Anyone who saw the 2002 horror film The Ring can probably suss the plot of the Japanese novel it's based on: journalist discovers a mysterious videocassette that kills anyone who watches it. Less easy to discern, maybe, is how that novel, by Koji Suzuki, became a pop-cultural phenomenon in Japan, spawning four popular films, television shows, and, of course, a manga comic book. What, pray tell, is the big deal?
Though first published in the mid-'90s, Suzuki's Ring and its sequel, Spiral, have finally been translated into English by Vertical, a hip New York imprint that's trying to hook American readers on Japan's best pulp fiction. (Also among Vertical's recent releases is Buddha, Osamu Tezuka's eight-volume manga masterpiece, reviewed in City Pages 5/12/04.) Suzuki's novels might be of most interest to film fan-boys: Ring is widely considered the locus classicus of J-Horror, the genre of lo-fi horror movie that's all the rage in Japan. Playing on anxieties about technology, conformity, and sexuality, these creepy ghost stories probe post-boom Japan's unsettled dreams.
That's the case in Spiral, anyway, which expands on and complicates Ring's story about a malevolent spirit who kills from beyond the grave using the aforementioned cursed videotape (a killer DVD just wouldn't be as scary). Less a horror novel than a straightforward crime procedural, Spiral follows a scientist named Mitsuo who's attempting to track the tape's viruslike spread across Tokyo. That plot, while all but nonsensical, at least serves to set up a number of eerie set pieces, as well as a big twist at the end that leads into Suzuki's third Ring novel, Loop (Suzuki has, obviously, found a franchise that pays; diehard fans can presumably look forward to Parabola and Oval).
Although Suzuki is often called "the Stephen King of Japan," a better comparison might be Michael Crichton, the hugely successful Jurassic Park author. Like Crichton, Suzuki tends to pack his novels with sort-of science--in the case of Spiral, lengthy detours into genetics and cryptology. Also like Crichton, Suzuki's characters are so thin they'd blow away in a stiff breeze. In other words: As a novelist, he's a terrific screenwriter. Might as well wait for the movie, then: The Ring 2 comes out in November.