The golden age of horror: Ju-on: the Grudge

Chris: Ghosts in western culture have always been a frightening but physically benign presence. They show up to simply scare, warn, or act as portents and omens. That’s not how they work in Japan, though. With an animist folklore as a basis, Japanese ghosts are more akin to what we categorize in western folklore as demons and evil spirits.. Which is to say, Japanese movie ghosts can kill and are dangerous not only to the mind but the body as well. Those dangerous spirits–and a whole lot of cat scares–are front and center here in Ju-on.

After the jump, lost in translation?

Barac: For me, horror is one of a few genres of film where you only need to deliver one thing to be successful – in this case, you need to be scary. And while what exactly constitutes “scary” depends wildly from one person to the next, I personally highly value mood, tension, and effective use of sound to set my spine crawling. Much more so than, say, jump scares, which can be effective in the moment but don’t have any real lasting impact. I also am much more frightened by supernatural elements than serial killers or home invaders, despite the latter being far more possible in reality. Ultimately, the motives of human beings, however twisted, are comprehensible, and although you might well be outmatched, you can theoretically fight them off and even do away with them altogether. Or you can run and perhaps escape.

You may never understand the motives of a supernatural enemy. There may well be no fighting, no escape. If you’re lucky, they play by rules that you can exploit, if only to avoid becoming their target to begin with. But they may not even do that. Ju-on’s vengeful ghosts represent one of the most terrifying supernatural threats I’ve seen posited, because to attract their attention is implacable death no matter how you run or fight, and the only thing you need to do to come to their attention is enter that house.

Chris: I think you and I have similar ideas about what brings the fright in horror movies, because I also am usually less freaked by crazed human killers and far more scared by the supernatural. Ghosts especially have always been my main go-to for the movies that get under my skin the most. As such, I had big hopes for Ju-on. Evil ghosts that can kill? That sounds terrifying. Sign me up!

Barac: The first time I saw it, I had nightmares for days. For weeks I was expecting a ghostly hand as I washed my hair in the shower, or the mewing of a cat where there shouldn’t be any. I don’t expect it to have quite the same level of impact this time around, as the scares aren’t fresh, but the images that struck me so hard the first time (the shower scene, the failure of the time-honored childhood refuge of bedcovers over your head, Toshio patiently waiting for the elevator at every floor) were still potent, and I noticed a lot more creepy little hints (the elderly gentleman playing peek-a-boo), not to mention the weird time shenanigans that occur in Toyama’s sequence. I remembered a chronologically funky scare in the (much less successful) sequel, but not the ones here.

Chris: I think this will be a movie where our opinions will diverge somewhat. The first time I watched Ju-On, my main reaction was utter confusion. Director Takashi Shimizu is certainly enthusiastic, and knows how to make a terrifying ghostly set piece. (A scene in a public bathroom in an office block especially got me wound up.) Sadly, I found him to be less able to handle things like the coherent story and characterization that would make this movie really zing. I felt like I got a dozen movies’ worth of cat scares here, and I’m not sure what those were about.

Barac: If I had one complaint, it would probably be that the Izumi sequence doesn’t seem to add much to the movie. It seems like it’s outside the timeframe of the rest of the movie and doesn’t particularly reveal anything about the overarching plot, the actress playing Izumi kind of chews the heck out of the scenery, and the imagery is’t as potent. I did get a bit of a frisson out of the missing posters, but I thought they were missing posters for Izumi and her two friends. When I realized that it was for a trio that had already met their fate (I believe we see them through the second door in Toyama’s sequence), it was significantly less creepy.

Chris: OK, I feel less lost then, because I felt the same way about the posters. Was she looking at herself and the two friends walking with her? That would’ve been eerie, right? It does make more sense that it’s the girls who’d broken into the house on a lark, I suppose. I worked at getting into the story of this film to the point where I watched it three times over the course of a couple of days. The first time through left me utterly flummoxed and frustrated. Shimizu has an almost negligent regard to time cues and transitions. He seems to expect his audience to follow along with an internal plot he’s written in his head. I ended up consulting a rather large Ju-on specific wiki to try to wrap my head around what I’d just seen. I got some help from a QT3 forum regular who was immensely helpful on the Japanese folklore traditions and animism bases for what the grudge curse here is, and how it works. Perhaps I’d lost something from the native Japanese?

What I discovered was that even native Japanese speakers seem to have multiple interpretations of the plot machinations here. While having some guideposts certainly helped me to follow the jumbled plot here the second run through the movie, they made me even more frustrated by how the director seemed to willingly ignore basic storytelling elements. The third time through, I decided to watch this the way I’d watch a Bunuel film. I didn’t care about plot, story, characters, or even setting. Just give me some scares. It was in this manner that Ju-on at least let me appreciate the individual ghost manifestation pieces that Barac mentioned earlier.


Barac: I was originally going to present Ju On as an example of a horror movie that avoids my usual criteria for what makes a successful movie (coherent plotting, intelligent writing, nuanced and fleshed out characterization) by being so relentlessly scary that it doesn’t need to bother – and indeed, the lack could be argued to contribute to a sort of nightmare logic that makes it even more terrifying. But it turns out on rewatching that I had just missed a lot of narrative threads and connective tissue and there’s quite a bit more substance there than I had recalled. I still don’t think I understand the ending, though. Got any theories, Chris?

Chris: I’d love to help, but I’m not sure I’m qualified. I have my own questions. Why is Toshio human sometimes, and covered in white greasepaint at others? What’s the black spirit thingy? How come Linda Blair crab-walking ghost kills everybody, except when she and Toshio invade Rika’s bedroom, they don’t? Perhaps it’s a cultural thing, because it feel like Ju-on asks more questions than it ever answers. Even at the points where I think I’ve found a grounded character to hook into–like Japanese Harvey Keitel–the film pulls the rug out from under.

Barac: Toshio’s switches from mysterious but human-seeming child to pale spectre of doom definitely seem like there’s some logic behind them but I wouldn’t be able to tell you what. About all I can say for sure is that he’s still a ghost in either case – turning up in that closet, and vanishing when Rika’s sister turns her back makes that pretty clear to me. The black spirit is supposed to be Kayako (the female ghost), though, I’m pretty sure. Why she manifests in that particular way isn’t clear, but then, why Toshio also appears to be able to turn into their murdered cat (or cats!) also isn’t entirely clear. But hey, the unknown’s scarier than the known a lot of the time, right? As for why the ghosts don’t kill Rika for most of the movie, until they do? I don’t know that either, but the final scenes strongly suggest to me that there’s some agenda at work there in which Rika plays a role. There are just too many flashback cuts for there not to be a reveal happening, even if I don’t understand it. Maybe after a few more viewings, I’ll notice even more stuff I missed the first time around. Or maybe there just isn’t enough there to say. I suspect the latter.

Chris: There are so many things in this movie that are frightening individual moments that would be among the most terrifying ever filmed if we were given more reason to care about the characters and a more coherent story to follow. The entirety of Izumi’s story (the ghosts that stare back at her from behind her newspaper-covered windows are terrifying). The video distortions. The black hair in the bathroom is terrifying. That’s in part because the movie is clear in letting us know that the character in this sequence is the sister of the husband in the couple where the wife sees the ghost kid in the house with the mother-in-law that the aid worker visits before. I hope you followed all that. It’s the most coherent Ju-on gets.

The other problem is one I think endemic to Japanese horror, and that’s special effects. For whatever reason, movies like this one, The Ring, or Okaruto seem determined to give the audience a good look at their evil ghosts, even though the effects technology ensures that these shots are destined to wreck the movie. In Ju-on I’d have found the ghosts far more scary if we weren’t given close ups of their eyes, which reveal heavily spackled grease paint clown foundation pretty clearly. I get that not every movie is going to have a big Hollywood budget, but those circumstances demand a director able to recognize those limitations and figure out ways to work around them.

Barac: I agree that the special effects have not aged well and the camera lingers enough to make that uncomfortably obvious. But I think that’s at least as much a factor of time passing as it is directorial limitations. I can assure you, back in the day those effects were far more terrifying.

(Ju-on: the Grudge is available to stream through Netflix or Amazon Prime, as well as being available for rent or purchase from the usual VOD outlets.)

(So what’s this “golden age of horror” stuff?)