||Filmed and released concurrently in 1998 with Hideo Nakata's mega-popular horror film Ring, Joji Iida's sequel was all but assured similar box office success. Surprisingly, the film bombed big time. Although effectively ignored and replaced by Hideo Nakata's Ring 2 in 1999, this so-called black sheep of the Ring franchise isn't quite as terrible as its reputation would lead you to believe.
Based on Koji Suzuki's novel of the same name, Rasen introduces viewers to a new protagonist, suicidal pathologist Mitsuo Ando (Koichi Sato). He enters the fray when he's asked to conduct an autopsy on Ryuji Takayama (Hiroyuki Sanada), a character who was featured prominently in the previous film. Ando and Takayama were friends and rivals at med school, and their shared interest in "cracking codes" gets reignited when Ando discovers a strange note in Takayama's stomach. Eager to decipher this strange message from beyond the grave, Ando throws himself into the middle of the ongoing police investigation.
Ando learns that Takayama's wife Reiko Asakawa (Nanako Matsushima in recycled footage from Ring) and their young son have vanished along with a legendary video tape that is rumored to kill anyone who watches it. With the assistance of Takayama's protégé and sometime lover, Mai Takano (Miki Nakatani, reprising her role from the first film), the once-skeptical Ando becomes a believer, as he seeks to put an end to the cursed videotape's reign of unholy terror. Along the way, he's haunted by visions of his old friend Takayama as well as his deceased son, whose drowning two years earlier had previously put him a suicidal state of mind. Ultimately, Ando's quest will take him in directions he never dreamed, as events he thought he had a firm grasp on literally spiral out of his – and everyone's – control.
Viewing the film now, it's easy to see why Rasen wasn't a hit with fans in the way that Ring was. For starters, the film asks you to invest in a brand new character, rather than directly following the perspectives of the characters featured in the original film's open, but ominous Terminator 2-style ending. Granted, Rasen simply follows the storyline of the book and does bring back familiar faces like Ryuji Takayama and Mai Takano, but the logic of a more commercial sequel demands that the principal surviving characters of the original return for the follow-up (which, it should be noted, is exactly what happens in Ring 2). It also doesn't help that these characters are relegated to archival footage and end up dying off-screen in a wholly ignoble fashion.
Another problem with the film is that it lacks both the creepy look and tension-filled atmosphere of the original. Rasen's cheesy soundtrack, awkwardly-staged sex scenes, and overly-sexualized depiction of Sadako (the villainess of the first film) simply doesn't compute for audiences who have just watched Ring and expect something in the same vein. For the most part, Rasen looks and feels sterile.
Admittedly, part of the reason for this seeming "sterility" is the way in which the film plays up the sci-fi elements of the cursed tape. Takayama's manner of death in the opening moments of Rasen more closely resemble the "realistic" method of death in the novel than it does the undeniably iconic, more openly supernatural version presented in Nakata's film. Although Rasen ultimately loses points on the horror side of the equation, it does gain something else in return - narrative clarity and the illusion of scientific realism. Why is the video tape "haunted"? How does it transmit its virus? And what is Sadako's end game? Thanks to the film's techno-horror approach, all of these questions are explained in a logical, if not actually believable fashion.
Despite its many deficits - stiff acting, poor staging, lackluster production design - what the film does have going for it is its shocker of an ending. Pulled straight from Suzuki's book, the climax of the film presents viewers with a moral quandary – namely, how far would you go to get something (or someone) back that you believed was lost forever? Would you sell your soul? How about the human race? The film's dystopian ending, complete with its foreshadowed, but nonetheless soul-crunching twist makes this film worth a look, as does Rasen's strangely meta-fictional crescendo that implicates every fan of the Ring franchise in Sadako's evil plot.
While Rasen admittedly pales in comparison to Ring, the film does have its merits. It's not as if Ring 2 was really much of an improvement anyway, despite the film reinstating everything that Rasen lacked. Still, both casual and hardcore Ring fans will want to check this "forgotten" sequel out, especially those intrigued by the more explicitly techno-horror aspects of the original novel and its downbeat apocalyptic ending. (Calvin McMillin, 2009)