3.20.2009

Death by Television: Renditions of Technology in Japan and the U.S.

Another one of my intellectual, pompous things, but this is easier to read than the others I think. Comparing Ringu and The Ring. Spoilers throughout.

“Because so many of us were confusing television experience with direct experience of the world, we were not noticing that experience itself was being unified to the single behavior of watching television,” fears Jerry Mander in Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television—a somber analysis of modern American culture (Mander, 26). Originally published in 1978, his work has only become more relevant after almost 30 years, especially for texts of the horror genre that specialize in the relationship between culture and media. While the specifics of Mander’s Four Arguments are hardly workable for readings of techno-thrillers, a holistic approach to his ideas suits the discussion of the American take on Japanese technology-driven horror. Here, I wish to focus on Hideo Nakata’s Ringu (1998) and its U.S. counterpart, Gore Verbinski’s The Ring (2002). While Ringu can be read as a reaction to technology replacing tradition and possibly as a post-war Left film, the American version is imbedded with so much technology that it seems to be confused as to whether the tools of modern society are something to be praised or feared.

Japanese cinema, in particular the horror genre, emphasizes the mystical (often ghostly) presence of the past and its relevance to the world of the here-and-now. Much of this can be interpreted as a response to “[t]he transformation of Japanese society,”… “which rhetorically signified a break from ‘tradition’ and ‘the past’” (Tateishi, 295). In the context of the Japanese horror genre, the past has usually been repressed or hidden from memory only to rise again in a supernatural form, warning us not to forget history and tradition. For the Japanese Left cinema that reemerged after World War II, representations of history revolve around the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These films read “the past as horror, as layers that are only slumbering under the present” (Kapur, 83). They stand as a “biting and passionate criticism of the existing world,” begging for a reevaluation of the past in order to influence modern circumstances (Kapur, 94). Thus, two contrasting readings of the modern Japanese horror film can be applied—one positively reinforces the past as something that should be remembered and even cherished in order to avoid horror; the other reading is a negative reminder that the past still impacts the present and cannot be ignored due to its intrinsic horror.

Ringu operates around the “mediation and technologisation of ghostly forces” that literally threaten the characters with death unless the past is discovered and passed on (Hills, 166). In this case, the horrible past is represented by Sadako, a young girl with lethal psychic powers. Sadako, whose body decomposes in a well, is not a mere physical entity in Ringu; her presence is embodied by a videotape that will curse its viewers. Upon watching the video, the telephone rings, signaling that the individual has seven days before he or she dies. When reading a simple plot summary, one might assume the film rejects the invasion of technology in Japanese society; yet, the film also uses technology as a medium for allowing the past to occupy the present. “[T]he notion of horror associated with a ghost from the past is further nuanced by the use of technology as a conduit into the here-and-now.” (Tateishi, 298). Because technology permeates modern life so vigorously, the most effective method of communication with the present is through the technology that defines post-industrial society.

Ringu’s depiction of the past is both monstrous and human, constructing a bridge between the traditional Japanese horror film and the Left film. History may be horrific, but it also requires investigation. Sadako’s disfigured body and murderous impulses are juxtaposed with revelations of her character as a victim of misunderstanding and of an unsettling death. In what at first appears to be the conclusion of Ringu, Reiko cradles the festering corpse of Sadako, unconcerned with the girls’ supernatural powers and disturbing appearance. In this example, history is represented as a “process of unmitigated horror from the perspective of its losers” (Kapur, 93). Sadako can be considered the “loser” of history, as she was shunned and murdered by her own family for possessing a mystical gift. This treatment requires the characters of Ringu to actively pursue history even through technology, not to hide from it; “the work of art is ultimately to make the audience want to change the world, not escape it” (Kapur, 85). The hideous results of technologies, such as nuclear bombs for the Left cinema, must be recognized as truth rather than feared or forgotten. By the end of Ringu, Reiko faces a cold reality: the past must be unleashed no matter the consequence and technology is the superior method of transmitting the message. This attitude is captured poignantly with the image of Reiko clinging to her VCR, willing to share the horror with others in order to save her son from certain death.

The American rendition of Ringu stumbles between warnings of a technological enemy and a technological friend, using sensational imagery to evoke undirected anxiety. Unlike the Japanese film, The Ring is saturated with technology; televisions, broadcasting equipment, desktop computers, laptops, digital cameras, video monitors, and cell phones litter the movie. Some of these modern gadgets are manipulated by the ghost of Samara (Sadako) to induce death, while others are utilized as tools of uncovering the past and aiding the struggle to solve the mystery of the videotape. Like Ringu, the technology of copying the videotape rescues Rachel and her son, but it is not regarded as a bitter-sweet victory as in the Japanese film. Aidan quietly asks Rachel what will happen to the person they show the tape to; his grave question goes unanswered as the film cuts to black and rolls credits. Using Jerry Mander as a basis for reading The Ring, it is easier to understand the unexplained consequences of the film, as well as the mixed relationship Americans have with media. “Faced with real darkness, we become frightened, overreact, like a child whose parents have always left the light on. In the generations since Edison, we have become creatures of light alone” (Mander, 57-58). Mander refers to the constant glow of something electronic; and The Ring’s aesthetics are highly engaged with this illuminated technology. Its bluish-green color pallet, which is very different from Ringu’s warm colors, signifies a reality that doesn’t exist beyond the bluish-green burn of the television screen. As the cool colors imply, there is something disconcerting and deeply disturbing about this American culture that hardly registers its technological consumption as existent.

Post-industrial tools have become attached to American identity, but somewhere beneath the surface, there is a growing fear that technology will and must come to an end. Secretly, Americans wish to “rediscover facets of experience that [they have] permitted to lie dormant” (Mander, 357). As Rachel uncovers the dormant body of Samara, who had previously only been viewed through artificial mediums, a glorious release occurs—perhaps even an epiphany—that alters her understanding of the videotape curse. Technological anxiety is replaced by the clarity of human-to-human contact. “What is lost because we can no longer flip a switch for instant ‘entertainment’ will be more than offset by human contact, enlivened minds and resurgence of personal investigation and activation” (Mander, 356). While this scene plays similarly in the Japanese film, an analysis with Mander only seems appropriate in the American context. For Mander, American society must prepare itself for a life without the television. He leads us to a single question: what happens when the pre-technological world escapes through the television and technology no longer matters? The Ring hardly scrapes the surface of that question, but the film provides competing themes regarding technology that match the American mindset, even if they are convoluted.

While both the American and Japanese versions provide complex readings of history and technology, neither film produces a concise method for interpreting their role in modernization and post-industrial society. Ringu presents a more coherent vision of the two, encouraging thoughtful discourse regarding tradition, practicality, and historical confrontation using the fruits of technology. The Ring’s befuddled expression of technology challenges Americans’ techno-consumption, as unrecognized, internal struggles to escape the grasp of technology are confronted with a desired dependency on technology. Both films do spawn a necessity for reconciliation. For Japan, this comes in the form of a reunion with the past in order to understand it via modernism. For the U.S., this is a return to nature before the pre-technological state. Whether the films actually manifest these messages or not is debatable, but each finds a place in the horror genre, as it is the most suitable arena to unravel repressed fears and unspeakable horrors.
Works Cited

Hills, Matt. “Ringing the Changes: Cult Distinction and Cultural Differences in US Fans Readings of Japanese Horror Cinema,” in Jay McRoy (Ed). Japanese Horror Cinema. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2005. pp. 161-174.
Kapur, Jyotsna. “The Return of History as Horror: Onibaba and the Atomic Bomb.” Horror International. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2005.
Mander, Jerry. Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television. New York: Quill, 1978.
Ring, The. Dir. Gore Verbinski. Perf. Naomi Watts. 2002. DVD. Dreamworks, 2002.
Ringu. Dir. Hideo Nakata. Perf. Nanako Matsushima. 1998. DVD. Dreamworks, 2003.
Tateishi, Ramie. “The Japanese Horror Film Series: Ring and Eko Eko Azarak.” Fear Without Frontiers: Horror Cinema Across the Globe. Steven Jay Schneider. (Ed.) Surrey: Fab Press, 2003, pp. 295-304.

2 comments:

  1. Japan loves ghosts because their culture is sycretic with buddhism, which has a concept of hungry ghosts. People who die grasping for something or materialists are reincarnated as hungry ghosts. Most familys offer grains of rice to them as a ritual at most meals.

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  2. This is a masterful analysis. I never thought about just how much technology appears in the US version, and that's probably because I, too, am immersed in it and take it for granted.

    ReplyDelete

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