Ring

Tagged: Film

Film (1998). Kadokawa, Pony Canyon, Toho, Imagica, Asmik-Ace and Omega Project present an Omega Inc production in association with Ace Pictures. Written by Hayashi Junichiro, based on the novel Ringu (1991; trans Robert B Rohmer and Glynne Walley as Ring 2003) by Kōji Suzuki, which draws narrative motifs from Japanese folktale Banchō Sarayashiki [for Folktale see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below]. Directed by Hideo Nakata. Cast includes Daisuke Ban, Rie Inō, Masako, Nanako Matsushima, Katsumi Muramatsu, Miki Nakatani, Yōichi Numata, Rikiya Ōtaka, Hiroyuki Sanada, Hitomi Satō and Yūko Takeuchi. Colour. 91 minutes.

A journalist investigating four deaths connected to an Urban Legend discovers a murderous Basilisk in the form of a cursed videotape.

Some wounds go too deep for even Time to heal; for these we have Horror stories, old-time Taboos and allegories of Disaster. Of all instances in the SF Megatext in which a dormant Memory revealed by Technology divulges the deeper implications of a culture's repressed past – examples from Cyberpunk include the short story "The Gernsback Continuum" (in Universe 11, anth 1981, ed Terry Carr) by William Gibson and the film Blade Runner (1982), adapted from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) by Philip K Dick – the dramatic device that underpins Japanese horror film Ring, adapted from the novel of the same name by Kōji Suzuki, is among the most acutely-coded in all of science fiction Cinema.

A late-night conversation between two schoolgirls establishes the premise of the film. Masami (Satō) tells Tomoko (Takeuchi) that a boy on holiday with his family on the Izu peninsula accidentally sets a video recorder to record a blank channel, not realizing that the Television channels there use different bandwidths to those in Tokyo. A "scary woman" appears on the screen. "You will die in one week," she says. The boy switches off the television. The phone rings. "You saw it," insists the same voice. "And a week later the kid died!" Masami tells Tomoko, laughing, trying to frighten her friend, but half-terrified herself. "I saw a weird video the other day," says Tomoko in turn, looking concerned. "Iwata found this weird video, and we all watched it." Baseball – one of the more popular sports imported into Japan from the United States – plays on the television set in the living room. The four friends got the same "prank call" after watching the video, says Tomoko, and, "… today is one week." "You're just trying to scare me!" exclaims Masami. Tomoko smiles, and pretends that she is, after all, winding Masami up, but when Masami goes to the toilet – Tomoko's mother has called from the game in the interim, triggering a false alarm – the television coverage of the baseball game switches itself back on, the phone rings, Tomoko answers, and, sure enough, Tomoko's visage freezes upside-down in a rictus of death as she turns to camera to face an unseen force.

This is the first of several instances in Ring in which the point-of-view of the murderer is (momentarily) identical to that of the viewer, a not-uncommon device in horror cinema, and one which in the Sophie Fiennes-directed Channel 4 television documentary The Pervert's Guide to the Cinema (2005), Slovenian cultural theorist and film critic Slavoj žiŽek connects to the possibility of exposing viewers to greater comprehension of the Politics of the society which they inhabit (for more on postmodernist conceptions of "the Real" see Postmodernism and SF). Alfred Hitchcock's adaption of the Robert Bloch novel Psycho (1959; filmed as Psycho 1960) provides the major example of žiŽek's argument – the famous shower-scene is just one instance in which the viewer is "looking through the eyes" of Norman Bates – but Ring eschews the serial-killer theatrics of Psycho in favour of putting the viewer in the shoes of a subtler (and therefore more disquieting) metaphor, and one that serves not only (denotatively) for the vengeance of a yūrei ("dead spirit") on those connected to the Scientist who murdered her, but also (connotatively) for the Metaphysics of the estrangement of Japanese society from the traditions of its past (for more on the effect of modernity on Japanese Fantastika see the entry on Kōji Suzuki). It is the way in which the unacknowledged truth at the heart of Ring is (a) rendered as the cursed Basilisk of the videotape that propels its plot, then (b) afforded greater reality-by-unintelligibility by the tape's depiction of the consequences of the eruption of Mount Mihara on the Island of Izu Ōshima – a grainy, almost surrealist, black-and-white portrayal of tidal waves, hooded figures and casualties crawling from one side of the screen to the other, that is transgressively, thrillingly, suggestive of the aftermath of the detonation of two Nuclear bombs by the United States (with the agreement of the United Kingdom) over the Cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War Two – and then in how, not least, the unquiet spirit of murdered Telepath Sadako Yamamura (Inō) (c) crawls out of a Television screen (straight at the viewer) to personify the shocking reality of this planet-threatening truth.

"Ota, my friend, was moving," wrote Yoshitaka Kawamoto, later the director of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, of the moment following the impact of the "Little Boy" atomic bomb on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. "… [He] was looking at me with his left eye. His right eyeball was hanging from his face. I think he said something, but I could not make it out. Pieces of nails were stuck on his lips. He took a student handbook from his pocket. I asked, 'Do you want me to give this to your mother?' Ota nodded. A moment later he died. By now the school was engulfed in flames. I started to walk away, and then looked back. Ota was staring at me with his one good eye. I can still see that eye in the dark."

The eye that appears in close-up at the denouement of Ring (and which adorns the Tartan Asia Extreme DVD release of the film) is not that of actor Rie Inō (who plays Sadako) but that of a male crew-member: the extremity of its bloodshot, downward-looking terror surpasses even the existential metaphor of Perception at the heart of the Roger Corman masterpiece X – The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (1963; vt The Man with the X-Ray Eyes), seeing the untellable truths of Fabulation, widening at the ungovernable malice of a world from which there is no escape (see the entry on Horror in SF for more on the suitability of sf to this kind of metaphoric flexibility) before arriving at the central fact of the fissure humanity has blown between itself and its planet through the application of nuclear Physics. "He was trying to prove the existence of ESP," says Ryūji Takayama (Sanada), ex-husband and accomplice to protagonist Reiko Asakawa (Matsushima), of Sadako's murderer (and, it would seem, her biological father), the Scientist Doctor Heihachiro Ikuma (Ban). "The media hasn't changed much in forty years… the papers built him up and then smashed him." Sadako's mother Shizuko Yamamura (Masako) had foretold the eruption of Mount Mihara forty years earlier via Precognition but committed suicide after being denounced as a fraud at a press demonstration of her powers. Sadako killed the journalist responsible for denouncing her mother and then went on the run with Ikuma before being bumped off by him and dumped in a well: she has, it emerges, created the cursed videotape from beyond the grave via Psionics. Ryūji himself begins to exhibit (previously dormant) extrasensory Psi Powers after watching the cursed video but cannot escape the deadly implications of Ring's central image, as Sadako's vengeful ghost first crawls out of the well shown on Ryūji's television set and then out of the television set and into his front room, frightening Ryūji into a cardiac arrest in the process. It is this sequence for which Ring is most famous.

"The poetic image is a sudden salience on the surface of the psyche, the lesser psychological causes of which have not been sufficiently investigated," writes Gaston Bachelard (1884-1962) in La poétique de l'espace (1958; trans Maria Jolas as The Poetics of Space 1964), Bachelard being a specialist in the philosophy of science (as in L'expérience de l'espace dans la physique contemporaine ["The Experience of Space in Contemporary Physics"]; 1937) who moved to analyses of phenomenology in the philosophy of the arts. The reverberation of a poetic idea, says Bachelard, produces a "change of being" in the viewer, surpassing the ability of Psychology to explain the unexpected nature of the new image. Bachelard is writing about imagery in prose and Poetry but the very best directors of science fiction films, including Andrei Tarkovsky in Solaris (1971) and Stalker (1979), and Stanley Kubrick in Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1963) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), have sought to replicate this "sonority of being" in the moving image, and Hideo Nakata has achieved something similar in Ring. Sadako coming out of the television is inaugurating a form of truth from which we would rather look away but cannot. "To the function of reality, wise in the experience of the past… should be added a function of unreality," writes Bachelard: "If we cannot imagine, we cannot foresee."

The plot details of Ring are well-organized, inexorably propelling the protagonists forward through time's linear syntax – "September 15, Wednesday," and so forth – by counting down the days and dates until one or other of the characters who has seen Sadako's Basilisk must die by the truth it imparts. Investigating journalist Reiko Asakawa realizes she must make a copy of the cursed video and show it someone within one week of her son, Yōichi (Ōtaka), watching it in order to save his life – excavating Sadako's body from the bottom of the well has not prevented the curse from killing her ex-husband – and is on her way to show the video to her own father, Kōichi (Muramatsu), as the film ends: "It goes on and on." This thematic contrast between the contemporary dominance of linear time building up to a final judgement (see Eschatology) and that of conceptions of the cyclical nature of time prevalent in older forms of East Asian Religion and philosophy, such as in Shintō and in the Taoist writings of Zhuang Zhou (circa 369-286 BCE), is granted greater dramatic agency by the device of the videotape, which reveals not only the capacities of Cinema to replay the past at 24 frames per second but also that of the videotape to store, edit and disseminate digital code.

It was, however, the central image of Sadako coming out of the Television that fuelled Ring's popularity, first triggering a sequel Rasen ("Spiral"; 1998), based on Kōji Suzuki's novel Rasen (1995; trans Glynne Walley 2005 as Spiral), which was released in the wake of Ring in hope of capitalizing on its predecessor's success, and then, in the following year, the more successful, Hideo Nakata-directed, Ringu 2 ("Ring 2"; 1999), before spawning several Hollywood remakes beginning with The Ring (2002) and Videogame spin-offs including the Survival Horror The Ring: Terror's Realm (2000) and the visual novel Ring: Infinity (2000). The film is a point of discussion (and some affectionate ridicule) among characters in Roberto Bolaño's 2666 (2004; trans Natasha Wimmer 2008), was mined as a source of Parody in Scary Movie 3 (2003), and has gone on to inform any number of Internet debates about the covert menace and Paranoia of audio-visual space. [MD]

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