The Ring Cycle
In 1991, a horror phenomenon was born and now almost fifteen years later, The Ring Two opens in a movie theatre near you. What is the enduring and horrific power that Sadako Yamamura and Samara Morgan have over us?
Readers should note that this article contains spoilers for the Ring novels and films, including the American remakes. You have been warned.
When did you first see the tape?
For me, it was around one in the morning while I was at college. I borrowed three videotapes from Blockbuster that contained the Ring trilogy, a series of horror movies from Japan that were said to scare the pants off you. Up until that point, I had no concept of Japanese cinema other than my beloved anime. The Japanese also made horror movies. Cool!
So I sat there and watched the trilogy in one go and I slept with my TV unplugged and the lights on for a month. Since then, I have been an avid fan of Japanese horror, but my 'Sadaphobia' - a term I've coined for the fear of Japanese women in white dresses with long black hair obscuring their faces - has remained ever since. I can safely say Ring is the only film which still gives me nightmares.
We come to December 2004. I was sitting my local cinema, about to watch The Forgotten, when I realized that the icy dread was back. The cinema was screening a teaser trailer for The Ring Two, the sequel to the American remake, which opens in the US on March 18 and in the UK on April 1.
Koji Suzuki's 1991 novel Ring, and its sequels Spiral (which was published in Japan as Rasen), Loop and Birthday have led him to become known as the 'Stephen King of Japan'. The books, in turn, inspired four theatrical movies, manga, a radio drama, a computer game, numerous television series, and most recently, two Hollywood movies.
Novels - Creation, Mutation, Evolution, Origins
Urban legends are rife these days. Alligators in the sewers of New York City, that creepy dog in the microwave thing, and the one about the cursed video. Oh, you've not heard that one?
Well what if, just by watching an unmarked videotape, you suddenly had just a week to live? Of course, the alternative isn't exactly popular either. All you have to do to break the curse is to copy the tape and show it to someone else, thus creating a nightmare that could sweep the globe. Do you die and end the curse, or save your own life at the expense of others?
This is Kazuyuki Asakawa's problem. After his niece Tomoko Oishi dies mysteriously and an act of serendipity involving a trip in a taxi, this average reporter is drawn into the mystery of a videotape that kills. Four teens all died on the same night, all of heart attacks and all had looks of absolute terror on their faces - they literally died of fright.
Smelling a good story, Asakawa begins to investigate and follows the trail of these four teenagers to discover that they all went to the South Hakone Pacific Land Resort a week before their deaths. There he finds a video, lying - unmarked - on a shelf in the manager's office and he watches it. The video, a mix of actual and abstract images, is hypnotizing, but the final section that explains how to break the curse has been erased. So the countdown begins... He has seven days until death comes to claim him and he is 'eaten by the lost'.
Ring has a strange lure about it. The world created in it is so real and plausible that it seems almost too real to be fiction. Despite being in the third person narrative, the reader follows Asakawa and his unlikely companion, Ryuji Takayama, as they race against time to save their own lives and the lives of Asakawa's wife and baby daughter who also accidentally viewed the cursed tape.
Like a good detective novel, the two men must use their skills to trace the origins of the tape using clues hidden deep within the images. They are eventually led to Sadako Yamamura, the mother of this recorded abomination and the source of the curse.
Sadako was a strange woman. Born in 1947 to Shizuko Yamamura, a renowned psychic, and Heihachiro Ikuma, a professor of psychology at Taido University, she soon developed abilities that far surpassed her mother's. Sadako was also famed for her mastery of nensha, the ability to project images onto film, often more commonly known as thoughtography. One of her first manifestations was the projection of the characters yama and sada from her own name.
Yet Sadako is not a completely evil and cold-hearted villain; her character is one whose life has been surrounded by misery and tragedy. She leaves clues within the tape that lead to her identity. Her point is not to simply kill people, but to make them realize who she is and that she existed.
If Ring is a mystery with leanings towards horror, then Spiral is a medical thriller. Continuing directly on from its predecessor, the narrative shifts to that of Mitsuo Ando, a doctor of forensic medicine who discovers that his former classmate, Ryuji Takayama, is dead when Ando does his autopsy.
Drawn into the mystery of his friend's death, Ando discovers a code within Ryuji's corpse and comes up with the word 'Ring'. Ando, along with his sidekick Miyashita, tries to figure out what happened while becoming entangled with Ryuji's student, Mai Takano. It isn't until Mai disappears that he finally gets his hands on a copy of the infamous video, but it has been erased. The virus is extinct, or so it seems.
During his investigations, Ando comes across Asakawa's word-processor and discovers a disk containing a detailed written record of his investigations. The Ring report is written with amazing clarity and attention to detail which, it transpires, is essentially the previous book. The virus has mutated. Each person who reads Koji Suzuki's Ring has unintentionally infected themselves with Sadako's mutated virus!
Yet Spiral goes deeper, exploring the medical implications of the 'Ring Virus'. We get to see microscopic images of the virus and Suzuki explores cryptography and genetics in his attempt to explain the science behind the fear.
Loop, due to be published by Vertical in May, completes the trilogy. It details a world where an unknown virus is devastating all forms of life, from human and animals to plant life. Everyone is dying and no one knows why. Taking the viewpoint of Kaoru Futami, a young medical student, Suzuki concludes the trilogy while revisiting the events of the previous books.
However, Suzuki wasn't quite finished with Sadako Yamamura. In 1999, he published Birthday, an anthology of three stories exploring the Ring universe. Floating Coffin explained what happens to Mai Takano after she watches the cursed tape in Rasen, Lemonheart is the basis for the movie Ring 0: Birthday and focuses on Sadako's life while she was a part of an acting troupe in Tokyo in the summer prior to her death. The last story, Happy Birthday returns to the world of Loop and concludes the story of what happened to Kaoru Futami.
The Ring Cycle - Four times the Fear
The success of the original novel meant that a movie was soon in the works and Ring, directed by Hideo Nakata, began its theatrical run in 1998. While it essentially followed the novel, there were some major differences.
Kazayuki Asakawa changed gender to become Reiko Asakawa, a likable single mother and journalist who was divorced from Ryuji Takayama, a professor of mathematics, with whom she had a son, Yoichi.
Perhaps the biggest change, however, concerned the demise of Sadako and her subsequent personification as a vengeful ghost. In the film versions, the well plays a much more significant role; none more so than in the cursed video itself and in the infamous scene where Sadako crawls out of the TV to claim Ryuji.
This scene, which ranked 6th in 'Top 100 Greatest Scary Moments', a poll by British TV's Channel 4 in 2004, only appears in the movie and it was the idea of the director, Hideo Nakata, who cites Videodrome as his inspiration.
One interesting thing about the production of Ring was that its sequel Rasen was made at the same time, using the same cast, but with a different crew and director. The films were then theatrically screened together so that if people liked the original, they could see how it continued without having to wait a year or more.
Rasen, however, lacked the eerie horror present in Ring and was not the success that the production company, Asmik Ace, hoped that it would be. Fans simply weren't as impressed by the exploits of Mitsuo Ando as they had been by Reiko Asakawa. Like the novel, Rasen is more of a thriller than a straight-up horror movie, and so they quickly commissioned a replacement and entirely original sequel, Ring 2.
Like the somewhat forgotten Rasen, Ring 2 used the original cast and made Mai Takano the heroine of the piece, bolstering the minor role that she had in the original movie and the slightly larger part in Rasen, leaving her to become the next hapless human trying to defeat Sadako's curse.
The cycle seemingly completed, fans had to wait until 2000 for the next installment in the saga. Ring 0: Birthday was both a prequel and a sequel that was based on Lemonheart, one of the short stories in Koji Suzuki's Ring-related anthology Birthday. Instead of hard-hitting horror and chills, Ringworms got a human-interest drama focusing on the sad life of Sadako Yamamura, and aside from the ending, fans - myself included - were left feeling genuinely sorry for all the injustices that poor Sadako endured in her life.
Focusing on Sadako's time as an actress in a Tokyo acting troupe, director Norio Tsuruta tells the tale of a frail girl looking for acceptance while trying to run away from a past that was always going to catch up to her. Yet the film also explains how the all too human Sadako Yamamura, cursed with visions and the power to harm or to heal, becomes the epitome of vengeance that we meet in the first film. While this particular concept is not mentioned in the original books, it does provide much needed background and gives a deeper sense of story to the entire cycle.
Sadako Becomes Samara - The Horror Comes to America
Fast-forward to 2002. Hollywood has just discovered Japanese horror. First up on the block is the remake of Ring. A traditional Buddhist funeral is held for Sadako Yamamura on August 10 at the LaForet Museum in Harajuku, Tokyo. Her vengeful spirit is laid to rest and according to a report at theringworld.com, author Koji Suzuki explained: "Sadako's physical body has died. Her spirit has crossed the oceans, where it was reborn as Samara."
The vital elements of the story were kept, but they are insanely Americanized. Reiko Asakawa becomes Rachel Keller, a blonde journalist with an attitude. Ryuji Takayama becomes Noah, a cute expert in video and photography, and they even have a scarily grown up son who is a clone of that psychic kid from The Sixth Sense.
The video makes a welcome return, and although completely different to the Japanese version, the symbolism remains. Images of 'the ring' and the video itself were cunningly scattered throughout the movie so that by the end, viewers not only sat through Rachael's viewing of the cursed tape, but they were also subjected to it almost subliminally.
Then we have Samara Morgan. Like the Sadako Yamamura that we met in Ring 0, she is seemingly innocent but becomes a symbol of hate and fear. Yet it is never made quite clear what she is and where she comes from. Questions are raised and left unanswered, such as who were her parents? Where did her eerie abilities come from? Was she even the natural child of Anna Morgan?
Hopefully, we'll all get to find out this month when Hideo Nakata's The Ring Two begins its theatrical run. Set six months after the events of the original film, Rachel and Aidan have moved to Astoria, Oregon, still haunted by Samara and the infamous video. The death of two local teens and the presence of another cursed tape leads Rachael and Aidan to question whether they actually laid Samara Morgan to rest.
For now, the new cursed video is available for download if you know where to look.
Coming Full Circle
In conjunction with the release of the sequel, Dreamworks is also releasing The Ring: Collector's Set to make up for the original barebones release. The set contains the original Region One release and a bonus disc containing trailers for both films, as well as the cursed videos, interviews and documentaries.
As far as the original Japanese films are concerned, only Ring (marketed as Ringu) is available in the US. In the UK and Europe, all four films are available. Tartan Films has the rights to Ring, Ring 2 and Ring 0: Birthday, and they have recently re-released the films as a remastered special edition for £40. As with their releases, the discs are all region 0 but are not, as far as I know, encoded to play on US televisions. Spiral has also been released on DVD in the UK.
In the US, English translations of Koji Suzuki's books are being published by Vertical, with Loop available in May, and Birthday due out in the fall. HarperCollins publishes the books in the UK, and they are a little behind the US releases; Ring was published last year, and Spiral is out now.
The manga Ring, Ring 2, Spiral and Birthday are all published by Dark Horse, with the final volume, Ring 0 available by the time you read this article.
Finally, I have to mention theringworld.com, the Internet's best resource for all things Ring related, without which I could not have compiled this article.