Koji Suzuki:  portrait

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All things Ring
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Therapist view of Fatherhood in Japan
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Koji Suzuki

Suzuki Koji, a bestselling author, is often called Japan’s answer to Stephen King. After graduating from Keio University, he worked a number of jobs, including working at a cram school, where he told scary stories to entertain his students. While taking care of his two daughters while his wife worked, he started to write.

In 1990, he won the Fantasy Novel Award with Rakuen [Paradise]. In 1991, he published the novel Ring, which was made into a successful feature film. In 1996, with Rasen (Spiral), the sequel to Ring, he won the Yoshikawa Eiji Young Writer Award. The Ring series included two more installments, Loop and Birthday. In 2002, Dreamworks SKG remade the Ring for American audiences. His most recent book, Kami kami no Promenade, (The Gods' Promenade) was published in April 2003. Ring is the first of his novels to be translated into English.

Mr. Suzuki has also written extensively on fatherhood in Japan, criticizing traditional absent salarymen fathers. He has written a number of books on the subject (Fusei no Tanjo, Kazoku no Kizuna, and Papa-ism) and has spoken in front of the Japanese Diet on the suject. He has translated Simon Brett’s children’s book, The Little Sod Diaries, into Japanese as well as writing his own children’s book, Namida [Tears]. In addition to writing and translating, he is an avid motorcyclist and expert sailor.  

A Japanese national, Mr. Suzuki resides in Tokyo. He is fluent in English.

Interview: April 25, 2003

The main story of the Ring (arguably the most famous of your works due to both the Japanese and Dreamworks SKG movie versions) is of a videotape of jarring discordant images that mysteriously kills people who watch it in exactly one week. What sparked this story?
When I started writing this novel, I didn’t have a specific idea in mind. It was more or less an inspiration that literally commanded me to write this novel. I didn’t know in advance what this story would be about and I didn’t know where I would go with this novel.

In some ways, it was just like composing music. I was listening to a story told in my head and I wrote it down. It was kind of like Mozart—it was said that symphonies and concertos went through his brain, and Mozart wrote own the notes. But Mozart didn’t know where the music came from. I didn’t either. It just came.

Well that’s pretty mysterious. . .This book, Ring, seems to touch on a number of themes: misanthropy, hermaphrodism, gender issues, disease, the media, morality, utilitarianism— to name a few. What do you feel are the most significant themes and ideas contained in Ring?
When I was writing this novel I was taking care of my two daughters. I wrote this novel fourteen years ago—in 1989. At that time my elder daughter was only two years old and my wife was a high school teacher of Japanese history. So I was taking care of my daughters instead of my wife.

Which is unusual in Japan. . .
And so the theme of the Ring is really about the love I have for my daughters. In my book, it’s not a heroine, but a hero: Asakawa Kazuyuki. He is a father. He has a daughter and he has a wife. And like many men, his greatest fear in life is losing his wife or daughter.

Me too. For me the biggest fear is to lose my daughters or wife. So in my novel, Asakawa, the protagonist, fought for the life of his wife and daughter.  

What informs your work, consciously or unconsciously? Books? Folk tales? TV? Movies? Steven King or Edgar Allen Poe? Religion? Philosophy? What inspires you? Or is it all out of your psyche?
For the most part, my writing is a product of my personal experiences. But, to be fair, I think I am influenced by what I read. I studied French Literature in my university days. And I have read lots of American, French, and German literature.

The thing is, I don’t read horror: I don’t like horror novels. I once read Stephen King, but not so much. I don’t watch TV, and I don’t watch horror movies. I am most influenced by my experiences—most of all, my daughters.

I like to think of myself as a tough guy though—a Japanese macho macho man [laughs]. I may look Japanese but I have a lot of sympathy for the American archetypes of manhood. I like the Hemingway men—and I like to sail, so Hemmingway suits me. The Old Man and the Sea and all that. . .

What is “evil”? The word seems over used these days. . . Unlike Steven King and Western religion—whose themes generally focus on the idea that it is generally ancient, a primeval evil that merely exists—the evil in Ring is very much created by human will—Sadako’s hatred of mankind. To borrow from philosopher Jean-Paul Satre, is hell "other people" to you? 
I believe in the human consciousness. Yes.

I don’t believe in evil. I think of myself as very much an optimist. So it follows I’m not so interested in the concept of evil. But for a novel, it is necessary to have evil: you have to have good things and bad things for a novel to work. I strive to write the good parts of the human experience. If there is no dark, there is no contrast, and it doesn’t highlight what you are trying to show. Dark and light.

Do you yourself believe in a hell, devils or ghosts?
No, I don’t. I don’t believe in devils, demons, or evil.

It’s often that what is imagined in books never lives up to what is shown on the movie screen—no matter how good the film. A book is a medium that allows you to create a private and tailored world of terror, where as a film adaptation has to depend on more generic/universal conventions of fear. How do you feel about the film adaptations of your book in both cases? 
Novels are different from movies—I know that. If readers read a novel, there is a buffer between the written word and the text. If a man read a line of text, his instinct, his imagination, his circumstances shapes the image in his brain of the hero or heroine. This is the nature of the novel.

But movies are a direct experience. Movies go straight into the eyes and ears so imagination is not necessary. It goes straight into the head.

I know this difference exists between movies and books. Novels need imagination.

But how do you feel about the adaptations?  
Well, I think I’m very lucky. The original Japanese Ringu and Hollywood Ring are very good. And I’m lucky to be the author of them. If I didn’t think so, I would be unlucky. The Hollywood Ring is a very good movie. . .but the novel is very different.

Ring appears to be an homage to meticulous detective work that unlocked a disturbing mental landscape. The Japanese movie seemed dependant on Asako’s intuition, and her connection with psychic phenomenon. Was that a shortcut to get to the conclusion in the film? Do you feel that it weakened the ideas of your book?
I think it was a short cut—a movie is only two hours. It’s impossible to get all of that on film. If they had ten or twelve hours, maybe then it’s possible.

Why do you think the sex of the protagonist was changed from male to female in both the Japanese and US films? Asakawa Kazuyuki, the reporter, was changed to Asakawa Rieko. It seems that in general horror/slasher movies (at least from Hollywood) have had female protagonists. Take, for example, Jamie Lee Curtis in the Halloween series, or Neve Campbell in Scream. Was this your choice?
In the original Ring movie—I wanted the director to use my situation. A male Asakawa, Aasakawa Kazuyuki. I wanted to write a “father story”, a father who protects his lovely daughter. But that’s not customary in Japan because the instinct to protect a daughter is considered more maternal, a mother’s task. So in the Japanese movie version, the heroine is a woman, Asakawa Reiko.

But I don’t really think it’s the way it has to be. I wanted to write a new type of novel because I was a new type of father in Japan—like the way I took care of my daughters. And I think it was very important for a novelist to write about his own experiences.

I wanted the American Ring to have a male, not female hero. I think American father figures are so strong so a male lead was not so unreasonable. For example, Arnold Schwarzenegger in Commando. [laughs]. His whole purpose was to fight for his daughter.  

One of the most poignant aspects of the book is the exploration of male friendship and loyalty between Asakawa and Takayama Ryuji. Was this inspired by a real friendship?
I...Hmmmm. . .I know that I keep saying it’s important for a writer to draw on his experiences. I made two characters, one is Asakawa and the other Takayama Ryuji. They are actually two aspects of my own character.

Split into two?
Asakawa is ordinary and has a very serious outlook on life. Takayama Ryuji is very strong but rather peculiar. I myself have these two types within myself. I divorced my own character so these two very different people could be born. 

Is there such thing as a “Japanese” horror genre? Or does horror have universal appeal? Do you think what scares people is culturally based?
I think it is necessary for human beings to be sensitive for fear. It’s a very necessary instinct for existence. If there is no sense of terror or fear, you won’t live long. An original instinct. For example, if a mouse has no sense of fear, then it won’t live. If danger comes, and it does not know to run, it will be killed.

Were you pleased with the American Dreamworks version of the Ring movie? How active were you in its “translation” for an American audience? 
I like the Hollywood version of the Ring. I read the scripts and made some comments after reading it. First: No blood. No splatter. No slasher action. I don’t like blood because it kills the need for imagination. Second: it has to fully capture the awful events—by fully engaging the viewers imagination.

Why the delay in the translation of Ring—the book was published in 1991, it has been over eleven years. How did you choose your translator? 
I wrote this a long, long, long time ago. A lot of American novels are imported to Japan. Only a few Japanese novels go to America, few are translated into English. I feel that I am lucky—if there is an eleven-year delay, so be it.

You seem to be a man of many hats: you are a writer, translator, expert on child care, expert sailor, adventurer, devoted father—who are you? Are you all these things?
I think I am Koji Suzuki.  

What are you working on now?
I have a new book now—Kamikami no Promonade—which went on sale today. This story is about cults, like Aum Shinrikyo. A mystery about women, and I think readers will get energy from reading it.

What are you reading right now? What do you like to read?
I am interested in every subject. I like to read French and American literature, as well as good world literature. Right now I am interested in science. I’m reading about DNA as well books about relativity and quantum theory. Everyday I try to read good literature, science and history.

What do you think is required reading in Japanese fiction?
[pauses] Hmmm. Not American fiction?

Japanese fiction. Japanese literature.
[pauses] I think American literature has its own special logic. Whereas Japanese literature exists in a small world. . .it does not have an external logic.

Japanese novels, in my view, are very narrow. Japanese people read Japanese novels and they think it is interesting. People in other countries, I think, would not find it interesting in the least. Japanese literature does not have a global appeal nor does it meet global standards.

The shishosetsu, the private [the I-novel] is form of the Japanese novel. If Americans read a private novel, I don’t think they would find it interesting because it is so narrow. It has no global view.

Have you ever seen a Kurosawa movie? I think Kurosawa has that kind of logic and a global view. People all over the world find his movies interesting. I’d like to be a Kurosawa. I want people all over the world to get something out of reading my books—whether they feel happier or just merely interested for a few hours.

Many thanks to T. Ishizaki for his assistance in this interview.

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