“Please stop tormenting me!”
The first Ju-On movie came out in 2000 at a time where it seemed the post-Ringu Japanese horror renaissance might be waning. By that point – only two years later – there had been five Ringu sequels, three Tomie movies and a ton of imitators and ripoffs trying to make a buck off of dead, wet girls with long black hair. Takashi Shimizu had been lucky enough to have Ringu screenwriter Hiroshi Takahashi and Cure director Kiyoshi Kurosawa as instructors at film school. Whereas other teachers might have discouraged Shimizu’s attraction to horror, Kurosowa and Takahashi had in existing interest in the genre and Shimizu caught their attention. With their help and support he turned a couple of small scripts for a TV ghost series into a fully fleshed out horror movie.
Ju-On wasn’t really expected to be a hit. It was made cheaply on video to cash in on the apparently fading J-Horror boom. A second one quickly followed – made even more cheaply by re-using large chunks of the first – and a third was in the works when something unexpected happened. The first two films became huge successes. Big enough that Shimizu was able to land a job directing a real film, not just a video. This was Tomie: Rebirth in 2001. Ju-On had become a big property in its own right, however, and the producers asked Shimizu to return to the franchise again – and make an actual Ju-On movie this time.
Ju-On: The Grudge (simply titled Ju-On again in Japan) came out at roughly the same time as the American Ringu remake, The Ring. Suddenly J-Horror was big again – and not just in Japan. Sam Raimi – of Evil Dead and Spider-Man fame – saw Ju-On: The Grudge and was so blown away he not only bought the remake rights, he hired Shimizu to direct it!
By the time I finally got around to watching the 2004 US remake, The Grudge I’d grown pretty tired of the ads, featuring a screaming Japanese boy and Sara Michelle Geller with a really bad dandruff problem. I remember being underwhelmed by the film itself, though I’m not sure what I was expecting. I think with Raimi attached I thought it would be less of a slow burn – more gory. I sought out the original a few years later and enjoyed it much more than the remake, despite the US version being pretty faithful (down to using the same locations). I’ve since grown to enjoy the remake as well.
Ju-On: The Grudge is available on Amazon Prime. It’s on Tubi and Vudu on as well if you don’t mind ads. None of the other Ju-On movies appears to be available for streaming and I haven’t actually seen any of them, though they’re on the list of films I hope to see.
As I mentioned earlier, this is actually the third film in the Ju-On series. The two previous films – Ju-on: The Curse and Ju-on: The Curse 2 – were direct to video releases. If you’ve seen the film you know there’s no need to have watched the previous films (particularly the second, which starts with a huge chunk of the first movie) and they all cover the same rough ground. There’s a residential home somewhere in Japan that is haunted. Over the course of the film several different groups or individuals will interact with the house and its occupants, all of them coming to a terrible end.
One of the genius things about of Ju-On: The Grudge for me is the way the narrative is fragmented. It doesn’t follow one story to a conclusion and then move to the next, it jumps between characters and even time frames. As a viewer you’re constantly back-footed, trying to figure out when these events occurred and where they occur in relation to the others. The film plays with that fragmentation from the opening sequence, where a bloodied man, a dead woman and frightened boy hiding in a closet all form a picture of something, something terrilbe – though what that is we can’t exactly see, like the torn photo the man tries to re-assemble.
We’re then introduced to Rika, a social worker sent to a house to check in on an elderly woman. The house is in disarray, the poor woman struggling with dementia and sitting in her own filth. Rika does what she can, but she’s just a volunteer. She’s startled by the presence of a small boy, Toshio, before seeing something horrible attacking the elderly woman.
And then we go back in time to when the family of the elderly woman had first moved into the house.
This is the structure of the film. We follow a group or an individual as they come into contact with the house and its dead inhabitants and see how it affects them before jumping to yet another group of people. While it does keep us unsettled and wondering where and how it all fits together it also has the unfortunate effect of keeping us from getting to know any of the character very well. As a result we’re not attached, and their ultimate fates end up feeling distant and less impactful. Rika is a through thread, but even she is only thinly fleshed out. It’s the film’s biggest drawback.
The house and ghosts within function like a horrific virus, infecting and destroying anyone who comes into contact with them. Every time it seems like one of the people involved may get away from the rage of the ghosts they’re looped back into it by loved ones or duty or simply bad luck. There’s no escape. All the stories finally end in the same place – death at the hands of angry ghosts.
The final shots of the film show a strangely empty cityscape with Missing Persons posters plastered on walls, bikes left in the street and trash blowing in the wind. Finally we see the dead woman from the opening scenes – a wife brutally murdered and full of rage in the in the afterlife, ready to punish the whole world if she can.
The Bottom Line
While Ju-On: The Grudge isn’t one of my favorite J-Horror films, it’s still an effective representation of the genre. It’s ability to unsettle is equaled by its inability to really engage you in the characters. Very much worth a watch, but you may find it’s a story you don’t need to see more than once.
Both Ringu and Ju-On have spawned a huge number of spinoffs, sequels and imitators. They’ve also inspired an entire genre of filmmakers to create some of the most memorable and frightening horror movies of the last twenty years. If you’ve watched either or both and find yourself looking for more, may suggest the following: The Cure (1997), Kairo (2001), Dark Water (2002), Noroi (2005), Premonition (2004). There are dozens more, of course. And you may have favorites of your own. If you do, please share them in the comments!