Monday, November 19, 2007

Koji Suzuki's Ring series, and some observations on Japanese fiction

It’s difficult to track exactly how one gravitates towards certain types of writing over a period of time (in some cases it’s a deliberate seeking out of genres/distinct writing styles, in others it’s a subconscious process, or even just serendipity), but it occurs to me that I’ve developed a certain affinity for Japanese fiction of late, and for some of the themes that run through it. As long-time readers of this blog will know, I’m a big Kazuo Ishiguro fan – I know he can’t really be called a Japanese writer (he’s lived in Britain since the age of five), but some of his work (notably The Unconsoled and A Pale View of Hills, my two favourites among his books) blurs the border between the real world and a dream-world in a way that I’ve now come to associate with much of Japanese writing.

One quality that runs through much of the Japanese fiction I’ve recently read is the juxtaposing of old-world mysticism with the banality of modern-day existence: the present in perpetual conflict with the past. It's a mistake, of course, to generalise too much about a national character, but a cursory look at Japanese pop culture in the last century suggest the ghosts of a complex past constantly shifting beneath the orderly modern face of the country. A not-very-subtle example is the Godzilla story, one of Japan's best-known contributions to 20th-century paranoia, wherein radiation from atom bombs results in the birth of a giant primordial lizard that then sets about wreaking vengeance on a metropolis. (As an allegory for primitive impulses clashing with the tenuous securities of modern life, the image of Godzilla weaving his way around Tokyo's skyscrapers is as striking as that of King Kong thumping his chest after scaling the Empire State Building.)

Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans and An Artist of the Floating World and Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle both touch on Japan's ambivalence about its past: feelings of guilt about the country's strident military history coexist with a nostalgic longing for a time when a distinct cultural identity had not yet been subsumed into a globalised world based on the Western model. This conflict is often expressed through slightly withdrawn, introspective protagonists whose reflections on the nature of the world take them across an invisible barrier and into a shadowy twilight zone where everything is uncertain. This is on view in most of Murakami’s fiction: in Dance Dance Dance, for instance, a typically passive narrator returns to the site of a tiny dump of a hotel he had once been to, and finds that in its place stands a "gleaming, 26-storey Bauhaus Modern-Art Deco symphony of glass and steel". Later, as the narrative turns increasingly bizarre, he discovers that the past is still alive in a hidden corner of this building. A weary creature called the Sheep Man – a relic from a lost age? – says to him, "Everything's getting more complicated. Everything's speeding up. So tell us, what's the world outside? We don't get much news in here." (Of course, this could be taking place inside the narrator's mind, but even that would suggest the atavistic impulses that lie buried in our subconscious – in the reptile brain, so to speak.)

Some of the manga I’ve read has explored these themes too, notably Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira series and the books of Osamu Tezuka. Tezuka's most popular work in India, for obvious reasons, is his eight-part series on the Buddha, which employs modern language and slang and cheeky visual gags in telling an old story, even while treating the holy man's life and teachings with respect. But I would also strongly recommend the medical thriller Ode to Kirihito, a poignant tale set in 1970s Japan about a strange disease that transforms people into dog-like beasts. In sophisticated hospitals, doctors struggle to understand the nature of this ailment in terms of modern science (while also taking part in elaborate corporate power struggles on the side), but the protagonist Dr Kirihito, himself afflicted by the disease, spends most of the story in the countryside, trying to come to terms with his own humanity and that of the other unfortunates (and assorted weirdos) he encounters. Needless to say, some very strange things happen in this book, but Tezuka presents them matter of factly, with all the rigour of realistic fiction.

The Ring cycle

Some of these thoughts resurfaced while I was reading Koji Suzuki’s Ring series, which presents many common motifs of Japanese fiction within the bounds of fast-paced thriller writing – making it a good entry point for someone who isn’t yet ready for literary fiction or interested in manga. Though Suzuki’s books have some of the limitations of genre fiction – occasionally clunky writing, sketchy characterisations, a reluctance to spend too much time on descriptions – they are solid page-turners that mix horror, sci-fi, scientific fact and medical gobbledygook with philosophical musings about the evolution and nature of life on our planet and the possible future of artificial intelligence. I also found them genuinely moving in places. Here’s a quick book-by-book primer:

Ringu (Ring)

When a reporter named Asakawa learns that four youngsters mysteriously died at exactly the same time, in separate places, of an inexplicable seizure, he begins a private investigation and discovers that they had stayed in the same mountain cabin exactly a week earlier. On finding and watching a videotape that the youngsters had viewed that night, Asakawa realises that his own life could be in danger. According to the tape, he has exactly a week to live; the word “deadline” suddenly acquires more sinister overtones than it ever did during his journalistic assignments.

With the help of an old high-school classmate, Ryuji Takayama, Asakawa finds that the tape was created by a woman named Sadako Yamamura, a long-dead psychic who is making some very innovative use of modern technology to facilitate her return to the world of the living. (Anyone familiar with the popular film versions of this book will know about the viscerally creepy scene of a pallid, zombie-like girl emerging from a montage of black-and-white images, slowly walking towards the very edge of the frame – towards the person viewing the tape – before crawling out of the screen and into the real world. The scene, strictly speaking, doesn't come from the novel, but it’s a nice visual encapsulation of Suzuki's ideas about the supernatural communing with modern technology.)

Rasen (Spiral)

Rasen is my personal favourite among the three books, and I think the English title is apt on more than one level: the seemingly straightforward events of the first book really do spiral out of control here. To begin with, there's an unusual shift in perspective. Without giving much away, the first book had ended with Asakawa still looking ahead to an uncertain future but convinced that he had at least tied together most of the loose ends concerning the videotape, Sadako and the Ring Virus. The second book begins its narrative around the point where the first left off, but Asakawa is no longer our point of entry into the story; instead, the central character is a man named Ando, a pathologist struggling with feelings of guilt about the accidental drowning of his little son. A series of events get Ando involved with the story of the videotape and we follow him as he gradually discovers things that we already know from having read Ring (well done, this can be a very suspenseful device – there are times when one wants to shout out that novel’s secrets to him). However, at the same time, we ourselves discover things that the first book didn’t tell us, and the effect is an unsettling one: by providing us a different narrator’s perspective to view events we thought we knew all about, Suzuki makes the familiar unfamiliar.

As it turns out, there was much more to the nature of the Ring virus than Asakawa and Ryuji had figured out. Spiral is more a medical thriller than the first book was, and it expands the scope of the original story: here, we learn that the very future of the human race might be at stake thanks to a rogue gene that has found a far more effective way to duplicate itself than the videotape could provide.

Rupu (Loop)

Despite many good moments, Loop is the least accessible of the three novels – especially because if you come to it immediately after racing through Ring and Spiral and hankering for more of the same, you won’t see how the story connects with the first two books. It isn’t until halfway through that we find out what the connection is, and even then it seems a little random and forced. Which means that to appreciate this book, you need to read it on its own terms.

This is an artificial-intelligence thriller that evokes Plato's Allegory of the Cave – it looks back to our past (raising questions about our genetic codes and the precise nature of evolution on the planet) and ahead to our future (with a Matrix-like exploration of virtual reality and the possibility that our understanding of the universe is as limited as that of the foetus in the womb, unable to guess at the nature of the outside world). The story, set in the near future, involves a young man named Kaoru, whose father, a medical researcher, had worked on a virtual reality project that replicated evolution on earth. The project had to be shelved years earlier, but now Kaoru’s father has fallen victim to a mysterious, hitherto unknown strain of cancer, which has started affecting living organisms everywhere. To understand this mystery, Kaoru must travel to the Mojave desert in America, where (SPOILER ALERT) he will have an encounter strongly reminiscent of the climactic scene in The Truman Show (it even involving a character named Cristoff, who plays God).

[Note: Rupu was first published in 1998, which was also the year in which The Truman Show was released; The Matrix was released in 1999. I'm not sure how the book could have been influenced by either of the films, or vice-versa.]

The jacket blurb on Ring tells us that “Suzuki blends Murakami with Stephen King”. This is an exaggerated claim (indeed, if you read the Independent review from where the blurb came, you’ll find that the original sentence has been shortened to sound more complimentary), but it’s true that at his best Suzuki touches the strengths of both writers. He has Murakami’s flair for the passive, withdrawn protagonist (notably Ando in Spiral and Kaoru in Loop) reflecting on the whimsies of our existence. And he has King’s ability to explore the dark undersides of seemingly normal lives within the constraints of genre fiction, and to create genuine, under-the-skin terror: for an example of this, read the heart-stopping (but also, in retrospect, saddening) passage where Ando explores a missing woman’s apartment in Spiral.

Related posts: Ishiguro's The Unconsoled and Never Let Me Go, Murakami's Norwegian Wood and After the Quake, Tezuka's Buddha series

[If anyone has ideas for other Japanese authors whose work I might find interesting, recommendations welcome]


  1. Have you read Kobo Abe's novels? I haven't read any myself yet but I love the two films that he made in collaboration with director Hiroshi Teshigahara. The Woman in the Dunes and The Face of Another. They are both magnificent films, specially Woman in the Dunes.

  2. No, haven't read his novels but the film of Woman in the Dunes is brilliant alright (haven't seen The Face of Another).

  3. damn. i was going ot turn up and recommend Abe. the only book i've read is called The Ruined Map; ostensibly genre fiction, but impossible to categorise. Also Akutagawa - the guy who wrote Rashomon - whose book Kappa; and Soseki's The Three Cornered World. Soseki's practically the grandfather of the novel in Japan, and there appears to be a larger variety than we know anything about. I've also just started reading more of it.

  4. My beamish boy! Have you read Natsuo Kirino's Out? I finished it recently and was struck by the relentless bleakness of the story. What a desperate life led by the four protagonists. And how they despise one another. And still, how they stick by each other. Clearly a dynamic that will elude most men :-) The usual picture of Japan is of a homogeneous society with a formal hierarchy between men and women, with everyone knowing their place, but I haven't come across a similar expose of the underbelly and subcutaneous hatreds that seethe within.

    Slightly tangentially: there has been in the UK an escalating debate - perhaps you are familiar with it? - recently about violence in novels being much more graphic (and directed towards female victims) in books written by women. Ian Rankin said he found that many of these writers were lesbians, which he thought was interesting; this led to furious ripostes by Val McDermid, and then the controversy took a life of its own.

    Kirino's book would fall right into this category - pretty scary violence being done to sundry females - although I don't know if Kirino is lesbian or not.

  5. I have been meaning to read the Ring Series for some time now; Another Japanese writer who has dealt with some of the themes you mention (past/present for e.g.) is Yasunari Kawabata - 'The Master of Go' deals with this beautifully. Also, Kenzaburo Oe?

  6. If you like a little classical Japanese writing you must try reading the "Sea of Fertility" tetralogy by Mishima.

    His writing presents the strange conflict between the traditional Japanese samurai culture and the modern western culture with lot of insights into religion, in particular Buddhism, thrown in between.

    His style of writing his quite different from the other Japanese authors I have read, the melancholy is there but in a different way.

  7. I recommend Yukio Mishima too. The "Sea of Fertility" tetralogy is excellent, especially spring snow, its one of my favourites