Ring by Koji Suzuki
Posted by Holly
When it comes to book-to-movie adaptations, I have a tendency to be a little snobby in favor of the book. It is the original source material, after all, and sometimes due to the restrictions of the movie format for storytelling, some of the potency of the story is diluted in the process. On top of that, the Ring series has been one of my favorite horror franchises ever since the American remake first pulled me into that world. Needless to say, when I picked up Koji Suzuki’s novel, the one that inspired it all, I expected to be blown away.
I did not get what I expected.
The novel follows Asakawa, a reporter whose niece has recently died in an unusual and unexpected way. While taking a cab home one day, he learns of a nearly identical death that the driver witnessed, at the exact same time. Intrigued, Asakawa wants to cover this story, but due to a flubbed piece on the paranormal in the past, his editor is hesitant to support him. Determined to find enough evidence to support his story, Asakawa begins to research the deaths of that night, and in doing so, finds the unusual video tape that seems to tie them all together.
With his death set in seven days, and time running out, he enlists the help of an old friend, Ryuji, to find out the truth about the video tape, and who – or what – may have created it.
At this point, it’s already apparent that there are some variations from the film version of the story. As the investigation moves forward, the differences in the story become even more pronounced: in the pursuit of understanding each and every image on the video, Sadako’s backstory is explored in detail – including her relationship with her parents, and a short stint in a theater troupe (this plot point is later visited in the film Ring 0). Most notably, Sadako’s manner of death is dramatically different from the film. Rather than being killed by a parent, she is brutalized, raped, and murdered by a doctor who is tending to her sick father.
The one thing I’d like to get out of the way first, and the biggest roadblock I had in enjoying this book, was the fact that it was speckled with horrific moments of misogyny and sexism. Ryuji, rather than being a disinterested father, and perhaps a bit of a jerk to boot, is actually a self proclaimed rapist with a nihilistic, unrepentant attitude towards his behavior. This is treated as a quirky character trait, rather than the awful crime it actually is, and any moments of clarity the main character has about this are quickly brushed aside. The main character, Asakawa, is rather mild in most of his thoughts and actions, and so his occasional negative and violent thoughts about wanting his wife to shut up, or feeling a sudden urge to hit her, are rather jarring – especially when he frequently frets about the possibility of losing his wife and daughter. These changes are like whiplash, sometimes occurring within the same page.
The treatment of Sadako was no exception to this sexism. As the manner of her untimely death is revealed, when Ryuji and Asakawa track down the man that raped and murdered her, our two leads speculate on how this could have happened. Sadako had quite a bit of power at her disposal, and so they ultimately conclude that she wanted to die, thus enthralling her attacker into doing the act for her. The reason for her rape? Ryuji believes it is purely because no one wants to die a virgin – literally, that is the reason given for the blatant victim blaming thrown at Sadako.
Another piece of information about Sadako that is revealed in the novel is that she is intersex, having both a vagina and testicles. Her extremely feminine looks are attributed to Testicular Feminization Syndrome, as her beauty is often commented on throughout the book, though with a sense of it being “unnatural” and strange. There is a slight implication that maybe her murder may have been related to this, though it is never explicitly stated. This fact also becomes plot relevant, as it is said to be the reason that she created the “virus,” because she has no other way to reproduce. I honestly don’t know how to feel about this part of the story, but I do want to acknowledge it. On one hand, Sadako is the single most sympathetic character in the story, especially since I spent 90% of the book actively hating the characters I was supposed to be rooting for. On the other, it is uncomfortably reminiscent of media’s tendency to demonize characters who do not adhere strictly to standard sex or gender roles.
Now, this book wasn’t a total wash (though really, most of the previous information should be enough to sway someone away from it). One thing I genuinely appreciated about this book was the attempt the author made to really explain the creation of the tape, rather than a handwave of “ghostly curse magic,” or something similar. Sadako is portrayed as adept at psychic photography, particularly with the tricky ability to manipulate television waves. This power, fused with the infection of smallpox she received at the time of her death, caused not only a curse, but one that spreads like a virus might. The reason it took the form of a VHS tape? That was simply because her vengeful spirit was projecting images into the airwaves above the cabin where her body remained, and some poor person was just trying to record a television show at the time.
Overall, I am glad that I sought out the source material, even though I was ultimately very disappointed by it. I came away from this experience a little daunted, and my interest in the rest of the book series hindered, but with a better appreciation of the way the movies were able to transform that work into something good.
Rating: 1.5 out of 5. The 1.5 given purely because I enjoyed the odd, science fiction-y explanation the author gave for the curse.
Scariness level: Low. It plays out more like a mystery than anything, with a lot of time devoted to research and Asakawa having panic attacks. Also, the famous ‘crawling out of the TV’ scene? What seems to be the biggest shock of the films is totally an original concept, it never happens in the book.
Violence level: On the low end. Most of the deaths are heart attacks, caused by the victim being frightened to death. There are mentions of suicide, and a graphic description of rape, but there is no real blood or gore.
Bechdel test: Oh for the love of Sadako, no. There are maybe three or four named female characters in the whole story, half of which are dead by the time it starts. None of them interact, except for Shizuka and her one year old daughter.
Mako Mori test: I want to give this a pass, because Sadako’s story was infinitely more interesting and sympathetic than our two “hero” characters. In fact, Sadako Gets Screwed Over by the World and Makes Every Last One of Them Pay For It as a revenge drama would have made for a better book. However, I can’t in good conscience pretend that her story didn’t exist as a backdrop to Asakawa’s predicament.