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.

Outlet

outlet

Title: Outlet
Japanese Title: コンセント
Author: Taguchi Randy (田口ランディ)
Translator: Glynne Walley
Publication Year: 2003 (America); 2000 (Japan)
Publisher: Vertical
Pages: 269

First of all, I would like to say that Vertical does not publish crap. If you pick up one of their books, you can rest assured that your money has been well spent. Second, I do not review crap. This is a public forum, and I don’t want any authors or translators sending me nasty e-mails. Also, if the book I’m reading turns out to be crap, I tend to put it down and go do something else with my time. Graduate students are very busy and important, you see.

That being said, Outlet is pretty crappy. I was on an airplane and stupidly didn’t bring anything with me that wasn’t an academic text, besides Outlet, so I ended up reading the novel from cover to cover. Thankfully, my effort was rewarded, as the novel isn’t consistently crappy, and its crappiness is good-hearted and quite amusing. At one point, I had to quickly excuse myself to go to the bathroom so that I could laugh out loud for sixty seconds or so. In the end, I have to say that I recommend this book, perhaps because of its very crappiness. Also, the translation is excellent.

The blurb on the front flap of the book states, “A brisk, bristling story of survivor’s guilt, treacherous sex, and unexpected redemption, Outlet opens the door to a spiritual dimension that is both new and age-old.” Well, I can’t agree with most of that, but at least they got the “sex” part right. There is a lot of sex in this novel. If there is a male character in the book, the protagonist has sex with him. The majority of this sex is a hot, dirty, leaning over the sink in a public restroom, fingers up the anus type of sex, and it goes on for pages. This sex is too smutty to be erotic, and, in all honesty, it made me giggle, flip to the author photograph on the back flap, and giggle some more. Oh, Randy.

Don’t let the sex distract you from the plot, however. Outlet’s protagonist, Yuki Asakura, works as a freelance writer and editor for a business magazine and follows the stock market (and has lots of sex) in her free time. When her brother is found dead in his apartment, however, her life takes a turn for the weird, as she keeps seeing the phantom of her dead brother (with whom she had lots of sex maybe) and smelling the death smell of his apartment at inopportune moments. In order to cure herself of this malady, she goes to her old psychology department advisor from college (with whom she had lots of sex) in order to receive counseling (so that she can continue to have lots of sex). On campus, she runs into an old acquaintance, who introduces her to the concept of shamanism and to her psychiatrist husband (with whom the protagonist has lots of sex). In the end, Yuki learns that she is not crazy but rather a type of shamaness who can tune into the vibrations of the universe and heal people (by – get this – having lots of sex with them). Spoiler alert: an “outlet” is something you plug something else into.

If we can ignore the sex scenes for a moment, this novel has some extremely interesting and informative passages on psychology, neurology, Japanese funerals, shamanism, and what happens to an apartment after someone has died in it. In fact, I think this novel is worth reading for its description of the Okinawan yuta (spirit mediums) alone. Although Taguchi’s thesis that schizophrenic people and hikikomori are merely shamans and shamanesses who have not yet learned to control their powers is somewhat silly, it’s an interesting proposition. Especially if you’re into “Eastern mysticism” like Zen or Daoism – or pot brownies; it really doesn’t matter here.

In any case, Outlet is a trashy yet intellectually engrossing novel, and it has a bright and shiny cover featuring a naked Asian woman. It’s good reading for a plane ride and can double as a good conversation starter if left on your coffee table. I will chalk this book up to another solid editorial decision at Vertical. They have not failed me yet.