Crawling Out of the TV: Hideo Nakata’s Indomitable Legacy
In celebration of Hideo Nakata's birthday, Chad Collins looks back at his impressive and terrifying legacy.
There’s a moment in Hideo Nakata’s Dark Water where protagonist Yoshimi Matsubara (Hitomi Kuroki) arrives late to pick her daughter, Ikuko (Rio Kanno) up from school. It’s a small, nothing moment, so ephemeral and brief, she’s hardly accosted by either school officials or Ikuku herself. Not that six-year-old Ikuku is one for admonishments. Yet, it’s so expected by that point, it barely registers with anyone in Yoshimi’s life. Like a ghost behind frosty glass or crouched in a blanket of darkness, no one thinks anything of it.
Yoshimi thinks of it, however. In the form of her poverty-stricken life and apartment with a persistent leak, she thinks of it every day. The wounds of her own childhood are resuscitated and manifested in her own daughter. Abandonment and disinterest as a young girl all but growing up on her own, Yoshimi sees the ghosts of her own past burrow their way inside Ikuko. There isn’t anything she can do to stop it. It’s terrifying and gorgeous. Japanese filmmaker Hideo Nakata is a contemporary master of the gothic ghost story. He has a preeminent interest in updating the schematics of the past. His stories, while thematically linked to the specters of their forebears, feel distinctly, frighteningly relevant today. In honor of his birthday, it’s worth revisiting his stellar filmography.
Fans of Japanese horror likely best recognize Hideo Nakata from the likes of Ringu. Or Ring. Maybe The Ring. Or the Ring. If you’re in the Philippines, Ring: Circle of Evil. Released alongside sequel Spiral , Spiral floundered while Ringu was a runaway success. Resultantly, few but the most diehard horror fans might correctly recognize Spiral as the original Ringu 2. Journalist Reiko Asakawa (Nanako Matsushima) investigates the rumors of a cursed video tape, one that kills viewers within seven days. Not because killer specter Sadako is polite and wants to give viewers time to get their affairs in order before she ruins their television sets. Because killer specter Sadako spent seven days alive in the well where she ultimately drowned.
While the analog analogies might seem dated decades later, Ringu was a necessary updating of the haunted template, a movie quite arguably responsible for modern conceptions of the ghost. Ghosts themselves are never ghosts, and while the like of Poltergeist and The Entity recontextualized their haunts with urban prowess, they still felt considerably disconnected from the minutiae of modern life. Nakata’s Ringu was frighteningly prescient, his filmic specter terrifyingly capable of corrupting the day-to-day technologies part and parcel with life right before the millennium. Video cassettes might be out for everyone but diehard retro collectors, but Ringu and the curse of Sadako remain, scarred into the collective consciousness for audiences everywhere.
The Ring 2 and Ring 2
Hideo Nakata directed not just one, but two different sequels to Ringu. One, in the case of Ring 2, was a direct follow-up to his original. With a cast carried over and entirely new material not based on any pre-existing source, Ring 2 released shortly after the release of Ringu and the disastrous Spiral. With considerable attention paid to the roots of trauma and the barriers to healing, Ring 2 expands its cast, includes pool-side exorcisms, and isn’t afraid to knock a returning character or two off before its inevitable conclusion. The curse expands, people are hurt, and Nakata adroitly proves just how easily he can conjure nightmare material, even with material weaker than it should have been.
Yet, Nakata would try his hand at considerably weaker material once more in the case of The Ring 2. A sequel to Gore Verbinski’s remake, The Ring, Nakata’s style is evident from the first frame. While he works within the hushed blue aesthetics of Verbinski’s trademarked style, he isn’t afraid to let things get, quite simply, bizarre. He gamely executes set pieces with homicidal deer, and water has never looked quite this menacing. The thematic roots of motherhood and the perversions therein resonate, even if, much like his own Ring 2, the overarching urgency has evaporated.
Dark Water is Hideo Nakata’s masterpiece. Alongside The Orphanage, it is unquestionably one of this century’s premier ghost stories. Yoshimi Matsubara and her daughter Ikuko have no choice but to move into a decrepit apartment in the midst of a heated custody battle with Yoshimi’s soon-to-be ex-husband. The apartment suffers a perpetual leak. Worse still, hair sprouts of the drains, noises are heard in the unit above them, and Ikuko keeps encountering a young girl with a yellow raincoat. A ghost story as likely to deeply depress its audience as terrify them, Nakata is cognizant enough to add flourishes of pathos, finding the colloquial light beneath the deep, dark mire.
In fact, it’s that pathos that make Nakata’s work, especially his early work, so exciting and convincingly accessible. With textured yet flawed central characters, the individual beats are mirrors for the audience, opportunities to reflect on their own blunders within the relative safety of a viewing experience. The ghosts of Nakata’s world aren’t quite literal metaphors, though they do exploit them. The ghosts aren’t poverty or criminally bad fathers, though both do make it easier for a ghost to take hold.
Kaidan is Nakata paying homage to the early greats of Japanese horror. There are shades of Masaki Kobayashi and intertextual flourishes reminiscent of Kaneto Shindo. Set in feudal Japan, Oshiga (Hitomi Kuroki) and Osono (Tae Kimura) vow revenge after their father is killed by a samurai collecting a debt their father secured. With layers of betrayal, forbidden love, and revenge, Kaidan balances elevated soap theatrics with genuine moments of fear and troubling, heartbreaking violence. The ghosts here are as perennial as cursed tapes or dripping ceilings. They endure, generation to generation, growing ever stronger as the sins of man compound their influence. Nakata’s ghosts don’t simply vanish. They endure, ad infinitum, manifesting in increasingly frightening ways.
Nakata’s works themselves are worth considerably more space than they could possibly be afforded here. Arguably, the J-horror craze that held the Western world in a chokehold for the better part of a decade is all but attributable to him. In 2019, his influence having endured all manner of ghostly baddies, he premiered Sadako, a sequel to Ring 2, at the Fantasia International Film Festival. In the years preceding it, his works have ebbed and flowed. Ghost Theater is worth a look, while The Complex is curiously inert. Even those works before Ringu are worth discussing in the same conversation. Don’t Look Up especially, is a fun, metatextual riff with a haunted film set. It even had an English-language remake no one saw (and Ghost Theater is something of a remake itself).
Taken together, the collective body of Nakata’s work is sensational. They are the ghosts of the new century. They haunt and linger and endure. Reflective of interpersonal ailments and societal sins, his ghosts are fluid monuments whose horrors know no bounds. While his heyday seems to be in the past, there’s no telling what haunts Nakata has in store for audiences next.