Written and Directed by Takashi Shimizu
A Lionsgate Picture
Starring: Megumi Okina (Rika); Misaki Ito (Hitomi); Misa Uehara (Izumi); Takashi Matsuyama (Takeo Saeki); Yuya Ozaki (Toshio); Takako Fuji (Kayako); Kanji Tsuda (Katsuya Tokunaga); Shuri Matsuda (Kazumi); Kayako Shibata (Mariko); Yoji Tanaka (Yuji Toyama); Daisuke Honda (Det. Igarishi); Chikako Isomura (Sachie)
During this month-long look at horror, we’ve only briefly touched on the films being made in the non-English-speaking territories of the globe. One would think that you’d have to be able to recite the pledge of alliance or “God Save The Queen” in order to scare the pants of somebody in cinema, considering we’ve only taken a look, so far, at one non-English-speaking film (Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath). Nothing could be further from the truth; limitations of space and time force me to pick and choose the films in this series and, so far, they’ve been mostly produced in either America or England. But I would be remiss in my duties if I did not say a few words about what’s going on in the Asian countries, particularly Japan.
Japanese horror (known by the affectionate nickname “J-Horror”) has been sweeping the globe as of late and many of their original productions have found a home in America in the form of remakes (such as The Ring (2002) and Dark Water (2005), neither of which I would recommend over the Japanese originals). The film we’ll be looking at today has also been remade in America (again inferiorly), and has spawned a widely-successful franchise in its native land. Although there are many similarities between the types of stories that are successful in Japanese horror, this film scores the highest points for its style and boldness. I can only be talking about Ju-On (subtitled The Grudge).
You don’t have to watch too many films created in the Asian countries before you can spot similarities in many of their stories (at least in the ones that have become popular here in the west) and Ju-On is no exception: boiled down to its bare roots, Ju-On is a story of the vengeful ghost. In these films, ordinary people (usually but not always innocent) cross paths with a (usually female) spirit who died as a result of great injustice (either as a murder victim or driven to suicide by a cruel society). The ghost comes back to haunt and eventually kill the heroes, who must find a way to lay the ghost to rest and save their lives. Almost always, the ghost lives on to kill another day, and in another film. The plot that I’ve just described is the bare bones of Asian horror pictures like the aforementioned Ringu (1998) and Dark Water (2002) along with The Eye (2002), Shutter (2004), The Red Shoes (2005) and Carved, The Slit-Mouthed Woman (2007). Now I know that it sounds like I’m giving a rather back-handed compliment to these films by pointing out their similarities but I’d like to point out two more things: not all Asian horror films follow this plot (those of you who have seen Audition (1999) know that to be true), and each and every one of the films I’ve just mentioned are worth seeing because they all have individual traits that marks them as well acted, well directed and incredibly scary films. The “vengeful ghost” plot is a skeleton; like people, it needs flesh and detail to differentiate them from one another.
One of the things that makes Ju-On so special is that its skeleton seems to have a few of its bones in the wrong places; from the way the story is structured, the leg bone is not necessarily connected to the hip bone. Ju-On begins with a brief segment that really is the beginning of this sordid tale – a jealous man (Takashi Matsuyama) kills his wife and child – and then drops us into a sequence that, we later realize, is the aftermath of a sequence we haven’t seen yet. The six segments that tell the tale of Ju-On are presented out chronological sequence, but is this just a gimmick?
The story revolves around a house in Tokyo where a grisly murder took place and which is the one connecting piece in a series of mysterious deaths and disappearances over the past five years. The first character we are introduced to, the one who will be our touchstone throughout the vignettes, is Rika (Megumi Okina), a young care-giver who is given the last-minute job of checking up on an elderly woman living in the crime house. The inexperienced Rika arrives to find the house a mess, the old woman, Sachie (Chikako Isomura), left alone on a soiled mat and her son and daughter-in-law nowhere to be found. But a sound from upstairs says the house may not be abandoned after all. In the bedroom, Rika finds a tape-sealed closet from which emerge a black cat and a six year-old boy, Toshio (Yuya Ozaki). But what is that awful, creaking sound that she hears when she goes back downstairs and what is that dark thing leaning over the no-longer moving Sachie?
Rika may not know it but, simply by placing one stocking foot inside the threshold of the house, she has inherited the curse of Kayako (Takako Fuji), the original woman murdered in the house, and before we begin to think how awfully unfair that is, we come to realize that everyone entering the house, from the police investigating the owners’ disappearance to a group of school girls breaking in for kicks years later, will all suffer the same fate. Not all once, of course; that would lead to suspicion.
And they won’t all go in the same way, either; that’s what gives Ju-On its special flavor.
It must’ve been difficult to write a story that includes this many characters (some of whom are not related nor ever meet up with the others) and taking place over a period of years and still have a central character to focus on. It makes perfect sense that Rika turns out to be our main character and, even when she spends long periods off-screen, the narrative always manages to come back to her. This isn’t just a story about a family living in a haunted house, it’s about a house so haunted that no one can enter and escape: even if it takes years, Kayako will get you (This recalls a chilling line of Stephen King’s that unfortunately was not included in the film version of 1408, “Even if you leave the room, you will never leave the room.”) Rika and former-Detective Toyama (Yoji Tanaka) might live for a few extra years, thinking they’ve made a lucky escape, but Kayako, Toshio and that blasted cat are always there, staring, waiting and mewing. Also, if the story had centered on either the Tokunaga family who own the house or Detective Toyama and his family, the supporting characters would have been marginalized. Rika has no close ties to any of the other victims (except for her friend Mariko (Kayako Shibata)) and she is the one we continually return to. Her appearance in more than one segment marks her as special and the one we hope eventually survives (until we hear a news report on the discovery of her body in Izumi’s segment). She is the film’s anchor, the one that keeps it from being a scattered collection of hauntings and turns it into a full, complete film.
As stated before, Ju-On presents its individual segments out of chronological order (this is the only horror film in my October list with individual stories that I cannot comfortably refer to as an anthology; all the segments feature characters withstanding the same creature); Rika’s introductory segment is followed by segments introducing the house’s owners, Katsuya Tokunaga (Kanji Tsuda) and his wife Kazumi (Shuri Matsuda). The rules of haunted house stories would seem to predict that these two don’t stand a chance, but the story starts to bloom when we are introduced to Hitomi (Misaki Ito), Katsuya’s sister who has dropped over for the evening before she is summarily ushered back out into the rain again (her arrival also gives us an initial glimpse into the back-story; Katsuya briefly channels the killer and mutters, “She had another man… the child isn’t mine…”). Hitomi’s following segment is the first indication that the curse can travel well beyond the walls of the Tokunaga House, and is one of the most frightening sequences in the film.
The night after the deaths of her brother and sister-in-law, Hitomi finds herself stalked by a strange presence and her encounters with the curse are frighteningly visual. After leaving a stall in the ladies’ room, a dark, nearly pitch-black presence creeps out of the neighboring stall, making a sound that can only be described as a death-rattle. Looking at the creature edging out of the stall, its black hair leaning forward in jagged tussles, would send the deepest cynic screaming for the door. She’s followed straight to her home – Toshio is seen on several floors as the elevator goes up to her apartment – and the curse even tricks her into opening the door to what she thinks is her brother (she doesn’t realize that he is already dead). Ultimately, she is reduced to cowering under the bed sheets, but that provides no haven because guess who’s waiting under there for her.
The Toyama segment has most of the film’s exposition; it brings us back to Rika and gives us the story of the Saeki family murders. The police force tries to involve the former detective who headed up the Saeki case, Yuji Toyama, but he’s been living on borrowed time and he knows it. Realizing that the curse is running rampant again, he tries and fails to burn the house down, during which the strangest incident in the film occurs; he runs into a future vision of his own daughter Izumi (Misa Uehara), visiting the house with some school friends and leaving before the rest of them are taken into whatever nether world Kayako lives in. This is a chilling moment for Toyama; he realizes that he will fail to burn the house down and that failure will lead to the death of his own daughter. Destroying the house should be his paramount impulse, but it doesn’t happen. He runs, and his failure leads to Izumi’s segment, which takes place ten years later. As a teen-age school-girl, she visits the house with friends who subsequently disappear and she lives in fear in her bedroom for the day that her friends will come to claim her (she doesn’t have to wait long). Izumi’s segment works because it is so out of place with the rest of the film (thus far); with the exception of the prologue, all the segments took place within a few days’ of each other (albeit not in the correct order). Izumi’s time of dying is ten years removed from the rest of the events and Kayako’s ghost is still rattling and her hands are still strong as she reaches out from the Shinto shrine and grabs the terrified girl by her head before pulling her in. Even time cannot lay the Grudge.
This finally brings us back to Rika (to a time just before Izumi’s final haunting). She seems to have moved on in her life, but there are hints that the curse never really left her: when she meets up with her old friend Mariko in a restaurant, she feels a cat brush against her ankles and a quick peek under the table reveal Toshio staring at her. Worst of all is the feeling that the house has signaled her out and wants her back; it has tricked Mariko there (she thinks that one of her students lives there) and it lures Rika back. There is something horrifying about how Mariko could not see that the house had not been inhabited in years, conveyed when Rika sees that Mariko removed her shoes and left her bare footprints in the dust, which Rika follows to discover her friend’s fate. But Rika’s fate seems to be the worst: while all the other victims were stalked by either Kayako or Toshio, Rika is finally stalked by none other than Takeo himself, the jealous murderer who went crazy and brought about all this pain and bloodshed onto so many innocent people. What does he see in Rika that makes him put in a personal appearance, slowly walking downstairs like he must have done years before to slash his wife’s life away? We’re never told; all we’re left with is a neighborhood littered with missing persons posters and a body in the attic (Rika’s?) who groans in a death rattle and opens her eyes wide before the film cuts to black.
A lot more could be written about Ju-On; this simple article doesn’t seem anywhere near enough to encompass the emotions it conveys as we meet and travel with its assorted characters to their certain doom. Yes, Ju-On has much in common with the vengeful ghost pictures that are so popular in Japanese culture, but it has so much more: it edged closer to the goal, struck out just a little bit harder, and presented its audience with a new kind of film, a jumble whose pieces somehow fitted together and improbably gave us the whole image.
And that image was pitch black with white staring eyes and mottled hair. And the sound that came out of its mouth… well… you’ll just have to hear it to understand.