Ring: Sometimes a Girl Just Has to Curse People
I watched The Ring in a friend's dorm room, my freshman year of college. As much as I'd nursed a love of middle-grade horror lit when I was twelve, I'd long since given up the obsession in favor of eschewing horror (minus the occasional M. Night Shyamalan film). Still, my roommate had a crush on this boy down the hall, and she wanted an excuse to spend time with him and asked me to go. So I caved, and we all watched it on his TV in the dark, with only the occasional subtle glow of his roommate's screensaver showing a picture slideshow of various men's dongs to keep us company in the night.
Friends, I was so horrified and enthralled that I still remember the basic plot of that movie, twenty years later. I still remember the scares, and the way I clutched a pillow so I wouldn't scream and look like a chicken in front of the others. I remember glaring accusingly at my own TV when I went to bed for the next couple weeks, despite the fact that it was too small to properly fit a head and shoulders, even one from a vengeful spirit. The Ring has remained my Mt. Everest, the thing that traumatized me as an impressionable youth. So of course, now that I have a lot more horror lit under my belt, why not scale the mountain once and for all and read the book that inspired the movie?
Koji Suzuki's Ring was everything I expected, for better and for worse. At the beginning, I was scared out of my mind, reading through scenes and visualizing their counterparts in the movie. And then, once I got past that, I saw so much more. I saw the reflection of the context in which it was written -- 1990s Japan -- and my 2023 Western Feminist self had problems with that. I won't say that the book isn't worth the read, because it is. But if you're going to, you should be very aware of what you're getting yourself into. CW: multiple sexual assaults, transphobia, misogyny. If you are a sexual assault survivor, I really, really recommend you not read this book. Suzuki throws the event around like confetti, and many women in this story go through it at least once.
The Translation's Writing Style
It's difficult to talk about Suzuki's writing style, because he wrote Ring in Japanese. The version I read was translated by Robert B. Rohmer and Glynne Walley. As someone who's not only read a bit of manga, but has delved into various works of other Japanese literature, there's a feel to something that's been translated into English from Japanese. It uses a lot of the same phraseology, a lot of the same rhythm and vocabulary. The dialogue all sounds very similar, especially. This read like that. The prose was unexceptional, and because I'm not reading it in the original language, I may never know if Suzuki is really a phenomenal writer. The dialogue tried its best to sound organic, but it didn't really pull that off. Once again, though, it's being translated not only into a Western language, but to a Western audience, and it's natural to think that something is going to be lost in that process.
The chapters were long and didn't seem to flow from one to the next with ease. It was split up into several parts that had names that were vaguely, artistically related to the content within: "Autumn," "Highlands," "Gusts," and "Ripples." I imagine that each of these are translated by one or two characters in Kanji, or potentially just a few in Hiragana. (Japanese has three "alphabets," though that's a bit of a misnomer for Kanji, since it's logographic in nature, meaning that the characters represent concepts, not letters. I'm not going to cite my sources here, since I don't remember where I learned that. Probably one of the two Japanese majors I was close to in college, or you can blame Duolingo if you like.)
The flow of the story started out with a bang in the prologue, then stayed quite tense in the exposition. It was hard to keep the sense of tension going through the rising action, and by the time the climax came, I knew what I was expecting, so it wasn't as terrifying as it might have been had I gone in cold. Suzuki left on a bit of a cliffhanger (that was much, much worse than the American version). It was this cliffhanger that made me want to possibly read Spiral, the second book that comes after this one.
The outline of the plot is relatively simple. A girl dies from mysterious circumstances. Her uncle, Asakawa, begins investigating it when he hears of an unrelated death at the exact same time, by the same mysterious means -- sudden, unexplained heart failure. Asakawa is a... "workaholic" would be the nice way of putting it. He's an excellent journalist, but tends to become obsessed with his work at the best of times, often to the expense of his own health, and almost always at the expense of his wife and daughter. When he begins tracking down this coincidence, he finds out that not only do the two know each other, but there were two others, also acquaintances, who died at the same time, of the same sudden heart failure. This leads him to track down the place where they were all together, thinking it was a virus of some kind.
He finds a video tape, and when he watches it, the immediate words on the screen are to watch it all the way through, and when you finish, you will die exactly a week from that point unless you complete a charm. At the end, though, the part of the video telling what the charm is has been recorded over, leaving Asakawa in the dark. Terrified, he knows in his bones that this is how the teens died. He calls his asshole -- err, best friend -- Ryuji, who immediately asks for a copy so he can watch. (I'll get to the characters later.)
The rest of the book is the twists and turns as the pair uses their week to follow the leads to find out where this video came from, who created it, and how to stop the clock on their looming deaths.
This is an older book, written in 1991. So I feel okay giving a few more spoilers. The creator of the tape is a woman named Sadako, who was someone who possessed immense psychic power. Even moreso than her mother, who used to be a media darling of the paranormal scene, until she committed suicide. As the story of Sadako unravels, she becomes her own character, a victim of a world that has wronged her over and over. A vengeful spirit who is taking her own power back from beyond the grave.
At the end, everything twists very abruptly. I feel like Suzuki might have realized that he was making Sadako sympathetic, and Ryuji unlikeable. So he made a gigantic, single stretch that redeemed Ryuji and asserted that no, Sadako was really just an unstoppable evil for the sake of being evil, and as the secret of the video tape was discovered -- that all one had to do was record the tape and show it to someone else -- she had birthed something massive that would shortly span the world unless Asakawa put a stop to it at the start by allowing his wife and child (who had watched it by accident) to die.
I wasn't surprised by the "reproduction" angle (it was in the movie), though it was weird that Suzuki tried to simultaneously conflate it as a virus and as giving birth, and I feel like he probably should have stuck to just one to make it more effective. I think he was trying to nail in the "giving birth" analogy because the author made Sadako hermaphroditic, for... reasons. It is never clear what effect this revelation has on the plot, except to make Asakawa wonder if she's a man or a woman, and if she has male genitalia, then she must be a man, no matter how female she looks (my eyes rolled back into my head at this point.) To assert that she liked being sexually assaulted by the man who murdered her, and to say that Sadako psychically led him to murder her and throw her still-breathing body down a well. This is where I damn near stopped reading. I don't care if a woman is a virgin, no one wants to be raped because they don't want to die a virgin, especially if they're the ones choosing to end their lives just to "give birth" to a "virus" that will claim the world. I found their ultimate reasoning for Sadako's motives to be incredibly flimsy, even by the theory that she might have been mentally ill (which they never posited.)
The Cast of Characters
I'm going to discuss three major characters here: Asakawa, Ryuji, and Sadako. First off is Asakawa, the obsessive journalist who digs into the case. He's honestly everything a man in 1990s Japan should be. Hardworking, a provider, good patriarch to his family. But there's more to it than that. He loses his cool quickly, flounders often, and honestly... he thinks he has this great, loving marriage, but it's established early on that his wife, Shizu, sees him as someone who's constantly gone and never helps with her or their daughter. In fact, when he's focused on his work or is slightly inconvenienced, his family becomes a bother, an obstacle. How dare Shizu talk when he's trying to think? How dare she mention that it would be nice of him to do more for the baby? He's a man! He's got things to do! He nearly hits her when he finds out she's watched the video.
Note: I recognize completely that this is a product of the context in which it was written, and that as a Westerner who doesn't have more than an academic grasp of Japanese culture, some grace should be given, because I'm an outsider, and there are likely many nuances in this book that I have missed by virtue of being white and American and living in 2023. Still, I do know that women aren't always treated well in Japan, and still aren't, to this day. That frustrates me for my sisters who live in that situation, and it probably always will.
Still, Asakawa recruits a friend or two to help him, because he tends to focus on the wrong things and freeze up when he panics. (Hard relate.) He oscillates wildly between "I'm going to be a good person" and "I'm going to give into my worst instincts." I suppose this contradiction makes him more authentic; real humans are seldom consistent beings, and often house ridiculous paradoxes once you get to know them.
The main person he recruits is his best friend, Ryuji. The man who, in the first five minutes you meet him, Asakawa remembers the time that Ryuji confessed to sexually assaulting a woman in high school. Asakawa never told anyone, and so they became friends. By his own admission, Ryuji committed sexual assault several more times, and told Asakawa "I did it again" whenever he has a new pelt to hang on his wall. Asakawa thinks Ryuji is a terrible person, but values the fact that he can release emotions around him, and actually be himself. So they're still close.
Ignoring the fact that this man is presented as a terrible, awful person for 3/4 of the novel for a moment, he's also presented as an eccentric genius who teaches philosophy at a local university. Who is afraid of nothing, and joins "the game" of the video tape just to play out the clock and see if he can beat it. Whose deepest desire is to watch humanity end and to ejaculate while watching it. Believe it or not, I softened that phrase so it wouldn't be quite as gross. He's also a leader, who pushes Asakawa in the right direction, and who notices things the other misses and encourages him, in his rough way, not to give up.
In the last few chapters of the book, in the wake of Ryuji's fate after guessing the charm of Sadako incorrectly, Asakawa talks to a woman Ryuji had been close to, Mai. Mai says that his entire "scoundrel" bit was all a game, because he didn't know how to deal with people. That he'd never known the touch of a woman, and that he'd been playing games and putting on a persona in order to fit in. That he was secretly a good person after all. This is what I mean when I was talking about the twist. It felt as if Suzuki steered really hard into the "Ryuji is a bastard" play until the very last minute, and then it turns out he was a decent man after all. So who then, is worse? Ryuji, who bragged about raping women he didn't touch? Or Asakawa, who believed his claims and never turned him in?
Then there's Sadako. A woman with immense psychic powers, so much that she created that video psychically from her own mind and perspective, without the use of a camera. Asakawa assumes she's ugly until he sees her photo, and after that, she's always described as "lovely" or "beautiful." She was a loner who traveled with her mother and her father (who were an illicit affair) across the country because her father was trying to use her mother to prove the existence of psychic abilities. When her mother died, she went to Tokyo, and joined an acting troupe. The founder drunkenly dropped in on her at her apartment with the intention of "making her his" (I told you; it's all over the place.) The next day, the man dropped dead of sudden heart failure. She was assaulted and murdered by a doctor at a sanatorium she was visiting, in order to see her ailing father. She was left to die in a well over the course of days. Supposedly, the three components needed for a malevolent spirit is water, an enclosed space, and a slow death. Twenty years later, her spirit made that video in the luxury cabin directly above her resting place, with the intent of, Asakawa thinks -- giving birth to something that will infect the world.
But why? I buy the "malevolent spirit" bit. But nothing in this story presents Sadako as anything other than a tragic story of a woman who was loved by the family she left. Who was abused and neglected over and over. And who wanted someone -- anyone -- to pay. That doesn't say "evil for the sake of evil" to me. But at the end, in just one line, Asakawa just decides he was wrong. She wasn't tragic, she was just evil and wanted to end life. It felt to me as if the author went out of his way to turn a sympathetic villain into a monster. Which is a perfect lead-in to my last section.
Oh My God, The Misogyny
Once again, I state that I am a very white American, and I only have a limited, outsider's understanding of Japanese culture, especially when it's been removed by a couple decades. But the thing that struck me over and over again was just how infested this book was with the male gaze. There wasn't a woman in the book immune to it. The women, save for Sadako, are all one-dimensional side characters whose only use is to be quest objects (Asakawa's wife and daughter) or objects of lust (Mai and a number of other women who are in one scene) or both (Sadako herself.) Their scent, their legs, their bodies, are all put on display and put up for longing by the male characters. Sadako is the only female in the book presented as a real person, and Suzuki turns on his heel so fast, to turn her into an unthinking monster with only destruction on her mind. Suzuki describes Sadako's rape and murder in vivid detail, and then throws the bit about being intersex in there (for funsies?). And out of all the raping that goes on (or purportedly goes on?) in this book, not a single one of the men gets any kind of comeuppance except for the guy who dropped in on Sadako when she was with the theatre troupe. Apparently men are just overcome by lust and have to do something about it sometimes, and that's okay?
THAT IS REALLY, REALLY NOT OKAY.
Everything the male characters did, no matter how reprehensible, was written or laughed off as normal, and yet Sadako's the monster? Well damn. Maybe women should just throw our hands up and collectively enter our villain eras together, then.
(Please note: I am not condoning curses, murder, mayhem, or any of Sadako's actions. I just think it's presented with a visible bias toward men as the heroes and women as mad for going outside their role as the objects men use for their pleasure and convenience.)
I know this book is a classic. And I did find it easy to go back to, easy to read and enjoy (when I wasn't repeatedly banging my head against the wall.) If you love it, awesome! Continue to love it. Maybe love it with open eyes. If you were thinking about reading it? Well hey, don't take my word for it. Maybe you'll have a different perspective than I do, and you'll email me, and we'll have a (polite) chat about it. I'm cool with that. I don't have to be the ultimate authority. And if you're Japanese and have some nuances to share with me that I missed by being white as hell? Even better! What matters is that people read critically, and draw their own conclusions.
I scaled the mountain of my ultimate terror, and I found that it was fine, but that the Western version of the story had changed a bit for my American sensibilities. I also found just how much it influenced other Japanese horror that came after it. Read the book and then watch the anime Ghost Hunt, and you'll find common names and homage to Ring all over the anime and manga. If nothing else, read it for the immense influence it had on horror in Asia. But just be aware, and make sure that if you have any of the triggers I talked about, just... maybe skip this one?
Otherwise, Happy Reading!
Purchase This Book (if you dare)
Out of Stock at Powell's
This one is a bit hard to find at independent stores, but give it a try anyway!
My copy of Ring, taken by my wife in a hurry when I tossed it to her and said "here, take a picture of this, please?"
This is me, reading the last few pages of Ring with my little calico on my chest. Her name, for new readers, is Persephone (Persie, for short) and she's both pure sunshine and perpetually hungry. She and her sister, a little black cat named Luna, are just the BEST.
Persie's Review of Ring: 0/10, not enough kitties.