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-Ringu, Sadako 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.