This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.
Ju-On: The Grudge sits firmly within the so-called “J-Horror” genre – like The Ring and Project Zero before it, it features Japanese folklore, low-gore/high-creepiness scares, modern technology hijacked by traditional ghosts, ESP, flashbacks rendered in grainy monochrome, and all the other tropes of the genre. Although the film came out in 2003, it’s the follow-up to two straight-to-video movies from 2000, which themselves expanded on a pair of short films from 1998; written and directed, as the previous films were, by Takashi Shimizu, the story itself is essentially a new take on the same premise as the earlier parts, taking into account the lessons learned during the making of the earlier instalments.
You wouldn’t know this wasn’t the first film in the series though – I didn’t realise it wasn’t until I looked it up on Wikipedia to research this article. Although apparently there are references to the earlier parts scattered about here and there, it really isn’t necessary to pick up on them to follow the story, which is fairly self-contained. The Grudge opens with a flash card explaining to us the legend of the Ju-On, a curse on a location left by one who has died in a state of extreme rage; the curse draws in and destroys the lives of others, feeding on them to establish itself more firmly and to widen the range of its activities. Over the course of the story (which is told non-chronologically), we see how the curse first acts on people in the haunted house at the centre of everything, but as time goes by it reaches out into the world more and more frequently to sate its hunger – even when it mainly favours people who have visited the house previously, it by no means exclusively preys on them.
We open with the murder that apparently sets events in motion, Shimizu clearly not wanting to keep us in the dark about the backstory – barely any of the characters actually find out about it, after all. We see a dazed man, Takeo Saeki (Takashi Matsuyama) sitting next to his wife Kayako (Takako Fuji) as she bleeds out from the wounds he’s inflicted on her; their son Toshio (Yuya Ozeki) hasn’t seen this, but he’s heard that something’s up and has gone to hide in the closet. The family cat strays close to him; he reaches out and throttles it. This introduces the core of our cast when it comes to the ghosts – though the Ju-On can take the form of pretty much anyone it’s killed, it prefers to do the killing in the form of one of these four. Personally, I like to think the spirit of the cat is behind everything – the ghost of the wife sometimes goes around on all fours, and there’s a bit where the child ghost makes an angry cat noise.
Following the flashback (which contains pretty much the only blood we’re actually shown until the very end) the rest of the film is essentially a series of vignettes, focusing on how different characters are drawn into the gravity well of hatred centred on the house. The curse is awoken when Kotsuya Tokunaga (Kanji Tsuda), his wife (Shuri Matsuda) and his elderly mother Sachie (Chikako Isomura) move into the Saeki house, and soon enough spooky stuff is happening at full pelt, with the Tokunaga’s family members, Sachie’s social worker, and the police investigating the disappearances and killings all being drawn into the maelstrom.
There’s actually very little in the way of an overarching, cohesive plot to The Grudge; it’s more of a series of intersecting short stories, each focusing on a different victim of the curse. It opens and closes examining the fate of social worker Rika Nishina (Megumi Okina), whose near-miss encounter with the angry spirit draws in many of the other characters, and who finds herself drawn back to the Saeki house at the conclusion, but although you can trace a route from her to each of the viewpoint characters it does get pretty tenuous at points.
I would argue, in fact, that at least one of the stories – the one concerning the daughter of the detective who investigated the house after the original Saeki murders and which takes place years after all the other tales – could have been dispensed with and it would have actually resulted in a superior film (not least because the end of Rika’s story is given away partway through it).
Even then, though, you wouldn’t end up with the Pulp Fiction of horror films. What we are presented with is not a series of different stories that fit together to make something bigger than the sum of its parts so much as a series of restatements of the same essential story. It’s a very good story, don’t get me wrong, and as far as atmospherics goes the film is fantastic; in particular, the sound work is brilliant, I don’t think I’ve seen a horror movie which does a better job with it. The noise the angry ghost makes when it takes people is like nothing else I’ve ever heard.
But ultimately, whilst The Grudge has a lot of great scares, it’s also kind of unfulfilling in a way which The Ring or Project Zero weren’t. To be honest, if you’ve seen one segment of the film, you kind of know what to expect from all the others. The same is true of, for example, a collection of M.R. James ghost stories, but the difference between a feature film and a ghost story collection is that you can put the book down between the stories and come back to it later on, whereas films are typically intended to be watched all the way through in one sitting. And though Rika seems to have as much claim to be the main character/victim as anyone in the film, ultimately we have no more idea of her character than we do of any of the others, because the film tries to tackle a sufficiently large number of viewpoint characters that I found I started to lose track – and of course, most of the time we seem them panicing and scared, and we never really get much of an idea of what they’re like in everyday life. The Grudge is worth watching once but I couldn’t put my hand on my heart and say I’d watch it again and again.