Rasen/The Spiral/Ring: Spiral (1998/2005) *
No matter how diligently you looked, you would be hard pressed to find anywhere a ticket-selling stunt that backfired more completely— although it’s easy enough to see why it seemed like a good idea at the time. In 1995, when the high ratings garnered by the made-for-TV version of Koji Suzuki’s Ring caused the production companies Asmik Ace and Omega Entertainment to enter into negotiations for the theatrical film rights to the novel, a sequel called Rasen— “Spiral”— had just been published. The popularity of both the telefilm and the original novel made it a safe bet that a sequel to the planned Asmik Ace-Omega Entertainment Ring movie would be warranted, and since Suzuki himself had already supplied one, enlarging the deal with Suzuki’s publisher to include the Rasen film rights was a no-brainer. Furthermore (although this was more of a gamble), the producers’ decision to put both movies into production simultaneously, so that Ring and its sequel could be released together as a double bill, was indeed a potential marketing masterstroke. But Hiroshi Takahashi and Hideo Nakata, the men who had been hired to write and direct Ring respectively, were not able to bring in two movies in tandem on the time allotted, and that’s where the trouble started. While those two were busy with the primary film, Rasen was put in the hands of Joji Iida instead. Again, I can understand why this would have seemed like a smart move, as Iida had been one of the screenwriters for the televised Ring; one might plausibly assume that his past experience with the story would mean that he could be trusted with it a second time.
This outwardly sensible scheme failed to account for the runaway creativity of Nakata and Takahashi, however. Correctly pegging Suzuki’s novel as tedious, structurally awkward, and totally devoid of payoff, they cavalierly chucked everything but the character names and the bare skeleton of the plot, and proceeded to make a movie that deservedly launched a revolution in Asian genre cinema, the effects of which would quickly be felt even in far-off and chronically self-satisfied Hollywood. Iida, on the other hand, pretty much just filmed what Suzuki wrote— and as lumpy and unsatisfying as Ring the novel was, Rasen makes its predecessor look like I Am Legend. When Suzuki started work on Rasen, Ring had not yet begun to sell with the exceptional vigor it would enjoy later, and the author perhaps reasonably concluded that the best way to salvage something of his commercially neglected brainchild was essentially to retell the story from a totally different perspective— indeed, within a totally different genre. Whereas Ring was basically a paranormal detective story, Rasen is a medical thriller on the Robin Cook model, dressed up with a dash of half-baked apocalyptic science fiction. Written with the idea in mind that no one gave a rat’s ass about Sadako Yamamura or her demonic videotape (and to be fair, would Ring have been filling up remainder bins in bookstores all over Japan if anybody did?), Rasen recasts practically everything about the story— the nature and mechanism of the curse, the motive behind it, even the identity of the curse’s primary agent. It then delivers those revelations via a steady torrent of utter nonsense, focusing with neurotic specificity upon coded messages that have no reason to be coded in the first place, and whose originators conspicuously lack any means or opportunity for transmitting them. The novel is little more than an extended exercise in intellectual masturbation, and what few changes Iida saw fit to work upon it when converting it into a screenplay actually rendered it more idiotic. I can only imagine what opening-weekend audiences must have thought, seeing first the finest horror movie to come out of Japan in decades, and then immediately thereafter being slapped in the face with a sequel that “continues” the story by alternately ignoring and crapping all over it. Unsurprisingly, Rasen withered and died very quickly once it was uncoupled from Ring to fend for itself.
It is surely not a good sign when Rasen begins not with Reiko Asakawa and her son— or even the parents to whose house she was frantically driving when last we saw her— but with some morose dipshit we’ve neither seen nor heard of before. This is pathologist Mitsuo Ando (Koichi Sato, from Infection and Samurai Resurrection), and the reason he’s in such a god-awful funk is that his son drowned an unspecified length of time ago while the two of them were swimming in the ocean. His marriage seems to have crashed and burned in the aftermath, and all he has left of his previously happy family life is a lock of the boy’s hair that got tangled in his wedding ring when he tried to save him. Those of you who are hoping this will eventually tie into the previous film’s tantalizing background theme of the sea’s malevolence can give up now— that was mostly Takahashi’s innovation, so Iida presumably wasn’t even aware of it. Anyway, Ando is thinking about slashing his wrists with his scalpel, but in the end he can’t go through with it.
Ando receives a most unexpected assignment when he arrives at work that day. The man on whom he is to perform an autopsy— Professor Ryuji Takayama (a returning Hiroyuki Sanada)— was a friend of his in med school, although they’ve seen little or nothing of each other in the years since. Takayama apparently just dropped dead for no obvious reason a few hours ago. The body was discovered by his girlfriend, Mai Takano (Loft’s Miki Nakatani, who had wandered briefly through Ring without having much of an effect on anything), who was also a student of Takayama’s. (The observant will note that there’s no sign here of the terrified expression that all of Sadako’s victims— Takayama included— were previously supposed to have worn in death.) The police are treating the case as potentially one of foul play, because almost immediately after Mai arrived at Takayama’s apartment, she was joined by Reiko Asakawa (Nanako Matsushima, who appears in Rasen solely through footage borrowed from Hideo Nakata), Takayama’s ex-wife. Reiko rushed in while Mai was curled up in shock beside the front door, then rushed out again carrying a videotape. I’m sure you can see why the cops would find that suspicious, and while Ando is busy cutting up his old friend, a detective is out in the hospital’s waiting room, badgering the nearly catatonic Mai. The autopsy reveals, however, that Takayama died of natural causes— he had a tumor in the wall of one of his coronary arteries, and this tumor broke loose and plugged up the blood vessel, triggering a fatal heart attack. The tumor itself is strange, though, corresponding to no known type, and there’s an even more peculiar lesion on the inside of Takayama’s throat. Furthermore, the man’s stomach contains a small scrap of paper reading “4141 74262918,” and weirder still, Ando has a vision during the autopsy of Takayama coming to life and taunting him about his suicidal tendencies. If you’re thinking Ando is nowhere near finished with Takayama, well, so is Ando.
The mysteries surrounding Ryuji’s death become steadily deeper and more complicated from there. Mai tells Ando that she believes the true cause of the professor’s death was a supernatural curse laid upon him by a mysterious videotape, the same one that Reiko Asakawa spirited away from Takayama’s flat. Asakawa herself— together with her son— turns up dead in a horrific traffic accident, with the shattered remains of a VCR beside her in the wreckage. Post-mortem examination reveals that Reiko’s child was already dead of a tumor-triggered heart attack when the crash occurred, suggesting that Asakawa lost control of her car when she witnessed the boy’s death-throes. Ando’s colleague, Miyashita (Freeze Me’s Shingo Tsurumi), uncovers another four recent deaths, exactly like those of Takayama and the Asakawa child, which are made even stranger for having taken place at exactly the same time in three separate locations. Another colleague informs Miyashita that the lesions Ando found inside Ryuji’s throat resemble nothing so much as the sores caused by the supposedly extinct smallpox virus. Asakawa’s boss, a TV journalist named Yoshino (Yutaka Matsushige, from One Missed Call and Godzilla 2000), comes to Ando bearing curious gifts: a dubbed videotape which he lacks the nerve to watch and the diary in which Asakawa recorded the results of an investigation that had consumed the whole of her last week among the living— an investigation launched by her discovery of the very same mysterious deaths that Miyashita recently brought to Ando’s attention. Ando has repeated visions of Ryuji Takayama, and determines that the digits scrawled on the paper recovered from the dead man’s stomach are an alphanumeric code; solving the code yields the English word, “present.” But weirdest of all is the story contained in Reiko Asakawa’s diary. If the journal is to be believed, the tape Ando received from Yoshino really is cursed. The images recorded on it were the mental projections of a powerful psychic named Sadako Yamamura— or, more properly, of Sadako’s malevolent ghost. Sadako was killed years before, thrown down a well by the man presumed to be her father, who had apparently come to believe that he had sired a monster. To watch the tape that Sadako made is certain death unless the viewer passes the curse along by making a copy and showing it to someone else.
Ando comes to believe that Asakawa’s videotape is the “present” to which Ryuji’s message referred, a gift consisting of the death Ando so desperately desires but hasn’t the courage to inflict upon himself. But when Ando watches the tape, the effects differ rather drastically from those depicted in Ring. Instead of the familiar phone call from beyond the grave, Ando receives a vivid vision of Sadako’s murder, after which the ghost herself (Hinako Saeki, of Stacy and Uzumaki— the other Japanese horror film whose title is generally translated as Spiral) appears to him and all but rapes him on his living room floor. This is only the first of many indications we’ll be seeing that Sadako has revised her agenda substantially since the day she claimed Ryuji Takayama.
Unlike the vast majority of crummy sequels to superlative films, Rasen has an odd but undeniably defensible excuse for its inferiority— because he had no chance to see Ring before he got to work, Joji Iida had no way of knowing that the movie he was charged with following up didn’t suck just as badly as his. The lack of communication caused by simultaneous production also goes some way toward excusing the often jarring discontinuities between the two films. Iida apparently wasn’t aware that Hiroshi Takahashi had turned Ryuji Takayama into a mathematician, making nonsense of the notion that he and Mitsuo Ando had been classmates in med school. He also seems not to have understood that the Takahashi-Nakata interpretation of Takayama was a far cry from Suzuki’s self-consciously sinister anti-hero, and that his own faithful-to-the-novel characterization would therefore come across as a staggering display of dramatic dishonesty when the two movies were viewed in succession. Similarly, Iida’s portrayal of Sadako as a leering succubus with a penchant for making supervillain speeches followed naturally from both Suzuki’s Rasen (Sadako herself never actually appears in the print version of Ring) and Iida’s previous treatment of the character in the Ring TV movie; it wasn’t his fault that Nakata and Takahashi had decided to lop a decade or more off of Sadako’s apparent age, and play her instead as an inscrutable engine of all-encompassing malice. Finally, Iida’s handling of the story as a sci-fi-inflected medical thriller might not have seemed so stunningly misguided were it not for the other filmmakers’ wholesale revisions to their half of the story. That was how Suzuki’s Rasen comported itself, after all, and even Ring toyed only half-heartedly with the avowedly supernatural in his telling. Both books are thus tonally more akin to Iida’s movie than to Nakata’s. Note, however, that none of these arguments suffice to make Rasen any less lame— they merely make its lameness comprehensible.
Meanwhile, Iida and company commit any number of sins of which the circumstances of Rasen’s production cannot absolve them. The cinematography is so flat and characterless that Rasen might as well have been shot on video. The incidental music is inane electronic crap, such as one might hear in any Cinemax-funded erotic thriller— bad enough in and of itself, but downright embarrassing in comparison to Ring’s innovative and disquieting soundtrack. Iida’s direction is relentlessly conventional, invariably pursuing the most obvious angle of attack. Rasen looks, sounds, and feels as if it were made for television, and worst of all, it’s just plain boring. The first half-hour feels like twice that long, and one never gets the impression that the film is working up to any sort of conclusion, even during the scene that was presumably intended to serve as the climax. It’s difficult to believe Asmik Ace and Omega Entertainment could have mustered the nerve to follow through on the planned Ring-Rasen double bill once their leadership had a chance to view both completed films. But really, the biggest problem with Rasen is its script, even after discounting all the accidental bits of discontinuity. Its central defect— which was the central defect of the novel, too— is that it insists not merely upon a “logical” explanation for Sadako and her curse, but upon a “logical” explanation that is in fact profoundly illogical. It then proceeds to change the details of that explanation, without warning or apparent cause, about once every fifteen minutes, with each new iteration being incrementally more ridiculous than the last. By the time the final version of Sadako’s master plan has been revealed, we’re left with something a drug-addled high school student might have devised after consuming the collected works of Michael Crichton, Robin Cook, and Philip K. Dick. The makers of Ring were perceptive enough to recognize the weaknesses of the original story, and talented enough to fix them in their adaptation. The makers of Rasen let an even more serious set of weaknesses stand unmolested, then compounded the error by adding new ones of their own wherever they could be made to fit.
This review is part of what might be the most determinedly masochistic B-Masters Cabal roundtable in which I’ve yet participated, a loving (well, maybe not quite loving) look at the travestastic results which so often attend the film industry’s attempts to make lightning strike twice. Click on the banner below to see what horrors were suffered by the rest of the gang.