Sadako (2019) review [Fantasia Film Festival 2019]


While Ring (1998) was a major success – not only for director Hideo Nakata (White Lily (2017)) but also for Japanese cinema as such – a success effectively putting Sadako in the collective mind of every horror fan, the more conventional follow-ups, like the Ring 2 (1999) and the more recent Sadako 3D (2012) and its sequel Sadako 3D 2 (2013) failed to emulate the power that the original had.

These failures, as mainly caused by a forcing into main-stream Japanese cinema, were also doubled by a general tendency marking the Japanese horror genre, a genre that lost his touch after that golden period (General-note 1). Can Sadako – loosely based on Koji Suzuki’s Tide (2013), once more directed by Hideo Nakata, give the Japanese horror genre the vigor it needs?



One day, at Kurokawa Memorial General Hospital, clinical psychologist Mayu Akikawa (Elaiza Ikeda) stumbles on some noisy children. Asked to be more silent, she eventually learns that they’ve been watching you-tuber fantastic Kazuma (Hiroya Shimizu), Mayu’s brother. When his views dramatically drop, he decides, as advised by his partner Yusuke Ishida (Takashi Tsukamoto), to visit a burned-out apartment said to be haunted

The following day, Dr. Minoru Fujii (Ren Kiriyama), Mayu’s senior, informs her that a girl with a memory disorder (Himeka Himejima) has been brought in. While she doesn’t remember where she lived, she remembers her mom and what her mother called her: Sadako.

Sadako 2
(C)2019 “Sadako” Film Partners

If there is one idea Sadako plays with is it is the fundamental importance for the clinical psychologist to maintain distance from his patients, a dimension the young psychologist Mayu Akikawa still struggles with. This dimension eventually, even though it remains implicit until the very end, transforms into the dimension of love – in the guise of sacrifice. While this dimension is obviously related to the dimension of maintaining distance, a transformation logical from a narrative perspective, the notion of love/sacrifice feels somewhat forced in the unfolding of the narrative conclusion.

While some might categorize Sadako as solely a parasitical evil presence, one cannot fail to see that Sadako acts as a protection against the ‘evil’ of everyday – protecting the girl against her mother, against the oppressive intrusion by detectives, and against the bullying by peers in a violent and aggressive way. While this puts the vengeful nature of Sadako in a certain narrative perspective, this narrative framing does not impedes the tensive and engaging nature of her absent-presence within the narrative space

The narrative spaces of Sadako are littered with strange elements, elements that do not fit the frame, elements that  soil and poison the mundane nature of the narrative spaces, for example the girl’s doll. All these elements, either due to cinematographical emphasis or through effective musical accompaniment, receive an ominous quality that resounds throughout the narrative space. Some of these strange elements, especially those surrounding the absent-presence of Sadako, gently ripple the narrative structure, ripples that do not fail to support the atmosphere of mystery and subtle fear

Sadako 3
(C)2019 “Sadako” Film Partners

There are some moments, like the unnatural fire in the opening sequence, and some strange elements, like those visual elements present in the narrative field of the you-tubers, that fail to substantially infuse tension in the narrative. One could even say that these elements erode some of the tension, the more psychological tension concerning the absent-presence of the vengeful supernatural, that the narrative is successful in generating (Cine-note 1).

Notwithstanding the presence of these dysfunctional elements, the narrative still succeeds in engendering a pleasant amount of uneasiness, mysteriousness, and tension – all emotions originating from the absent-presence (and sometimes the presence) of Sadako arround our girl. In other words, by framing the girl as that element that defies understanding by the detectives, the nurses, and Mayu Ikakawa, the narrative is able to create the opening to allow the tension enter the narrative space as a lingering presence. 

While Sadako is wonderful when it comes to generating a psychological tensive atmosphere, it falls short when it comes to framing horror. The visual elements, aiming at horror, miss their effect as they aid the unfolding of the narrative, instead of disturbing this unfolding as such. In other words, the narrative’s coherence acts as the obstruction, an obstruction that does not allow the tension to truly accede to the level of horror (Cine-note 2). This is most apparent in the final of Sadako, which is, beyond providing some minor scares and sole slightly unnerving imagery, unable to be truly terrifying. While this might have ‘derailed’ the entire narrative, this inability actually does not problematize the possibility for the spectator to enjoy the tensive atmospherics.

Sadako 1
(C)2019 “Sadako” Film Partners

The cinematography of Sadako provides a mixture between fixed shots, following shots and fluid spatial shots. While the compositions of fixed shots mainly evoke and construct the narrative space, they are also applied – in compositions using the power of the cut – to underline the strange element that ripples the mundane nature of the given space. The fluid spatial shots, for that matter, are used to further engender the mysterious strangeness, an ominous guiding towards the (hidden) horror that resides in the narrative space, that surrounds the strange element.

As the use of different shots in the framing of the mundane narratives spaces – the spaces as not yet soiled by the strange, imply, the evocation of tension is not directly function of the shot-compositions as such (Cine-note 3). To enable the tension/horror, as born from the ‘impossibility’ to situate the girl, to be truly sensible, other cinematographical elements, like music and colour/light-design, are needed.

While a mundane colour-scheme is present in Sadako, the evocation of ‘tension’ that comes to reside the narrative spaces are supported by different colour-schemes – yellowish and greenish, the use of a subtle greenish bleakness, and a thoughtful way of using light/shadow (Colour-note 1). It is the greenish filter, a filter most apt to (ab)use the darkness of the shadows, that most explicitly empowers the evocation of tension. But tension is not only generated by the colour-scheme as such, but also by contrasting colour-schemes between shots (e.g. the corridor in the hospital versus the girl’s room) and the shifts in colour within shots – e.g. from yellowish to utter greenish darkness. The latter is, in some cases, also supportive of the framing of the retributive evil that Sadako embodies as such.

Sadako 4
(C)2019 “Sadako” Film Partners

The thoughtful colour-schemes and their shifts and contrasts would not be able to evoke an ominous tension, if it were not for the subtle and effective use of musical pieces. It is this music that, due to its reliance on well-known horror-sounds, does not fail to function as an omen for the “horror” to come and as highlighting the absent-presence of Sadako. It is due to a fluid blend of both aspects that the initial failure to situate the girl – a failure concerning the absent-presence of Sadako – is able to become to source for a gripping but uneasy tension (Narra-note 1).

Himeka Himejima should be applauded for her tremendous performance – it is especially from the gap between the solitary innocent pity-fullness she evokes and the radical dimension of possession her face can express, that the tension, as engendered by the various cinematographical elements, is able to find its source.

While Sadako is not be able to aid the Japanese horror genre in finding a renewed vigor, one cannot say that there is no fun to be had with this narrative. Sadako might falter in the moments it explicitly tries to be horror – staging horror through visuals as such, but the narrative works surprisingly well as an atmospheric piece of tension – the tension as function of the presence of an absence.  



General-note 1: One could argue that the golden period of Japanese horror movies created the conditions for its subsequent failure. In order to capitalize on the success of the golden period, it seems that the effective truth of the horror movie – a truth beautifully shown in Takashi Miike’s audition, was erased in favor for scares function of the explicit.

In the case of Sadako, one can also say there has been too much narrative produced around the vengeful spirit. This proliferation of narrative has, in effect, come to hurt the horror-potential of Sadako as such.

Colour-note 1: In various cases, there is also an interplay of yellowish tints and greenish tints within the shot itself.

Cine-note 1: The dysfunctional strange elements are dysfunctional because they are too visual and too direct, e.g. the presence of a skull symbolizing death. One could even say that the narrative would engender as much tension if not more without these elements as it does with these elements.

Cine-note 2: Despite this comment, we should not forget to note that some imagery is successfully marked with a scary quality – the death of Hatsuko Sobue (Rie Tomosaka). This imagery, a shimmer of horror, aids the evoking of tension, supports the tension as lingering.

Cine-note 3: The narrative makes good use of a found-footage-type like sequence. While some spectators might have felt that the tension was seeping out of the narrative, this sequence effectively revives the tension.

Narra-note 1: The truth of the girl is eventually revealed to both the spectator as well as Mayu Akikawa.


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