J-horror is a genre has taken a back seat in the American cinematic consciousness. The late 90’s and early 2000’s introduced us to the unsettling findings of Ringu and Ju-On. These titles spread faster than a cursed videotape and soon had American remake hits with a heightened, more frightening Ring and a sleeker, sexier Grudge. The hype died down once found footage paranormal trumped creepy pale Asian children but as the release of Sadako Vs Kayako shows, the flame never burned out in Japan. The Wikipedia boasts this mashup being the twelfth film in both series (but they count the remakes which is cheating) still the last Ringu sequel was in 2013 and Ju-On: The Finale Curse was released only last year. What were once perceived as Japanese strokes of brilliance butchered by American retellings actually became beaten to death franchises like our slasher greats. No wonder they needed some Freddy vs. Jason juice, these murderous ghosts have been terrorizing teenagers for almost two decades. This pay-per-view battle knows how to give its fan exactly what they want, and as a non-native spectator, I found value in these long lost characters. It’s trashy, self-aware and bombastic, perfect for a movie with “vs” in the title.
As someone who can’t speak on the direction any of these series took, this new incarnation has a very modern feel with its storytelling, tropes and the way it pays homage to its predecessors. Essentially there are two recognizable plots occurring simultaneously, one of Suzuka (Tina Tamashiro) who has moved in next door to the abandoned house cursed by the mother/son apparition duo Kayako and Toshio who will rip off the head of anyone that passes through their doorway. At a nearby university Yuri (Mizuki Yamamoto) and Natsumi (Aimi Satsukawa) make a poor purchase of a VHS deck that holds the tape of the long haired, well soaked Sadako. A major difference from the original Ringu is that the new hex kills you in two days instead of seven because this movie does not have a week to spare. Even the tape footage itself shorter because they need to breeze through set up and get to the good stuff. Kayako’s backstory is only hurried dialogue delivered by school girl gossip since the filmmaker trusts if you’ve decided on watching Sadako Vs Kayako you’re probably familiar with the mythology. Exposition is only a formality here.
There are two defining scenes before we get to the standoff that present the traditional and the westernization of Japanese filmmaking. Kayako initially enacts her wrath on a group of four elementary school boys who dare each other into entering the dwellings. As presented by the original Ju-On, Japan has fewer qualms with killing children than America. We tend to preserve the innocence of children and have their lives spared in horror movies while everyone is legal game in J-horror. Here they’re sucked into closets and bathtubs and presumably torn limb from limb. Sadako exhibition of power comes in an exorcism scene when the marked girls search for a way to get the spirit lifted and avoid certain doom. All the Ring manifestations I’ve seen never allude to religion as a solution of ridding her and this set piece feels copied from any James Wan or Blumhouse flick from the last five years. It’s an action-heavy scene only in place to up the body count and fill the void of something scary needing to occur every ten minutes. It also leads to the introduction of the pompous psychic Keizo (Masanobu Ando) and his clairvoyant child sidekick Tamao (Mai Kikuchi). They’re needed to unite these diverted storylines and explain in the most unsubtle manner how the murderous spirits will collide.
Thank god this movie has a sense of humor or it would be unbearable solemn garbage. The source material plays it pretty straight as Japanese residents are possessed, haunted and tortured by these virus-like curses. Sadako Vs Kayako is still very scary as Sadako appears in screen reflections and Toshio crouches in corners making excruciating cat noises. Their appearances are frightening but it’s inner spliced with this wink to the camera as the girls’ professor is obsessed with the Sadako legend and more than happy to die painfully if it means seeing her face. Characters are intentionally dumb, making the worst choices so we can arrive at the climax that goes full Freddy vs Jason as the spirits battle and the humans try to trap them and make it out alive. The challenge is it’s hard to make ghosts fight. They don’t wield machetes or knives for fingers, they just approach you slowly and scare you to death. The movie tries to remedy the situation by giving Sadako hair based super powers to strangle Kayako but she has the stamina of being unkillable. The answer to this discrepancy is brilliant and lazy all at once. The film is enough fun leading up to this bizarre climax that you accept that the journey was as important as the destination.
I don’t know if the creative minds or studio execs behind either of these franchise are ready to put these titans to rest but I found it a fitting resolution for stories I hadn’t realized were still carrying on. It’s an easy movie to walk into even without the knowledge of the original films and maybe better so. Sadako Vs Kayako is doing its own thing as a horror comedy which is how you need to address those characters after a drawn out shelf life. In the grand scheme of the universe they exist in, I think it’s better than Ringu which I’ve been underwhelmed with but not as great as Ju-On which is pretty avant-garde as far as genre story structure goes. Overall, it’s a good time and as a great Japanese man once said “LET THEM FIGHT!”