Director: Kôji Shiraishi
Cast: Mizuki Yamamoto, Tina Tamashiro, Aimi Satsukawa, Misato Tanaka, Masahiro Komoto, Masanobu Ando, Runa Endo
Of all the films I saw at the Toronto International Film Festival this year, Sadako vs Kayako is the only one for which I made no notes. Every other screening had me furiously scribbling in my notebook after screenings, before screenings, and between screenings. Sadako vs Kayako is not that kind of film. Ringu vs Ju-On, a ghoul grudge match with a new cast of unfortunates trapped between two titans of J Horror. It’s fun, funny, and even occasionally scary but not the kind of film that invites deep analysis. Freddy vs Jason for a new generation, minus the tiresome macho posturing that those two western, patriarchal killers bring to the table.
The film has two problems to deal with and it does so neatly: 1) the obsolence of Sadako’s favoured curse technology, the video cassette; 2) the significant passage of time since Ringu and Ju-On were released. (2018 will be the twentieth anniversary of Ringu’s Japanese release, actually — a shame they didn’t time the release of this film for it!) Both films are horror classics in Japan and all over the world, but some of the shine has come off over the years, as they’ve been mined for increasingly tedious sequels and knockoffs.
The audience needs little time to become reacquainted with the two monsters, and a convenient urban mythology class quickly brings us back up to speed. Two of our new hauntees, Yuri and Natsumi, are college students, utterly uninterested in urban mythology, even sleeping through class. Their professor, though, is so obsessed with the tale of the Cursed Video that he wrote a book about it and sets up an academic bounty for the original tape. You know the story: Sadako, a wicked young psychic was locked away and died; she reached out with her ghostly consciousness to influence the creation of a tape that would spread the curse; you watch the tape, you get a phone call informing you that you’re cursed, you die. The girls think nothing of it until, when trying to copy an old wedding video over to DVD, they stumble across Sadako’s Cursed Video. And away we go. Things on the Sadako front progress as expected, with the usual slow haunt into desperation, with wild attempts to drag others into and/or pass on the curse.
Sadako vs Kayako is an exercise in self-indulgence. It’s a lunchtime debate stretched out into the running time of a feature film, meant only to amuse you and remind you of better films and better days.
The dual structure is a little awkward and a lot tiresome. It takes the film far two long to bring together the two plot threads. Although we get how the curses work and even the characters grasp it quickly, the film still goes through the same old motions, until finally giving us something new: a medium and curse-breaker, Kyozo, who decides the best way to save everyone is to pit the two ghouls against each other. Like Batman v Superman and Captain America: Civil War, Sadako vs Kayako is a little short on the promised battle royale. What we get instead is perhaps twenty minutes of monster-a-monster and many more minutes of our new, not very interesting heroines running around looking for loopholes we already know don’t exist.
Purists may be frustrated by how the film plays fast and loose with the rules of each ghoul, but they, and probably you, will see it anyway. Does it matter if the film doesn’t get these two monsters “right?” Does it even matter if the film isn’t all that good? Which, to be clear, it isn’t. It doesn’t matter, is the thing, because like Freddy vs Jason and Godzilla vs King Kong before it, Sadako vs Kayako is an exercise in self-indulgence. It’s a lunchtime debate stretched out into the running time of a feature film, meant only to amuse you and remind you of better films and better days. It’s true that Sadako vs Kayako isn’t a good movie, but it’s a good time and that’s enough for me.