(Episode Seven: Water play and a killer video.)
I don’t want to give the impression that I have any kind of grand scheme here – by and large this series of manga samplings has proceeded on a whim by whim basis – but The Ring was not the book I originally planned to review this week. I’d already purchased and begun the first volume of Paradise Kiss when I happened on this Dark Horse edition at my local comics shop. Bought it, put it aside with the intention of getting into it later, but something kept drawing back to the book: perhaps it was the striking red cover. With Ai Yasawa’s punk/glam fashion romance still unfinished, I turned to Hiroshi Takahashi & Misao Inagaki’s adaptation of this hot property story and quickly immersed myself in it. Mr. Impulse Blogger, that’s me.
I’m told that this manga version is primarily based on the Hideo Nakta-directed film Ringu (though Dark Horse’s cover blurb obscures the point, reading as if the work is an adaptation of the source novel by Koji Suzuki). Manga scripter Takahashi is also the scriptwriter for the movie, though, so this makes sense. At this point, I’ve viewed neither movie nor read the novel, so the point is probably moot. But I can’t help wondering about the way that Dark Horse sells it as a book adaptation. Is a book manga-ization more legitimate than a movie adaptation? Is Classics Illustrated classier than an old Dell movie retelling?
This edition appears to be combining two graphic paperbacks – midway into it, at page 154, the pagination starts over again for another 154 pages. I find the format editorially lazy (c’mon, Dark Horse, you’re translating the numbers, anyway, so why not maintain the first pagination?), but 300-plus pages of pb-sized manga for $14.95 remains a decent bargain. Not as good a deal as an issue of Shonen Jump, say, but at least the paper’s more durable.
So what about the actual contents?
First element that strikes me, when I start in the book’s opening chapter, is Inagaki’s art. The artist makes his adult figures big-headed and childlike, a look I’ve associated with more kid-friendly fare, not horror manga. When, after opening with a scene between two teenaged victims-in-waiting, the story shifts focus to reporter heroine Reiko, for the space of a few panels I don’t recognize her as any different age-wise from the two teen-girls. It’s like watching a remake of Texas Chainsaw Massacre being played out by Hummel figurines.
Without giving away too much plot, manga Ring revolves around Reiko, the aunt of one of our opening page victims. First time we meet her, she’s listening to three of her niece’s high school classmates recount the rumor that’s circulating about the girl’s death: that she was one of five teens to watch a “cursed video.” Reiko is drawn into investigating the girl’s death, which leads her to an isolated cabin with a TV and VCR. Of course she finds the mysterious video, and of course she watches it. Said tape turns out to be packed with oblique imagery and ends with the wordy warning: “The person who watches this will die one week later at this time of day.”
Our heroine is immediately caught up by the video’s message. Eyes wide open, sweat dripping down her face, she sees a figure in the cabin mirror reflection that appears to be either a longhaired or black hooded girl. When she turns, the figure has vanished. From here on, the focus turns twoard solving the mystery of the unknown video. Reiko enlists the aid of her ex-husband, Ryiuji, a college prof who treats the whole thing as a lark. (“It’s fun to have a deadline,” he jokes in reference to the videotape’s one-week sentence.) Ryiuji is often depicted leaning back and nonchalantly holding a cigarette, so we’re pretty sure he’s gonna get it for underestimating the power of the evil they’re facing.
Ryiuji views the video himself, attempting to pick apart the images and look for clues to its meaning. As the two begin their investigation, yet a third character watches the deadly video; after she dreams of being visited by her dead niece Tomoko (creepily rendered with blood dripping from her eyes), Reiko wakes to find her young son in front of the set. “Tomoko told me to watch,” the saucer-eyed kid explains. Now Reiko’s race to solve the mystery has an even greater urgency.
Takahashi’s script works to regularly remind us the clock is ticking: heroine Reiko periodically tells herself how little time she has. Where modern American genre comics have largely abandoned the convention of thought balloons, they’re used effectively in this book, black lines radiating from the text in place of the cloud-like constructions American comics readers know. Throughout the story, Reiko is shown both thinking and talking to herself aloud to get across story points. The thought balloons are a more convincing tactic.
A good portion of the book’s first half is devoted to characterization: we learn, for instance, that Reiko has periodic pangs of guilt for spending more time at work than with her son – and that care-free professor Ryiuji may be having an affair with his teaching assistant. The first point works to layer an additional level of anxiety onto Reiko’s need to solve the mystery (has her negligence as a single parent doomed her son?) The second feels more like a plot detail more elaborately addressed in the book or movie.
Despite the distancing look of his figures, Inagaki’s art has its darkly evocative moments: Reiko’s visitation, a scene where Ryiuji seems to see his ex-wife being stalked by a barefoot bleeding figure, an effectively rendered murder by a well and our duo’s attempt at recovering a body from that self-same well. That last scene, which comprises over twenty pages, is almost enough to make me ignore the artwork (the page where a rotting corpse rises from the water is a real Tales from the Crypt moment) – as is a scene where wiseacre Ryiuji sees a menacing figure shambling from within a TV screen toward him. Still can’t help thinking that it all would be more effective if an artist like Junji (Uzumaki) Ito were handling the artwork, though.
Would I recommend The Ring to other manga dabblers as their first full introduction to this story? Probably not. The presentation doesn’t convey the same sense of growing dread that I suspect is maintained in both the original pic and its American remake. Instead, it alternates between brightly lit scenes of characters talking to each other – and dark gray scenes of scary spectres stalking ‘em. Perhaps manga Ring isn’t so removed from those old hokey Dell movie comics, after all. . .