Ring

Title: Ring
Japanese Title: リング (Ringu)
Author: Suzuki Kōji (鈴木 光司)
Translators: Robert B. Rohmer and Glynne Walley
Publication Year: 2004 (America); 1991 (Japan)
Publisher: Vertical
Pages: 282

In Nakata Hideo’s 1998 film adaptation of Ring, the point-of-view character for most of the story is female. This is an effective casting choice, as cinematic audiences are primed to experience danger and vulnerability through female protagonists in horror films. Suzuki Kōji’s original novel is less about thrills and chills than it is about hardcore investigative journalism, however, and its hero, Asakawa Kazuyuki, is male. The female lead in the Ring film’s husband, Takayama Ryūji, is Asakawa’s friend in the novel, which sees the two men travel across Japan in an attempt to save Asakawa’s wife and child from a deadly curse apparently connected to a mysterious bootleg videotape.

In the opening pages of the book, two creepy things happen: a teenage girl dies suddenly in her family’s apartment in Yokohama, and a boy on a motorcycle falls down dead on the road in front of a taxi. A month later, the taxi driver reports the latter incident to a random passenger, who happens to be the journalist Asakawa, whose niece happens to be the teenage girl involved in the former incident. Asakawa, upon realizing that these deaths, as well as two others, all happened at the exact same time on the exact same day, tracks down the connection between the teenagers to a cabin in the woods near the seaside resort of Atami, which is a two-hour train ride southwest of Tokyo. It is there that he encounters an unmarked videotape upon which a surreal series of images has been recorded. White letters at the end of the sequence warn that the viewer will die in a week unless a certain “charm” is performed, but the four dead teenagers recorded over the actions needed to perform this charm as a prank.

In order to figure out the charm before his time is up, Asakawa enlists his college professor friend Ryūji to help him figure out as much information concerning the origins of the tape as possible. What follows is a surprisingly unsuspenseful series of adventures in which the two men eat things, drink things, and leisurely chat with all manner of people as they gradually puzzle out the life story of Yamamura Sadako, the beautiful young woman whom they believe to be responsible for the cursed videotape. Although Ring is structured around a quest for Sadako, the novel, unlike the film adaptation, is a man’s world. The primary female characters are offstage and only glimpsed through the recollections of various male characters, who are far more interested in localized histories of science and medicine than they are in the supernatural.

The reviews excerpted on the back of the novel promise that it is “very frightening” and “an engine of disquiet” and “shocking” and “so creepy your hair will literally stand on end;” but, to be honest, I don’t think the book is that scary, and the fright factor is only a marginal portion of what it has to offer a reader. Instead, Ring unfolds as a mystery in which clues must be painstakingly tracked down one at a time as the principal players struggle to draw connections between them. It’s the search for these bits of information, as well as the thrill of hard-won eureka moments, that will keep the reader entertained, and the paranormal elements are for the most part examined in a rational and pseudo-scientific manner. The true horror of Ring does not lie in its ghosts or shocking imagery, but rather in the absolute inability of human beings to comprehend the vast and menacing world that lies outside the realm of our control.

Ring is set in the same decade in which it was written, and the condominium high-rises, mass media publications, and corporate culture of the late 1980s saturate the background of the novel. The primitive fear of disease still haunts the advanced society that provides the backdrop of Ring, however; and, although the science and technology of the age strive to contain natural forces, some things cannot be controlled. The author is able to accentuate this anxiety by continually linking the actions of Sadako’s curse with images of the natural world at its most hostile and overwhelming. For example, one of the greatest of natural forces, the sea, is a constant presence in Ring, and it only appears under the cover of darkness and in contrast to human constructions, a juxtaposition which creates an impression of a dark, brooding malice lurking beyond the boundaries of civilization. The novel opens with an image of the highly developed industrial area which lines the bay fronting the city of Yokohama:

Off to the south the oily surface of the ocean reflected the glittering lights of a factory. A maze of pipes and conduits crawled along the factory walls like blood vessels on muscle tissue. Countless lights played over the front wall of the factory like insects that glow in the dark… The factory cast a wordless shadow on the black sea beyond.

Suzuki equates the factory with humanity as he compares its bulk to a human body, endowing it with “blood vessels” and “muscle tissue.” The multitudinous lights of Yokohama at night also metaphorically dot the surface of the factory, but none of this light has any effect on the “black sea beyond.” Instead, the factory as a symbol of humanity and its ingenuity merely “cast[s] a wordless shadow” over the silent ocean, which almost seems to mock its presence.

Even with our incredible advances in technology, contemporary societies still have trouble coping with the facets of existence that lie beyond the explanations offered by science and ordinary experience. We are all insignificant and ephemeral points of light flickering on and off somewhere in a dark, callous, and unfathomably large universe. While the film and graphic novel adaptations of Ring delight in the uncanny horror of the female demonic, the horror of the original novel is more Lovecraftian. The protagonists of Ring are ultimately punished by the narrative not because they don’t strive tirelessly for information, but rather because they believe the achievement of knowledge has the capacity to help them in any way.

A reader should not come to Ring expecting the same sort of jump-horror at which its cinematic adaptations excel; there are no creepy little girls stuffed in closets or climbing out of television sets. Suzuki’s novel instead rewards intellectual engagement and curiosity, which it subtly mocks and discredits in the most terrifying of ways.

Comments
  1. Steve says:

    Love your blog and check it every week eager for your latest post. Thank you! The review of The Ring describes Atami as being 3 hours northeast from Tokyo by train. Actually, Atamis is southwest of Tokyo. A Tokaido Line local train, the slowest of several train lines to get there, takes about 1 hour 45 minutes from Tokyo Station. Anyway, thank you again for providing such an informative and interesting blog. Thanks to what your wrote I plan to look at The Ring, something I never would have done otherwise. Best regards.

    • Kathryn says:

      I had originally misremembered the cabin being in Tochigi prefecture for various reasons and changed half of the sentence without changing the other half. You are a hero for catching this and pointing it out to me – thank you!

  2. gradland says:

    Great piece! Out of curiosity, how did you feel about Suzuki’s treatment of female characters in Ring? I realize that they’re not central to the book, but my dominant feeling after reading “Ring” and the short stories collected in “Dark Water” was that there’s an ugly vein of misogyny running through a lot of his work–men who are casual rapists or abusers are treated as normal (or sometimes as admirable), wives are portrayed as nagging and vengeful to the point that they seem to deserve the violence visited on them, etc. And I remember being confused when I read this interview, where Suzuki basically says that he was a stay-at-home dad while he was writing Ring and that the book is basically about his love for his daughters. It just seemed to contradict all of the vibes that I got from his writing. (http://www.japanreview.net/interview_Koji_Suzuki.htm)
    Any thoughts?

    • Kathryn says:

      I am firmly of the opinion that the vast majority of Suzuki’s fiction that I’ve encountered is misogynistic, so very very misogynistic. I have many thoughts on this, so here goes!

      I have read neither the sequels to the original Ring novel nor the stories set in the same universe, any of which may prove what I’m about to write wrong, but it was my impression that, in Ring at least, female characters are either completely known by the male point-of-view characters and thus domesticated and safe, or unknowable and thus evil (of course). In addition, uncontrollable natural forces like volcanoes are also gendered as female in various ways, presumably because unknowable equals bad equals female. I’m putting a strong emphasis on “knowability” here because the novel is clearly structured like a detective story; and, like classic American noir fiction, the only thing male rationality can’t account for is the collective mind of woman.

      In any case, the driving motivation of the male protagonist in Ring is to protect his wife and infant daughter not just from Sadako and her curse but also from everything bad and nasty in the world that the cursed videotape represents to him. The protagonist is a journalist who has passed his prime and is beginning to fall out of touch with his field, so there may be a bit of Lost Decade style macho posturing involved as well.

      Because the Suzuki novels and stories I’ve read tend to also follow the conventions of virgin/whore tropes, I might venture an amateur psychoanalytic analysis and say that perhaps the author wants to protect his daughters from growing up and thus becoming unknowable to him. But who knows. It’s so difficult to understand men; it’s almost like they’re not fully human, amirite?

      As much as I generally decry misogyny in literature, I actually enjoy it in horror fiction, especially when it’s as deeply ingrained as it is in Ring. I empathize deeply with (fictional) insane female avengers and love watching (fictional) women fuck shit up with zero concern for potential consequences, and I get a special rush from seeing (fictional) violence visited on male point-of-view characters. If I had to guess, I would say that this is probably for the same reason that men seem to enjoy female protagonists in horror movies with male monsters/villains. It’s like, “Dude/lady, you don’t even know what that lady/dude is capable of doing to you, but I’m going to have fun watching you find out.” I really appreciate feminist horror written by women; but, aside from “literary” horror by authors like Patricia Highsmith and Kurahashi Yumiko, I’ve had a bit of trouble finding enough to satisfy me, even despite combing through every big horror anthology that gets released for Kindle, alas. Apex magazine is always good, of course, BUT IT IS NOT ENOUGH. If you have any recommendations, I would love to hear them!

  3. gradland says:

    “… love watching (fictional) women fuck shit up with zero concern for potential consequences.” Oh yes indeed! And yeah, drawing a blank on feminist horror, but will let you know if I think of anything. I actually enjoy a lot of the horror / vengeful female elements of Enchi Fumiko’s writing, though obviously she’s not straight up horror.

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