As someone who enjoyed The Grudge and recently watched the Netflix show Ju-On Origins (Perhaps more on that later); I felt that it would be a good idea to watch the first 2 movies, as well as 2 short films that were produced a few years before it. What do I mean? Well, The Grudge is actually the third movie in the series known as Ju-On (Ju-On being Japanese for “Curse Grudge”, hence the names of each movie). Meaning there was a certain degree of mise-en-scene. So lets go back to the Beginning; This is Ju-On: The Curse.
Set in the present day (the year 2000 in this case and even though the shorts were made in 1998, we’ll lump them together into 1 year, because school uniforms stay the same forever), our film is a collection of vignettes that all have 1 thing in common – they are connected to a house. In this case, the current and former Saeki Residence. An unassuming and older-looking 2-storey detached home that gained notoriety due to…bloody instances. The kind that causes the deaths of a mother (Kayako) and her son (Toshio) at the hands of her husband and his father (Takeo) while she experiences an intense rage. This then leads to a haunted house that follows its victims home if they enter. Out of all the characters in theses 2 movies, the 1s with slightly more focus than the others are Shunsuke Kobayashi, a primary school teacher visiting the house, as the son, Toshio, who is 1 of his students, had been absent from school and nobody could get a hold of him. The other is Tatsuya Suzuki, the real estate agent trying to sell the Saeki house, who decides to investigate after a visit to the house with his sister Kyoko appears to be effecting his family. (not live in. Visit!)
The 2 short films that started it all; ‘Katasumi’ and ‘4444444444’, can be found on youtube, and can be treated as part of the series due to them having characters and references that end up in the movies to come. Katasumi introduces us to Kayako, the mother, as her role involves stalking 2 high school girls while they are feeding the school rabbits. The other film, 4444444444, introduces us to Toshio, as he haunts a high school boy who finds a mysterious cellphone that rings to show the number 4444444444, with the number 4 being treated as unlucky in Japan. ‘The Curse’ is 2 TV movies, however the 2nd movie is more of a 1.5, as the first 30 minutes are from its prequel, with 40 minutes of extra story added. It is 1 of the longest recaps you could ask for.
Now onto the components:
The Acting is good. For the most part it’s not world class or even acclaimed on a niche level, but nicely done. The star of the show, by far, is Takako Fuji, who plays Kayako Saeki. She is easily 1 of the best ghosts in cinema history, and having seen Ju-On: The Grudge before watching these, I can vouch for that. And for all the time in which he’s on screen – you would not want to meet Takeo (played by Takashi Matsuyama), the husband, in public. Matsuyama brought to this role, 1 of the creepiest voices that I’ve ever heard in the Japanese language.
Most of the Characters are not that heavily developed, as they’re closer to being “every-person” rather than to necessarily stand out. The focus changes, as the film switches main characters roughly every 10 minutes. However the presence of Kayako Saeki, her son Toshio, and Kayako’s husband Takeo are prevalent throughout the movies, and much like Horror Icons such as Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers and Freddy Krueger, they are the stars of their own franchise.
The Story is good, but not fantastic. It sets a formula that becomes quite common throughout the series, which is to essentially be an interconnected anthology. It sets the tone well. Does some very good Show Don’t Tell, and the more you investigate the stories, the more disturbing they seem to become.
The Art/Design sticks within the confines of realism with a hint of the supernatural. The house was real, the props were real, the clothes and hair were an everyday choice, and the legends of the Onryō are a staple in Japanese Folklore to the point that while the West would see this as a great ghost story, some Japanese would be deliberately cautious.
The Music by Gary Ashiya is both excellent and creepy along with the sound. Some of it reminds me of what I would hear in Buffy The Vampire Slayer and video games on the PS2 (such as Project Zero, and Siren (the later being a game that Ashiya also composed for). And the end theme is quite ’80s in style with its use of synthesiser. But what he does best are the simple things. The low strings. Bass piano notes. Low vocal chanting. The kind of things that can be creepy forever. A timeless creepy that will never die. The sounds in these movies alone are best (or best not) listened to in the dark.
The CGI and Special Effects…I wouldn’t say there is CGI here, so it’s pure practical special effects and lighting…and in this area, these films are very strong. It may have been done on a television budget in the year 2000 (when CGI was a special attraction rather than a norm), but everything I saw looked like something I could actually touch or be touched by. Some scenes in particular, especially later on…are very disturbing. Especially within the context of what’s happening. There’s a moment when Takeo becomes as bad, if not worse than Kayako.
The Cinematography is prone to being perhaps a little too dark. But at the same time it does add to the creep-factor by being quite realistic and potentially hiding some aesthetic flaws. We’ve all experienced a House without the lights on and sometimes hear strange sounds in the dark, so this all plays into quite common tension. Also the editing has some great moments – I’m talking about a few choices frames of film that appear here and there that can be missed the first time, but appear when you look at the whole screen. For instance, when Shunsuke Kobayashi looks out the window of the Saeki house, you will see Kayako appear in the second storey for a few milliseconds before the screen turns black. Stuff like that works really well here.
Would I recommend Ju-On The Curse? Yes, if you like Japanese Horror and Ghost Stories. It’s a classic at this point, and while it didn’t have the budget of The Grudge, it’s still a well-made and creepy film or 2. The first film is by far the better of the 2 due to it being all original while the second film was more of a recap with an appendix of new stories. Had it been edited better, it would have been a very good 1 hour and 40 minute film. Anyway, I liked it in a cult-following sort of way.
Acting: ***1/2 (****3/4 for Takako Fuji)
CGI/Special Effects: ****1/2