Sunday, 20 January 2013

The Spiral

Director: Joji Iida
Writer: Joji Iida
Producers: Takashige Ichise, Shinya Kawai
Cast: Hinako Saeki, Hiroyuki Sanada, Koichi Sato
Year of release: 1998
Country: Japan
Reviewed from: VHS screener (Artsmagic)

The Spiral
aka Rasen was the original sequel to Ring. The two films were adapted from the first two books in Koji Suzuki’s trilogy, were shot simultaneously and released together on the same day in 1998. Ring was a huge hit, Rasen died a death and the studio swiftly commissioned an original alternative sequel, Ring 2, while dropping plans to film Suzuki’s third book, Loop.

Since then, Rasen has been an elusive sidebar on the ever-growing saga of Ring (Ring 0, Ring Virus, The Ring, etc) and this release from ArtsMagic’s Eastern Cult Cinema label is the first ever version with English subtitles. At last we can find out what this is all about.

Our central character this time round is Doctor Ando (Koichi Sato, who was in Gonin but was not, despite what some sources claim, in Gorath as he would have been two years old at the time!), who was at medical school with the first film’s Ryuji (Hiroyuki Sanada again: Message from Space, Ninja Wars, Sure Death 4). Two years ago Ando was unable to save his little boy from dying and has only a lock of his hair to remind him; he’s this close to suicide. Then comes the news that his old friend Ryuji is dead - and Ando has to perform the autopsy.

The cause of death seems to be myocardial infarction (heart attack) caused by a small tumour on a major blood vessel. Curiously, there is a small slip of paper stuck in Ryuji’s throat, with a sequence of numbers on it. Apparently, back at med school, Ando and Ryuji used to enjoy making and breaking codes, and Ryuji’s were notoriously difficult to crack - although the solution to this one turns out to be jaw-droppingly easy.

News comes in that Reiko and her son have vanished after taking a video tape - a Video Tape - from Ryuji’s flat, and they swiftly turn up as car crash victims - except that the little boy was dead before the crash. Meanwhile Ando is having hallucinations and when he receives a copy of That Tape from journalist Yoshimo (Yutaka Matsushige from Godzilla 2000, reprising his role from Ring) he decides to watch it and hallucinates making love to Sadako herself (now played by former dancer/model Hinako Saeki: Misa the Dark Angel, Uzumaki, GMK: All Monsters Attack - as a much more impish and less gothic antagonist).

The other key figure in this version is Mai (actress/singer Miki Nakatani), a student and lover of Ryuji seen in Ring and who was the person who discovered his body. Unfortunately Nakatani seems to have only one expression and the film bogs down considerably whenever she appears. She is so wooden, it’s like watching a bad Julia Roberts film. Or like watching a Julia Roberts film. Except she can act as we find out later under circumstances which I won’t reveal so as not to spoil the plot, and as we subsequently saw in Ring 2 so maybe we should put her irritatingly tedious performance down to the direction.

Artsmagic’s DVD includes a newly shot interview with director Joji Iida (Another Heaven, Battle Heater), of which eight minutes is included on this screener tape, and he says something which is probably the key to why Rasen flopped but Ring 2 was a hit. He says that in his view Ring is a horror movie but Rasen is science fiction.

You can see his point, in that a central part of the plot is an attempt to find a scientific (or rather pseudo-scientific) explanation for the curse as a form of virus. There’s talk about the tumours in the bodies looking like a mutated form of smallpox, and there is discussion of the virus being information-based, hence its transmission by watching the video, or even just reading a description of the images (which leads to a brilliant bit of self-referential dialogue towards the end).

I’ve watched the final twenty minutes or so twice now and I still don’t know precisely what’s going on. It’s something to do with using Sadako’s cells to clone dead loved ones but to be honest it doesn’t make much sense, though it’s nicely played and gives the impression that it ought to be much more impressively revelatory than it actually is.

I think part of the problem is that Iida (who previously wrote the script for a TV movie of Ring) was making an SF film in a horror franchise and thus somewhat fell between two stools, especially with a certain amount of police procedural thrown into the mix. Rasen completely reinvents some of the ideas proposed in Ring - the whole smallpox explanation is as unsatisfying as that Midichlorian nonsense which explained the Force in The Phantom Menace - and as such you can see why Japanese audiences shunned it once word of mouth spread. It might have done better had it been released a year later, but really, who wants to see a double bill where Film 2 contradicts/ignores what you enjoyed most about Film 1?

On its own, Rasen is quite enjoyable, and there is a big infodump about half an hour in when Yoshido describes the entire plot of the first film to Ando, which is useful for those of us who haven’t seen Ring since it was released but must have irritated audiences who had only just finished watching that film. Rasen is just nothing like Ring, in terms of story or style; it shares some characters and the cursed video tape, and that’s about it. Two directors more different that Hideo Nakata and Joji Iida you would be hard-pressed to find, and while that may have been a deliberate move by the producers, it was, in retrospect, bound to annoy audiences.

Although the DVD is in 16:9 widescreen, this timecoded VHS is full-screen so it’s difficult to judge Iida’s directorial skill. The film seems rather pedestrian and slow and talky (though it’s only 98 minutes) and frankly comes across like a very long TV episode (Iida also wrote and directed several episodes of the supernatural detective series Another Heaven Eclipse) - but that may just be a result of watching this tape. Similarly, I can’t comment on the image quality, though I expect it will be well up to ArtsMagic’s usual standard. The disc also includes a trailer and bio-filmographies (by Yours Truly) of Joji Iida, Hinako Saeki, Hiroyuki Sanada, Koichi Sato, Miki Nakatani and Yutaka Matsushiga.

The Spiral is not a lost classic, but rather a road wisely not taken. Nevertheless, for fans of the Ring movies, this is an essential - and fascinating - purchase.

MJS rating: B+
Review originally posted before November 2004

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