Saturday, December 03, 2005

The Spark that Lit the Boom in J-Horror

Koji Suzuki is often described as Japan's answer to Stephen King, the enormously popular American writer of the macabre. And it is true that his novel Ring ignited the current boom in Japanese horror, or “J-Horror.”

His novel was made into a fabulously successful Japanese movie (Ringu) and then remade into an even more fabulously successful Hollywood version called The Ring. More movies followed including the recent Dark Water based on a Suzuki novella of that name.

The irony is that Suzuki does not think of himself as a writer of horror or ghost stories at all. “I don’t write horror; I’m not interested in horror. All over the world people think of my novel as a horror story, but I don’t look at it that way. I just thought I was writing an interesting story.”

Suzuki would like readers to think of him more as the writer of touching stories about how a father protects his daughter from dangers of the spirit world. In fact, the 48- year old father of two daughters has pretty pronounced views on parenthood and importance of fathers in raising children. He has written books on the subject.

“I wrote Ring in 1989, 16 years ago. At that time I was not yet a success. My wife supported the family as a high school teacher, and I stayed at home and took care of our daughter, then only 2. I was a house husband – like John Lennon,” he says laughing. “The main theme of the book is how a father protects his daughter.”

Maybe. It is true that the main character, a Japanese newspaper reporter named Kazayuki Asakawa, must solve the mystery of the cursed videotape in time to save his wife and daughter, not to mention himself. True too that a single mother and young daughter figure as the main characters in Dark Water.

That may have been the author’s intention, but it is doubtful that most people will read the book in this way. In fact, Ring is at heart basically a detective story with an old- fashioned ticking time bomb-like devise at its heart. In Ring a videotape infected with a virus is discovered which, when watched, causes the viewer to die within one week.

That is unless the viewer can discover the antidote, called the “charm”, which has been conveniently erased from the tape. The story then concerns Asakawa and his friend Ryuji’s efforts to discover the secret of the charm and save their lives, and incidentally the lives of Asakawa’s wife and daughter who have inadvertently watched the tape.

Suzuki took the same virus theme and gave it fresh twists and turns in his two follow-on novels, Spiral and Loop, which together form the Ring Trilogy. All three have been translated into English and are available from both British (HarperCollins UK) and an American publisher, Vertical, Inc.

So one can see that the novel Ring is a very masculine story, almost a male buddy story. Yet both of the movie versions, the Japanese version starring Nanoko Matsushita and the American version, starring [name], turned the central character into a woman. “The director explained to me that it was better to have a woman fleeing from horror than a man -- better to have Nicole Kidman than Arnold Schwarzenneger.”

Suzuki graduated from Keio University in Tokyo, majoring in French literature. He wrote his graduation thesis on Albert Camus. “I read a lot of literature from around the world,” he says, ticking off names: Sartre, Fitzgerald, J.D. Salinger, Paul Auster Tanazaki and Ernest Hemingway. He feels a special affinity for Hemingway.

“I think my character is not very Japanese. Japan is the culture of the farmer. The West is the culture of the hunter. I think of myself as a hunter. Suzuki is a yachtsman, and one of his favorite books is Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea, which he says he read in English. His first book, Paradise, now being translated into English, is an adventure story set at sea.

Perhaps because he was born in Hamamatsu, home of Honda Motorcyles, he is also keen on riding motorcycles. Six years ago he crossed the United States from Los Angeles to Key West, Florida, on a motorcycle. His portrays himself as a “tough guy” but one who is not above changing diapers.

Japan has a strong history of ghost stories. It used to be said that ghost stories were told in the heat of summer since they might send chills up the spine of the listeners. Spirits and ghosts appear also in works of some of Japan’s greatest writers.

Suzuki’s story builds on this tradition but also gives his books a very urban and modern ambiance. Science looms large, especially in latter two books in the Ring series. Descriptions of DNA figure strongly in Spiral, and a computer that mimics life is a strong element of Loop, the third book in the trilogy.

He’s currently working on a new novel called Edge City, which will somehow incorporate into fiction the theory of relativity and quantum physics. “I like science very much,” he says” “I like to know how the world works. Indeed, his books are probably closer to those of Michael Crichton, author of Jurassic Park, than they are to Stephen King.

Suzuki says he is pleased with how his books have been transformed onto the screen. “Last week my wife and daughter saw the American version of Dark Water. They were so moved they cried at the end.” He says he likes the Hollywood versions the best because they have better production values.

Although Suzuki may have been the spark that lit the boom in J-horror, he and Hollywood seem to be moving in different directions. The film sequel to The Ring was not based on his second novel Spiral. It was an original screen play. So far there has been no move to film Loop.

But if such a movie were ever made, however, Suzuki says he’d like to try his hand at writing the screen play. Hollywood, are you listening?

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