ByCiarán Ainsworth, writer at
Postgraduate researcher of Japanese Mythology and Cinema at the University of Exeter. 妖怪と怪談の熱狂者.
Ciarán Ainsworth


Hideo Nakata’s Ringu (1998) is perhaps the best-known horror film to have emerged from Japan in the past twenty years. Based on the novel of the same name by Koji Suzuki (1991), Ringu tells the story of an investigative reporter, Reiko Asakawa (Kazuyuki Asakawa in the novel) as she and her ex-husband Ryuji (a friend in the novel) seek to break a curse bestowed upon them after viewing a cursed video tape. Their race against a seven-day time limit takes them all across the country and leads them to uncover the heart-breaking tale of a young woman, wronged by society and left to die alone. However, the tragedy of this discovery is quickly overshadowed by the realization of what this wrong has created: a creature of such intense loathing and vengeance that its wrath is seemingly without end. While there have been multiple adaptations of Suzuki’s novel, and indeed a whole series of stories following this initial entry, it is Nakata’s film which has endured as a timeless cinematic haunting. One of the things that truly sets Nakata’s interpretation apart from other adaptations of the work is its adherence to, and subsequent experimentation with, formal elements of traditional Japanese theatre forms, most notably Kabuki and . In particular, it is the film’s use of sonic elements inherited from these theatrical traditions that gives it a truly haunting atmosphere which lingers on well after the viewing has ended.

While a large amount of work has already been done on Ringu, this work has typically focused on the visual elements of the film. Much has been written on Ringu and its American remake comparing their visual styles, but little appears to have been researched with regards to its sound design, and in particular how its sound relates to traditional theatre forms. Similarly, while both Ringu and The Ring (Verbinski) have received a wealth of scholarly attention, the 1995 made-for-television Ringu: Kanzenban (directed by Chisui Takigawa) has received only passing mention in the majority of these critical analyses of Ringu as a text. For the purposes of this essay, I will be using Kanzenban as a counterpoint to Ringu. The film was originally conceived as something of a purist’s adaptation of Suzuki’s novel, adhering much more closely to the book than other versions. As such, it does not share the characteristic sonic elements discussed in this essay, making it an ideal counterexample.

Traditional Japanese Theatre

If you close your eyes at the Kabuki Theater even that can be enough, enough circus, enough antics, enough marvel – of sounds, of sound effects, wooden clappers, dancing mimes in your dream, samisens, drums, now and then a flute… in Kabuki everything is a lyrical part of the… entertainment (Tagliabue 619)

Of all of the traditional theatre forms in Japanese culture, Kabuki theatre has had perhaps the strongest influence on Japanese horror cinema - and indeed Japanese cinema as a whole – particularly in the medium’s formative years. Its heavily stylized practices and designs have become staples of the Japanese cinema experience, especially when it comes to Kaidan (ghost stories). Kabuki’s use of impressive effects work, complex staging, and haunting music played upon traditional instruments such as the shamisen and flute suited it well to the telling of these ghost tales (Balmain 16-17), and its wild multifaceted approach to the art of theatre has made it an ideal foundation for filmic performance. The written word Kabuki consists of three characters: song (歌), dance (舞), and art (伎), while consists of only one: skill, or talent (能) (Immoos 147). The names of the two theatrical traditions accurately reflect their individual styles. is typically seen as the highest form of theatre: a reserved practice known for its precision and measured delivery. Kabuki, on the other hand is much more extravagant, putting its use of spectacle first and foremost in its practice and name alike. As such, and Kabuki are often seen as polar opposites of one another.

The playwright Zeami set out to narrate the story of theatre from its origins to its contemporaneous manifestation. In doing so, he invoked the story of Japan’s own origins: that of the dance performed by Ama no Uzume in order to entice the Sun Goddess from her cave as noted in Japan’s Kōjiki (record of ancient matters) (Scholz-Cionca and Leiter 3). The divine dances of the Gods were later emulated by humans during meetings of import such as the dividing of land and the distribution of resources, as well as leisure activities such as markets and fairs. Emulating the gods, people would dance and perform Sarugaku, a form of theatre that would evolve later into (Ashkenazi 121). , then, was an art born of divine inspiration. Conversely, Kabuki was born of the baser side of humanity. Zack Davisson attributes the birth of Kabuki theatre to a woman named Okuni, a shrine priestess and prostitute, who – in 1603 – ‘dressed outrageously and danced provocatively on a dirty river bed of Fourth Street… in Kyoto city’ (42). This sensuous, lustful dance performed by a woman adorned in extravagant clothing formed the basis for the high-concept theatre that we recognize today.

This predisposition to baser leanings in Kabuki compared to was not only clear in the style of the performance, but in the subject matter of the plays themselves. As Noriko T. Reider points out, Kabuki was a living and breathing reactionary art form, and particularly during the Edo period had to keep up with the demands of its audiences in order to entice a crowd. While kept its air of refined performance and its themes of issues faced by the ruling classes, Kabuki got ever more wild as it went on. Where once audiences had blushed at the slightest hint of onstage romance or the suggestion of desire, it was not uncommon during the Edo period and onward for sexual scenes to be acted out much more graphically (99). In Donald Keene’s World Within Walls there is an excerpt from a 19th century gossip book called Seji Kenbun-Roku (Matters of the World: An Account of What I Have Seen and Heard), in which the author recalls:

Up to seventy or eighty years ago the amorous play of men and women was suggested by an exchange of glances... That was all there was to it, but even so, old people… are said to have been shocked by what they deemed to be an unsightly exhibition. Women in the audience… would blush even at the famous scene in Chushingura… in which Yuranosuke takes Okaru in his arms… Nowadays sexual intercourse is plainly shown on the stage, and women in the audience watch on, unblushing, taking it in their stride (Keene 458).

As Reider goes on to speculate, this lust for titillation stretched not only into classical Kabuki fare of romance stories and dance, but also gave rise to the Kaidan play which would become the foundation for much of Japanese horror cinema (99-100).

Kabuki Theatre and Japanese Horror Cinema

Oiwa-san from Yotsuya Kaidan
Oiwa-san from Yotsuya Kaidan

It is the very baseness, the very humanity of Kabuki that makes sound such an important element. The Kabuki play is written and performed specifically to ensnare the senses, to make the hairs stand on end, to send a chill down the spine on the haunted summer night. As such, while the music of followed its own set of rules, the music and sound design of Kabuki were specifically crafted to elicit a visceral reaction in the spectator. Among the most important formal elements of Kabuki sound and music is ‘ma’: or the substantial silence. Ma is a technique which sees practitioners deliberately punctuating music and sound effects with rapid pauses or long drawn out silences. These silences form an oppressive sensation; a thick atmosphere which is suddenly cut through by noise. The abrupt clusters of noise include rapid plucking or bowing, scratching, beating or blowing in order to create an organized chaos which is uncomfortable to listen to and yet simultaneously draws the audience in. Framed in the silence of ma, these noises become powerful tools of expression for use in tales of haunting, stimulating the full range of human hearing on both a conscious and a physiological level (Wierzbicki 257-258). Such techniques continue to be found today in film soundtracks. As Benjamin Ng notes, contemporary films make use of both infrasound and high-pitched sounds in order to keep an audience on edge physiologically and psychologically (147). This physical effect allows the film to keep the viewer in a state of constant unease without necessitating an explanation from the plot, which makes it especially effective in films which require a haunting atmosphere. It gives the sensation of a creeping fear without there necessarily being an explanation for said fear, something which puts the audience in the same position as the characters and thus enhances their suspense.

Ringu follows many traditions of Japanese theatre in many ways, notably in its use of the uncanny to instil fear in its audience. As Richard Hand points out, films such as Ringu draw as much from Kabuki and theatre as they do from contemporaneous Western and Japanese horror cinema (Aesthetics 21-22). As he highlights in this work, horror cinema takes many of its storytelling cues, themes, and effects from stage productions such as the Yotsuya Kaidan (Yotsuya Ghost Story). Such themes as wronged women, vengeful spirits, and passionate romance are performed using visually stunning effects and aurally interesting sonic palettes to create an otherworldly presence (23). Valerie Wee’s analysis echoes this idea, as she claims that Japanese cinema follows the major Japanese theatres in their fixation upon a ‘nonrational, emotion-centered perspective, [which] consistently emphasizes artistry, and hence artificiality, while disregarding most aspects of realism’ (44). This irrationality of form is echoed in the film’s sound design. James Wierzbicki highlights that the role of sound in Yūrei films differs significantly from that of Western horror films. In Western films, he claims, the soundtrack is responsible for communicating to the audience the actions taking place upon the screen as well as the motivation for and behind them. Conversely, ‘in Japanese ghost stories, typically there is no good reason why anything is happening other than the fact that someone has stumbled across the path of a yūrei who is really, really angry’ (255). In a situation such as this, the use of ma and clustered sound is supremely effective in communicating the haunting in an understated way, keeping the audience ill-at-ease with unrealistic and unsettling aural emissions.

Comparing Sound in Ringu's and Kanzenban's Haunted Tapes


In order to highlight the importance of Kabuki sound elements in the formation of Ringu, I would like to now compare two very different adaptations of the famous haunted video tape. The first is the television movie Ringu: Kanzenban and the second is Nakata’s Ringu. These two films both adapt the same source material but approach it in remarkably different ways. Kanzenban is evidently an attempt to make an adaptation that comes as close to the novel as possible, while Nakata’s version is highly stylized and deviates from the source texts in a variety of different ways. In the book, Suzuki has the freedom to describe the tape’s chilling effects upon the entire body, the way in which Sadako’s power to transmit her experience acts upon every sense of the observer. Kanzenban attempts to follow this attempt in earnest, trying to bring the images in the book to life onscreen through a variety of methods.

In Kanzenban, as soon as Kazyuki Asakawa inserts the video tape into the machine and hits play the film cuts to a silent zoom in shot from the exterior of the cabin. This silence is then broken by an eruption of static, and a spot of red light dances on the screen to the accompaniment of the scream of the television. In between shots, the camera cuts back to a guest log book in which is written “WARNING: Cowards, don’t watch this. You’ll be sorry!” (「ケイコク。コレを見るな。後悔すぞ!」) Just like in the book, the light settles on the left of the screen before branching out in a vein-like pattern, then a volcano erupts from underneath the red mask. The sound is loud, booming, precisely what one would expect from a volcanic eruption. The camera cuts to a tight shot of Asakawa, watching intently, as the explosion lights up the screen and – consequently – his face. The tape is then shown again, with fiery lava spewing from the volcano to thunderous crashes.

The camera is now behind Asakawa, the room shaking around him as he sits, transfixed. The scene changes, sounds and images swirling as we see an audience of people and a set of dice rolling in a small pot. Asakawa is sweating, perspiration beading his forehead and cheeks in a tight shot of his eyes. The dice continue to spin and clatter, then settle as a gust of wind blows the curtains in the cabin. The camera looms over Asakawa’s head as he stares at the blank static, flipping upside down before coming to rest once again on his eyes. A character: Yama, mountain, then the face of an elderly woman who says “If you keep playing in the water, the ghouls will come for you.” (「しょうもんばかりしてると暴魂が来るぞ。」Note: this is spoken in old Izu Oshima dialect. The use of an old dialect keeps the meaning of this line obfuscated even for Japanese viewers.) The lights flicker around Asakawa as the sentence is repeated, the fan spins fervently, the whole room pitches in and out of darkness, electricity buzzes loudly. A distorted face emerges from the darkness and it cuts back to Asakawa, sitting now in the glow of the television with the hum of electronics around him. The images and sounds continue to swirl, voices mingling in with the sharp squeal of the television. At this point, the editing quickens, switching between Asakawa’s face and the television screen on which a crowd of people are swimming in and out of focus, shouting in muffled tones. Suddenly, they are above Asakawa. He pays them no mind and continues to stare as they clamour above his head.


The old woman reappears, then with the sound of sparking electricity the image changes to an eye, and then to a foetus bathed in fluid. A child’s cry rings out over the hum as Asakawa lowers his head, growing louder and more intense until the camera pans down to reveal Asakawa holding the baby, coated in blood and mucus, at which point the sound is emitting from the baby in the room rather than from the television. Just as suddenly, the baby cries out once more before disappearing, the lingering shout fading into the electronic hum as Asakawa sits in mute disbelief. A television appears onscreen with the character Sada (貞, chaste). The old woman says something unintelligible and then we cut once again to a crowded room of swirling voices. Asakawa’s breathing quickens as the camera cuts to a shot of the crowd looking down upon it, shouting angrily as the child’s cry returns among the voices. Asakawa begins to cough, unable to tear his eyes from the screen. A heartbeat starts up in the background, getting quicker and quicker, as a man’s grinning, panting face and shoulders fill the screen. The man grabs his throat, panics, then falls down dead as the heartbeat fades. Asakawa then begins to retch as a naked man comes on screen. The baby’s cry returns. The man cries in pain and clutches his shoulder as blood splatters the screen. Asakawa is distraught. Hacking and coughing, but unable to stop watching. He falls down as the view switches to that of the opening of a well, going out of focus as the sound of water rushes into the mix. Then characters spell out “you who saw these images have seven days left. If you do not want to die, you must - ” (「七日後この時刻におまえは死。死にたくなければその方法は」) before the heartbeat, the breathing, and the shriek of the television cut away to a laugh track recorded from another program which fades into view.


The adaptation of the tape in Ringu is much more restrained. Upon pushing the tape into the VCR, the screen immediately takes up the entire frame from which erupts the harsh sting of static. The static then crackles into a circle of dim light sitting in blackness, clouds moving overhead while a face looks down upon the camera. The VCR hums quietly, keeping the focus plainly on the image but sustaining an electronic presence. The image cuts to a woman combing her hair while looking in a mirror. At this point, a scraping sound cuts over the top of the hum of the VCR. It rings metallically, and the mirror jumps quickly from one side of the screen to the other, revealing a figure clad in white, and then back again. The woman turns to face the direction in which the mirror jumped in apparent surprise. All the while, the scraping grows slowly more intense. The VCR continues to hum. A group of wriggling, moving Japanese letters adorn a white background, with only the phrase “mountain erupts” (「山が噴火」) being clear enough to make out. Then suddenly a change. The screen cuts to a scene of people crawling and staggering erratically about, a clamour of voices and swirling noises gather around the action. Then a man standing in front of the ocean, a white sheet covering his head, points as a high pitched insectoid screech rises above the voices. The screen then cuts to an extreme close-up of an eye, in the iris of which is etched the character Sada as before. The screeching has stopped, leaving the almost extra-terrestrial eye blinking at the camera in near silence. The final shot is of a well in the middle of a forest clearing, on which the camera seems to hang for an uncomfortably long time before the screen once again erupts into static, shattering the eerie calm.

Something wicked this way comes
Something wicked this way comes

In its entirety, the cursed video tape in Ringu lasts for only 57 seconds, compared to Kanzenban’s three minutes and 23 seconds. Its effect is palpably different from that of Kanzenban’s, and the majority of this is achieved through its use of sound to position to the spectator. As noted earlier, Kanzenban is an attempt to adapt Suzuki’s book as faithfully as possible, which includes the effects of the cursed tape upon Asakawa, since it is through him that the reader experiences the curse. It is for this reason that Kanzenban makes extensive use not only of realistic diegetic sound emanating from the television set onscreen as well as – presumably – the entire room in which Asakawa sits, but also a mixture of physical manifestations of his experiences. In the book, Suzuki goes to great lengths describing the shifting of sound from the television set to inside Asakawa’s own head, detailing the tangibility of the different onscreen occurrences. Kanzenban does its utmost to replicate this, situating Asakawa inside the event and using sound mixing, physical props, and camera movement to give a sense of an experience which acts upon all the senses at once.

Ringu, by comparison, does not try to emulate this same experience. Instead, Nakata aims to produce a tape which relies much more heavily upon sound to create its effect. By making the videotape the focus rather than the tape’s viewer, and by making use of sound which is simultaneously diegetic (emanating from the television) and non-diegetic (not being produced by anything on the television screen), the film situates the audience as the observer of the cursed tape. In Kanzenban all of the tape’s effects are being felt by Asakawa and Asakawa alone. The audience has no baby in their arms, they do not hear the sound emanating from all around them (even more so because the film was a made-for-TV release in the mid-90s, meaning that surround-sound was not as common as today) and because of all this the threat is removed. In Ringu, however, the ‘unnerving yet subtle screeching’ which heralds the coming of the ghostly Sadako is being played directly to the spectator (Hand, Are you sitting 10). This creates an effect not dissimilar to that created by the live performance of Kabuki. While there are definitely characters in whom the audience gets invested, the haunting and chilling effects of the shamisen’s song are felt directly by the audience without a mediator. The character is not the only one in the presence of a ghost, the audience is also put in the ghost’s presence by the music. Importantly, the hum of the VCR acts as a kind of ma. It is audible throughout the duration of the tape, keeping a steady and constant background from which sounds can erupt, but it never interferes with the viewing of the images. It is understated, keeping the audience on edge.

Uncanny Sounds of a Digital Kabuki

Electronics become elements of horror through sound
Electronics become elements of horror through sound

As Sarah McKay Ball notes in her thesis on the uncanny in Ringu and its American remake, Nakata’s 1998 film makes much more extensive use of sound in his adaptation of the haunted video tape than the American remake (and, by extension, Kanzenban), which instead relies more heavily on manufactured visuals (38). Indeed, she notes that throughout the film the tape’s haunting sounds seemingly jump from the realm of the tape into the real world, invading the characters’ living world and subtly distorting it into a nightmarish landscape. She highlights that ‘the once-familiar water sound, present in the first few seconds of the film, has been defamiliarized by viewing the tape, and Reiko can’t revert back to the sound as a non-threatening presence’ (43-44). These uncanny audio cues, the use of artificial sound effects throughout the film to create a sense of haunting, forbidding, and uncanny (45) are not unlike those created by the shamisen in Kabuki theatre productions as described by Richie and Anderson. They explain that ‘the samisen not only provided the background music, it was also used for sound effects. At one point it was heard instead of the natural noises of a storm; at another, it was the sound of snow falling’ (6). The ghost, then, once introduced into the story, continues to be an ever-present threat which is introduced by audio cues whether or not it is visible on the screen. Similarly, once the viewer is introduced to the tape, the subtle sound effects dropped in to the sound design of the film become ever more chilling. The scrapes heard in the tape, and the high pitched wailing, act as Sadako’s calling card throughout the rest of the film; they announce her presence without it being directly stated that these sounds emanate from her.

But what of instrumentation? As the astute observer has no doubt noticed, all of this talk of flutes, gongs and shamisens does not directly relate to Ringu’s soundtrack, as such instruments are not present. However, this does not mean that Ringu is departing from these traditions in favour of something wholly different. Instead, what Ringu’s soundtrack opts to do is to create a sound that is uncanny not only as a ghostly sound, but as a theatrical sound. James Wierzbicki acknowledges this fact in his analysis, noting that the soundtracks are a far cry from the traditional sounds of the Kabuki theatre. However, to his mind the similarities between the screeching and scrapings that announce Sadako’s haunting and the scraping of gongs framed in ‘the ‘substantial silence’ of ma’ cannot be ignored (258). Indeed, I would take this analysis a step further and suggest that this shift in instrumentation is a potently affecting change. Sadako is not a ghost of the old world. Her story is not one that is told on a summer’s evening to send a chill down the spine, nor is it a story that could accurately be captured by a Kabuki performance due to its technological nature. Indeed, the use of artificial instruments creates a bizarre eeriness which not only fits the technophobic theme of the film as a whole, but which also defies the expectations of theatregoers and filmgoers who have experienced Kabuki elements before. By changing the instrumentation in this way, Ringu manages to create an atmosphere which haunts not only those new to these theatrical elements, but also to those who have a wealth of experience with them.


Reiko embraces Sadako's remains
Reiko embraces Sadako's remains

The sound design of Ringu is one of the major contributing factors to its continued success. As a ghost story, it makes extensive use of established theatrical elements which help to establish a haunting which extends beyond the screen. The use of sonic elements found in live theatrical productions allows the haunting to interact more directly with the viewer. The sound in the film is not only affecting the characters in the film, but the viewer as well, whereas a more literary approach to representation as observed in Kanzenban leads to a somewhat less threatening curse; one that is specific to the character onscreen. Perhaps more important, however, is the difference in the approach to ma. Kanzenban’s sound design is very busy, the cursed video is filled with explosions, dialogue, and other bizarre but quite naturalistic sounds. By comparison, Ringu’s video tape is largely composed of silences, filled only by the hum of the VCR. This use of silence means that the sound that does erupt from the tape is all the more surprising and chilling, much like the shrieking of violins in contemporary horror films to signal a shock (Hand, Are you sitting 10).

By following the basic guidelines set out in the practice of Kabuki and theatre, Japanese horror cinema is continuing an established line of effective performance which has been proven over the course of centuries to be effective in eliciting thrills. Importantly, as Jay McRoy notes, these theatrical concepts should not be copied at face value, but instead evolved and intermingled with ideas and influences from other cultures and media (15), something that I believe Ringu achieves quite successfully. Rather than bringing a Kabuki stage play to the screen complete with traditional instrumentation, the filmmakers instead opted to shift the paradigm of sound production to better suit the subject matter. The use of uncanny electronic sounds sets Ringu apart from the myriad other examples of horror films which make similar use of Kabuki sound elements, and yet it is the film’s use of these elements in the first place which make it so chilling. From its inception, Kabuki has been an art form focused around keeping in touch with its audience and affecting it at its most human level, and it has successfully employed spectacle both visual and aural to achieve this feat. While Koji Suzuki’s novel is far removed from a traditional Kaidan, Hideo Nakata was able to infuse more traditional sonic elements into the crafting of the film in order to give it a truly cinematic presence. While Kanzenban is undoubtedly the more faithful adaptation, it feels cluttered and disjointed by comparison to Nakata’s cinematic effort. Its use of sound is neither televisual nor is it filmic, it instead tries fervently to recreate the experiences as written in Suzuki’s novel. However, while the novel describes a full body experience, Kanzenban has only the basic tools of sight and sound to work with. Because of this, we are left with a hollow adaptation which lacks most of the fearsomeness found in the book. Ringu manages to strike a different chord by instead opting not to adapt the events as detailed in the novel, but instead invoke Sadako’s presence through a mix of silence and sound. By making use of and updating these traditional sonic elements, Ringu follows in a long line of theatrical and filmic practices which have long made use of sound to bring hauntings into the real world.


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