As another entry into the Ringu franchise, Sadako tells a rather lackluster tale burdened with side stories and shallow mysteries. Emphasizing the “slow” portion of a slow burn, the story meanders without a strong sense of direction. It follows the breadcrumbs of the previous films, but it tends to get a bit lost along the way.
Sadako follows a few different threads. A young girl with amnesia is found wandering the streets after narrowly escaping a fire in her home that was set by her psychic mother, who held the belief that her daughter was a reincarnation of the legendary Sadako. She’s brought to a hospital where she meets Mayu Akikawa (Elaiza Ikeda, Isle of Dogs), a psychologist who takes a shining to the girl. But Akikawa’s main focus is on trying to track down her missing brother, Kazuma (Hiroya Shimizu, The Outsider) who disappeared after investigating the burned-out shell of the girl’s apartment for his YouTube channel.
Our main focus as a viewer is on Akikawa, but because her attention is devoted to the plotlines of other characters, she doesn’t have much of a story of her own. Her main purpose is to pursue the plot as it unfolds around Kazuma, the young girl, and Sadako herself, unraveling each mystery as she attempts to find and save her brother.
While we focus on Akikawa, we spend very little time with the girl who is supposedly a reincarnation of Sadako; we don’t really get a clear sense of their connection. Which is kind of a shame because there could have been a lot more to explore there. Instead, we’re left with just snapshots of her “abilities” as Akikawa takes the lead, pulling focus away from Sadako by concentrating on the search for Kazuma (who, as a character, is too annoying and inconsequential to be of any concern to the audience).
Hideo Nakata — who brought us Ringu back in 1998 — returns for Sadako with writer Noriaki Sugihara (Sadako 2 3D). The direction of the film works particularly well during the scenes where Nakata lets Sadako out of the box to play. Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen too often. For a film called Sadako, she actually isn’t given a heck of a lot to do in the film. She briefly pops out a couple of times, but as an audience, you expect more from her.
Sugihara’s script is a bit disjointed — it hops around between an exploration of YouTube culture (which is introduced early on and then dropped entirely), to stirring up tension with the little girl (which quickly dissipates and gets forgotten), to building a series of mysteries to be solved (including the lore of Sadako herself, which is only touched upon briefly). It’s hard to really connect with the film when it changes hands so often.
The sound design captures the steadily growing fear in the film; Sadako is textured with an unnerving yet beautiful theme that weaves itself throughout. Ambient sounds build tension and create a general sense of unease. Japanese horror cinema does some incredible things with sound design — Ringu and Ju-On being notable examples — so while Sadako does a good job of building tone and atmosphere, it isn’t quite up to par with its predecessors.
As an entry in the Ringu franchise, Sadako is a serviceable offering. It continues the mythology and adds a bit more to the texture of the character. As a horror film, it’s really underwhelming. Too much time is spent on the drama and mystery of Kazuma, and not enough is spent on the actual meat of the story — the titular Sadako herself. Gone are the guttural whispers of “seven days”, and the horrific imagery is drastically toned down.
If you’re keen on watching a film that misleadingly focuses on the search for a tiresome character, Sadako is the right choice. If you’re looking for something with genuine scares that has all the benchmarks of classic J-horror… maybe skip this one.
Sadako is playing as part of Fantasia Festival’s 2019 lineup. For more films, check out their website or keep an eye out for our reviews.