September 2005

Sanford May

big in japan

All Things Ring

When I first reviewed the English edition of Koji Suzuki’s novel Ring more than two years ago, The Ring was just a movie, albeit a surprise success featuring rising star Naomi Watts and directed by Gore Verbinski, who soon would become better known for his Disney ride-turned-movie Pirates of the Caribbean. Ring fever, and the greater fervor for Japanese horror, had yet to hit the West full force. The Japanese films based on Suzuki’s novel and the entire segment of that country’s movie industry they helped establish may have had a certain cachet with the prescient in-crowd of the English-speaking world, but Ring’s mass appeal in this part of the world had not arrived.

Today we have English translations of the seminal Ring and its sequel Spiral, and soon the final full-length novel, Loop, will be published in English. A large number of the Ring manga are available with the original artwork, all dialogue translated. Not to mention a sequel to the Hollywood version of The Ring and numerous other Western interpretations of Japanese horror films -- now widely known as J-horror -- already released or in the works. Koji Suzuki’s quirky little book dating back to the late 1980s has truly created a phenomenon on both sides of the planet.

Ring, the original novel, holds up as well now as it did two years ago, which is to say it’s a little dated, but you’d expect that considering it was originally published in Japan almost twenty years ago. The first novel, the genesis of the Suzuki legend in horror fiction, introduces the Ring curse, a nasty bug that combines old-world mysticism and modern technology in the form of a psychic girl murdered long ago whose grudge against the world lives on as a supernaturally booby trapped videotape discovered by teen weekend revelers at a resort facility a train ride away from Tokyo. The big-city high school kids watch the tape, no doubt find it frightening, but in the end make a joke of it, failing to heed the tape’s dire warning. They all die just seven days later, at the exact same moment and of the same mysterious and inexplicable sudden heart failure. Enter Asakawa, reporter for a Tokyo newspaper, a man with more than a casual interest in the paranormal and married to a woman whose niece happens to be one of the first victims of the haunted videotape. The videotape lands in Asakawa’s hands, he watches it and falls under its spell, soon enlisting the help of high school friend and genius mathematician Ryuji Takayama to decode the tape’s true meaning -- hopefully discovering the charm that renders the curse invalid. If not sufficiently well motivated by his own near demise, Asakawa’s wife and young daughter inadvertently watch the tape and the race is on.

The first novel is a sophisticated thriller, sparely constructed and lent its creepy air by a perhaps deliberate ambiguity. Suzuki deals almost exclusively in unknowns and expects his readers to go along with him. It works: Ring is deliciously scary while remaining simple and largely uncluttered by extraneous digression.

Where Ring left most of its inner workings disguised and the deeper lives of its characters largely undisclosed, Spiral seeks to explain things in scientific -- or pseudo-scientific -- terms while Suzuki dedicates more pages to illustrating the moods of his protagonist. Ando, a medical examiner and academic physician, is plagued by memories of the recent drowning death of his young son and the damage to his marriage that event has wrought -- damage that seems impossible to mend. Takayama, the prime intellect of the first novel, turns up on a Tokyo autopsy table and Ando, an old med school acquaintance, becomes involved in the investigation of his estranged friend’s death. Ultimately Ando stumbles on the trail of the cursed videotape and, like Takayama and Asakawa before him, becomes materially involved in his own investigation.

In Spiral, Suzuki spends a lot of time dealing out explanations and causatives factors that might have leapt from the pages of a bizarre epidemiology textbook. The Ring, it turns out, is a virus of supernatural origin, the emerging disease created by the murdered girl Sadako, a contagion formed of her rage. It’s an insidious thing, bent like most viruses are on replicating itself at all costs -- and it's backed in this case by a sort of intelligence: a truly deadly combination. With Spiral Suzuki improves on his prose and assembly process; it is on the whole a better book than Ring. But in delving into the scientific side of the matter, Spiral becomes more of a science fiction novel than a horror tale: in explaining how the Ring virus works, Suzuki forfeits some of the essential creepiness of the first novel. It’s still a story threaded with real suspense, yet the shift from vague to concrete makes it easier to read on a dark night in a cold house.

In addition to inspiring film interpretations of the Ring novels, Suzuki’s work has been adapted to manga in Japan. Over the last two years, much of that manga has come to the West in translated editions from Dark Horse Comics. Some of these books retell the novels while others follow the Japanese movie versions of the story. To date, Dark Horse offers Ring Volume 1, The Ring Volume 2, Spiral and Birthday. Although the translation is a bit spotty in a few places -- confusion of names; flipping with no obvious reason between the Japanese and Western order for printing surnames and forenames -- the books are on the whole of excellent quality, fun to read and a welcome addition to the growing Ring media phenomenon in the West. The artwork is black-and-white line work in the bold, distinctive style common to almost all manga. The covers have been reproduced in full-color, and the right-to-left, back-to-front reading direction common in Japan has been retained. While remaining a part of the larger genre of comic books and graphic novels, manga are unique in their manner of telling a story through illustration. The Ring editions are attractive volumes that do not disappointment.

There’s been a lot of comment recently, here and there, comparing Koji Suzuki to Western writers, trying to make him fit up against some model. Suzuki’s most mentioned English-speaking doppelganger is Stephen King. And that’s true to a point. Both revolutionized horror fiction in their respective countries and stimulated media empires based on their work -- although King did it with his career, and Suzuki did it more or less with one book. But the similarity to King swiftly fizzles. Stephen King’s novels are all about the triumph of the human spirit, the will to escape, the victory of the mostly good over the desperately evil. In Koji Suzuki’s world you cannot win, there is no escape, and sooner or later it is going to get you and you will die or wish you had. This puts me much more in mind of J.G. Ballard than it ever will Stephen King.

Next month I’ll review the forthcoming English edition of Loop, the final full novel in the Ring series, and I’ll also cover the first book by a Western author to explore the Ring phenomenon at length, Denis Meikle’s The Ring Companion, currently available in the UK and coming to the States in October.