The joy of film is an overall phenomenon is that not only does it educate us about the world we live in or in eons past, but also about other cultures. Foreign films are in no danger in becoming out of fashion, and despite the difference in culture, I’m sure all of us understand the fundamental language of film- it can cover anything.
We get romance, action, science fiction, science fact, comedy, drama, it’s a whole pack of Cadbury All Sorts, and each wrapped are up in their own individual wrapper waiting to be devoured by those hungry for it. Horror cinema from the around the globe too is absolutely no exception, which is why we will be looking at these two little titles that I’m sure quite a few of you readers stumbled across while browsing the horror aisle in search of something different.
Before we start, a very quick history lesson of the genesis of our double feature:
*takes a deep breath*
“Ju-On: The Grudge” was written and directed by Takashi Shimazu with a secondary installment made by the same director in 2003. “Ju-On: The Grudge” is actually a film that is the third installment in the Ju-On and the first film to be theatrically released (the first two entries being direct-to-video productions). Contrary to popular belief, the film is not a remake of the first two films, but rather a sequel. Although it appears to be a reboot, it is directly linked to its two straight to home video counterparts.
Got that? Okay, let’s continue.
The beauty about “Ju-On: The Grudge” and its cinematic sequel is the fact that it covers something that isn’t entirely familiar due to cultural differences. The West has Freddy, Jason and Michael Meyers; the East is home to domestic spirits, children-eating ghouls and demons that sup on sexual insecurity. Neither culture is better per se, just different, and if you really enjoy your horror, having an open mind is the best tool to have when you watch J/K/T/V-Horror. It’s a window into what makes your international counterparts tremble in their boots, to discover other means of fear. In terms of the impact I and II made on the Western world, it’s truly no surprise- the major kick off began with “Ringu” which saw the Gore Verbinski remake “The Ring”. Obviously there are quite a few people out there who roll their eyes at the fact that the original is effectively being white-washed in the name of giving us dumb Western types a clue, but you ever heard of the phrase “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”? Although quite a lot of the cultural variations are absent, “The Ring” never set out to wipe “Ringu” from the earth, and honestly, if you want to watch “Ringu”, who’s gonna stop you? The same can be said with the American renditions of Takashi Shimuzu’s “Ju-On” films- whitewashed, but not meant as a slight.
Whoa, that kinda got away from me, didn’t it?
“Ju-On” I and II contain their own sets of mini-plot lines that all revolve around a cursed suburban house in Saitama in which a man was possessed by a sensation of violent jealousy killed his wife and child and then killed himself. The house is a foreboding beast despite its economic build, and those who enter it too fall prey to this terrible curse in which they will die a horrible death. It matters not who they are, where they come from, whether the individual is good or bad, this force that dwells in this house is indiscriminant about who it infects. Although each character story is present in a non-linear fashion, it is still relatively easier for the viewer to decipher the chronology of this chain of fateful events. I remember loaning the first film from my local Video Ezy out of curiosity because I had never really seen an Asian horror film before and the image of a pasty blue little Japanese boy staring sub-zero into me through pitiless black eyes was too fascinating to ignore.
In a way, I credit “Ju-On” for being my formal introduction into foreign horror because it showed me things I had never seen before- when something is new to you, you tend to be in wonder-struck awe simply because you hadn’t imagined how different horror is on the other side of the pond. You know it exists, but its one thing to hear of it and completely another to witness it first-hand. Although I have nothing negative to say about the acting, it was all about the use of imagery, sound and the fact that the physical manifestation of the Grudge itself, the murdered wife Kayko and Toshio (a willowy, croaking wraith and meowing harbinger respectively) were not done by crummy CGI, but it was both performers who brought the ghostly demons to life through body language and looks. When I first saw Kayako jerkily crawl across the floor, my blood froze- I was watching a physically flexible actress in simple practical make up, not a completely manufactured creation. As an additional yet crucial detail, the sparse use of simplistic yet effective music is constant throughout both films. It doesn’t Mickey Mouse (you know, doesn’t hang over your shoulder, poking you in the shoulder blade saying “Hey, hey mate, you scared yet? You hear that ghosty bitch? She’s comin’ for ya! Ohhhhh!”).
That’s not to say “Ju-On” has no computer magic, it does, but it’s not used to become a feature of the story, merely a small crutch to further sell the horror. “Ju-On” doesn’t rely on bacchanalian bloodletting and orgiastic slaughter-fests, its devices call upon Ghost Story 101: show a little and tell a little but not all. The concept of atmosphere and imagination factor heavily into “Ju-On”, and even if you hail from another culture, you will recognise this crucial element to making an effective supernatural chiller. On top of that, you can also see that horror does not need to follow the exact same formula around the globe and you can come to fully appreciate the artistry of international directors, creative crews and their craft. Horror brings us together, yo!
Panties… too… tight.
Ps. Yes, I know this is from the American remake, but I needed my panties joke!
“Ju-On: The Grudge II” contains all of the elements of its predecessor but also manages to expand on the Kyako mischief- while none of the other case return (obviously!), their stories still remain an elementary part of what happens. It introduces a fascinating addition to how the curse penetrates existence by introducing a female character by the name of Kyoko (it’s too early to get confused!) who just happens to be a film actress who has been given the original title of ‘The Horror Queen’ due to the fact she has made a career of appearing in countless scare-flicks. Kyoko lands a publicity gig in which she encounters the house while filming a “Most Haunted” style show. She is also pregnant and hasn’t told anybody. If you can guess how this little factoid will make a difference in the movie, thumbs up. Naturally all of the good elements return in II and it’s entertaining but perhaps not quite as frightening as the first. Although I don’t believe in giving out spoilers, there is one sequence that I think was trying to be scary but ended up being hilarious. When you see it, you will know precisely what I mean. Although II is by no means awful, in comparison to I, it’s actually quite goofy in places, and you will find yourself snickering more than shivering.
Generally speaking, I am fan of both films, although I have more partiality toward the first chapter. Takashi Shimazu established his name with these films, and although he has said he doesn’t want to be known solely for these two movies, it’s a sure bet that his “Ju-On” films will be heralded as leading examples of effective foreign horror. Curiously enough, he went on to make the first two American remakes with a mostly American cast, but even then, he was clever in using the topic of culture shock to apply to the Western characters in both films. Although their mastery obviously doesn’t reach the standards of Shimazu’s originals, they were made with decent intentions… and in the interest of money. I find that as a Westerner, having little familiarity with Japanese mythology assisted in my viewing experience because it made me think more about the curse was all about. I was also intrigued by how in Japanese legend, the hair over the face motif denotes something Other, and yet not completely unfamiliar because the ghost still has a humanoid form. In fact, of all of the characters I truly felt sorry for; it was the aforementioned Kyoko as well as Kayako and Toshio. That’s right, the two ghosts. Remember, they were murdered by another member of their family, somebody they trusted, loved. Tremendous tragedy gave way to unrepentant horror because of how powerful the hate of the house was. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Sure, there has been a saturation of this imagery in recent years, but this type of idea is a huge factor in Japanese culture, just like us round-eye types have a cultural ‘thing’ about violence (even the sexual variety) being completely acceptable in movies, but something like consensual sex is seen as something frightening. Having a completely different cultural perspective helped me pay attention and respect what was happening in front of me as doomed souls succumbed to Kayako and Toshio’s clutches.
But despite how influential and memorable the Japanese originals were, they are not without particular flaws, and one is really quite obvious.
Although I for one can fully appreciate the fact the stories are scattered out of order (which helps keep the audience off balance and struggling to keep up) I find the greatest deficit both films suffer is the fact it relies a little too much on style and not the story. Before you J-Horror purists out there flip your sushi, allow me to clarify- I understand each story is different and what brings them together is that hellish house, but the film seems to rely more on fantastic images and sound design rather than telling a comprehensive story. As I said, the mishmash of time frames works to keep the audience on their toes while watching, but both films feel that their real strengths are aesthetics rather than anything particularly personal. Okay, you could argue that Shimazu wasn’t particularly interested in the plights of the suffering human characters and they only reason why they were there was to suffer, but if you ask me, if a little more attention had been paid to the humans who enter that house, there could have been more personal tensions between all of them, perhaps as a result of the house’s influence, or perhaps not, but if this space has so much evil floating around, not every character seems to feel that initial oppression.
There are several characters that do, but those around them do not. It may be due to the fact these characters possess a What you have to remember while watching or reading a ghost story is you are seeing these events through the eyes of the person being haunted, you are supposed to experience the uncertainty, the fear, the effects of the haunting/possession. I personally had no investment in any of the characters in the first movie, and save for Kyoko in the second, I felt no concern for the well-being of any of the additional folks. Back when I first saw these films, I was spell-bound but in the sense of retrospect, I and II are more about the spectacle rather than the core substance. They look fantastic, sound wonderful and are sure to strike a primal chord within you, but it won’t leave a marrow-deep impression, more skin-deep. When you compare these films with something considerably deeper and gut-wrenching as the phenomenal “Dark Water” which focused on the sweet yet also bittersweet tale of a single mother and a young daughter, “Ju-On” is more like that piece of art work in a gallery that looks great, but has no depth, no anchor to your soul.
Don’t get me wrong, I still highly enjoy watching these movies, heck, I gleefully accepted them as a gift from Miss Marcey to add to my collection, but I personally don’t believe anybody should consider them contemporary international horror classics considering how little meat is on these nice-looking bones. DEFINITELY give them a watch, for sure enjoy them and tell your friends and smirk at their gaping mouths and wide eyes as they watch, but “Ju-On” Uno and dos aren’t the best out there.
Ju-On Rating: 4/5
Ju-On II Rating: 3/5
Review written by Bea Harper
You can pick up the collector’s pack reviewed here over at MadMan – http://www.madman.com.au/catalogue/view/11573