The 1998 movie The Ring - often called Ringu to distinguish it from its American remake of the same name - is regarded alongside The Grudge as the breakout success that opened up Western markets to Japanese horror. It's far more than just an unusual curio that attracted people for its unique foreign novelty, however, because The Ring is actually just one part of a huge multimedia franchise. The 1998 film directed by Hideo Nakata which made the series famous isn't even actually the first adaptation of Koji Suzuki's original 1991 novel, as Japan had produced a previous movie version in 1995. Over the decades there have been books, films, sequels, remakes, overseas adaptations in multiple languages, alternative timelines, games, and more besides... the girl whose face is masked by long black hair and who curses anyone who watches a video of her crawling out of a well has become as enduring and universal a horror icon as Freddy Krueger or Jason Voorhees. "Keep Circulating the Tapes!", as they used to say on MST3K, and the game of supernatural hot potato where a victim needs to make someone else watch the tape to be passed over by the curse has allowed The Ring to spread far and wide. It has now reached the world of manga, with the latest spin-off Sadako at the End of the World reaching out to the furthest extent possible - the end of life itself!
Two young girls, tweeny Ai and her toddler sister Hii, are wandering around the ruins of an apparently deserted post-apocalyptic wasteland - for all they know, they could be the only people left in the world. Suddenly, a third figure is among them. Ai and Hii find an old videotape player, and having never actually seen one before they try to get it to work... and a ghostly girl crawls out of the television screen...
...wow! Amazing! Isn't that wonderful? Is this what happens when you play any videotape? Tapes make new people arrive! Ai and Hii need to find more tapes and they can make lots of new faces appear! The blessedly innocent young girls are completely oblivious to the hate and violence radiating from the unquiet spectre of Sadako Yamamura, the girl left for dead at the bottom of a well, and when Sadako writes that she will only be with them for a week Ai and Hii assumes that's how long she has before she has to go off somewhere else. Oh well - a week is still a lot of time to fill with play as the two girls get to know their black-haired friend!
Having seen their first new person in so long that they can't remember, Ai and Hii resolve to take Sadako with them to go exploring and find more survivors who must still be wandering around the world, all the while unaware that they risk spreading the curse of the Ring towards the last few people left alive...
One thing that I really have to criticise Sadako at the End of The World for is its title. Now, I'm really not that much of a Ring aficionado - to be honest, I've never actually gotten around to watching the famous film and had to do some wider research to be able to write the introductory paragraphs of this review. I imagine that like myself many people are aware of the Ring and the broad strokes of its high concept that have been absorbed through cultural osmosis, but are unaware of the particulars of Sadako's identity as the Japanese Ring Girl. When I first picked this manga off the shelf I genuinely had no idea that it was supposed to be a Ring tie-in. Yen Press doesn't even mention the Ring connection on the blurb on the rear cover. While there is a subtle hint of its connections if you know where to look - the title graphic on the front cover includes the thin, stringy, eclipse-shaped Ring logo from the movie posters - many people wouldn't, and it seems counterproductive to exclude the brand recognition of the Ring that would have increased this manga's visibility and sales. I suppose that pushing the Ring connection would possibly put off some shelf-browsers wary that it was suggesting that this book was more horrifying than it actually is, but as the Ring is such a central part of the inner contents it seems strange that the publishers would not actually say so in the title.
Sadako at the End of the World is definitely invested as part of the wider Ring mythos - the end-of-volume omakes include a timeline of releases for Ring media stretching back thirty years, and a journal comic of the mangaka Koma Natsumi visiting the set for the 2019 production of Ring movie sequel Sadako. Nonetheless, as much as the manga is involved in The Ring that does not mean that you have to be a loremaster of the series to appreciate it. This book is very accessible and even as a franchise beginner I had no problems following it. A single page of forbidding portentous narration on the opening page is sufficient to establish the nature of Sadako's curse - and then Ai's immediate bright- and big-eyed happy kawaii glee on the second page immediately establishes the ironic contrast of the world she has emerged into juxtaposed against her. The artwork is drawn in a light and thin style with the pastels on the colour plate at the start giving it a childlike storybook attitude, and while the initial premise of girls wandering over the post-apocalypse might initially seem to be derivative of Girls' Last Tour the atmosphere is actually completely different -- Sadako at the End of the World is completely devoid of the militaria and industrialism of Girls' Last Tour and the environment is more abandoned and overgrown than it is bombed-out - more Yokohama Kaidashi Kiko than Fist of the North Star. Really, other than a few establishing shots in the first chapter you don't even see all that much in the way of ruins. Sadako and the two children do meet others on their travels, but they're not preppers and suvivalists lurking in bunkers but include a hairdresser, an actress, and another (more friendly) ghost all happily pottering through their routines even despite crumbled civilisation.
To write it on the page, it may all sound a bit twee an schmaltzy and I can imagine that many readers are probably dismissing Sadako at the End of the World as being a syrupy feel-good manga where Ai's and Hii's innocence charms Sadako out of her hate but... that isn't what happens. There is still a dark undercurrent lurking beneath the surface that the sweet playtime is bobbing up on, threatened to be waterlogged and sunk, and it doesn't forget at the end that Sadako's evil still radiates out of the very page itself. Seven Seas Entertainment is currently publishing an alternative Ring manga, Sadako-san and Sadako-chan, but whereas that is a comedy pastiche Sadako at the End of the World does remain a horror, albeit a more underplayed one than has appeared in the movies.
Sadako at the End of the World is an appealing choice for seasonal reading this Halloween. As a paperback it also provides a cheaper alternative to a hardback Junji Ito omnibus, and it doesn't overburden its simple concept by dragging out the question of Sadako's relationship to her new companions over too many chapters, and so avoiding the forbidding pendulum from degrading into irritating indecision. As it's a one-volume short manga like The Angel of Elhamburg it makes for a treat to be neatly rounded off in time for the spooky skeletons to jangle back to the graveyard.