Recall your worst nightmares as a child: your fear of the dark, of being alone in bed at night, of shadows without substance lurking in corners, beneath the bed, outside your door, or in your closet. Remember the creaking floorboards, the rustle of wind or the moan of some animal – a cat, perhaps? – which led you to believe that you were no longer alone, that something tangible was there with you, about to manifest itself before your frightened senses. Now imagine this fear captured on celluloid and presented to you with all the evocative power of your childhood nightmares – only now the nightmare seems utterly convincing, because you know you are awake, and utterly inescapable, because it can follow you anywhere: in attics, down stairs, along corridors, through doors, even into that one place you felt absolutely safe as a child – beneath the bed covers. This is the essence of horror captured in JU-ON: THE GRUDGE, a film that, perhaps better than any other ever made, conveys the disturbing sense of the uncanny – of fear that goes beyond reason or explanation – on screen.
JU-ON is one of the most excellent ghost stories ever put on film – although “story” is not the strong point. Writer-director Takashi Shimizu’s enigmatic masterpiece is filled with a barrage of imagery that is nightmarish, surreal, and at times confusing. Some of supernatural manifestations (e.g., a female ghost with long, black hair obscuring her face) are reminiscent of Japan’s 1998’s Ring (remade in America in 2002 as The Ring). But JU-ON ups the ante: instead of a strong narrative, laced with unseen menace, that builds slowly to its terrifying climax, Shimizu eschews traditional narrative structure in favor of an episodic approach that shifts point of view as each new character comes in contact with the “curse” that will doom them to a fatal encounter with the vengeful ghosts haunting an apartment where they were murdered. Each episode is introduced with a title card naming the character who will feature most prominently; then after that character meets his/her fate, we move on to a new character. The episodes jump back and forth in time; there are loose narrative links between the different characters, but little in the way of an overall story arc emerges. With no clearly identified protagonist, the film wastes little time on characterization and exposition, devoting itself almost totally to the haunting.
This radical dismissal of conventional structure yields tremendous dividends. Most of the obligatory – and potentially tedious – “plot” development is absent; for example, the police do not arrive until 40 minutes in, whereupon they accomplish little beyond filling us in on the minimal back story (a man murdered his wife Kayako in the cursed house, then died himself; their son Toshio disappeared). Consequently, the film never settles into a comfortable groove filled with “safe” scenes that allow the audience to relax and breathe easy before the next encounter with terror. Instead, Shimizu offers up a succession of intense, almost self-contained horror vignettes, as each new character stumbles into the deadly situation.
Surprisingly, the cumulative effect is neither monotonous nor repetitious. Somehow, the episodes build tension throughout the movie. Like pieces of a puzzle that may or may not quite fit, the sequences fall into place, gradually providing viewers with a fuller – if not totally complete – picture of the uncanny phenomenon. As with a David Lynch film, it is impossible to decided definitely what it all means (if anything), but the tantalizing hints are so evocative that your imagination cannot resist being engaged in sorting through the implications to reach some kind of conclusion., however tentative.
JU-ON: THE GRUDGE hints at visceral horror only in its opening prologue: a fragmented black-and-white montage providing glimpses of the murder-suicide that led to the haunting. From that point on, Shimizu relies on the supernatural to induce shivers in the audience. Using minimal makeup and a handful of special effects, Shimizu utilizes clever, if simple, cinematic techniques to generate its scares: brief shots of barely glimpsed ghosts; cuts from subjective (with ghosts) to objective (without ghosts) camera angles, simulating the sense of catching an imaginary glimpse of something out of the corner of your eye; staccato bodily movements to convey a sense of supernatural being; and the croaking voice of a murdered woman, guaranteed to send shivers up the spine.
Shimizu also generates horror with his mind-bending time-traversing structure, as when during the “Toyama” episode, the ex-cop, on the verge of burning the cursed house down, is distracted by a vision of his daughter Izumi, looking several years older, inside the house on a dare from her friends. As Izumi locks eyes on her father, the two seem to be mysteriously connecting across the gulf of time. Later, during the “Izumi” episode, viewers who pay attention will learn of Rika Nishina’s death long before it is actually shown on screen: a news broadcast tells of her body being found in the attic of the deserted house. Toying around with time like this lends a sense of inevitability, of seeing actions play out, whose fateful outcome has been pre-determined beyond any hope of human intervention.
If JU-ON: THE GRUDGE has any failing, it is in sticking to the unholy trio of Takeo, Toshio, and Kayako. The premise, stated in the pre-credit title card, is that victims who die at the hands of the ghostly Saeki family will themselves become part of the curse; therefore, the “grudge” should spread like a virus, infecting more and more people. This never happens, but on at least a couple of occasions Shimizu does show other characters becoming part of the grudge, such as the three missing friends of school girl Izumi, who return looking less like ghosts and more like the living dead. And the film ends on an intriguing note, suggesting that the story has come full circle, with Rika’s dead body now in the attic where Kayako was found murdered. As Rika’s eyes snap open and we hear the familiar croaking voice, it seems that Rika is replacing Kayako (a suggestion ignored by JU-ON: THE GRUDGE 2).
Despite its startling effectiveness and innovative approach to narrative, JU-ON: THE GRUDGE has not received all the critical adulation and honors it deserves. Most reviewers admit to a certain creepy effectiveness, but many are taken aback by the film’s episodic structure. Fortunately, at least a few critics were willing to forego their loyalty to the virtues of a strong story and recognize that Shimizu’s film works on its own unique terms. One hopes that, with the passing of years, the knee-jerk objections to the film’s episodic structure will give way to a wider acknowledgement of its superlative effectiveness.
There’s an old nugget of conventional wisdom, to the effect that, if you are told there is a man-eating tiger in the next room, you will be afraid; if you are told there is a ghost in the next room, you will also be afraid, but the fear will be of a completely different variety. There are many films – both horror films and thrillers – that effectively prey upon the first kind of fear – an audience’s fear of violent or unexpected death. Relatively few films, however, capture that second kind of fear: the spiritual fear that exists quite apart from a sense of one’s one mortality and vulnerability – a fear that upsets our comforting concepts of how the world works, of cause and effect, of natural laws and physical reality. Kayako and Toshio are seldom seen actually harming anyone; instead, their mere appearance opens a black gulf of fear deep inside the mind, one that makes the viewer feel like swooning on the precipice and plunging into depths of madness and despair. Only a handful of haunted house films (such as THE INNOCENTS and THE HAUNTING) have achieved similar feats. JU-ON: THE GRUDGE may lack their literary pedigree, but it is every bit as effective.
JU-ON: THE GRUDGE(2003). Written and directed by Takashi Shimizu. Cast: Megumi Okina, Misaki Ito, misa Uehara, Uyi Ichikawa, Kanji Tsuda, Kayako Shibata, Yukako Kukuri, Shuri Matsuda, Yoji Tanaka, Takashi Matsuyama, Yuya ozeki, Takako Fuji.