Made Overseas: Sadako vs. Kayako (2016)

In one corner: the ghost of an accursed video tape.  Although she who was murdered and stuffed in a well, her latent psychic powers let her rage live on long after her death.  Straight from the deepest depths of Well, it’s Sadako from Ring!

In the other corner: a woman murdered by her husband.  Despite some ambulatory problems, she has managed to get through life by using her hands as her primary mobility device.  Hero ghost. Hailing from a haunted house, and accompanied by a nearly naked boy who meows, it’s Kayako from Ju-On: The Grudge!

When these two spirits of vengeance meet, they must settle their otherworldly scores in the only way possible. You could either watch them fight… or you can watch them SOCK SOME DINGERS!

Freddy and Jason could learn a thing from these two about how to resolve matters in the most peaceful way possible.

Let’s face it: the entire concept of these two fighting each other is ridiculous. Part of me wonders if the idea came about because the names of their respective movie titles lends to a myriad of movie review head lines. “Grudge Match”? “Step into the Ring”? And so forth. But conceptually, Sadako and Kayako are both ghouls that operate mainly through atmosphere and a creeping sense of doom.

Sadako takes her sweet time shuffling across a TV screen before finally coming in for the kill with her psychic terror. Kayako generally leaves all the jump scares for her son, Toshio, while she crawls jerkily down stairs and across the floor. They are not made for action sequences. This is probably why the two are kept apart until the last ten minutes of the movie for the two ghouls to finally confront each other. (By comparison, our American pals Freddy and Jason get a nice dream dimension warm-up match in the middle of the movie before locking up for the main event.)

Sadako Vs. Kayako was directed by Kōji Shiraishi. You may know him from such films as Ju-Rei: The Uncanny, Carved, and A Record of Sweet Murder. (I don’t.) They’re mostly horror movies, though, several in the found footage subgenre. Among the directors he sites as influences are John Carpenter and Sam Raimi.

I wondered in the last review which of the Ring multiverses that this movie exists in.    And from what I can tell — as someone who hasn’t seen Ring 2, Rasen, Sadako 3D, or Sadako 3D 2 and is unfamiliar whether the rules changed somewhere in between — Sadako Vs. Kayako seems to exist in yet another universe.  First of all, the famous “seven days” has been severely shortened to just “two days” between watching the video and your death.  Man, Sadako’s implementing some flow time efficiency improvements, huh?  That’s going to free up a lot of time for her other projects.  Like getting a hair cut.  Or upgrade to modern media playback services.

Secondly, the video is totally different.  It’s no longer an experimental film clip show featuring a woman in a mirror, men crawling backwards, and a well.  Now it’s a creepy hallway with tattered rags suspended from the ceiling and creepy door.  Again, I have no idea if Sadako has historically had a precedent for providing exciting new content.

Sadako, in general, just seems to be far more hands on these days.  Before one of her victims commits suicide at the end of two days, Sadako can be seen shuffling around in the hallway like a lost customer.  She also starts possessing people who haven’t seen the video, which seems like cheating.  Her eye Is now an official superpower.  One of the characters warns others to turn away lest you be murdered by her death gaze.

Also new to me: Sadako has the uncanny powers of prehensile hair.  Sometimes she uses it as weapon, lashing it out to bind victims.  Other times, she leaves clumps of it lying around as a creepy calling card.  And then there’s hair being pulled out of the throats of possessed people.

Kayako, on the other hand … is dumb.  Or rather, her stupid meowing kid is dumb.  There’s nothing remotely scary about this guy.  I think when the camera swish cuts to Toshio, it’s supposed to be a jump scare.  Is it, though?  The kid is always seen crouched to his knees with his slack-jawed head tilted.  He looks silly.  And he’s meowing.  MEOWING. The jump scares come off like a Family Guy cutaway gag, where Toshio is the movie’s evil monkey. If anything, this movie made me want to watch Ju-On just so I can see if this boy was ever scary.

And then we see Kayako, who gets far less screen time than her son. For good reason: when you see her up close, she just comes off as an average woman in a dirty dress and a stain on her forehead. Every time she appears atop that staircase, I wonder why people just don’t outrun her. She’s so slow. It would make sense if the haunted house she lives in was difficult to escape, but we see characters go in and out of the house all the time with incredible ease. So stop staring at her! Just run out the door, you idiots! At least Sadako has psychic teleportation powers that lets her appear right next to you in the blink of an eye. Kayako… she’s just taking her sweet little time.

That could be Shiraishi’s point, though. He does look up to Sam Raimi. Maybe he’s going for an Evil Dead II vibe. Many of the kills are downright cartoony. A guy’s face gets smashed in, and his mouth curls around his cheeks like it was made of rubber. Another guy gets his neck pulled of, and it stretches like taffy.

Almost all the deaths are deemed unremarkable by the movie’s characters, incidentally. The most anyone talks about it are when four kids are murdered in Kayako’s ghost house. We see some high school gossip. The girls talking about it assume that the boys ran away. Sure, kids go missing. No big deal! They’ll turn up eventually. Is vagrancy a huge problem in Japan or something? There are some movies where this apathy is an early sign of a massive cover up perpetrated by the seemingly innocent townsfolk. Not here. It’s just … apathy. Bodies pile up, and no one cares.

Most of the movie’s running time are two shorter movies: one Ring sequel, one Ju-On sequel. In the Ring portion of the movie, two girls are trying to transfer the wedding tape from one girl’s parents from a video tape to a DVD. The tech girl, Yuri (Mizuki Yamamoto), needs to find a VHS player. They take a trip to the thrift store, where Yuri selects the cheapest working VHS player she could find. Why was it cheap, Yuri? Maybe because there’s an ACCURSED VIDEOTAPE INSIDE?

The second plotline (our Ju-On story) follows Suzuka (Tina Tamashiro), a high school student whose parents have bought a house. But it turns out… it’s a totally normal house that’s not haunted AT ALL! No, the spooky house that Kayako and Toshio live in is across the street. There’s a bizarre lingering shot where Suzuka is standing outside the gate of the haunted house. On the gate behind her, there’s a weird splotch of white. Maybe it’s just a patch of light, and your eyes are playing tricks on you? “This is a great shot,” I thought. “It’s creepy because they don’t call attention to it.” After finishing that thought… the camera snap zooms and OH MY GOD IT’S A CREEPY GHOST AFTER ALL!

Anyway, Yuri’s friend Natsumi (Aimi Satsukawa) sees the tape, and she has seven … errrr, TWO DAYS to get rid of the curse before Sadako comes and gets her! No time for a ponderous murder mystery here, folks! So the two get some help from a teacher in their class on Urban Legends (???), who directs them to a legit spiritual medium. Things go badly. Their exorcism attempts attract a pair of ghost busters, though: Keizo (Masanobu Ando) and Tamao (Mai Kikuchi).

And, dear God, these two look like they stepped in from an anime.

Tamao is the one that looks most like she was culled from the pages of a popular manga. She’s a blind young girl dressed in a blazing red outfit, matching cap, dark sunglasses, and hair in pigtails. You half expect her to have a 30-second magical girl transformation sequence. Keizo is a little less anime, but only more slightly. We’d been treated to a few spiritualists in this movie already. They were all older and wearing traditional clothes. Keizo is a lanky young man who always seems to be posing in a cool slouch for the camera. His hair is unkempt like a bishonen protagonist. And worst of all, he has swift action movies. When he suspects someone is possessed, he points his fingers like scissors and “cuts” the string connecting the possessed to the ghost.

What the hell are two anime heroes doing in a movie that pitched a meeting between two of the most underplayed horror movie icons of all time? Again, I haven’t seen Ju-On, so maybe that movie had characters wielding oversized buster swords and summoning Bahamut. But Ring, the movie that basically started it all, was for the most part grounded in realism. Its stars were a grieving aunt and her ex-husband. How did we get from there to two characters who looked like they stepped out of Bleach?

Anyway, I would have been more on board if literally any of this group of characters had that one character that appears in a lot of these more comedic horror movies: the defiant jerkface. You know, the Ash Williams type. Someone who’s going to cock a shotgun, stare down Sadako, and toss off a one-liner like, “Hey, creepy girl! Crawl out of THIS!” But it is not to be.

All of the girls are seen scared, crying, and defeatist. Keizo gets the “jerk” part down, but he’s a standoffish know-it-all and not a hero of action. He spends the movie sneering at the victims and implying that things would be much easier if they just all died off. You sorta want Keizo to be the first up with his back against the wall.

It’s a little ironic that Ring is one of the movies to help bring horror out of the slasher genre. And now that’s who Sadako and Kayako are — you garden variety horror movie slashers. Both with their own confusing sets of rules and powers that have expanded beyond their far more grounded and simple origins. They know plow through entire squadrons of disposable one-dimensional characters. And you sorta want to buy a plushie of either at your local Box Lunch. It’s like how Jason went from being a straight-forward reverse-Psycho serial killer to a teleporting zombie who is a friend to all children.

The movie ends by being both downbeat and bonkers at the same time. While I don’t want to spoil much, it does make the likelihood of Sadako vs. Kayako 2 to be very unlikely. Spoilers ahead if you’re interested:

Ending spoilers for Sadako vs. Kayako

Yuri offers herself up as sacrifice and stands on the edge of a well. Since she’s wanted by both Sadako and Kayako, both pursue her. The survivors seal the well with spiritual wards in the forms of scrolls and ribbons. Sadako and Kayako end up merging into a single entity, though, that Wikipedia informs me is named “Sadakaya”. She crawls on all fours, has hair covering her face, and has superspeed. The combined entity is far too strong for the seal and she escapes. The heroes fail, and Sadakaya roams the countryside.

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Speaking of which: here’s how Sadako vs. Kayako should have ended. Sadako crawls out of the well, sopping wet. In each of her mutilated hands is a severed head. In one hand, the head of Meow Boy. In the other, the head of Kayako. Sadako rises triumphantly. And then, the camera zooms to Kayako’s head, and she delivers a mischievous wink to the viewer.

I’d ironically close the movie with a crazy rock song… but somehow the actual Sadako vs. Kayako does exactly that. A rock anthem plays over the end credits. You got me there, Kōji Shiraishi.

Sadako vs. Kayako is available on iTunes.

NEXT: Our final foray into J-horror as we drown in that Dark Water.