For many horror fans, the Japanese are considered way up there when it comes to making truly scary, psychologically disturbing films. However, as someone who isn’t that much of a horror nut, I had yet to see anything of the sort. I decided to put that right and use Ju-on: The Grudge to pop my Japanese horror cherry.
The film’s premise is pretty simple. After a man murders his wife and son, their house becomes haunted, and every person who comes into contact with it will, at some point, die at the hands of the vengeful spirits. It is based on the Japanese scare story that a curse is born when someone dies amidst extreme rage or sorrow. The curse then gathers in the place where that person died, in this case the house of the Tokunaga family, and can spread through those who enter the house or come into contact through someone who is already cursed. The film tracks a series of people unfortunate enough to encounter the curse and their eventual fate.
Essentially, Ju-on is a haunted house story. However, there’s nothing ominous about this house other than what we know happened there. It’s a simple house in a normal Japanese suburb, which makes it feel that little bit more real. This could be anyone’s house and the characters really are just your average Joes unfortunate enough to be caught up in this terrifying curse. The fact that the whole thing feels very much rooted in everyday life intensifies the film’s lingering uneasiness, even after the credits have finished rolling.
What makes Ju-on feel more unique, however, is its non-linear plot. The stories of the various victims of the curse are told in short intertwining vignettes but not in chronological order, meaning the narrative can jump around a little. On initial viewing, this did feel somewhat confusing at times and it’s not difficult to get distracted from what’s going on trying to work out exactly who’s who and how the characters tie in together. A second viewing would no doubt make things a little clearer, although some of the initial shock factor may then be lost. The several individual stories also give rise to a certain amount of repetition. The scenarios change slightly but there’s not a huge amount to distinguish them, although the excellent pacing prevents it from getting stale.
There are times in which the film does feel a little dated and the scares don’t perhaps have as great an effect as they should. This is particularly the case with the sporadic use of CGI, which can feel a little out of place and can remove you from the atmosphere of the scene. It’s a generally immersive film, but these moments can detract from that. The character of Toshio, the ghost child, also has moments where his impact is dulled somewhat. He signifies the presence of the curse and, whilst there are times when his arrival in a scene is unsettling, there are other times when it verges on comical.
But there are scares. Oh there are scares! Director Takashi Shimizu does a superb job of building tension using long takes, and the use of a variety of angled shots all contribute to the creepy atmosphere. And then there’s Kayako, the ghost or Onryō of the savagely murdered wife. She’s the terrifying poster girl for the films, with some of her scenes becoming instantly recognisable even to those who are watching it for the first time. The ‘Hitomi’ and ‘Kayako’ vignettes are arguably the most frightening; ‘Hitomo’ in particular providing some genuine jump-out-of-your-seat moments. The sound in Ju-on is also incredibly important and provides some of the most unsettling points in the film. The ‘death rattle’ that accompanies Kayako’s kills is somewhat disturbing, as is the high-pitched tinnitus-esque noise that actually makes you wonder whether it’s part of the film or your own ears playing tricks on you.
Maybe I’d built it up too much in my head but I wasn’t as scared by the film as I had expected to be. There were moments when I wanted to hide behind my hands, but there were others that I’m pretty sure were supposed to give me chills but failed to achieve the desired effect. Part of this could very well be due to the number of times films such as Ju-on or Ringu have been copied since, either through homage or parody. I felt as if I’d had seen parts of the film before and knew exactly what was going to happen. Despite that, when my girlfriend decided to scare me in the dark the following night and I immediately thought of Kayako’s disturbing pale face, I knew the film had done something right.
Before watching, I wasn’t aware that Ju-on: The Grudge is actually the third in the Ju-on series with two television movies preceding it. It works perfectly well on its own although a little exposition may well add to the overall story, particularly that of Kayako and her family.
For my first Japanese horror experience, I wasn’t left as horrified as I presumed I would be. However, I did enjoy it and it was interesting to see how much of an impact it has clearly had on the horror genre since.