The Ring Companion
by Jasper Sharp
This summer saw the disappointing release of The Ring Two, Dreamworks' obligatory sequel to their lucrative remake of the Japanese horror film Ring. As we cast a reflective glance back over the past year's cinema releases, perhaps its greatest significance was in its staggering insignificance within the cycle. This was supernatural horror of the lowest, most forgettable order.
Its main point of interest was that it represented the Hollywood debut of Hideo Nakata, the man who had so assuredly helmed the original, and the pre-release promo puff was quick to make capital of his return to the franchise with which he had made his name (after the originally-touted director Noam Murro departed from the producers under somewhat acrimonious circumstances). However, while Ring Three has apparently been announced, The Ring Two's main legacy will no doubt prove to be, should the series continue along the same lines as other long-running horror cycles like Friday the 13th or Hellraiser, that it provides a convenient marker point before which terminal boredom sets in with audiences for whom, in this brave new digital age, the concept of a cursed VHS tape seems more than a little anachronistic. To these eyes at least, the Ring cycle has come full circle.
For a director who had long expressed some degree of antipathy towards the horror genre, it must have been particularly depressing for his US break-through to have provided such a sense of déjà vu. It would be difficult to place the failure of Ring Two on the shoulders of its director: on a sheer technical level, Ring Two is not such a departure from the consistently high quality of Nakata's Japanese work. Broodingly atmospheric and providing a few significant scares along the way, it is let down by an idiotic script by Ehren Kruger (Scream 3, The Brothers Grimm), which ignored everything that had made the original so effective. Far worse, it also plundered ideas from one of Nakata's previous films, Dark Water (Honogurai Mizu no Soko kara, 2002), making the implicit maternal guilt subtext explicit along the way. That Dark Water had already just suffered from a lacklustre Hollywood makeover at the hands of Brazilian director Walter Salles didn't help its cause either.
In a franchise that in Japan already counted a Fuji Television-produced TV movie directed by Chisui Takagawa in 1995; Nakata's remarkable original and the film it originally was paired with on a double bill - Joji "George" Iida's Spiral (Rasen) in 1998, an adaptation of Koji Suzuki's second novel in the series (which had been published in 1995); two official movie sequels - Ring 2 (1999) and Ring 0: Birthday (2000); the Korean remake, Ring Virus (1999); a TV series of Spiral (1999); a further TV series named Ring: The Final Chapter (Ringu: Saishu-sho, 1999); manga adaptations of all the original stories; Suzuki's final, as yet unadapted third novel Loop (1998), AND his compendium of related short stories The Birthday (1999) - all before the American remake rights had been snapped up, The Ring Two might just as well have been titled The Ring, Too.
As can be seen from the above list, the heady brew of pseudo-science and the supernatural that marked out Koji Suzuki's original novel, published in 1991, provided plenty of rich pickings for its adapters to spin out the material in all manner of directions. Many of its ideas were either merged, extrapolated or spun out into new and increasingly fantastical directions, and this goes as much for Suzuki's own literary follow-ups too. But it was Nakata's deftly effective envisioning of THAT famous scene that sent the chain of hushed whispers across a rapidly expanding global fanbase, and nothing else connected with the series has ever matched it.
Though Gore Verbinsky's 2001 remake made more money at the box office, both in Japan and elsewhere across the world, in terms of takings as a ratio of original budget, the Asmik Ace-produced original was by far the most profitable. Its internet-driven word-of-mouth sleeper success proved far more efficient than the high-investment, safe-returns marketing methods of Hollywood, where the gap between shooting and market saturation on supermarket sell-thru is now well under a year. Like The Blair Witch Project, however, such marketing methods are difficult to replicate, and as such, Ring's triumph is as much related to the time and circumstances of its original release as to its own merits.
In fact, the short-lived J-horror boom which the original Ring spawned was already well over by the end of the millennium, before the momentary resurgence of interest generated by Verbinsky's remake and the synchronous arrival of Takashi Shimizu's Juon in 2001. In the meantime, further Ring-inspired offerings from Korea and Hong Kong have ensured that Asia is now seen as a fertile breeding ground for a more classical breed of terror that has long been forgotten in the West. And still the faceless, lank-haired figure of Sadako imprints itself on the popular imagination; I even saw a similar image popping up in a trailer for a new Russian adaptation of Nikolai Gogol's The Viy recently.
One might have thought that by this late stage everything that there is to say about the Ring and its associate phenomena has been said - at least on the internet and in the popular film press. Certainly the string of recent Japanese horror releases that have followed along the same lines seems to have reached something of a crisis point, bringing little more to the table for discussion. For this reason, and those others stated above, 2005 seems a particularly propitious time to go back and sum up the full legacy of the Ring films and books.
Dennis Meikle's The Ring Companion does just this, and a more thorough tome one couldn't wish for. In no way a promotional tie-in for the latest American addition to the cycle - the author is quick to point out his reservations with the Dreamworks films - it looks at the inspiration behind Suzuki's influential novel, as well as giving full summaries of all of the titles already mentioned that emerged after its publication, how they differ from their source, and the curious manner in which they lead on or diverge from the previous versions. But it also includes much more.
In my review of the ponderous collection of essays that made up the academically-pitched Japanese Horror Cinema book, I mentioned that, in book form at least, a full (and accurate!) overview of the traditions and precedents of the recent J-horror boom has yet to be written. To be honest, I really wasn't expecting The Ring Companion to deliver the goods, but it has to be said that chapter three's history of Japanese fantasy cinema is the most complete I've seen in print to date, even going so far as to cover in some depth the only tenuously-related field of the Godzilla-led kaiju eiga sub-genre. There's a few minor omissions in it: I've yet to see anywhere in Western writing any recognition of the ranks of low-budget horror titles that Daei put out in the early 1960s, though this is chiefly because of their invisibility on Western shelves. Also, Jun Ichikawa's No Life King (No Raifu Kingu, 1989) a tale about the urban legend surrounding a cursed video game remains a curiously-overlooked antecedent to Sadako's videotape. And I still remain bewildered as to why Nikkatsu's Angel Guts series finds itself so often lumped within the timeline of Japanese horror cinema, being that, while perhaps contemporaneous with the nasty low-budget rape-and-revenge thrillers of Last House on the Left and I Spit on Your Grave that find themselves discussed in the context of the evolution of US horror, they would never be considered as such in Japan, instead existing within a different pre-existing domestic tradition of softcore sex movies. Still, these are but minor gripes in what is generally a surprisingly in-depth and well-researched overview.
Going way beyond its brief, The Ring Companion also takes a look at the Western literary tradition of the ghost story, as practised by authors such as M.R. James and H.P. Lovecraft, and the numerous ways in which the supernatural has found itself worked into European and American film. This is all crucial background, for in literature as much as in cinema, Japanese genre fiction has always benefited from this cross-fertilization between its own myth and folklore and that of outside. Nakata himself was quick to admit the influences foreign titles like The Haunting and Poltergeist had on his seminal version of Ring.
Meikle is never shy of providing his opinions on any of the films under discussion (though this is all counterpointed with excerpts from contemporary reviews from Western sources such as Variety), and his touting of Asia's ability to produce innovative and inspiring new riffs on the genre where Hollywood has failed might seem a little too gushing. Still, reservations about the forceful championing of his own tastes aside, The Ring Companion is far more than just a cash-in on a high-profile movie franchise, casting its net far and wide in its attempt at bringing together all the disparate elements connected with the phenomenon. Providing more info on the works in question than one could ever hope for, until such time as Japanese horror finds a new direction, it is going to take a very diligent researcher to top it.