Sadako v Kayako: It’s Not Easy Being a Ghoul

It’s ghost versus ghoul in this Japanese monster mash.

Given the outcome of other “versus” films (Freddy vs Jason, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice), the idea of pitting two icons of Japanese horror felt equal parts enticing and worrisome. Sadako from The Ring and Kayako from The Grudge are physically similar, not particularly expressive and don’t seem to share the same universe: One is a ghost, the other is a ghoul. Nuances, people.

Sadako v Kayako pulls it off. Instead of concentrating on the black haired spooks, the film uses two naïve school girls as audience’s surrogates. One of them watches the fateful Ring tape that all but guarantees her death, a mishap that sends the pair on a quest that gets the other J-Horror mainstay involved. The film has a sense of humor about itself (the idea of someone still using VHS tapes gets a lot of tracking, same as the uselessness of the experts who claim to know how the gruesome twosome operates), but remains firmly within the genre’s realm.

The actresses portraying Sadako and Kayako, Elly Nanami and Rina Endo, attended the last Toronto Film Festival to introduce the film. Both newcomers to the Ring and Grudge sagas, their involvement hasn’t been limited to the movie. A number of personal appearances in full getup have followed, including a baseball inning with the ghost on the mound and the ghoul at the bat and the closing of the Midnight Madness section at TIFF. Also, Kayako maintains a hilarious Instagram account (@kayakowithtoshio) that depicts a rather prosaic daily live alongside her spectral son, Toshio.

I had the chance to talk to both through an interpreter (they were not in character, thankfully). There is nothing about Nanami and Endo that would hint at their alter egos. They are young, sweet and soft-spoken, and refer to their director (veteran horror specialist Koji Shiraishi, Grotesque) as “Mr. Shiraishi”. In true Lost in Translation fashion, fairly long answers became very short statements.

– Considering both of you are new to the franchise, did you use the previous incarnations as references?

(Nanami) I’ve seen The Ring many times since I was little, so I knew the backstory. While I was conscious of it, the director instructed me to build a new Sadako (Author’s note, this comes across as more resolute and merciless entity than in previous incarnations).

(Endo) I didn’t like horror movies, so I never watched The Grudge until I needed it to. It was all for naught because Mr. Shiraishi stated our backstories were not important for the movie.

– Do you feel any kinship with your characters?

(Endo) Kayako is a mother, it’s something embedded within the character, but I was reminded by the director she is a ghoul, not a human being. On Instagram I was able to be more maternal.

(Nanami) During the shooting, I was very silent. I was aware of Sadako’s tragic origin (she was thrown into a well and imprisoned within) and I felt her sadness, which is invisible to other people. This is different of how I am regularly. My friends kept on asking me if I was sick. I couldn’t tell them anything until the movie was released.

– What are the physical challenges of playing Sadako and Kayako?

(Nanami) I had to keep looking down at my feet all the time. If you do that for a long time, you end up with back pain. It was also very tiring. But by experiencing it, it occurred to me that Sadako was also suffering. It was a challenge, but it gave me a sense of accomplishment.

(Endo) The director instructed me to move like an insect. I had to keep my arms up and that caused me muscle pain. Also, I had to keep my eyes open as long as possible and at the same time bend my neck. During the shooting, I had to crawl down the stairs and needed a lot of strength.

– Do you perceive any differences between fans of each character?

(Endo) Sadako is a character beloved by women, but is growing on men. At an event with fans in Tokio, I found out Sadako is very popular with non-Japanese fans. She seems to be beloved in foreign countries and I’m very thankful for that.

(Nanami) I believe both characters are supported by J-Horror fans abroad, but many mothers have reached out through Kayako’s Instagram account.

Sadako v Kayako is available from today on Shudder.com

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