Ring

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.

Getting Wet

Title: Getting Wet: Adventures in the Japanese Bath
Author: Eric Talmadge
Publication Year: 2006
Publisher: Kodansha International
Pages: 255

For the past two weeks, the internet has been deluged with people talking about how Tokyopop is going out of business. Somehow, in all the confusion, it seems that it’s slipped everyone’s mind that Kodansha International is closing its doors as well. At least, it’s ceasing all operations at the end of April. Which was yesterday, I realized a few hours ago – to my considerable dismay.

In my startled panic, I thought about writing a brief retrospective highlighting the excellent work the publisher has done with regards to promoting Japanese literature in America. I thought about how the company has put out the early novels of Murakami Ryū (such as Coin Locker Babies and Almost Transparent Blue) and the murder mystery novels of Miyabe Miyuki (such as The Devil’s Whisper and Shadow Family). I thought about how the company has published offbeat classics like Natsume Sōseki’s Botchan and Kawabata Yasunari’s House of the Sleeping Beauties. I thought about how the company has taken financial risks to publish niche-interest period dramas such as Ariyoshi Sawako’s The River Ki and Fujisawa Shūhei’s The Bamboo Sword, and then I thought about how the company has taken on even greater financial burdens to collect contemporary avant-garde short fiction in anthologies like Monkey Brain Sushi and Inside.

But really, I think what I’m going to miss the most are Kodansha International’s intelligent and beautifully published books about Japanese culture, like Diane Durston’s Old Kyoto, Kiyoko Morita’s The Book of Incense, and Jay Rubin’s Making Sense of Japanese. And of course Eric Talmadge’s Getting Wet, which is probably my favorite “foreigner writing about Japan” book ever.

As its title suggests, Getting Wet is about baths in Japan. Private baths, public baths, bathing resorts, and bathing theme parks. And of course you can’t talk about baths in Japan without talking about onsen, or hot spring baths. Talmadge covers onsen in Hokkaido, onsen in Nagano, onsen right in Tokyo, and onsen in the Izu Islands south of Tokyo. There are onsen with mineral water, onsen with radioactive water, onsen with electrified water, onsen on the lips of volcano craters, onsen so acidic that your eyes hurt for days afterward, and onsen with snow monkeys.

There are plenty of books on Japanese baths floating around, but what I like about Getting Wet is that it’s not a traveler’s resource like A Guide to Japanese Hot Springs or a coffee table design book like The Japanese Bath. It is instead a collection of eleven journalistic essays unified by the theme of bathing. These essays aren’t travel literature, per se, but rather memoirs (if such a stodgy word is actually appropriate) of life in Japan cradling a core of interesting contextual information. For example, the fourth chapter, “Under the Bridge,” is about a trip to the Oedo Onsen Monogatari theme park in Odaiba. Talmadge begins by admitting his reluctance to don a yukata (he claims that they always flip open at the front at inopportune moments – which they do) and then walks his readers through the park before comfortably sliding into an essay about the Arima springs in Kobe, where emperors and the Heian nobility used to bathe. Talmadge then compares the Japanese history of bathing to that of the West, storied as it is with the opulence of the Greeks and Romans and Moors. Elsewhere, when Talmadge talks about mineral springs, for instance, he explains how our skin works and how our bodies retain water. When he talks about the onsen in the north of Japan, he writes about economic depression and the drive towards international and regional tourism (and why these initiatives never work). All of this writing, both travelogue and journalism, flows together smoothly, as if it were a feature in National Geographic.

Except Getting Wet is a lot more interesting than National Geographic. The way its author writes reminds me of the way my favorite grad student drinking buddy tells stories. His vocabulary is colorful but not ostentatious, he’s done his research and knows his facts, and he’s not afraid to laugh at something that’s ridiculous or unpleasant. Talmadge’s language is crisp and clean and for the most part professional, but every once in awhile he’ll let a colloquialism slip in (“The bath was – excuse me – fucking hot. It was really fucking hot.”), which adds both spice and warmth to his narrative. To put it simply, Getting Wet is a pleasure to read. Even if you don’t care about hot springs or bathing. Even if you don’t care about Japan. In terms of interesting and enjoyable essays, Eric Talmadge is right up there with John McPhee and Annie Dillard.

The book is a pleasure for other reasons as well. What I have always loved about Kodansha International is the attention and care they put into each publication, from the font to the page layout to the beautiful cover and binding. Most of these small touches are up to the reader to discover, but I should mention, in the case of Getting Wet, that the photographic illustrations are especially stunning. I don’t mean “stunning” in the sense of “created by a professional photographer with professional software,” but rather that the pictures are unusually sharp, printed in soft yet high-contrast greyscale, and perfectly positioned beside the text. In other words, the high quality of the images is something that you don’t find often even in art books published by specialty presses.

Kodansha International’s Japanese parent company has recently invested quite a great deal of money in Vertical, so I think that perhaps it’s not unreasonable to assume that their fiction licenses will change hands at some point. I’m not so sure what will happen to their non-fiction, though. Kodansha International put out beautiful books, and it will be a shame to see publications like Getting Wet disappear. I have loved Kodansha International and its books for many years, and I’m going to miss them now that they’re gone. Thankfully, the international arm of the company is resurrecting itself as a high-profile manga publisher, so this story may just have a happy ending after all.