For a blink in time, during the late 90s and early-to-mid aughts, I was interested in j-horror. I searched for original Japanese horror movies online and on the streets of San Francisco as their American remakes were hitting theaters. My favorites were the really bizarre ones, like Uzumaki and Exte: Hair Extensions. But I also enjoyed the granddaddies of the genre: Ringu and Ju-on: The Grudge. If these movies had anything, it was atmosphere, the one element missing from Sadako v Kayako.
Many j-horror films of the era made no sense to me. Perhaps lost in translation, I may not have understood their stories, but I always felt their sense of horror. Sadako v Kayako is entirely story with no sense of horror. And it’s so well lit that, except for the English subtitles, I could swear American filmmakers shot it. That breaks the cardinal rule of horror, in general, not just a subgenre that thrives on creepy women and children crawling out of dark places.
I admire the attempt to explain how Sadako from Ringu and Kayako from Ju-on: The Grudge would even meet in the first place, but I don’t admire the fact that this meeting finally takes place during the final five or ten minutes of the movie. The plot description on IMDb says, “The vengeful spirits of the Ring and Grudge series face off.” It should add, “after 90 minutes of exposition, many of which are boring.” I came dangerously close to dozing during the second act.
Sadako v Kayako begins promisingly. Professor Morishige (Masahiro Komoto) humorously lectures his class about urban legends that evolve as a result of the collective unconscious, such as cursed videotapes and houses. He’s particularly interested in the former, with a strong desire to meet Sadako in person. Two of his students, Yuri (Mizuki Yamamoto) and Natsumi (Aimi Satsukawa), discover one of these tapes in a VCR they pick up at a secondhand shop.
Let’s stop right there. Cursed videotapes in 2017? What’s next, possessed Polaroids? Actually, Sadako v Kayako is smart about this. The girls need a VCR to transfer one of their parents’ wedding tapes to DVD. Morishige immediately digitizes the cursed video, bringing the story out of the dark ages into modern times. Then, and I’m not sure why, unless evil spirits made her do it, Natsumi posts it online. That’s an interesting concept, but is never mentioned again in this movie.
Instead, the action, what little there is, remains local, adding Suzuka (Tina Tamashiro), whose family moves into a house next door to the house from Ju-On: The Grudge. It’s a little harder to integrate this into the story. I mean, a videotape passing from hand to hand is broader in scale… you can be more flexible with the Ringu half of the story. But with the other, someone has to go into the house to fall prey to what paranormal expert Kyozo (Masanobu Ando) calls, “ghouls.”
Kyozo is an odd character that appears after a failed attempt to exorcise Sadako from Natsumi and Morishize. He travels with his “associate,” a blind girl in a red hat and cape. He wildly waves his hands to… I don’t know… enact spells? He can make long black hair crawl out of a cursed girl’s mouth. He immediately has the solution to the problem, which I won’t reveal, because I must admit it’s kind of clever. Plus, the revelation of his plan is more interesting and climactic than its execution.
With the exception of the little boy inside the Grudge house, Sadako v Kayoka is not scary. (The little boy inside the Grudge house is always scary.) It’s not gory; we don’t even see one of the major deaths, and the result of it is surprisingly bloodless. So, think PG-horror. It has bad… no, horrible… CGI. If anything, that’s why you make a j-horror movie dark: so you don’t see the bad CGI. There are a couple potential ideas to make the subgenre relevant again, but the movie ultimately fails.
Sadako v Kayoka appears exclusively on Shudder, beginning January 26.