Sadako in 2020: Queerness, Virality, and Koji Suzuki's 'Ring'
By Eric Shorey
“Let us go in together,
And still your fingers on your lips, I pray.
The time is out of joint—O cursèd spite,
That ever I was born to set it right!
Nay, come, let's go together.” - Hamlet, William Shakespeare
CW: Rape, murder, hate crimes, suicide, homophobia, transphobia, AIDS
American Japanophiles have recently become aggressive about calling attention to the various ways that queer subtexts or storylines in Japanese media are completely eradicated when adapted for non-Japanese audiences. The history of Western adaptations of Japanese animation is filled with romantic partners turned into “cousins” and love turned into “grace.” A backlash is only just now emerging around this kind of systematic erasure in anime, but considering the West’s extremely limited (and often distortedly fetishistic) views of Japanese media, I can’t help but wonder: where else do queer plots exist that Americans simply haven’t seen?
Gore Verbinski’s 2002 adaptation of Hideo Nakata’s 1998 horror film “Ring” (AKA “Ringu”) was a groundbreaking movie — “The Ring” is often credited as bringing about a newfound interest in Japanese horror amongst Western moviegoers. Verbinski’s masterful interpretation of Nakata’s text interpolated the original content through the English language, cleverly playing on the homonymous multiple meanings of the word “Ring” itself (the ringing of the phone, the ring of light around the top of the doomed well, the cyclical nature of the movie’s events) that didn’t even exist in Japanese. A Korean adaptation of “Ring,” titled “The Ring Virus,” was also released in 1999.
Nakata’s film is not an original either, meaning that what Americans know about the story of Samara Morgan is itself a copy of a copy: the original "Ring” was written by novelist Koji Suzuki, who many (either pejoratively or respectfully) describe as the Stephen King of Japan. Suzuki’s “Ring,” originally published in 1991, is the first of six books that explore the pan-global fallout from the discovery of a cursed videotape. The grand irony of “Ring,” that it compels endless copies of an original — each spreading the twisted message of it’s source material further and further — is critical here.
Koji Suzuki’s “Ring” begins with Kazuyuki Asakawa, a journalist haunted by the memories of his failed investigations into various supernatural phenomenon. Asakawa happens upon the infamous cursed tape while looking into the simultaneous and inexplicable deaths of four teenagers.
Unlike in the filmic adaptations, the cursed tape in the novel instructs the viewer precisely how not to die as a result of seeing its bedeviled material. The following text appears on Asakawa’s TV screen right after he views a series of confounding images — but there’s a catch.
“Those who have viewed these images are fated to die at this exact hour one week from now. If you do not wish to die, you must follow these instructions exactly…
Asakawa gulped and stared wide-eyed at the television. But the scene changed yet again. A complete and utter change. A commercial came on, a perfectly ordinary, common television commercial. A romantic old neighborhood on a summer’s evening, an actress in a light cotton robe sitting on a verandah, fireworks lighting up the sky. A commercial for mosquito-repelling coils. After about thirty seconds the commercial ended, and just as another scene was about to start, the screen returned to its previous state. Darkness, with the last afterglow of faded words. Then, the sound of static as the tape ended.”
Someone had taped over the “charm” by which the video’s curse can be lifted. Thus begins the search for the tape’s origins.
Asakawa enlists the help of his childhood friend, Ryūji Takayama, a philosophy professor preoccupied with the apocalypse. Asakawa needs Ryuji’s knowledge of other worlds to help untangle this mystery, but Asakawa remains dubious of Ryuji’s intentions after remembering an episode from their youth during which Ryuji admitted to sneaking into the house of a female classmate’s, brutally raping her, then fleeing into the night. Asakawa makes Ryuji a copy of the tape so he can see it for himself — Ryuji watches it, entirely unbothered by its haunted promise. Meanwhile, Asakawa’s wife and child accidentally view the tape as well. Now, the lives of Asakawa’s dearest loved ones are at stake.
Through various investigative machinations, Ryuji and Asakawa deduce that the cursed tape was created by a woman named Sadako Yamamura, the technopathic daughter of a disgraced psychic named Shizuko Yamamura. The senior Yamamura maiden threw herself into a volcano after a cabal of journalists claimed to have debunked her mystical powers.
The imagery of the video tape itself was not captured by a camera but are instead the direct imprinting of Sadako’s memories onto a VHS. The ghoulish visions had emanated from the well in which Sadako had become entombed, beamed psionically from her mind onto a nearby television screen and captured — through pure happenstance — by a guest at the hotel erected atop her final resting place.
In Verbinski’s adaptation of “Ring,” Sadako/Samara is killed by her mother, who views the child as cursed. This is not the case in Suzuki’s story.
In the original text, the well in which Sadako meets her end was originally located on a hospital ground that was later converted into a luxury campsite. Sadako, who had inherited powers beyond that of her mother’s, had fallen ill. A doctor who had concealed his contraction of smallpox from his colleagues was tasked with treating her. One day, he was overcome by his beautiful patient’s nubile body. He took the sickly girl to the woods and viciously raped her.
“Then I looked down again,” the doctor tells Asakawa. “Within her pubic mound, covered with hair, was a pair of perfectly developed testicles … Sadako was still staring at me. I was probably the first person outside her family to discover the secret of her body. Needless to say, she had been a virgin up until a few minutes ago. It had been a necessary trial if she were to go on living as a woman. I was trying to rationalize my actions. Then, suddenly, words flew into my head.
I’ll kill you.”
Overcome by what he perceived to be an inexplicable darkness, the doctor pushes the newly infected Sadako into the well, where she dies of starvation and illness (Asakawa believes Sadako to be the last smallpox patient in Japan) seven days later.
Asakawa and Ryuji believe that to lift the curse of Sadako they must lay her bones to rest back on the island where she was raised. They climb into the well, find her corpse, and transport it back to the base of the volcano where her mother perished for a proper burial. 7 days after he viewed the tape, Asakawa remains alive. The curse, he believed, had been lifted by his good deed.
But Ryuji dies shortly thereafter. Asakwa tries to think. What had he done that Ryuji had not? Had he accidentally stumbled upon the charm long before extricating Sadako’s body from the well? Yes, he had.
He had made a copy of the tape. He had shown it to Ryuji.
With the clock ticking, Asakawa rushes to his wife and daughter. Less than an hour remains. The only other people around are Asakwa’s parents — but will he sacrifice their lives for his bride and child? Or does Sadako’s virus keep spreading — forever?
“Ring” — and, subsequently, every media iteration inspired by Suzuki’s novel — are ostensibly queer texts: Sadako was the victim of a gay panic killing. The doctor who murdered her may claim that telepathic messages from some other cosmos compelled him to take the life of the intersex woman, but those familiar with the psychosexual dynamics of the killings of gender non-conforming individuals are no strangers to this rhetoric.
It was not (only) cosmic forces causing the doctor to murder Sadako, it was homophobia — it was the belief that because he was attracted to someone with testicles, that he might be gay. In order to undo the perceived homosexuality of his violent sexual act, he had to get rid of the object that compelled him to do it.
The pathological logic of transphobic murders has not thoroughly been investigated by psychoanalytic thinkers, but is more than familiar to the LGBTQ+ community in the United States, where the murders of (Black) transgender sex workers are tragically commonplace.
If "Ring,” “Ringu,” and “The Ring” are viewed as queer texts that implicitly communicate something about the queer experience, then Sadako/Samara’s status as a cursed child takes on a new meaning. It was not (only) her psychic powers that made her entire being a sacrilege, it was her existence as a queer (cursed) body that caused her to be victimized by her mother (in the filmic adaptations) or her doctor (in the book).
Queer children are all too often viewed as fundamentally cursed: prone to supernatural sensitivities, often described as both “beautiful” and “creepy” — as Sadako often was. And just like in “Ring,” having a body that is not gender conforming magnetizes (sexual) violence. Often from parents.
And what of Ryuji, another perpetrator of sexual violence in the original text — whose hideous sub-plot is entirely erased in the subsequent movies? Ryuji’s star student, after her professor’s demise, reveals to Asakawa that she believed Ryuji to have died a virgin. That means either Ryuji had lied to her, or that he invented his story about raping his classmate. Ryuji’s social awkwardness, his smallness, his intellect, his alleged lack of sexual contact with women: was Ryuji gay? Did Ryuji’s homosexuality — far from acceptable in 1980’s Japan — cause him to invent a sexually violent fantasy in the hopes of convincing his classmate of his heterosexuality?
“Ring” is a story about how a process of disavowing queerness compels violence. It is about how when confronted with queerness, hegemonic heterosexual ideology must resort to violence in an attempt to erase what it deems deviant — or cursed.
While Asakawa is attempting to untangle the mystery of Sadako’s life, he begins in his mind to think of the videotape as a kind of virus. By watching the video, he has contracted a disease. He repeatedly compares this virus to the emergence of AIDS: doctors knew their patients were sick but couldn’t figure out how they had acquired the condition or what could possibly cure it.
With Sadako established as a queer body, her association to AIDS and virality is inevitable. Remember: “Ring” was published in 1991, when decoupling what would become known as queerness from illness was essentially an impossibility. There’s no doubt that fantasies about AIDS came with all kinds of implications about the moral character of an infected person. Certainly, Sadako — or maybe just her ghost — is evil.
“Contact with someone afflicted with a disease regarded as a mysterious malevolency inevitably feels like a trespass; worse, like the violation of a taboo. The very names of such diseases are felt to have a magic power … Illnesses have always been used as metaphors to enliven charges that a society was corrupt or unjust,” explains Susan Sontag in her 1978 text Illness as Metaphor. “How, when there is so much to be severe about; how, when we have a sense of evil but no longer the religious or philosophical language to talk intelligently about evil. Trying to comprehend ‘radical’ or ‘absolute’ evil, we search for adequate metaphors.”
But beyond Suzuki’s associational links or descriptive metaphors is the actual machinations of Sadako’s curse. Asakawa theorizes, in a moment of crypto-Shintoist logic, that somehow the smallpox virus in her body had synthesized with both Sadako’s supernatural abilities and her hatred of the world. And Sadako had plenty of reasons to hate the world: she hated the men who destroyed her mother, she hated her own body (Asakawa assumes), she hated the man who raped and killed her. This leads to the tape’s transubstantiation as a concrete object. That is to say, the images on the tape are not like a virus — they are a virus. And if 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that viruses know how to spread.
So of course, following this logic, the primary purpose of Sadako’s curse is to spread itself: the only way to lift the curse is to show it to someone else.
In a year so defined by virality, where suddenly fears of a virus are the dominant pan-global concern, Sadako’s terrible rage may have taken on a new meaning: The other thing that 2020 has taught us is that viruses aren’t just submicroscopic infectious agents — they are also media.
In fact, in a moment of anachronistic prescience, Koji Suzuki’s “Ring” had predicted the existence and functioning of viral media with uncanny accuracy. What Suzuki seemed to say, almost 30 years before social media (and Coronavirus) became utterly pervasive, was that the most obvious feature of viral media is that it both hurts us — and compels us to show someone else.
As the phenomenon of “doomscrolling” emerged throughout the months of pan-global lockdowns, shut-ins around the world began to find themselves addicted to both contracting and spreading not just a literal virus but also hideous viral content — both causing considerable harm to global health and mental hygiene.
Just like Sadako’s video tape: when you see something harmful, what you feel you must do in order to quell the harmful material’s power — is to spread it. You have to make a copy, you have to show it to someone else. Sharing, retweeting, re-blogging.
Endless justifications can be made about the necessity of social media in creating an ongoing reckoning with regards to the voices of the marginalized — but as more and more studies proving the harmful effects of social media on mental health emerge, one can’t help but find an unsettling uncanniness in precisely how insidious “viral” content really might be.
It is a curse, it makes us sick.
Post-structuralist French philosopher Jacques Derrida is widely credited with creating the obscure field of study known as “hauntology” — pronounced with a French accent, the word is homonymous with “ontology,” the study of being. It’s a bad pun.
The final moment of Act I of Shakespeare’s Hamlet is the primal scene of hauntology. In it, the ghost of Hamlet’s father appears and instructs his son to avenge his death by murdering Claudius.
Ghosts appear as disjunctures in time — “The time is out of joint” — Hamlet’s father is caught between realms with a message from the past about the future. He compels a violent action in the present.
So too does Sadako appear, a ghost from the past with a violent message for the future. The videotape: her memories frozen in time on VHS, a concretization of her “curséd spite,” with a lesson sent from 1991 that suddenly makes sense in the various doomsday scenarios of 2020.
Suzuki concludes “Ring” with these words: “Black clouds moved eerily across the skies. They slithered like serpents, hinting at the unleashing of some apocalyptic evil.”
The time is out of joint. A virus that must be spread.