Pulp and Dagger



for September 3, 2006


The Ring Companion

cover2005 - available in soft cover

Written by Denis Meikle

272 pages

Published by Titan Books

Cover price: $19.95 USA

Okay ~ not a graphic novel review this week, but a review of a non-fiction book analysing the whole "Ring" horror movie series, as well as Japanese and Western horror fiction. I was sent this book to review in my capacity as a reviewer for the website UGO, but UGO never ended up using the review (yeah, that happens a lot -- and probably gets publishers annoyed at me, thinking I never reviewed their book!) So I figure, "oh, heck, might as well use it here as the subject matter should be of interest to P&D fans."

The Ring mini-phenomenon has crossed multiple mediums and a few oceans, proliferating like the cursed video the story itself revolves around. It began in Japan as a modest novel by Koji Suzuki, was turned into a successful Japanese TV movie, which led to a hit Japanese feature film -- and from there, spawned sequels, TV mini-series, manga comics, and foreign film adaptations -- including both Korean and American (the latter, starring Naomi Watts, is probably most familiar to North American audiences). And, according to author Denis Meikle, revitalized the entire Asian horror film industry.

And now the whole thing is rounded up for analysis in Denis Meikle's comprehensive The Ring Companion, from Titan Books.

I'll admit, going into this book, my interest in the Ring was casual at best. I'd seen the Japanese version and then the American version -- and, yes, the Japanese version is more effective. Nor do I say that as simply some knee jerk pretention, or 'cause I like to diss Hollywood -- I don't. I just thought it was better (but I saw the Japanese one first, so maybe it had the advantage of seeming fresher). But my interest didn't really spread beyond an evening's entertainment.

Yet I found myself enjoying The Ring Companion. When it comes to interviews and the like, Meikle hasn't done much in the way of original research, usually pulling quotes from interviews conducted by others. But he's clearly done his homework. Not only having watched the Ring in all its incarnations, and read just about every interview ever conducted with those involved (from Suzuki, to feature film director Hideo Nakata, to those involved in the American version) but also by delving into the history of Japanese, British and American horror, in print and film, going all the way back to M.R. James, H.P. Lovecraft and European-born Japanese anthologist Patrick Lafcadio Hearn for antecedents. As well, he considers Japanese society and culture as it has evolved over the last Century and some. In other words, if you're really into the Ring, you'll get a lot out of this book. But if you aren't into the Ring...you still might get a lot out of this book, as simply an analysis of Japan and of the last century and some of horror entertainment (or "Terror" as Meikle calls it, distinguishing it from the more crass "horror" genre).

According to Meikle, the saga of the Ring has evolved from medium to medium, sequel to sequel, each one borrowing selectively from earlier incarnations. Suzuki's original novel, though paranormal, clearly owed something to being more a techno-thriller, a direction the author further went in when he wrote his own sequels to the first book, and his Sadako (the lethal presence at the core of things) is less deliberately evil. It was the 1998 feature film that established Sadako as a clear villain, and emphasized the supernatural over the paranormal. But Meikle shows how each version, movie, TV show, comic, from Japan, to Korea, to Hollywood has added to, and borrowed from, the evolving mythos.

As part of reviewing this non-fiction book, I went out and read the original novel -- and it's sort of interesting. Like so many things, there are ways where the movies are an improvement (more viscerally scary, as opposed to the novel which can be more academic, a mystery-puzzle more than a fright fest) but there are other ways where the novel is more intriguing, more complex than the movies.

Meikle clearly really, really digs the 1998 Japanese movie version of the Ring (generally called Ringu) -- claiming that "not since the Exorcist has a single horror film had so much impact on the genre". But he doesn't bring a slavishly sycophantic eye to all its interpretations, more than willing to critically dissect versions he feels are wanting -- including the source novel itself -- or, in the case of the Hollywood remake, out right attack it. On one hand, that gives the book a greater weight and depth than if it was just some studio sanctioned puff piece...on the other hand, given that a large chunk of his potential readership will presumably come to this book from the American remake, one suspects he might alienate the very readers he's hoping to sell to.

At the same time, he tries to back up his critiques with thoughtful analysis -- you can agree or disagree with him, but at least he offers grist for the intellectual mill.

As noted, of particular interest is the fact that a lot of the book analyses "terror" fiction above and beyond the Ring, placing the movie in its cultural context -- from 19th Century literature to the horror cinema of the 20th Century, in both the East and the West...including the big guy himself, Godzilla (and yes, the 2000 Japanese version was way cooler than the 1998 American version), creating a real scope to the book and Meikle's analysis.

Granted, one can quibble and suggest Meikle sometimes argues points that he hasn't entirely justified. With the success of the Ring, Asian cinema started churning out many like-minded Terror films and even Meikle seems to evince a certain ambivalence to some (often arguing they start out well...but go off the rails before the climax). Yet that doesn't stop him, toward the end, from launching into a predictable tirade about Hollywood's creative bankruptcy and Asian cinema's creative vitality. And some of his exploration of themes stretch a bit, whether it be seeing in Sadako a metaphor for Islamic terrorists who transmit messages through the media, to inferring a xenophobic sub-text to the American remake. But at least it's interesting that he's trying to extract meaning from what, so easily, could be dismissed as just another low-budget shocker.

And although he has tracked down and viewed all extant versions of the Ring (from the original TV movie to its various sequels and spin offs) one suspects Meikle doesn't speak Japanese and must rely on translated versions, as he makes passing reference to a radio adaptation...but provides no analysis (radio being one medium resistant to subtitles!) How wildly circulated these various versions are in the west is also unclear. For example, the original TV movie (and even moreso its subsequent video release) apparently featured -- gasp! -- nudity, which might give it a cult appeal among western Ring fans (purely for comparative purposes, y'unnerstand). Meikle even provides a couple of illustrative stills to demonstrate that fact in his book!

I'll confess, the Ring didn't have quite the profound affect on me that it did Meikle -- but reading The Ring Companion, his enthusiasm is quite infectious, and the comprehensiveness scope of his analyses -- so far beyond just talking about a single movie -- is entertaining, making for an intriguing read.

Reviewed by D.K. Latta

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