Judge Brett Cullum explores whether this Japanese horror film, remade in the U.S. as The Grudge, lives up to its enormous hype.
It never forgives. It never forgets.
This is a review of the original Japanese 2003 sensation Ju-on, which is probably more familiar to you in its Hollywood remake form, "that movie starring Buffy" called The Grudge. Ju-on was faithfully remade in 2004 for American audiences by the same director, Takashi Shimizu. What you might not know is that the Ju-on series began as two "straight to video" releases, and this theatrical cut of the Japanese movie is a rehash of the first video release (with some expanded elements from a previous Shimizu television movie). So The Grudge in the US is a remake of a remake made by a guy who has directed this story four or five times. Confused yet? Lord knows I am, but that is part of the fun. Ju-on caused quite a stir in Japan, and was hailed as the next big thing since Ringu (which also was remade for the US market, as The Ring). Lions Gate has seen the potential profit in releasing the original Japanese film to US audiences complete with new extras (like an English commentary by two horror film directors).
Facts of the Case
Ju-on aspires to be a "troubled ghosts / haunted house" genre film, where angry vengeful spirits originate in a house where something "awful" happened. A social worker named Rika (Megumi Okina) goes to a residence expecting to find an old woman and her family. Instead she finds the house in disarray and the old woman alone and unkempt. What has happened to the couple? While cleaning up the place she hears strange scratching noises from an upstairs closet. She finds a spooky little boy clutching a black cat. (Odd, because the couple had no children…) Soon after, she notices even stranger things happening in the house. Rika has stumbled on a curse, manifesting itself as a murdered woman and her son, that exacts vengeance on anyone who crosses its (their) spiritual path(s). These ghosts are pissed off, and unlike American spirits they don't have to stay close to home. They can visit anyone, anytime, anyplace—as long as that person is a target of the curse left by "someone dying in a fit of rage." The little boy and the cats are harbingers of bad things about to happen, and the curse works like a spiritual chain letter of damnation. The rest of the movie shows the "grudge" spreading like a virus. We see six vignettes, each of which involves other people coming in contact with the evil dead of this film. There is no chronological order to the stories, but they are all connected.
Ju-on reminds me of a David Lynch movie. It's visceral and creepy, and something you experience far more than you comprehend. It sets a mood, and plot be damned as it sustains it. I like style, and it does not bother me that little is actually explained (though it all did make sense to me on my first viewing). I was nervous going in to watch it because I heard the film was confusing and unclear. But actually it's pretty simple, and Shimizu did a fine job of keeping the story grounded until its final moments (when explanations need not be made). Japanese directors are famous for making grand statements about society no matter what genre they are working in, and Shimizu is no different: he delivers a treatise on violence and its repercussions when it gets out of control. Uncontrolled rage becomes palpable as a haunting; horror as a social construct. Ju-on literally translates into English as "rage," so think of this as more out-of-control anger rather than a logical grudge.
American audiences want rules for horror movies. (Without those rules, where would Scream be?) Western horror movies usually involve something we come to fully understand before we beat it to a bloody pulp in the final reel (even if it does get back up for the last scene and/or the sequel). We make ghosts who have human qualities, and in our haunted house stories there is usually something the spirits want that we can get for them. Japanese people fear things they will NEVER understand; Eastern horror movies are usually about innocent people caught in inexplicable circumstances beyond their control. Japanese horror deals with a primeval fear of the intangible and incomprehensible. Control of your environment and harmony with nature is a Japanese virtue, so the loss of all control and attacks from nature are very scary. The ghosts in Ju-on can not be reasoned with. They are violent, out-of-control forces of nature that will kill the innocent as readily as the guilty. They aren't after their sister, or taking it out on teenagers having sex. Where American ghosts are location-centered and reasonable, these Japanese ghosts want to tear the fabric of the world apart and screw reality to the wall.
The disc contains a pretty impressive package for a little independent foreign horror film from Japan. You get an alternate ending as well as deleted scenes with commentary from the director (in Japanese with English subtitles). The alternate ending explains the film a lot better, so it's worth a look. It made me appreciate what Shimizu was doing throughout the whole film. Most of the deleted scenes were kind of corny or out of place, and they were rightfully cut. Also featured is a commentary track with The Grudge producer Sam Raimi (The Evil Dead, Spiderman) and actor/director Scott Spiegel (From Dusk Till Dawn 2 : Texas Blood Money). It's a fun listen, but not as revealing as I would have hoped. They don't know much about making this movie, so all they can do is ooh and ahh over the cool parts. (And Scott manages to kiss Sam's ass a little too well!) There is also behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with the cast and crew.
The picture is fine, with very clear black levels (thank goodness!) The only visual problems I noted were some spots where edge enhancement crept in—but even that came and went quickly. The audio mix is a VERY well done 5.1 surround mix that captures all the spooky sounds (which are very crucial to this film). If you choose the English dub you will lose the sonic force of the movie—and it's criminal to do that. The sound design is such a crucial part of the scares in the movie that viewers choosing the dub will also lose some of the fear. By the way, the dub is not badly performed—but why have only two channels when you can have a nice spooky five coming at you? They don't even talk much in this film, so relying on the subtitles should not throw you. Everyone knows cat wails and a woman trying to scream through blood in her throat just sound better in 5.1 surround.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
My only problem with Ju-on stems from the hype around it. I kept hearing it was "the scariest movie of the year" and "horror has a new genius," but it just could never live up to those claims. It creates a great mood and has a lot of ambiance. The sound design could be a horror movie on its own. But did it make me pee? No. I slept fine that night, too. This Japanese movie utilizes little CGI, unlike (apparently) The Grudge. Its effects are almost all practical effects done live on set in front of the camera. That may not be a flaw to many, but it just does not look as polished as other similar films. This is a low budget movie that relies on make-up and sound for most of its scares.
The director says he wanted to avoid any patterns, and that is why he made the film seem like six episodes out of an anthology series. But there is a blueprint working here. Someone comes in contact with the house (or someone associated with it), and then they get "the curse." The deaths are somewhat repetitive, and by the fourth one I knew what was going to come. And if you watch enough Japanese horror you will recognize the familiar recurring symbols used here. There's a shopping list cobbled together from almost every Japanese horror film I've ever seen. Stringy haired woman who slithers? Check. Scary little boy and animal sounds? Check. Inky spirits that move like an octopus' black ink cloud? Check. Although many claim these conventions solely for Japanese cinema, you've seen some of this already in American horror. Look back to the deleted sequence from The Exorcist at the spider walk for the contortionist, and any movie with little kids singing or saying "they're here" for creepy kids. Wes Craven used sheep bleating in Nightmare on Elm Street almost as frequently as Shimizu uses cats here.
There is also a real lack of character development here. The sense of style is so heightened that we never get a chance to see the actors have a moment where they can let the audience know who they are playing. This may be part of the cultural divide between Asian and American cinema. Characters are written in shorthand, and walk around like blank canvases waiting to be painted with fear. In America we want to root for a hero, but this has the Japanese sense of the masses being victimized. The female heroine doesn't ever fight back as much as she just fights to comprehend what is happening. The anthology format also adds to this feeling, since we spend very little time with each person before they become victims.
So what's the big deal here? Ju-on is more creepy than outright scary, but it does pass as something remarkable in a genre that has become way too formulaic. Shimizu creates tension and dread through technique more than through his simple story. He makes eerie compositions in his cinematography, and nails every sound cue with unrelenting precision. He is a master calligrapher brushing strokes of horror; an artisan of the occult. Ju-on is a workhorse of a horror film that is quite effective even if it's a little shy on creating characters. Shimizu is a skillful director who knows how to lay the Japanese creep on heavy and thick, both audibly and visually. I hope next time he develops a more intricate plot with more fleshed-out characters. I've heard a couple of Japanese directors are going to remake some American horror movies like The Entity. Shimizu should have been brought on board to reinvigorate that Amityville Horror remake currently in the works. His sensibility of the Japanese ghost could really ratchet up that old boogie house.
Guilty of having a great reputation. Ju-on is free to go, as the original re-make seen in Japanese theatres that started this whole "Grudge" craze. It's heavy on atmosphere and short on explanations and expositions. It's created with beats of horror strung together in a really freaky pattern. Think of it as a lovely horror haiku: Japanese minimalism breathing life into a genre that has become bloated. Lions Gate gets props for delivering a great DVD at an opportune moment. Case dismissed…Hey, did anyone lose this strange cat boy in the corner? Oh crap! (insert sound of someone gurgling on blood from a throat wound)
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Scales of Justice
• Deleted Scenes with Director's Commentary
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