Rasen ("Spiral," 1998) – Film Review

RASEN (which translates as “Spiral”) is the first sequel to the Japanese horror hit RINGU. Like RINGU, it was based on a novel by author Koji Suzuki; unlike RINGU, it was written and directed by Joji Iada, who took quite a different approach when adapting the material. Sadly, although the film is filled with interesting ideas derived from its source material, it is unable to complete with its cinematic predecessor as as a fascinating horror-thriller. Overall, the film feels stilted, academic, and more than a little dull as it plows through its exposition. Still, there is enough here to make the film worth watching for fans of the series.
The odd thing about RASEN is that it attempts to be faithful to Suzuki’s book while to a large extent ignoring the liberties taken with the story by the RINGU movie. Consequently, there are some strange continuity gaps. Ryuji Takayama (Hioyuki Sanada) was a mathematician in the first film; here, we learn he studied medicine in college. We see him die in a flashback that looks nothing like the ending of RINGU (most obviously, there’s no ghost coming out of a television set). In general, the victims die from what seems like natural causes: their faces show signs of a rash; they do not resemble the terror-filled faces of the first film. The flashback death of Sadako (the little psychic girl dumped in the well in RINGU) is considerably different, and Sadako herself is seen (briefly) as a young woman and something of a sultry seductress — not the familiar embodiment of malevolence. And the whole “frolic in brine, goblins be thine” refrain (implying that Sadako’s real father may have been an ocean spirit) is totally ignored.


In general, RASEN takes a science-fiction approach to the story, attempting to explain the apparently supernatural events in logical terms. Thus, the victims of the “cursed” videotape all die from heart attacks brought on by tumors that grew from a virus. The virus is in fact DNA code for the dear, departed Sadako, who used her telekinetic powers to leave an impression on the videotape. When people watch the video, the DNA information is transferred into them through eye (the dialogue compares this to a computer using an optical scanner to download information). The victims then die, unless they act to help the virus spread. Unlike in RINGU, Sadako wants more than just to avenge herself on the world of the living. What is her purpose? Well, that should not be too hard to guess if you stop and consider the function of DNA…
Being so radically different from RINGU, RASEN comes across less like a sequel and more like some weird alternative version of the story. The film gets off to a decent start, introducing us to the suicidal Dr. Andou (Koichi Sato), who can’t quite work up the nerve to make the “final cut” while mourning the accidental death of his son. It falls to him to perform the autopsy on Sadako’s victim, Ryuji Takayama. Easily the film’s creepiest, most frightening moment comes when Takayama’s disemboweled corpse rises from the dissecting table to upbraid the surgeon: “You couldn’t cut your own wrists — and yet you can do this to me?”
Anomalies in the results lead the doctor to investigate the previous deaths (seen in RINGU). He hooks up with Takano Mai (Nakatanii Miki), Takayama’s “assistant” (and possibly girlfriend) from the first film, who wants to know what caused Takayama’s death. Eventually, Andou watches the videotape and destroys the remaining copies, thinking he will be Sadako’s last victim. But in the end, like the female reporter Reiko Asakawa (Nanako Matsushima) in RINGU, Dr. Ando makes a moral compromise, helping the evil to spread in exchange for the life of his son.
Unfortunately, the investigation is slow, particularly in the early scenes, when we are waiting for the doctor to catch up with what we already know. Not a lot really happens throughout most of the film. Since this is not, strictly speaking, a ghost story, the spooky scenes are few and far between; when they do arrive, they are presented so that they can be interpreted as hallucinations (brought on by the DNA-virus infection).
Many of the anomalies between the two films are jarring, making it hard to enjoy this film as a sequel. Especially toward the end, the story falls apart, with a twist that is completely unbelievable in emotional terms:
[SPOILER ALERT]
Not only does Sadako’s little psychic DNA trick resurrect her; one of her victims is also brought back to life, and joins up with her. Why would she want him alive again? And why would he want to be with her, after she inflicted such a painful, horrible death on him? The film doesn’t bother to explain.
That’s not the only question left dangling. The main motivating factor for the suicidally inclined protagonist is the accidental drowning of his young son, which is the leverage Sadako uses over him at the end. Yet we never find out what happened to the boy’s mother. (You’d think Mom would merit some consideration regarding the prospect of bringing her son back to life.)
As if this were not bad enough, the film attempts to recreate the mood of impending doom that worked so well in RINGU, when it seemed that the cursed videotape would be spreading fear and death far and wide. With all the videos destroyed, RASEN tells us that a journal written Reiko Asakawa (the female journalist in RINGU) will suffice to spread Sadako’s DNA-laced virus. It’s a lazy plot device. As part of our willing suspension of disbelief, we will accept that Sadako’s psychic powers could have infected a videotape, but it’s a ridiculous dramatic leap to ask us to believe the same about a journal written by someone who saw the videotape.
[END SPOILERS]
It’s really too bad, because the film works hard to create a grim sense of human beings making fateful moral compromises with apocalyptic implications for the rest of humanity. This is not a story about a ghost who wants to jump out of a television and say “Boo!” It’s a tale about a new life form spreading — and possibly overwhelming the world as we know it. But gauzy photography and a sense of a fait accompli during a moody final beach scene are not enough to carry the idea when the actual plot mechanics are so far askew. You have to give RASEN credit for attempting to do something ambitious and different from its predecessor, while trying to remain true to its source material. But in the end, it’s a failure that proves the makers of RINGU made the right decisions while taking Koji Suzuki’s novel and turning into a masterpiece of screen terror.

TRIVIA

Using a largely different cast and crew, RASEN was shot and released (in Japan) almost simultaneously with RINGU. However, the film failed to match the box office appeal of its predecessor. Ultimately, the film’s producers decided to make a new sequelthat completely ignored the events of RASEN. RINGU 2 was an original screenplay, not based on the work of author Koji Suzuki, and it retained most of the supernatural elements that had made the first RING so successful. The result, for viewers unfamiliar with the behind-the-scenes story, was the creation of a sort of “accidental art,” in which the sequels present a seemingly surreal alternative universe of conflicting and overlapping events: characters who were dead are now alive; characters who were alive are now dead; and certain beats and plot points recur, but in different contexts.

DVD DETAILS

RASEN is available in the U.S. as part of Dreamworks’ “Ringu Anthology of Terror,” which also includes RING, RINGU 2, and RINGO 0. The films are all presented in Dolby digital 5.1 surround sound, with options for subtitles in English, Spanish and French. Unfortunately, although the box cover art is nice (blue, dessicated hands scrabbling up slimy well), there are no bonus features, except for a slick, single-page insert, listing the titles and credits, with a brief plots synopsis for each. There is no explanation regarding the continuity lapses in the sequels, which is like to cause confusion for uninitiated viewers. RASEN is also available on a Double Feature DVD with the prequel RINGU 0.
RASEN (a.k.a. “Spiral”). Directed by Joji Iida. Screenplay by Iiada, based on the novel by Koji Suzuki. Cast: Koichi Sato, Miki Nakatari, Hinaka Saeki, Shingo Tsurumi, Hiroyuki Sanada, Yutaka Matsuhige, Tomohiro Okada.

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