Marebito (2004) – J-Horror Film Review

This 2004 effort from director Takashi Shimizu (filmed in eight days, between the fourth JU-ON film and the American remake THE GRUDGE) is not up to his usual standard, but it is an oddball effort that is in some ways even more experimental than his previous work. Shimizu’s JU-ON series rather boldly experimented with structure to good effect, tossing out conventional narrative in favor of a puzzle-like mosaic of episodes, but he always offered easy audience identification with the helpless victims. This time, working from a script he did not write, the director abandons even this connection to the audience, pushing his film even further into unconventional territory. It is far from a completely successful experiment, but it does create something with a unique enough identity to be worth exploring. Read More

The Grudge (2004) – DVD Review

A worthy remake of the Japanese original, this remakes stands on its own as an excellent frightfest.

Like THE RING (2002), this is an American remake of a Japanese horror hit. Unlike THE RING, this film retains the Japanese setting, director, and even some of the supporting cast. The result is a film that is closer in flavor to the original, while still different enough to stand on its own as an excellent achievement in the horror genre.
Officially, THE GRUDGE is based on the third of four Japanese horror films called JU-ON, but it actually incorporates scenes and ideas from all of the series. The first two, JU-ON and were released on video; their success led to two theatrical films, called (to help avoid confusion with their direct-to-video progenitors) JU-ON: THE GRUDGE and JU-ON: THE GRUDGE 2. The first half of the American remake sticks fairly closely to JU-ON: THE GRUDGE, but some of the original’s time-line has been straightened out, and new scenes have been added, along with elements like the ghost girl with the missing jawbone from the first DTV film.
Fans of the Japanese originals may wonder how the American version stacks up, so it’s pleasing to report that it is a worthy addition to the cannon, sort of a distillation of all that came before, rather than an outright remake. In fact, THE GRUDGE replicates so many scenes so closely that one credited screenwriter Steven Susco’s contribution sometimes seems to consist mostly of writing English-language dialogue. To be fair, there are at least half a dozen new sequences, and some of the familiar scenes do play out slightly differently, so not everything is a completely predictable rehash. (Susco also wrote numerous exposition scenes that were dropped in editing.)
In this regard, director Takashi Shimizu is following in the tradition he established when writing and directing the JU-ON films: like Sam Raimi�s EVIL DEAD trilogy, the JU-ON sequels frequently recreated elements from the previous films in the series. In a sense, none of them is a true sequel; all of them are like stand-alone semi-remakes, and the same is true of THE GRUDGE — which recreates many favorite moments for the benefit of American audiences who would not want to sit through a subtitled Japanese film.
There differences between THE GRUDGE and the JU-ON: THE GRUDGE is mostly a matter of emphasis. The lead characters are now American, and the film does a good job of portraying their culture shock at finding themselves in a foreign country where they do not speak the language, creating a sense of unease and discomfort even before the supernatural intrudes. The episodic story structure remains, but there has been some attempt to make the jumps back and forth in time more clear to the audience. There are no longer any “chapter subtitles” introducing the name of the character who will be the focus of each episode; instead, the film tries to create the illusion that we are watching one seamless plot.
To this end, Sarah Michelle Gellar’s social worker character is threaded throughout the film than was her Japanese counterpart in Reiko in JU-ON: THE GRUDGE, creating the impression that she is the film’s protagonist, even though she mostly just acts as our eyes and ears, discovering little bits of information and turning up background exposition that help to explain what’s happening to the audience.
In short, those expecting Buffy the Japanese Ghost Slayer were disappointed. And that’s a good thing, because the point of THE GRUDGE (like its predecessors) is to create a supernatural curse that allows for no safe harbor. Once you come in contact with it, you’re doomed; the only question is when and where the curse will manifest itself. This sense of approaching inevitable dread is what made all the JU-ON films so effective, so it’s nice to see that element retained.
There are a few minor missteps. A few fleeting CGI shots are okay, but they lack the uncanny quality that Shimizu brings to his live-action manifestations of the “Grudge.” There are more “jump-type” scares, underlined by a “sting” from the soundtrack. This kind of simple shock technique undermines the real virtue of Shimizu’s approach, which is based largely on anticipation and visualizations of weird, inexplicable phenomena — the ind of thing that not only makes you jump out of your seat but also gives you nightmares after you leave the theatre.
The attempts at characterization are mostly irrelevant to the thrust of the film (which is all-out terror). These scenes may make the actors feel as if they have something interesting to do, but they do not enhance the story; if anything, they slow down the pace in the early scenes. (All of the JU-ON films move from scare scene to scare scene with an admirably smooth simplicity, maintaining a high level of tension without ever seeming monotonous.) Because of this, some of the momentum and suspense are muted, but thankfully things pick up as the film proceeds.
The American version does have its virtues. The larger budget allowed for elaborate sets (the Japanese films were shot mostly on locations that limited camera angles and movement), and some of the shots have been rethought and improved; in particular, the uncanny elevator ride, in which the ghostly Toshio (Yuya Ozeki) is seen on every floor, is now accomplished in a single, uninterrupted take, instead of being fudged together in the editing. There is a fine score by Christopher Young that (mostly) emphasizes dread rather than shock. And the stereophonic soundtrack mix is excellent, using whisperings, cat cries, the padded sound of the little ghost boy’s running feet, and of course his mother Kayako’s creaking voice — all to send shivers down your spine.
Adding up the pros and the cons, THE GRUDGE is not quite a match for JU-ON: THE GRUDGE, which deserves a place in the pantheon of all-time great horror films. But THE GRUDGE works much better as an American translation than THE RING, recreating and occasionally improving upon some of the most memorable moments of the original. Fans of the Japanese films should be satisfied at another chance to enjoy director Takashi Shimizu’s style of horror. Viewers unfamiliar with the JU-ON series will no doubt enjoy the film even more.

THEATRICAL CUT DVD

The original DVD release of THE GRUDGE featured the theatrical cut of the film, which was slightly trimmed to earn a PG-13 rating (some shots during a bathtub drowning scene were removed to placate the Motion Picture Association of America, which objected to the suggestion of “child endangerment”).
The DVD’s bonus features included a theatrical trailer, an audio commentary, a five-part making-of documentary entitled “A Powerful Rage,” and a featurette called “Under the Skin.”
“A Powerful Rage” consists mostly of press junket-type video interviews of the cast and crew extolling the virtues of the film. It gets off to a weak start with voice-over commentary by Sam Raimi discussing the original Japanese-language film JU-ON: THE GRUDGE while we see footage only of the Americanized remake. Overall, the emphasis is on light-hearted anecdotes from the American cast (talking about how much they enjoyed filming in Japan). The few comments from director Takashi Shimizu are not very enlightening, and there is almost no discussion of the techniques used to make the ghostly appearances of Kayako and Toshio so disturbingly effective.
“Under the Skin” features talking-head comments from PhD. Joseph Ledoux discussing fear response in humans and how horror films can trigger that response. Footage from THE GRUDGE is intercut to illustrate the points he is making, but he never specifically tailors his comments to the film, and he never focuses on what should be an essential point: why do some films like THE GRUDGE succeed at triggering these fear response while others fail?
The audio commentary is a bit crowded, featuring eight members of the cast and crew: actors Sarah Michelle Gellar, Jason Behr, Clea DuVall, Kaydee Strickland, and Ted Raimi; screenwriter Stephen Susco; and producers Sam Raimi and Robert Tapert. Unfortunately, some of them seem farther away from the microphone and, therefore, are more difficult to hear, so you may find yourself riding the volume button on your remote control.
The overall feeling is of a bunch of friends chattering while a film plays in the background, with lots of chuckling and irrelevant patter about what went on behind the scenes (often repeating anecdotes already related in “A Powerful Rage”). For instance, much time is spent describing a purification ritual performed before filming started, in which Behr tries to pinpoint the exact sequence of bows, chants, etc.
Still, some of the commentary is amusing, as when Ted Raimi relates tales of being yelled at by the director for trying to get in a last bite of his lunch while the camera was rolling. Gellar describes the experience of filming on location without extras: all the people in the crowd scenes are just regular people going about their business; and unlike in America, they ignore the camera filming the actors. Sam Raimi explains that the decision was made to keep the remake in Japan in order to maintain the flavor of the original JU-ON films. And mention is made that the main house set of THE GRUDGE (unlike JU-ON, which was filmed in a real apartment) was built on the Toho soundstages, where films as diverse as Godzilla and THE SEVEN SAMURAI were made.
Raimi mentions the “Director’s Cut” DVD release, which includes footage missing from the theatrical version. (He even chuckles, imaging the reaction of viewers, who have just shelled out money the theatrical cut on DVD, upon learning of a more complete version.) His description of the differences is that the director’s cut contains about three minutes of additional footage (including trimmed footage from the bathtub drowning), but the running time is almost the same because other scenes have been deleted (as an example, he erroneously cites the rooftop dialogue between Gellar’s character and the Japanese police detective, which was inserted for the benefit of American viewers who needed more explanation for how the supernatural “Grudge” worked).

Kayako (Takako Fuji) performs her infamous downstairs crawl in the American remake.

DIRECTOR’S CUT DVD

The director’s cut DVD features an extended, unrated version of the film (with some scenes slightly re-ordered); an audio commentary with director Takashi Shimizu, producer Taka Ichise, and actress Takako Fuji (who plays Kayako); fifteen deleted scenes with optional commentary; two short films by Shimizu; video diaries by Sarah Michelle Gellar and KaDee Strickland; production design sketches, storyboards, and a video tour of the haunted Saeki house.
The unrated cut is superior without being much bloodier; in fact, it’s sad to imagine that the film had to be cut at all. The few gory moments (a severed jawbone and later the ghostly Yoko minus her jaw) are held for several frames longer so that viewers can see what they are looking at, and there is more footage of Kayako’s corpse when Peter (Bill Pullman) discovers it.
More significantly, near the end, when the Sarah Michelle Gellar character is searching through the haunted house, you see the dead father hanging from the ceiling while Toshio pushes him like a swing, making his feet bang against the wall. (That’s the knocking sound you hear in the theatrical cut that leads her to find the body, but in the PG-13 version you didn’t see why the body was swinging.) This leads to longer flashback of the murders of Kayako and Toshio, which is much more grim and effective.
The disc also includes numerous deleted scenes. Some are mere vignettes connecting scenes in the film: for example more shots of Gellar’s social worker cleaning up for the old lady before she realizes something is wrong in the house (on the option audio commentary, Shimizu complains that his characters are always cleaning). Other scenes are pointless attempts by the American screenwriter (working at the behest of the producers) to explain each and every little detail, as if tying up the loose threads were an absolute necessity; fortunately, saner reasoning prevailed in the editing room.
There are also some pointless “dramatic” scenes, wherein Gellar and her boyfriend argue about what she saw in the haunted house. As director Takashi Shimizu rightly points out in his audio commentary, the scenes serve no purpose because they do not resolve anything: they begin and end with the characters in the same state of mind — her believing she saw a ghost, him believing she was mistaken.
There is one scene (of Kadee Strickland’s character finding her brother acting weird after an encounter with Toshio) that fans of the original Japanese film JU-ON: THE GRUDGE will recognize. And there is also an interesting alternate ending that leaves the film with a dreamy, almost unresolved feel. But the most interesting deleted scene is the death of Yoko, which was originally supposed to take place later in the film (after her jawbone is discovered in the attic). This sequence is not so much a longer version of what is in the finished film as an almost completely different version, using different camera angles and action, including a Steadicam shot that swoops in on her when she pokes her head up into the attic.
The audio commentary is very jokey: Shimizu says he wanted the famous Columbia Pictures’ logo to grow brunette hair and crawl down off her pedestal like Kayako; at other times he and producer Ichise wander off into speculation on whether all the extras in the haunted house will die off-screen, or they do an extended riff on what some characters in the background might be saying to each other (“When you see it over and over in editing,” Shimizu apologizes, “your mind starts to wander.”) Throughout, Ichise seems to take particular fun in needling actress Fuji, suggesting that she will be replaced by CGI in any sequel.
Shimizu never really discusses the techniques he used to achieve his frightening effects; instead, he focuses on pressure from U.S. producers to add more CGI effects and more exposition that would explain the plot to American audiences. At one point he expresses his pleasure at being able to use the audio commentary to say, “I told you so” to the producers, pointing out that the film would have run 160 minutes if all the new scenes had been included, prompting Ichise to warn him, “You’ll never work in this town again!”
Shimizu reveals that the American producers were concerned about his tendency to improvise on the set, urging him to stick to the script. He also had to change some details from his original film, such as allowing a security guard to live, in order to abide by the “rules” of the Grudge: that is, only people who enter the “cursed” house die. “I compromised on that because it had to have certain rules for America,” he says. “They may not accept randomness.”
The director also points out numerous differences between THE GRUDGE and the Japanese original JU-ON: THE GRUDGE, such as the fact that the studio built sets allowed him to achieve camera angles that were impossible on cramped locations (like shooting from inside the closet). It’s also interesting to note that Japanese audiences felt the American remake captured the culture shock of Americans living in Japan.
Some amusing anecdotes emerge: the Yuya Ozeki, the young actor who has played Toshio in four films, skipped the GRUDGE premier because he is now old enough to understand the plot and get frightened.
And Shimizu confirms that Strickland’s taxi ride is an homage to a similar scene with Jessica Harper in Dario Argento’s SUSPIRIA. Unfortunately, the subtitles for the audio commentary misspell the title phonetically and (apparently unaware that it is a title) also fails to capitalize the word.
Of the two video diaries, Strickland’s is the more interesting. Gellar’s is a mildly amusing account of a day on the set (the director arrives late, and there are communication problems because of the language barrier — ha! ha!). Strickland, on the other hand, takes us on a fascinating tour of Tokyo, and it is fair to say that be the time her short film is over, you will want to visit the metropolis yourself.
But the most interesting bonus films on the DVD are two short subjects that Shimizu made before the first JU-ON. Shot on video, they are not really complete stories; they are more like brief, spooky vignettes design to demonstrate the techniques he would use to make his feature-length film. “4444444444” shows a slightly older-looking proto-type of the Toshio character. “In a Corner,” set outside in daylight, showcases the unmistakable “Kayako-crawl” as she approaches a helpless victim. Shot on video, both are fairly effective, very brief “stingers.”
Overall, the amount of extra footage and bonus features on the unrated DVD is barely enough to justify a separate release. (Surely, it would have been possible to combine both versions into a two-disc set?) Of the two, the unrated DVD is far preferable, with a superior cut of the film and a more insightful audio commentary, plus more interesting bonus features. Even the deleted scenes, while seldom exciting in themselves, provide a revealing look at what the U.S. producers were trying to do to “Americanize” the movie. In effect, this version of the film pretty much renders the theatrical cut obsolete.
THE GRUDGE (2004). Directed by Takashi Shimizu. Screenplay by Stepyhen Susco, baased on “Ju-On: The Grudge,” written & directed by Shimizu. Starring: Sarah Michelle Gellar, Jason Behr, Bill Pullman, Clea Duval, Yuya Ozeki, Takako Fuji.
RELATED ARTICLES: The Grudge 2

Godzilla: Final Wars (2004) – Review

This 50th anniversary grand finale to the long-running series is a rush of explosive excitement that pays homage to what came before but hypes it up into a kinetic brew that feels fresh and exciting — not an obituary-like coda but a glorious send-off. Director Kitamura brings a modern sensibility and fast-paced, unrelenting energy to the screen, with almost literally non-stop action.

Like many Godzilla films from the 1990s on, this one combines many familiar elements, some from older Godzila films, some from popular American films. Bits from Toho efforts like GORATH and ATRAGON pop up. And without looking too hard, you’ll see elements of THE MATRIX and X-MEN, along with scenes reminiscent of everything from STAR WARS to STAR TREK to ALIEN. Of course, the world-wide alien-invasion plot sounds suspiciously similar to INDEPENDENCE DAY, but then ID4 bore obvious structural similarities to DESTROY ALL MONSTERS, the well-loved 1968 monster fest about aliens invading Earth.
In fact, FINAL WARS is essentially a remake of DESTROY ALL MONSTERS (dozens of monsters, controlled by aliens, decimated the Earth until Godzilla emerges to save the day). The film benefits from audience familiarity by simply throwing viewers into the middle of things and expecting them to sort it out: each monster is given at most a brief introduction, with little exposition to explain its existence. This allows the film to race through the projector like an unstoppable bullet train, piling one big scene upon the next.


The film evokes the special effects stylings and more serious approach of the recent Toho films, with Godzilla cast as a sort of dangerous anti-hero not because he likes humanity but because he hates intruders pushing into his territory. But FINAL WARS also harkens back to the colorfully entertaining (if frequently ridiculous) ’60s G-flicks, wherein an anthropomorphised, heroic Godzilla wrestled with his foes to the delight of fans who enjoyed the spectacle even though it undermined credibility.
The special effects are mostly on par with Toho’s previous “Millennium Series” G-films (i.e., those made after the atrocious 1998 American GODZILLA). The miniatures are elaborate and impressive, if not always convincing. The monsters are still men in suits, but the suits are detailed and capable of greater movement and expression. Also, instead of simply using slow-motion to give a sense of scale to the suit-mation, computer-generated imagery enhances the scenes, creating motion blur that gives a greater sense of large objects moving at a powerfully fast speed.
The new Godzilla suit somewhat resembles the look first introduced in GODZILLA 2000, combined with some elements from the earlier 1990s suit. It is also lighter and more upright, moving away from the slouching reptilian walk and returning somewhat to the humanoid swagger of DESTROY ALL MONSTERS, allowing for more fast-paced hand-to-hand combat.
Kitamura takes a modern approach to these battle scenes – both the monsters and the humans, with lots of fancy camera angles and over-the-top stunts. In one amusing scene, he even makes the parallel explicity clear when our hero in the foreground is beating up the villain, while in the background Godzilla is fighting a monster on a video screen – and both fights are perfectly synchronized.
Perhaps the best and briefest battle occurs between Godzilla (the familiar Japanese Godzilla, that is) and the infamous Godzilla-In-Name-Only (i.e., the giant iguana from the awful 1998 American film). The classic Godzilla easily dispatches his would-be replacement, while the disappointed alien villain grumbles, “I knew that tuna-eating monster was useless.”
The scene works on a meta-level, with the traditional man-in-a-suit monster vanquishing his CGI-spawned namesake. Ironically, the CGI ‘Zilla (so called to distinguish him from the real Godzilla) is rendered much more effectively here than he was in the American film. In other cases, however, the CGI is not up to such high standards. For example, an early attack by the sea snake Manda is about on the level of a videogame. This is doubly disappointing because the monster looks good at first — when it is realized with a well-manipulated marionette.
The lightening-paced, no-time-to-stop-and-think approach to the film is underscored by great soundtrack music, featuring contributions from prog-rocker Keith Emerson. Most of the nearly wall-to-wall score has a quick-tempo, techno-industrial sound that makes it feel almost as if you are watching a dozen music videos strung one after the other. Only during the closing credits, underscored by a rousing fanfare, does the more familiar Emerson sound emerge, with a catchy organ-riff beneath the synthesized orchestral swells.
As for the human characters, the performers are almost universally engaging and likable. In the Neo role (he turns out to be a “Kaiser,” more or less the same thing as being “The One”), Masahiro Matsuoka is an entertaining Asian equivalent of Keanu Reeves. Special mention should be awarded to the alien villain for his over-the-top temper tantrums every time one of his monsters loses a battle with Godzilla. Even Don Frye, a martial arts instructor, looks properly rough and tough for his role as Captain Gordon; although obviously not a professional actor, he can growl “son-of-a-bitch” really well when something goes wrong.

The overall tone of GODZILLA: FINAL WARS is dark and tense and grim, seemingly geared to the key target demographic: young adult audiences eager for action-packed entertainment. Although surrounded by a supporting cast of famliar character actors (including Akira Takarada, whose career stretches all the way back to the original GODZILLA), the leads are young, glamorous types obviously meant to lend a little sex appeal. (You expect the television interviewer to look good, but even her sister, the lady biologist, usually finds a way to pose so that her skirt shows off her legs to good advantage.)
Despite this appeal to viewers in their teens and twenties, some elements – a bit jarringly – are included to reach the kiddie audience that loves Godzilla too. In particular, the younger Godzilla (here called Minilla) looks just as goofy and cute as he did back in the 1960s, and his scenes almost seem dropped in from another movie, or like second-unit stuff inserted at the insistence of the studio. (On the other hand, these comic relief episodes do provide welcome respite from the breathless pace of the rest of the movie.)
These brief missteps are not enough to undermine the film, which is a pulse-pulverizing bit of special effects and martial arts mayhem that truly is good enough to deserve a stateside release. Certainly, the film is over-the-top and utterly fantastic, and it doesn’t provide dramatic closure for the series the way that GODZILLA VS. DESTROYER did in 1995. But even at its worst it is nowhere near as silly as the dreary and unexciting SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW. If Hollywood thought that film was worthy of a nationwide release, it is a shame they did not give GODZILLA: FINAL WARS the same opportunity.

Godzilla roars to life in his last adventure.

GODZILLA: FINAL WARS (Toho, 2004). Directed by Ryuhei Kitamura. Written by Kitamura & Isao Kiriyama, from a story by Wataru Mimura & Shogo Tomiyama. Cast: Masahiro Matsuoka, Rei Kikukawa, Akira Takarada, Kane Kosugi, Kazuki Kitamura, Maki Mizuno, Don Frye.