Genre: Japanese Horror
Author: Koji Suzuki (1991)
review in one breath
After having seen all the Japanese and US film adaptations of the Ring horror tale, I thought I better read the original text by author Koji Suzuki. I was pleasantly surprised. Even though I was familiar with the storyline, I couldn't put this book down once I started reading. And yes, there are some insightful portions which never made it into the movies.
This is the first of author Koji Suzuki's four books dedicated to the Ring horror tale. I've recently been reading some books on the Japanese horror genre which piqued my interest regarding the differences between the original book versions and the multiple film adaptations which have swept the international market. I was curious to see how full a development the original stories contained of Sadako and the nature of her "Ring" curse.
The four novels in Suzuki's Ring series are:
The final book Birthday contains three short stories, each related to the Sadako tale. The last of these three entitled Happy Birthday presents the final conclusion to the Ring saga.
I expected that reading this would amount to basically a re-tread of what I already know about the basic storyline, and I don't generally enjoy reading books whose outcome I already know. But by all standards this was a very good read; so much so that I simply couldn't put the book down after I started and ended up reading it through in two sittings. Suzuki's style of writing is highly readable and entertaining. The same ominous ambiguity which haunts the better film versions is clearly evident in the book. Direct exposition of the horrors are sparse, leaving ample room for the imagination to work its magic.
If you enjoyed the Ring films and haven't yet read Suzuki's original novel(s), I can highly recommend you do.
As I mentioned, one of my key motivations in reading this was to discover some of the differences it has from the film adaptations. The following are some of the differences I found noteworthy.
The lead character of the text, newspaper reporter Kazuyuki Asakawa is male, is married and has one young daughter. Author Koji Suzuki was a "stay home dad" looking after two daughters while writing Ring and in interviews has stated that he intended this to be, in part, a tale about a father who fights for the lives of his wife and daughter. He also comments that the role of the father in traditional Japanese households is unfortunately almost absent and that for this reason director Hideo Nakata felt it would be more gripping for Japanese audiences if the main character were female. Nakata's directorial decision on the need for a female heroine set the precedent for nearly all the following film adaptations and was followed through in other J-Horror films such as Nakata's later Dark Water.
In the book, the character of Ryuji Takayama is a high school friend of Asakawa who is gruff, blunt, somewhat obnoxious and of highly questionable character. His attitude toward death and the Ring curse is highly nihilistic and he readily watches the video despite knowing the possible results. He has some knowledge of paranormal things, but is himself in no way psychic or supernaturally gifted. This is in stark contract to the Japanese Ring films, in which Takayama is the estranged, near-psychic husband of (female) Asakawa and the unwilling father of their male child Yoshi, who in the films displays a psychic ability similar to his father's. In Ring: Final Chapter, the psychic abilities of Ryuji Takayama is elevated significantly and he is portrayed as a specialist in all things paranormal. Thus the films take several convenient short-cuts through the story by relying on the psychic intuitions of their Takayama character. This becomes a narrative prop in the films which allows for sudden flashbacks to important scenes otherwise undeveloped in the storyline. Suzuki's book, however, does not invoke psychic powers amongst his characters and relies instead of a very suspenseful and thorough investigative effort by Asakawa and Takayama.
The depiction of ghoulie Sadako differs significantly between the book and films. Director Nakata went for a much more horrific depiction making even the child Sadako a disheveled and demonic figure. The book takes a much more sympathetic stance presenting Sadako as an outstandingly beautiful girl/young woman whose physical appearance attracted the attention of nearly all the men she encountered. Suzuki's first novel covers briefly the storyline where Sadako travels to Tokyo to join a theatrical group . This narrative by-line is explored more thoroughly in Suzuki's fourth and last Ring novel, Birthday in a short story entitled Lemonheart. This specific portion of the original Ring tales is the basis for the Ring 0: Birthday film adaptation which correctly depicts her as a stunningly beautiful yet socially ostracized young woman with acting aspirations.
Regarding the character of Sadako, the book offers a very strange twist which none of the film versions seemed capable or willing to handle. According to Suzuki, Sadako is a semi-hermaphrodite, meaning she is physically both male and female in terms of genitalia (though she lacks the "appendage"). Prior to divulging this, the book contains a quasi-scientific musing by Takayama regarding the origins of the universe and that initial moment in which there was neither light and dark, male and female; the moment of creation when everything was unified and at its most powerful. This sets the stage for describing Sadako as a sexually unified creature and thereby implying a higher degree of biological and supernatural perfection. This sexual description of Sadako has more relevance to the story's philosophical suggestions than anything else in the details of the storyline. To me, this sounded a lot like the Taoist philosophy wherein the dualities found in nature are actually a decayed and imperfect representation of a higher, untainted Unity, the Tao itself.
Perhaps the most interesting element in the book which makes no appearance in the film is its reference to the ancient religious mystic En no Ozunu. En no Ozunu, also known as En no Gyoja is an actual historical religious figure who lived in the late 600's AD. He is well-known as an early Japanese mystic who blended Japan's ancient indigenous religion Shinto with the newly imported notions of Buddhism. He was notorious in his advocation of the role of Nature Gods, most notably the role and worship of Mountain Gods. He wandered throughout Japan on personal pilgrimages, setting up several shrines at various mountains. These shrines remain major pilgrimage destinations to this day. Due to a clash with ruling authorities over his insistence to adhere to ancient, mystical religious practices, he was banished in 699 AD to the Island of Izu, Oshima, the island where Shizuko and Sadako of both the book and films originates. There are many legends/beliefs regarding En no Ozunu's magical powers and his activities on Oshima during his three year exile. To this day there is an annual festival on Oshima commemorating Ozunu, falling on June 15.
In the book, Shizuko (Sadako's mother) was a rather strident adherent to Ozunu's religious instruction. When she was an adolescent, sometime in the late 1940s she witnessed US soldiers toppling an ancient stone image of Ozunu and casting it into the sea. She enlists the help of a childhood friend to retrieve the sacred image from the depths. Despite their attempting this in the dark of night, Shizuko is somehow able to locate the stone image beneath the dark waters to her friend's great surprise. When he cautiously asks her how she was able to locate it in the dark, she simply stated that the image's eyes glowed green, showing itself to her in the pitch black. Shortly thereafter, the relatively normal Shizuko began to have intense headaches and began to exhibit psychic abilities.
Thus, in the book, the mysterious power within the sea which the film leaves unnamed is in fact that of En no Ozunu whose supernatural powers, even while he was alive, were said to be legendary. Shizuko's act of devotion to the image of En no Ozunu results in her being bestowed with a supernatural gift which causes the unfortunate chain of events making up the Ring tales. The books hint that Sadako's father may in fact be "god" of En no Ozunu himself. The film also hints at Sadako possibly being born of a monstrous, supernatural father (associated with the sea), but leaves the identity of this being wholly unnamed.
There are plenty of other less significant differences between the book and films which probably aren't worth mentioning here but will nonetheless prove insightful to you in terms of where the several film directors derive their storylines and to what degree they diverge from it.
I recommend you check this out if you haven't done so already. As I said earlier its a very good read, so much so that after finishing the book, I promptly ordered Suzuki's other books in the Ring series and am eagerly awaiting their arrival. But more on those later...