So I’m not looking at authors this week. I’m not going to mention them, or research them or understand their influences, because I’m going to focus on one character, Sadako. I’m going to mull through her character and what might make her so popular.
The ring as a franchise has been perpetuated by the character of Sadako, a vengeful spirit who uses video tapes to murder anyone who views them, unless they make someone else view it within 7 days. She is depicted as a pale child and woman almost interchangeably with long dark hair covering her face. This trope is nothing new to Japanese culture and literature, fitting neatly into the Onryo-Yurei archetype. Yurei being the broad term for Ghost in Japanese, and Onryo being the category of vengeful spirits.
As an Onryo character the audience expects certain tropes, most importantly an immense tragedy or wrongful doing that has brought them back and a person (or persons) that has caused this wrong-doing. Basic story structure for
an Onryo follows the protagonists/audiences discovery and fixing of this wrong-doing and the Onryo being satisfied and passing on from the physical world. I think almost all episodes of Supernatural follow this structure (Or just burn their bones).
Where Sadako diverges from this classic tale, is that she never seems satisfied. The audience follows her story, discovers the wrong done to her and watches the protagonist ‘fix’ it but we don’t get the resolution of her passing on, we are left confused and wondering if we missed something in her story that might be stopping her from moving on, some other unresolved conflict.
This confusion is confounded by the multiple and conflicting portrayals of Sadako presented in the novels and multiple films. Leaving the audience wondering if in fact Sadako does fit this neat trope of the Onryo, or if she is something much more terrifying and dangerous.
Sadako is commonly portrayed as psychic and uses these powers to spread herself and her vengeance through technological mediums. In the first film this is a VHS tape that curses the viewer, but in subsequent films and TV shows, restrictions seem to get lifted andshe is able to move through all screens and devices. She becomes the embodiment of the fear of technology. As her character evolves to take advantage of new technologies, she keeps the franchise relevant and popular in a modern technological society.
I believe this is of huge importance when considering her popularity in Japanese popular culture. Japan has grown into a global symbol of technological advancement along with South Korea and several other east Asian countries. Creating a mysterious and intriguing character that uses these technologies to generate fear, terror and death keeps her relevant and terrifying to older and newer audiences.
This combined with a seemingly relatable traditional character trope, I think has led to her success as the celebrity of the franchise.
Interestingly, a huge part of Sadako’s character is that she is transgender. This is explored in the novels as well as some of the subsequent films. Being unable to physically reproduce, she is forced to create the ‘Ring-Virus’ that furthers her DNA though technology. It is also suggested that she is born from some form of Oceanic demon.
Although these aspects of her character are not often represented in popular culture and overlooked by many of her representations. I wonder if her being transgender is still too taboo for Japan and perhaps even the for broader world to talk about in their understanding of this character.
Further reading on Sadako and Japanese Ghost lore