I’ve been thinking a lot about the duality of the “viral” concept as it pertains to people in the physical world and communication in the digital world. It seems as though any time a new technology comes on the scene our immediate response is both to study it and to consider the ways in which it could become a source of terror. Koji Suzuki’s Ring, published translated in America in 2004 and in its original Japanese as Ringu in 1991, dances the line of interrogating a fear brought about by a mysterious piece of media and exploring its persistence through the lens of virility and the perceived danger—and allure—of the unfamiliar.
Reading Ring now, with or without previous exposure to any of its film adaptations or sequels, offers some remarkably timely insights into how much—or little—our attitudes toward the abnormal have shifted. Suzuki’s novel is the tale of Japanese journalist Asakawa looking to uncover the connection between a recent spate of deaths of four teenagers, one of whom is his niece. Along the way, he discovers a mysterious cursed videotape that dooms its viewers to death seven days later unless they can complete an unknown act.
Racing to find out what needs to be done to break the curse and reveal the origins of the tape, Asakawa uncovers the tragic life and death of Sadako Yamamura, a young girl with mysterious powers. In her connection to the tape lies the answer that could save Asakawa, his friend and colleague with a checkered past Ryuji, and perhaps even the world.
There is much about Suzuki’s novel that those who have seen the 1998 Japanese and aughts American films will be familiar with. But there are plenty of other secrets within its pages to send interested readers on a hunt for the source material. Perhaps the most compelling is the way it handles Ryuji and Sadako.
Though the two have no connection outside of the fact that Ryuji watches the tape in an effort to help Asakawa uncover its secrets and save himself, they operate on opposite sides of a spectrum that sits at the heart of the novel and many of its subsequent iterations. Ryuji, for one, is a relatively respected professor with an interest in parapsychology and a dark secret and rumor shadowing him, which only Asakawa knows the truth of for much of the novel. Ryuji brags to Asakawa about being a serial rapist in college.
Why someone like that is included as one of the novel’s de facto heroes when Sadako’s rage narrative spins in part on a rape victim’s death is another of the novel’s unusual mysteries. He’s never fully absolved or forgiven for his crimes. Although there is some hint that they might be a fabrication in favor of painting him as a more masculine and dominant figure. The tension at the heart of Ryuji’s secret—that he would be ruined if it got out but that he has just as much ability to ruin Asakawa, albeit for different reasons—is a core part of what makes Ryuji both so repulsive and engrossing for Asakawa.
It’s clear that he wants Ryuji nowhere near his wife and daughter even when they are forced into the close quarters of his home. The ways Ryuji refers to Asakawa’s family are more than enough to make your skin crawl. It’s seen most often when he calls Asakawa’s infant daughter “babykins” in what can only be determined as the most cringeworthy tones.
We’re never truly left to have Ryuji’s past sink into the back of our minds. Ring is, above all else, an exploration of reconstructing and reliving past traumas, after all. On the other side of that coin sits Sadako, the gifted and ethereally beautiful but “eerie” young woman whose past is repeatedly put on display via the cursed tape. Much of her story is familiar even to those who have not read the book. Yet digging into it more requires treading into light spoiler territory. So be warned and proceed with caution.
Sadako’s manifestation of her grudge against the world in general as the VHS tape of certain death may be (or have been at the time of release) novel for American audiences. But it’s actually a brilliant interpretation of the J-horror staple onryō, or vengeful spirit capable of harming or killing those in the living world. Often depicted as women returning to avenge a wrong done to them or to seek redress for their untimely death, the choices in depiction from Japanese literature to American adaptation are worth interrogating.
Traditionally speaking, onryō are depicted in a long white funeral gown with long black hair covering their faces, and so it is with all interpretations of Sadako. The difference in Sadako’s appearance from the Japanese versions to the American adaptations is that her gown is never muddied in the original, while often covered in grime in the American franchise films. On the one hand of course this could signal the difference between her being conceptualized as a spirit in one version—capable of killing but still not quite of this world—and as a concrete presence in the other—able to leave her mark and her physical trail behind.
Given the color white’s common association with purity, it’s also easy to assign her unmarred gown as a symbol of her relative innocence (rage aside) at the time of her death. Not yet even 20 years old, Sadako is murdered by a doctor at the sanitarium where she is kept following her mother’s suicide. This doctor, entranced by Sadako’s constantly noted physical beauty, first rapes her. Then, upon discovering she is intersex, throws her into a nearby well to her death.
Originally published in 1991, the novel’s struggle with Sadako as intersex reads as both dated and, unfortunately, timely to the current social climate. Unable to reconcile her being “raised as a girl” with the presence of her testes, even Asakawa cannot quite make his mind up over how she should be considered. His belief that a person’s gender is tied to their reproductive organs is tossed into chaos when faced with the presence of both.
While it does not reduce Asakawa to any feelings of rage, the doctor’s rage at the discovery and consequent murder of Sadako is given a…rather unusual out. The doctor tells them that in the moment, Sadako’s voice invaded his head and told him “I’ll kill you”. It was a kill-or-be-killed situation into which he was forced under the influence of her psychic powers. An especially uncomfortable consideration now, and not even the only posited reason that shifts the blame to Sadako. It’s also worth noting that the doctor, in explaining himself states that “for some reason people with this condition were all beautiful”. Even Ryuji, earlier in the novel, posits that since the dawn of time organisms with both sex organs are actually “the ultimate expression of power and beauty”.
While its approach to gender dynamics makes Ring a horrifying read even without the supernatural elements, there is something to be said for the way the novel approaches the tape and what it means that often differs from its depiction in future adaptations. The tape is clearly stated to be specific psychic imprints from Sadako’s own mind and eyes, strong enough to illicit visceral physical and emotional responses from the viewer.
There is no opportunity for her story to be twisted by anyone else’s words or perspectives. This is her rage in its purest form, laying blame and responsibility squarely on very particular parties. There is no chance of both-sides-ing her trauma. She forces you to feel it with the same intensity she did. You cannot escape the truth of the past; the onryō do not allow it. Maybe not a net positive experience, but a vital one at a time when all sorts of horrendous acts are getting nudged under the rug by people in power.
And so there it is, at the heart of the plot and boiled down in nearly all future versions, Sadako is an encapsulation of perfect beauty and power that surpasses even her mother’s. She’s also a threat to the rest of the world because she will not be silenced. Not in itself a wholly new idea, perhaps, but one which condemns humanity to the ultimate curse. It’s all because the media dismissed and smeared her mother’s psychic abilities, resulting in her mother’s death, which set off Sadako’s unquenchable rage. The entitled feeling of strangers to the bodies, minds, and lives they make no genuine effort to understand filtered Sadako’s curse down to a simple solution: to save your own life from the tape’s curse, you must copy it and send it on to someone else. Spare yourself by condemning another.
Just as those old email chain letters turned Facebook chains proclaiming the need to “send this on to ten people or the spirit will come to haunt you” ran rampant in the early days of ‘90s and aughts internet exposure, here it sits and here it evolves with Sadako. Pass it on and live or die with the knowledge of her trauma and end it, leaving behind your own newly traumatized connections. There is truth and power in every word we speak, whether it began as true or not. The stories we tell mutate like a virus of the mind, taking on lives of their own with just as much impact as any physical illness, going onwards to outlive even their original orators but keeping their origins alive.
A seemingly endless cycle, to be sure. And a timeless one.