The Ultimate J-Horror Showdown: Sadako vs. Kayako (貞子 vs. 伽椰子)


Mainly because of my love of Japan, I watched a lot of J-Horror when it was originally a thing. This was back in the early 2000s when Ring was, literally, the scariest movie out there. I remember watching it on a VHS (oh the irony) that I’d rented from Blockbuster, engrained subtitles etched into the bottom of the screen. I devoured movies like Dark Water, Tomie and, later, Juon (both the TV and movie forms) and One Missed Call. As well as any anime which even looked like it might retell classic horror stories like Kaidan.

That movie gave me nightmares for two freaking weeks. I still describe myself as having Sadakophobia, though, correctly, this should be onryophobia as Sadako is a specific kind of spirit (an onryo). Even having seen dozens of black haired, white-robbed female ghosts, Sadako remains the one who scares the literal shit out of me.

This was where I learned an important kanji: 呪い. Noroi or curse.

Western curses get broken by true love’s kiss but Japanese curses, they have the endurance of a marathon runner. They don’t die, they just get worse and are more akin to viruses which are transmitted from person to person. You can neutralise them but you’ll probably die, you and all those you care about. There’s no guarantee of a happy ending and dying of fright is a common occurrence. Worse you can catch them just by passing through a place, typically the spot where someone died a violent death or a haunted house.

They kill you and everyone around you, spreading like the plague. You can’t stop them, only hope the wrath at the centre of it ever satiates a morbid hunger.

Ring was the first Japanese novel I tried to read, bought from a tiny Japanese bookshop in Colindale in London. But it was far too advanced for me, eventually I tag-teamed it with the English translation as I was able to pick out some of the kanji. The book has a totally different vibe to the movie and remains one of my favourite works of fiction, with the sequel, Rasen (らせん/Spiral) coming a close second and that was more a medical thriller whereas the first was a detective story with a supernatural twist.

By the time the … interesting American version of Juon came out (whitewashing and trying to make J-Horror accessible to Western audiences in completely the wrong way), I was riding the wave of the second anime boom and working in the industry as a journalist. I wrote several articles both on the movies, I even got my name on the box of the American remake of One Missed Call but I also wrote a lot of obligatory Halloween issue pieces about the genre.

Juon is an interesting movie, from a narrative perspective, as it’s not told in a linear fashion. Also, there have been a lot of movies. It’s told in the vignette style, jumbled up so you really have to concentrate. Whereas Ring has Sadako turn into a vengeful ghost after dying in a well, the centre of the curse in Juon is a house in Nerima, one of the wards of Tokyo. There’s a mother, Saeki Kayako, and her child, Toshio, were brutally murdered by husband and father, Takeo, who then kills himself in remorse/or was murdered by Kayako.

The non-linear story-telling was what caught my attention with Juon and held it. But, as protagonists, both Sadako and Kayako fascinate me.

Depending on whether you read the novel and watch Ring 0: Birthday, Yamamura Sadako is either a smallpox victim thrown into a well because she was a hermaphrodite or an introverted young woman with psychic abilities called nensha (inherited from her ‘mad’ mother Shizuko) whose ‘good’ incarnation was a little girl and whose ‘evil’ form is the onryo we all know and fear. I prefer the book version but let’s move on. In the movie, she psychically alters a video tape (retro!) that plays a mysterious and terrifying collection of jumbled scenes showing a well, a woman brushing her hair in a mirror and the characters for ‘mountain’ (Sadako’s last name means ‘mountain village’).

Oh and if you don’t show the video to someone else in the space of a week by either copying the tape or physically sitting them in front of a YB (thus spreading the curse), she crawls out of the well in the video, out of your TV and scares you to death.

Kayako, on the other hand, is a loving mother and a fantasist. Her fixation on her son’s school teacher ends her life when her jealous and abusive husband finds her diary. Her victims range to anyone who visits the house, some murdered by Takeo, others strangled by Kayako’s long hair. Toshio, and his cat Mar, serve as the harbingers of the curse, appearing to many of the characters dragged to their doom.

Given their popularity, a versus movie was practically ordained. Originally it was an April Fool’s joke but has since been confirmed as a real thing and it’s coming out in a matter of months, right in the middle of summer (Japan tends to celebrate ghost stories in summer because of the Obon festival).

From the looks of the trailer, it looks to be good and appeals to me in so many way. Not less because I’m curious how the two are going to meet (Sadako’s well is on an island and the Saeki house is in suburban Tokyo). Plus the video is cracked and knackered; who even has a VHS player these days? Hell do modern kids even know what one is?

I can’t wait to find out!

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