Despite being a phenomenon in Japan and around the world for more than 25 years, J-horror has yet to produce a full-fledged parody film in the vein of the Scream or Scary Movie franchises. Sure, there’s the delightful One Cut of the Dead (2017), but that’s more of a parody of Japan’s indie film scene. And the Ring film franchise, which stretches across more than ten films, continues to mostly treat its subject with sincerity and seriousness. Ironically, the commercials and other promotional materials for the Ring films over the past ten years have not been afraid to go full parody. I’ve often found this marketing—which has included parody commercials, heavy metal music videos with dancing Sadakos, and tongue-in-cheek Instagram accounts for the characters—a lot more fun than the actual films, which just tend to trot out the same plots and images without going for genuine scares.
While not a full-on parody or comedy, Sadako DX (directed by Hisashi Kimura, with a script by Yuya Takahashi) does seem to finally be willing to experiment with a bit of meta-commentary and wry humor. It’s a vast improvement over more recent offerings like Sadako (2019), Sadako 3D (2012), and Rings (2017), if only because it’s interestingly shot, tightly structured, and coaxes fun performances out of its leads. It also dispenses with most of the original film’s lore, simply presenting Sadako as a presence on a videotape who curses those who come into contact with her. Which is welcome, really—I for one don’t need to hear Sadako’s origin story for the tenth or fifteenth time.
The plot involves super-smart grad student Ayaka (Fuka Koshiba), essentially playing a version of Sherlock Holmes, who ends up on a TV show opposite a famous spiritual medium known as Master Kenshin (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi). Kenshin claims that curses exist and that a recent spate of unexplained deaths can be attributed to Sadako’s cursed videotape. Ayaka counters that there’s a scientific explanation for everything. But then Ayaka’s sister Futaba (Yuki Yagi) watches the video and begins seeing strange apparitions, and suddenly it’s a race against time to solve the mystery before Ayaka and everyone around her (including wannabe pickup artist Oji [Kazuma Kawamura]) end up victims of the curse.
There’s not much that’s groundbreaking here, but the movie has a lot of interesting touches. As the male lead, Kawamura does most of the terrified shrieking, while Koshiba gets to be dispassionate throughout. I kind of liked her flat affect, which plays well off of everyone else’s tendency toward over-the-top fear, and she has great comic timing. There’s a running gag involving “cat scares” and a person in an oversized animal mascot costume, as well as one in which Oji keeps thinking he sees Sadako, but it turns out to be a waitress or a random woman in a white dress. A side character who refuses to show his face and uses different animal avatars online also provides a few laughs.
The film isn’t afraid to borrow extensively from all areas of pop culture. This time around, Sadako occasionally takes the form of a victim’s loved ones (both living and dead), and their slow-moving bodies immediately reminded me of the emotionless figures in It Follows (2014). As different characters in the film watch the cursed video, we see a countdown clock in the corner of the screen and the distinctive countdown noise from the TV series 24. The references to different types of internet-famous charlatans also feel very timely.
The Ring films have always been uneasy about both analog and digital media, with not-so-subtle messaging about the dangers of spending too much time watching TV, scrolling for spooky videos on your phone, or trying to become a famous YouTuber. This time, though, the depictions of how social media works are finally a bit more on the nose (and the fact that the curse takes effect after only 24 hours instead of 7 days feels appropriate, given our ever-shortening attention spans). I was annoyed that, near its end, Sadako DX seemed to be pushing a sort of moralistic message about how everything will be all right if we just watch our content in groups instead of alone, but thankfully that’s the sentiment that ends up being parodied the most (during a hilarious end credits sequence that you definitely don’t want to miss).
I’ll admit that my expectations were very, very low for Sadako DX, though as usual I’ve enjoyed Kadokawa’s creative marketing efforts (a theater pamphlet designed to look like a VHS cassette, a collaboration with Hello Kitty, a goofy video clip on the 3D screen near Shinjuku station). This time, at least, some of that quirky marketing energy actually made it into the film. It would be nice if contemporary J-horror films could be, you know, scary, but if I can’t get scares I’ll take a little humor. Sadako DX isn’t brilliant, but it’s fun and creative, and it hopefully indicates that J-horror is moving in a more interesting direction.