November 17, 2005


Lots of Japanese movies are based on books, and while that’s not so surprising, what is sort of odd is how many of these books are getting released in English. Often without fanfare and without much publicity. One day you're walking through a bookstore, minding your own business, and suddenly there's BATTLE ROYALE the novel, or RING in hardback.

So are they any good?

RING – RING is a much better book than it is a movie. Koji Suzuki was a stay-at-home dad, writing the occasional book on child rearing while his wife taught high school history. Suddenly, out of the blue he got the idea for RING and knocked the novel out in about 3 months. Writers talk about inspiration taking them by surprise, but Suzuki’s unease with what was crawling out of his subconscious is evident on every page. Much more detailed than the movie, with every meal, nap and conversation his characters have meticulously noted, RING the book is all the better for being grounded in minutely, almost mind-numbingly, observed reality. The major difference for readers is that the book's protagonist is a man, not a woman, and his companion in mystery-solving is a possibly-unbalanced pal from college. Published in the US by a company called Vertical this is a really handsome hardback (and it's not too bad a softcover, either). Vertical may not have a big staff, but RING sports a hypno-cover by celeb cover designer, Chip Kidd, and the translation is impeccable.

SPIRAL – as if in reaction to the illogic and madness of RING, this sequel is determined to explain things. What things? Everything. This sequel to RING has absolutely nothing to do with the movie version, RING 2, and reads more like a bizarre journal article in LANCET or the NEW ENGLAND JOURNAL OF MEDICINE. Think a Halloween episode of “ER” or “Quincy” and you're going in the right direction. SPIRAL takes place immediately after RING, with a medical examiner trying to figure out exactly how someone can die from viewing a videotape. The book is determined to come up with a plausible explanation for how the Ring virus works and I’ll be darned if they don’t manage to pull it off. Received wisdom says that the inexplicable is scarier than what we can explain, but the more ooky biology they get into in SPIRAL the worse the situation seems to be. The book’s a fast ride, and a brainy one, but it’s just as compelling as RING and I frankly enjoyed it more since the story was all new to me.

BATTLE ROYALE – if Vertical is a “how to” for publishing Japanese books in the US, then Viz provides us with a “please don't” in BATTLE ROYALE. A first novel by Koushun Takami, BATTLE ROYALE was a hit in Japan even before Kinji Fukasaku adapted it into his film of the same name. Unfortunately, the book is lousy. Clocking in at 616 pages, it covers the same ground as the movie except for a few minor differences. The main difference is that the novel is set in an alternate history version of Japan in which Japan is an authoritarian empire that won World War II. There still isn’t a reasonable explanation for what result the government wants from its “Program” that pits ninth graders against one another in a death-match, but whereas Fukasaku left the motives behind while he raced pell mell towards the finish line, letting emotional intensity cover up the cracks in logic, BATTLE ROYALE the novel is written in the kind of meticulous, overly-descriptive language common to online fan fiction. The book is so lumpily written, and so laborious to read that the experience rapidly becomes unpleasant and it isn’t helped by how badly it’s printed or translated. Spelling and grammar mistakes abound, and even a grammar dunce like me was distracted by blatant misuses of the English language. In an effort to, I assume, fill as few pages as possible, Viz has used extremely tight margins, and starts chapters at the top of the page which does even more damage to your already-endangered reading pleasure. And, if you were wondering what fills these 616 pages, then you'll be unhappy to know that it's mostly backstory. Gobs of backstory. More backstory than any of these two-dimensional characters could possibly warrant.

OUT – this is one of my favorite Japanese movies, and it has never gotten enough attention. When Subway showed it in the 2002 New York Asian Film Festival, audiences were small but they loved it deeply. There were even a couple of Hollywood producers and directors who were going after remake rights but they wound up being denied. Nothing was heard, and then Kodansha brought out a hardcover version of the book: a deep, dark, kind of sick noir by Natsuo Kirino. The book did okay, but not great and while it popped up here and there it seemed destined for obscurity. And then Vintage released a paperback version of OUT and it took off. Press everywhere, and it became a word of mouth hit. Nowadays I see women reading it on the subway and I hear women recommending it to their friends in Starbucks. People pass it along as a gift, always followed by the caveat “This is really good, but a little dark” and it seems to have taken on a new life as a darker, more downbeat alternative to chick lit faves. Kirino is one of Japan’s most popular mystery writers and OUT is a great book that, unfortunately, has a lousy ending. The story of four middle-aged women wrestling with debt, kids, husbands and life while working crummy jobs at a box lunch factory, it’s a deeply detailed, deep dark look at crime down at the bottom of the pond where the scum-eaters dwell, but the last 30 pages takes a wrong turn into head-trip land with a bunch of "I rape you, you rape me" mumbo jumbo. But until then, this impressive slab of a book (in a great translation) is a skeevy, dark story.

November 17, 2005 at 05:29 AM in Reviews | Permalink


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