Japanese Film Reviews #8: Nakata Hideo’s THE RING

I have included a critical review of The Ring to accompany my YouTube review…

The 1998 the release of Nakata Hideo’s RING (or RINGU) revolutionized not only the Japanese horror genre but in many way revitalized the Japanese film industry, which had toiled away in obscurity since the 1980s. The film was based off a novel of the same title written by author Suzuki Koji. The plotline of RING is probably known by pretty much anyone who watches film – there exists a haunted videotape that will kill you seven days after you watch it. Asakawa – a young reporter and single mother – finds herself cursed by the tape and must try and solve the mystery of its origins before her time runs out. Along the way she teams up with her ex-husband, who seems to possess some psychic ability himself, and accidentally exposes her young son to the curse as well. That is the plot line of the movie. The novel’s plot is actually quite different. Asakawa is actually a man who is fighting to protect his wife and daughter from the curse. Suzuki Koji, the author, states that this was a conscious choice made to highlight what he calls the ‘gendering’ of Japanese society. He feels that within modern Japanese society, the responsibility of raising the children is placed solely on the shoulders of women and that fathers play a very distant and uninvolved role.

According to Suzuki, “My position is that there is no preexisting paternal instinct. Under the traditional patriarchal system, fathers never assumed any true responsibly for their families – they were basically just symbolic figures. So what I am trying to stress is the notion that fatherhood is a concept – this idea of paternal instinct – is something novel. Throughout Japanese literature, the men are forever telling their wives to take care of everything while they stumble out into the outside world, blindly accepting what they see as the natural family order. Japanese society is an overwhelmingly maternal society where men are indulged.” This runs very close to the concept of Ryosai kenbo (good wife, wise mother) which was developed during the Meiji period. This ideal placed the responsibility of raising the children solely in the hands of mothers and was promoted as a way of ‘empowering’ women with the opportunity to positively influence the development of Japan. However, by ‘empowering’ women with the important task of raising virtuous and productive Japanese citizens, the government was able to rob women of responsibilities and privileges that they had traditionally possessed within society and confine them solely within the Japanese household. During the Meiji period, this was an effective way to ban women from participating in or influencing politics. This trend has continued into modern society. In Japanese literature, if an author wants to allude to a problem within Japanese society he can easily do so by depicting mothers who have failed to fulfill their role as a ‘good wife and wise mother.’ Whether explicitly or implicitly, the problems within Japanese society depicted in the novel can be traced back to this failure. For example, Murakami Ryuu’s 1980 novel Coin Locker Babies portrays the decay and corruption of modern Tokyo. Unsurprisingly, the two main characters were abandoned by their mothers in coin lockers as babies – the epitome of failed motherhood. By making the main character of his novel so concerned with protecting his family, Suzuki says that he wanted to portray a Japanese man positively fulfilling his role as a parent.

Nakata Hideo, the director (who ironically got his start making Roman Porno, or Romantic Pornography) states that he decided to change the character of Asakawa into a woman, “Because I like women!” Whatever the reason, this alternation actually highlights the themes of the story better than the original novel. The Asakawa in the novel infantilizes his wife, treating her like a piece of fragile glass that can break at any moment. This is not a very positive image of how men should be treating women in Japan. In contrast, the film portrays Asakawa as a strong independent woman who is working hard to raise her child on her own, despite the negative connotations that has within Japanese society. Whatever the reason for the switch, the story found within the film is so well-known (and repeated in virtually all other versions of the story) that I will use it as a base for my analysis.

In both versions of the story, the primary theme is women who in some way have defied their traditional gender roles and the repercussions of that defiance. This is a common theme throughout the entire J-horror drama and is a very powerful piece of social commentary. While I do not always believe that film must contain social commentary, in this case this theme is so prevalent within the genre as a whole that it deserves some consideration. Furthermore, the viral nature of many of the ghosts and curses within Japanese horror movies seems to imply that even though your own family might not suffer from these problems, disharmony has an ability to spread into everything it encounters. Thus, a problem within some Japanese families is a problem for Japanese society as a whole.

In both the film and the novel, Sadako (the ghost) is the product of a deviation from the traditional family structure and the roles of women. In the novel, Sadako was born with Testicular Feminization Syndrome, meaning she has both male and female genitalia. Unable to bear children, she lives a life of hurt and disappointment. She is then raped by a man with smallpox and drowned in a well. According to Suzuki’s version, the curse of the RING is the product of the rapists’ smallpox and Sadako’s psychic ability, made all the more powerful by the intense pain she suffered before her death. This is how the curse obtained its viral effect and the ability to travel from person to person, spreading Sadako’s suffering and rage with it. In the film, Sadako is the product of an scandalous affair between her mother and the scientist who was studying her psychic ability. However, Nakata implies that Sadako might not even have a human father at all and has much sinister origins. In any case, Sadako’s psychic abilities are exponentially greater than her mother and this disturbing ability alienates everyone around her. Ultimately, her father knocks her into a well and covers it up, leaving her to die alone and making her into one particularly pissed-off ghost. The theme of dysfunctional families is reinforced in the film by making the Asakawa character female and turning Ryuji into the detached ex-husband. In fact, the only victims we see attacked by the ghostly Sadako are those that deviate from traditional Japanese society. Furthermore, by making Ryuji into Asakawa’s ex-husband, Nakata Hideo has only improved upon Suzuki Koji’s theme of fathers failing to fulfill their parental responsibilities.

There are a number of different adaptations of the RING. Predating the 1998 film by Nakata Hideo there was a made-for-TV miniseries called RINGU: KANZEN-BAN (Ring: The Complete Edition, 1995) that follows closely to the original novel and takes the liberty of exposing Sadako’s breasts at every opportunity. It’s mediocre and I wouldn’t recommend you go out of your way to watch it. When RING was released in theaters in Japan, it aired as a double feature with its sequel RASEN (Spiral). RAZEN has a decent plot, but is a failure within the RING series because it departs too drastically from the original themes of the film and alienates the existing fans. Most importantly, Iida Joji’s directing is just not up to par with Nakata Hideo’s. Wishing to return to their winning formula, the producers commissioned Nakata to produce another sequel called RING 2 released the following year. It recaptures the flavor and mood of the original but lacks a very interesting storyline. Finally, RINGU O: BAASUDEI (The Ring O: Birthday, 2000) offers a prequel to the series and contains the most human and sympathetic depiction of the scary Sadako. Overall, I recommend you watch the original theatrical RING and RINGU O.

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Comments (3)

  1. Janise Mischler

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    June 12, 2010
  2. Samer

    Hi, I’ve just been revisiting the Ring series after reading Koji Suzuki’s The Ring for the first time, and I came across your reviews on YouTube. I hope you’ll forgive me if my expectations of things I find on YouTube are very low, but I was pleasantly surprised, and thought your reviews were very thoughtful and knowledgable about the whole field.

    So now I’ve rewatched Ring, Ring 0, Ring 2 and The Ring (the remake, just to remind myself of how awful it is) and Rasen for the first time, though I have read the book before. Often with film adaptations of books, the film version is the stripped down version, with much of the more nuanced exploration of the various themes and ideas removed to fit the time limitations of a feature film and replaced with chases, explosions and that sort of thing, but occasionally, the film version can be richer in imagery and subtext than the book (eg 2001: A Space Odyssey). I think this might be the case with Nakata’s Ring and Ring 0: Birthday. After reading Suzuki’s Ring, I found that, though the story was as interesting as in the film, the prose was a little flat, presenting the plot in a rather matter-of-fact way, and without much literary flair – perhaps it was just the quality of the translation as I thought Spiral was better, I don’t know. For me the film evoked a richer imagery, with the use of video and television, the substitution of a woman into Asakawa’s role fitting better with the theme of women’s position in Japanese culture, and, of course, *that* climactic scene with the television which scared the pants of me the first time I saw it alone late one night on TV and still gives me the shivers every time I see it.

    However, I’m intruigued by the differences in the story as developed by the book versus the one presented in the two films Ring and Ring 0: Birthday. In the book, there was a certain satisfying internal logic to the development, such as the protagonists’ realisation that the video was a direct record of someone’s experiences, with the periodic blanks representing the viewer’s blinking, that the video was a summary of Sadako’s most traumatic experiences including the final rape and fall into the well, the weird synergy of Sadako’s paranormal powers with Nagao’s [not sure if I got his name right as I don’t have a copy at home] smallpox producing a freaky psychic virus, and the way
    that Sadako’s curse was beamed up from the well directly onto the video tape set to record on a blank channel. On the other hand, the introduction of the Nagao character, whose only purpose it seems is to introduce smallpox into the mix, seemed a bit contrived.

    Sadako’s back-story is covered in much more depth in Ring 0, but sacrifices the smallpox connection and the explicit mention of Sadako’s testicular feminisation syndrome (though Shigemura does say something about Sadako’s ‘secret’). Here, Ikuma does double duty as Sadako’s (ostensible) father and killer, and instead of TFS, we get a physical splitting of Sadako into two people: a gentle, withdrawn, feminine character and a physically stunted, angry and vindictive Sadako II, not exactly masculine, but the evil part of Sadako, or the embodiment of the evil, inhuman father hinted at in the film. Putting this together with the story in the book, where Shizuko Yamamura
    initially obtains her powers after retrieving an ancient icon from the sea bed, we might conclude that Sadaka’s inhuman father was the spirit embodied in the icon and which called Shizuko to find it in order to be reborn from Shizuko’s womb.

    This all reminds me of H. P. Lovecraft’s ‘The Dunwhich Horror’ (available public domain and free on your mobile phone!), in which Old Whately uses dark magic to impregnate his daughter Lavinia with some sort of demon seed. She gives birth to a freakish child, Wilbur, who in turn sets about resurrecting some ancient race of inhuman creatures who used to walk the earth but have since retreated to another dimension. Wilbur turns out not only to be half monster under his clothes, but also has a much less human twin brother at home being looked after by Wilbur and his grandfather. His brother grows to be the size of a barn and terrorises the town before being banished from the Earth by some local academics.

    I liked the way that Ring 0 reverses our affections for female reporter and Sadako – the reporter now comes across as unsympathetic, meddling, not to mention murderous. It’s not clear what motivates the reporter in Ring 0, especially when se decides that Sadako needs killing – I think that’s a bit of a weakness in the film. Ikuma also comes across as more sympathetic, driven to kill Sadako to put an end to all the death and chaos. I also liked the way the play the theatre company are producing resonates with Sadako’s story – I wonder, is it an existing play or was it made up for the film? For some reason (as well as the fact that the female lead is called ‘Anna’!) it reminded me of Anna Karanina, which, of course, is another story about a woman trying to live an unconventional
    life and being punished for it.

    On the other hand, the book had a certain logic in that Sadako’s curse was a result of her traumatic life culminating in her final rape and murder. All of this psychic energy was bottled up in the well until it overflowed into the VCR sitting over it in the cabin. In Ring 0 however, Sadako no. 2 seemed to a bit twisted right from the outset. TFS notwithstanding, her anger and vindictiveness seem less justified and are portrayed more as a kind of intrinsic evil, possibly coming from her mysterious ‘real’ father. I realise that big Sadako suffers cruelty despite being gentle and therefore might have a legitimate greivance, but it looks to me as if, after the two Sadakos are reunited, the curse emanates from evil half Sadako rather than from good Sadako. I suppose that it’s possible to read it such that, even while physically confined at Ikuma’s place, evil Sadako experiences all of the injustices and prejudices the good Sadako is subjected too and this is what warps her view of people. I think that in the real world, the idea that some people are irredeemably ‘evil’ is not a helpful one as it is a way of absolving ourselves of the responsibility of trying to understand why people sometimes do awful things. The idea that Sadako’s curse is a result of the trauma and injustice heaped on her in life is I think a more positive message to take away, in the manner of a morality story.

    Overall, I thought there were lots of interesting ideas and imagery in Ring 0 and at times it was quite beautiful. I’d be interested to hear any thoughts you might have about it (Ring 0, that is) and Sadako’s back story in general.

    July 17, 2012
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