, Pinhead turns up and says “Ladies, is it that time of the month?”

    • Lirabelle

      I got that ringtone for my cellphone, and it creeps out people who have never even seen the film.

      … I did have my phone go off after I went to see The Ring the first time and was leaving the theater.

    • MediumBarda

      Freddy comes in and hits on the survivor, but she disses him. She’s not THAT desperate.

  • TheonetrueLee

    Great review and thank you. I was very interested if this would be any good. Ringu and the first two Ju-on (plus Audition) will always be in my top 15. I really hope we get a region 1 release too. Will pre-order that. Ha.

  • ThunderDragoon

    I really want to see this. Will there be any limited runs here in the U.S.?

  • Evan3

    All right! I hoped, but didn’t dare, that this film would be any good. I figured that the baseball thing would be the only amazing thing to come out of this film. Now I can hope for more.

    I wish the reviewer had discussed whether the actual fight between the pair was any good. But i’ll have to see it for myself.

  • Espen

    I just watched Sadako Vs Kayako and its amazing. Its a limited release in Singapore and i am glad i got the opportunity to watch this in the theaters. The make up is great and the special effects is good. Mizuki Yamamoto is a very pretty actress. Defintely recommended for fans of horror.

  • darklordofgorgoroth

    My 2 cents: Yeah, I watched it online, from a now defunct link.. This was pretty underwhelming.The obvious comparison is of course Freddy vs Jason. Okay..

    -At least SvK went completely back to basics, without any baggage from countless sequels. FvJ did not. Score 1 for SvK!
    -FvJ knew that we don’t care about secondary characters and put the focus on the monsters. SvK did not. Score 1 for FvJ.
    -SvK had a believable reason to pit them together. FvJ hit you over the head with a convoluted plot every 5 minutes. Score 1 for SvK!
    -SvK was long and boring before anything happened. FvJ was stupid, but entertaining. Score 1 for FvJ!
    -FvJ had an utterly confusing ending. SvK had a satisfying ending. Score 1 for SvK!
    -SvK was completely devoid of jumpscares. I know, I know but that’s to be expected from The Grudge right? FvJ delivered on that. Score 1 for FvJ!

    SvK 3 points FvJ 3 points.
    Tied, for different reasons. They both have their weaknesses, but also strong points 😉

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