A few weeks back, I started re-reading the Ring trilogy of books.
Back in my college days, a friend of mine had told me about an amazing Japanese horror film. One that was about a cursed video tape; if you watched the video tape, you were destined to die within a week. He leant me a video tape copy of the film and told me that I had to watch it
Oh, how ironic
This was the first Japanese horror film I’d ever seen. It had everything, an attractive female lead (unfortunately she can’t act that well), a strong male lead, a spooky story, no signposted jump scares and a really creepy ending. I loved it.
By the way, this would have been around 2002
For those who don’t know the basic storyline, it goes a little something like this:
Reiko Asakawa, a female TV journalist, hears of a video tape that kills it’s viewers a week after they’ve watched it. She begins investigating this video tape phenomena shortly after her niece, Tomoko, dies of unknown causes. When attending the wake of her niece, she finds several clues that point to a cabin in Izu province (the film is set, primarily in Tokyo). She travels to Izu to find out what happened.
While staying in the same log cabin that Tomoko and 3 of her friends stayed in (all 4 of whom died at exactly the same time, of the same unknown causes), she discovers the cursed tape. After watching it, the cabin phone rings. She takes this as a sign that she has been cursed and races back home to Tokyo.
When she gets home to Tokyo, she enlists the help of her ex-husband Ryuji Takayama in solving the riddle of the cursed video tape. She also makes a copy for him to watch at his own pleasure. They begin investigating the video, the possible makers of the film, and how to break the curse.
Asakawa drops her 9 year old son, Yoichi, at her Father’s house – incidentally, the father of the child is Ryuji. But before she can leave to solve the curse, Yoichi watches the video, claiming that her dead cousin (Tomoko) told her to.
Asakawa and Takayama travel to Oshima (literally, “Big Island” in Japanese. Also, because of simplicity of the name, there are hundreds of islands called Oshima scattered around Japan) to find the last living relative of a psychic named Shizuko Yamamura. They find out that Shizuko’s daughter (to a married man named Dr. Ikuma, who was a specialist in Paranormal psychology), Sadako Yamamura, was killed by her father and thrown into a well. A well that sits under the cabin where Tomoko and her friends found the video tape.
Asakawa and Takayama race back to Izu to exhume the body of Sadako and, hopefully, break the curse. They exhume her body in time and break the curse, and they both travel back to Tokyo.
Asakawa, it’s after 7pm. It’s 10 past 7, in fact
The next day, while working on his unfinished manuscript, Takayama is attacked by the vengeful spirit of Sadako and killed. Shortly beforehand, he figures out the charm, but he dies before he can tell anyone.
Asakawa realises the charm: after watching the video, you have to make a copy of it and make someone else watch it. As the credits role, we hear her asking her father to do her a favour, “… for Yoichi’s sake”
This film is based on a novel by a Japanese writer called Suzuki Koji. The novel, Ringu, is actually part one of a three part series about the Ring Virus. The novel was first published in 1991 – which is the reason that the curse is encoded on a video tape rather than a Laser Disc or DVD (ideas which would, simply, would not have worked)
The original trilogy is less horror, and more a series of medical mystery novels. There are horror elements in the series, but they focus more on a detective-style, logic based, ‘figuring out of the curse’ (if you will), than outright scares.
After the first novel was released, several Japanese TV drama’s where made that were based on it. They did, however, excise certain plot points for specific reasons.
In the original novel, it is revealed the Sadako is a hermaphrodite. While having the outward appearance of a woman, she is in fact, chromosomally at least, XY – a man. Part of the hatred that helps to form the cursed tape was that she wanted to have a child, and was physically unable to do so. The description of her testes hanging under her vagina is quite vivid, in fact.
Another point that was excised from the TV drama’s was that, before she was killed, she was raped by a doctor. Not her father (Dr. Ikuma), but the physician who was curing her father of small pox (Dr. Nagao)
These are the biggest edits made to the original story and, to be honest, I can see why. No broadcasting company in the early 90s was ever going to broadcast a TV show where the antagonist was, not only a hermaphrodite, raped, murdered, and could project her dead thoughts onto a video tape.
After The Drama
After the drama broadcast (and it was a hit, by the way) in Japan, Hideo Nakata began optioning it as a film. He got funding from, Japanese film studio giant, Toho Studios and set about making his film version. The problem was, though, that Nakata had to make several changes to the story.
Firstly, he changed the protagonist from a man, Asakawa Kazuyuki, to a woman. He also changed Asakawa’s job from a newspaper journalist to a TV journalist. Changing Asakawa to a man meant changing the relationship between Asakawa and his closest friend, Takayama. Takayama became the father of Awakawa’s child, Yoichi, who changed from a 1 year old girl (Yoko) to a 9 year old boy.
Asakawa was changed to a woman because of the recent rise of feminism in Japan. Women were becoming more self sufficient and respected in 90’s Japan, and Nakata wanted to tap into that, that way he could get more people to see his film. By making Takayama the ex-husband of Asakawa and father of her child, he created a stronger emotional bond between the two
In the novel, Asakawa became friends with odd ball Takayama one day at school, after Takayama tells him that he raped a college girl in the early hours of the morning. At the end of the novel, Asakawa is left wondering whether Takayama actually raped the girl, as Takayama’s lover, Takeno Mai, implies that Takayama dies a virgin.
Changing Yoko to a 9 year old boy allowed Asakawa to be away during the important plot points of the film but also to provide a constant emotional draw that could be tapped into by simply mentioning his name. I suppose that the production team tried to find a cute little boy for the audience to coo over too, but he just looks creepy to me.
This leads to a film that, unless you’ve read the novel, seemingly makes huge leeps of logic as Takayama intuits most of the clues without having to explain himself.
That’s a lie, actually he does explain himself (around the mid act two mark) by saying “I have a strange power, myself,” when talking to Yamamura Takashi about Sadako and her mother.
The problem with taking liberties with a script and changing it so much is that when it came around to making the sequel (Ring 2), instead of making the film version of the second novel (Spiral), Nakata ended up trying to tie up the miryad plot holes left by the first film.
A few years later, the sequel novel did get made into a film (Rasen, or Spiral internationally). The feeling of the film comes across very strongly, and that feeling is “Ring 2 never happened, right? RIGHT?” It sticks as close to the orignal source material as it can, within the limits set by the first film. To be honest, I prefer this to the “official” sequel. It’s more about the medical mystery (the main character, Mistuo Ando, performs the autopsy on Takayama’s body) elements than the scares that the other two films try to push on the viewer, and it feels more creepy in places.
The problem with basing the remake on an already bastardised version of the original story, (with most of original story being based entirely on Japanese folklore and beliefs) is that when attempting to translate that into a new story for an American audience means that a considerable amount was lost was in the translation, and what was left came out as just plain weird. As a friend of mine once said:
Making it look like a special effect doesn’t make it look scary, just weird and out of place
Also, he said (and I think it sums up the American remakes):
I just don’t get it
Then again, it’s an American horror film, what’s to get?
Firstly, Sadako has her hair pulled over her face (in the films) to serve two purposes:
- Implying that Sadako was a very angry person (without ever explaining to the viewer why she’s an angry person). In Japanese tradition, if a girl pulls her hair down over her face, she is being very rude.
- She represents a typical Onryo or female Japanese ghost. An Onryo is a particular type of ghost who is being blocked from a peaceful afterlife, and seeks vengeance for some reason. They are usually depicted as wearing a white (burial) kimono and having wild, unkempt hair which is usually pulled over the face.
Secondly, it is implied (in the novel) that she was born of the sea.
Keep playing in the water, and the demons will come to get you.
The sea, and water in particular, is a scary thing for the Japanese as a culture. For thousands of years, they have suffered with typhoons, water based diseases and millions of people dying at sea. This means that by implying that a character is related to the sea, you can tap into this fear with very little effort (again, this is why the remake of Dark Water didn’t do as well in the west as the original did in Japan).
Thirdly, Sadako (in the films) is a combination of two very famous Japanese ghosts.
- Oiwa – this is where she gets her misshapen eye from. The story of Oiwa is the most famous story in Japan. Here is a link to more information about Oiwa: LINK
- Okiku – this is where her fate (being thrown into a well by a loved one) comes from. Here is a link to more information about Okiku: LINK
By including all of the above, Sadako becomes a very Japanese character, and anyone learning of her tale is reminded of these other tales instinctively (if they know of them), bringing all of their views and fears with them.
Having these traits applied to a young American girl from the mid-west made no sense.
I’m Going To Leave It There
Simply because this post is nearing the two thousand word mark – not that there isn’t anything more to add to the discussion – and I’m quite tired, I’m going to end this little rant.
But before I sign off, I’m going to leave you with this short video, be sure to watch it… and keep an ear open for your phone ringing afterwards.
Until next time,