Original release: January 25th, 2003
Running time: 93 minutes
Country of origin: Japan
Original language: Japanese with English subtitles
Director: Takashi Shimizu
Writer: Takashige Ichise
Cast: Takako Fuji, Yuya Ozeki, Kanji Tsuda, Megumi Okina, Misaki Ito, Takashi Matsuyama, Shuri Matsuda
Over the past decade or so, we’ve seen a fair number of vengeful spirits in Japanese cinema. These frightening antagonists burned an indelible image into the cultural consciousness of our time with images of cold dead eyes, white faces and long black hair.
However, the concept of a human soul that wishes to linger in our world goes a long way back in Japanese culture. The concept was first introduced in the 8th century and became a popular plot device in the 17th century, in Japanese theatrical performances, known as “Kabuki”. It’s here the vengeful spirit was first visualised the way it’s familiar to us all today; the actors wore white clothes with long black hair and white make-up.
What makes Takashi Shimizu’s Ju-on: The Grudge stand out is its use of the concept is particularly close to the traditional ideas and beliefs about the spirit the Japanese call “Onryo”.
Shimizu was right when he decided Onryo was most frightening in its pure original self. The concept, at its core, is fairly simple: a human soul that suffered in life and died in a grip of anger stays in our world in the form of a curse. It gathers in places frequented by the person in real life haunting, tormenting and eventually consuming everyone who comes in contact with it.
The episodic narrative in the film works really well for multiple reasons; but perhaps most importantly, it makes the point that the central character is Ju-on itself. The vengeful spirit is a woman named Kayako Saeki (Takako Fuji), who was murdered by her jealous husband (Takashi Matsuyama) along with their son Toshio (Yuya Ozeki) and the family cat. Her enraged soul becomes a powerful revenge spirit and traps her son, the cat and also her husband in our world, occupying the house they lived together.
The spirit of little boy, Toshio, has a cryptic connection to the black cat that used to be the family pet. It’s almost as if these two souls somehow merged at the time of their deaths. They are often seen together and when the cold and pale Toshio opens his mouth, it’s black inside and we are confronted with a terrifying cat howl instead of the voice of a little boy.
He shows up on the screen at the most unexpected moments putting the audience in a strangely sinister place: We are frightened by a child.
One of my favourite scenes in the film – strangely omitted from the otherwise enjoyable remake in 2004 – is when Katsuya (Kanji Tsuda) arrives home in the haunted house and finds his wife in a catatonic state in the bedroom. After his encounter with the menacing Toshio, Katsuya becomes possessed by the spirit of Kayako’s murderous husband. Those terrifying few seconds of possession are achieved by the incredibly effective use of light and Kanji Tsuda superb acting. A dark shadow descends on Katsuya’s face and he’s no longer himself as we see the spirit taking over his expressions.
The most unsettling aspect of Ju-on: The Grudge is we’re not encouraged to find a solution to the characters’ predicament. There is no solution; Ju-on doesn’t need anything from us to be able to move on to the next world as we might expect from a movie in this genre. It doesn’t want us to find a rusty old box somewhere in a dark attic or a long forgotten letter in a drawer in order to lift the curse. It ‘is’ the curse and it isn’t going anywhere. Its existence is now defined by its desire to share the horror it had to endure. Ju-on’s ability to infect people who come in contact with it – much like a virus – is a truly frightening modern version of the traditional Onryo concept.
While Ju-on: The Grudge doesn’t focus on any character apart from the vengeful spirit itself, the six episodes are linked together in a way that keeps us guessing what’s going on and when a particular episode is taking place within the narrative.
A person, a line of dialogue or a situation will always be there to give us clues and help to put the puzzle together. Needless to say, this film is really frightening. Ju-on’s terrifying croaking noise, the make-up and the atmosphere all add up to a memorable tribute to the Japanese concept of Oryon.
Watching the film again made me wonder about the future of this concept in Japanese cinema. In Japanese folklore, the vengeful spirit is sometimes capable of causing
We’re already seeing how the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami has an influence on Japanese cinema in films like Sion Sono’s Himizu and Land Of Hope. Such an extraordinary event never occurs without having an impact on art. Watching Ju-on: The Grudge again and learning that these ghosts of Japan can be as powerful as to cause massive disasters in their discontent made me wonder if a cinematic angry spirit will soon be awakened again by the events of March 2011.
Arpad is a Film Studies graduate and passionate photographer (he picked up the camera and started taking stills just as he began his studies of moving pictures). He admires directors that can tell a story first of all in images. More or less inevitably, Brian De Palma has become Aprad’s favourite filmmaker.
Then there’s Arpad’s interest in anime. He was just a boy when he saw Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind on an old VHS and was hypnotised by the story of friendship, devotion and sacrifice. He still marvels at the uncompromising and courageous storytelling in Japanese anime, and wonders about the western audience with its ever growing appetite for “Japanemation”.