Author: Koji Suzuki (1998)
review in one breath
This is the final of Suzuki's four books dedicated to the Ring saga. It is a collection of three stories, each involving an exploration into the situations and plights of three female characters mentioned elsewhere in the other novels. One of the three tales was the basis for the film "Ring 0: Birthday", and as a whole, the collection provides a satisfactory and reflective conclusion to the very detailed and complex world of Suzuki's Ring narrative.
As you know well by now, author Koji Suzuki is responsible for the Ring storyline which has been the fuel for many film, manga, and TV adaptations. Chronologically, Birthday is the final of four novels dedicated to the Ring storyline. Birthday is a collection of short stories, each taking place within (or nearly in) the basic chronological time line set forth by other novels, and for that reason is not considered part of the "Ring Trilogy". (Not to mention the fact that it would be difficult indeed to fit four novels into a "trilogy".)
The four novels in Suzuki's Ring series are:
One could easily argue that in its own way, Birthday constitutes its own small "Ring Trilogy". In support of this, most obviously is the fact that there are three tales contained herein. But more than that, the thematic and structural composition of the collection suggests that these are not random, left-over Ring-related tales thrown together. It seems quite apparent that Suzuki intended this collection to have its own symmetry and focus.
Interestingly, each of the three short stories contained within Birthday revolves around a female protagonist. Each character is familiar to readers through her introduction at some other point in the prior Ring Trilogy. Though the specter of creepy Sadako and the fallout of her malicious curse is ever present throughout the three tales, the emphasis here seems to be upon a full exposition of the characters' human dilemma and struggle in light of the curse. Unlike the prior novels which were highly investigative and suspenseful in nature, here Suzuki offers a full, sympathetic gaze at the plight of three women impacted by the Ring narrative.
There is also an interesting structural, chronological layout to the collection. The character and content of each of the three tales falls within a different novel within the Trilogy. Thus, for example, the tale Lemon Heart explores an incident first mentioned in the first novel Ring. The tale Coffin In The Sky revolves around an incident briefly touched upon in the second novel Spiral, and the story Birthday constitutes the chronological finale of the third novel Loop. One story for each book of the Trilogy. Similarly, if my reckoning is correct, each tale is separated by about a 25 year gap, offering distinct snapshots into three specific stages of evolution in the Ring tale.
The following are short summaries of each of the three stories contained within Birthday. They are listed here in the order they appear in the book:
Coffin In The Sky
This story depicts the final hours of Mai Takano, whose relationships to Ryuji Takayama and Mitsuo Ando play a significant role in both the Ring and Spiral novels. Readers of the earlier Spiral novel (and audiences of the film Rasen) were already privy to the manner and circumstances involving Mai's death. The story Coffin In The Sky provides a full explanation, through Mai's own eyes, of the truly bizarre scenario only hinted at in the previous tellings. This tale takes place in the mid 1990's.
Brief mention of this story's background is made in the first Ring novel where Asakawa and Takayama are frantically looking for clues on Oshima Island and have sent Asakawa's co-reporter Yoshino to gather information regarding Sadako's brief stay at a theatrical group in Tokyo before disappearing altogether in 1966. In the Ring narrative, Yoshino is able to contact some of the remaining (that is, still alive) troupe members and relay that info to Asakawa. The story Lemon Heart explores quite deeply the brief time 18 year-old Sadako spent with the theater group. Fans of the Ring films will recognize that this tale is the basis for the film adaptation Ring 0: Birthday by director Tsurata Norio.
Although the actual time line for this story takes place in the mid 1990's during an interview between Yoshino and former troupe member Toyama, the vast majority of the tale involves a flashback sequence of Toyama's to the months in 1966 he spent with Sadako Yamamura.
Interestingly, Lemon Heart presents the only real glimpse of Sadako Yamamura in her pre-death, pre-curse existence. And Suzuki has drawn her to be a very beautiful, almost irresistible woman with uncanny intuition and a potentially darker side for those who transgress her. Nowhere else in any of the other novels are we offered such a humanized view of Sadako. This story opens with the discussion between Yoshino and Toyama just a few days following the events in Coffin in the Sky, while the majority of the tale is set in 1966.
This story centers on Reiko Sugiura, the primary female character of the Loop novel. Chronologically, this story takes place soon after the final events depicted in Loop. In some sense Birthday offers the "final conclusion" to the Ring saga. It certainly doesn't belong to the same suspenseful investigatory adventure as the novel Loop, but it does offer a few new details into the outcome of certain things left unresolved in the novel.
I was hesitant in my review of Loop and remain so here from divulging too much about this storyline, since there has been no film adaptation thus far and because I think that undivulged narrative will blow Ring fans away. So here too I will remain sparse on detail. :P
Differences between the novel Birthday and the film Ring 0: Birthday
Here's an interesting discussion, if not simply on the de-evolution of a novel as it moves from film adaptation to film sequel, etc. In the following, I will refrain from offering spoilers to the novel, but will make no such effort regarding the film.
Just a bit of background on the historic relation of Suzuki novels to film.
Undoubtedly, the principal director responsible for elevating Suzuki's novels above purely national readership was Nakata Hideo who, in 1998 adapted Suzuki's (1991) novel to film, in the international sleeper Ringu which by 2000 had world-wide horror fans begging for more. But in his film, Nakata was very liberal in the degree to which he stuck with Suzuki's original premise. Nakata cut out vast portions of the novel, modified characters' relationships and genders, significantly simplified the (already reduced) storyline, and added his own horror elements. As we all know, Nakata's film was an international smash hit and propelled him to unprecedented fame.
The portions Nakata added to his reduced use of Suzuki were undoubtedly the most cinematically horrendous and scary. Thus in a certain retrospect, Nakata skillfully turned the 290 page Suzuki novel into a 90 minute horror visual. But Nakata's over-confidence in his own ability to add the necessary ingredients in this reduction/addition equation became all too obvious when he (arrogantly?) suggested a Ring 2 sequel based wholly on his own "storyline" and bypassing altogether Suzuki's texts. Needless to say, Nakata's storyline is goof ball doo-dad at best, and sets itself up in complete contradiction to every Suzuki novel and film adaptation thereafter.
The film Ring 0: Birthday seems to be a lesson in 'the slightly modified transgression of the father'. Here director Tsurata Norio obviously felt liberty to add his own horror elements to Suzuki's Lemon Heart storyline but (unlike Nakata) attempts to round the narrative out by somehow dropping it back into the Ring Trilogy. I enjoyed Tsurata's cinematic vision of the adolescent Sadako, but in light of reading Suzuki's novels, and this has been the case with every film adaptation, I feel short-changed and somewhat deceived.
For example, the film's major dream sequence involving a well and staircase is wholly contrived by Tsurata and has no appearance whatsoever in Suzuki's novel. The fact that this dream not only serves as the temporal wrapper (instead of Toyama and Yoshima's flashback dialogue in the novel) but is the primary haunting factor amongst the film's characters gives you a clue as to the non-novel short-cuts taken here.
Elements of Tsurata's directorial "vision" which ignore or contradict the Suzuki novels include the hard-to swallow Miyagi character, the killing of Shigemori, the climactic scream and ghost-filled on-stage drama, the bludgeoning, the Twin Sadakos (????), etc. None of these elements which are so central to the film are present anywhere within Suzuki's short story.
To his (slight) credit director Tsurata does attempt to keep his film's storyline somewhat within the basic Ring trajectory by pulling in parts of the other novels such as the location of the well and the character of Sadako's father. Although this further muddies the water regarding Suzuki's original story Lemon Heart, it at least shows a little respect for the author's overall intent. (In contrast to Nakata's franchise coup attempt with his own sequel.)
In the end, however, audiences of Tsurata's film will have seen a very different story from what is found in Suzuki's novel.
Due to the very obvious degree of difference between the film adaptations and Suzuki's own written works, and the vast amount of suspenseful detail and plot twists which the films completely ignore, fans of Ring will indeed enjoy and admire these tales. The same thing can be said for all of Suzuki's Ring-based novels.