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“Ju-On: The Grudge” – A Halloween Retrospective

No horror franchise has made my skin crawl like Ju-On: The Grudge. The film series was created by Takashi Shimizu, centralised around a cursed haunted house in Tokyo. Kayako Saeki and her family have crawled their way into popular culture. Ju-On has maintained a spooky reputation, but each new installment tends to recycle old plots and scares. For Halloween, we’ll be stepping over threshold of Japan’s scariest house, reviewing each Ju-On film in turn. The franchise has had fifteen installments, including a recent miniseries on Netflix. As we delve into overviews of each film, there will be spoilers, so be warned if you plan to watch the movies.

The lore is a take on the classic haunted house, the central curse personified through the iconic phantoms. Kayako Saeki (Takako Fuji) was a housewife murdered by her husband Takeo (Takashi Matsuyama) for supposedly being unfaithful. She rises as a vengeful ghost, creating an inescapable curse that kills all who cross paths with it. Kayako’s son Toshio (played primarily by Yuya Ozeki) and his pet cat become parts of the curse. Anyone who steps into the haunted house will sooner or later be cursed, either dying or disappearing. The curse acts like a plague, spreading to wherever its victim dies, endless and unstoppable. In most horror films, the villains have a weakness or way to avoid harm. Not in Ju-On. Once cursed, a character is doomed.

JU-ON: THE CURSE (2000)

Technically, the first films in the series are two short films called Katasumi and 44444444, which introduced Kayako and Toshio. Both short films involve high school students of the same family experiencing some spooky goings on before being killed offscreen by the ghosts. These films are part of Ju-On: The Curse; though events occur outside of the main story, they may need to be watched to have a full context of the film.

Takashi Shimizu used a small budget to his advantage; creating a minimalistic film that uses restricted locations and eerie cinematography to produce a nerve-wracking experience. The film was shot primarily in the Tokorozawa district of Tokyo, even using a suburban house for the Saeki’s household. It should be noted that the film is not told in linear fashion; leaping around the timeline in several vignettes. This would be carried on with the following films.

Toshio’s school teacher Shunsuke Kobayashi (Yūrei Yanagi) visits the Saeki house, finding Toshio alone and his parents missing. Kayako was obsessed with Kobayashi, which led Takeo to believe she was having an affair. But, as the day goes on, Kobayashi begins to unravel the tragic murders and subsequent haunting that surrounds the house. The eerie atmosphere and hair-raising sense of dread is at their most effective here. For instance, Kobayashi hears a cat meowing, so he looks out the window, failing to notice Toshio (Ryota Koyama) meowing behind him. This is followed by an exterior shot of the house, where Kayako appears on a balcony seconds before the scene cuts away.

A second subplot involves the Murakami family, who moved into the house sometime later. This plot relates to the aforementioned short films. A young Chiaki Kuriyama appears, who would later find fame in Battle Royale and Kill Bill. Though a little disjointed, there is an alarming moment when Kanna (Asumi Miwa) returns home from Katasumi, revealing to her mother that her jaw is missing. A final vignette acts as a set up for the second film, leaving the movie on an unnecessary cliffhanger.

JU-ON: THE CURSE 2 (2000)

The second film is like a promotional featurette of the franchise. Thirty minutes of the film repeats Kobayashi’s plot, before continuing the unresolved set up from the end of the first film. Real estate agent Tatsuya Suzuki (Makoto Ashikawa) and his psychic sister Kyoko (Yūki Daike) try to sell the Saeki house, but Kyoko realises there is something wrong with it. Whilst checking on Tatsuya’s son Nobuyuki, both encounter Takeo’s ghost and are left traumatised. Turns out that Tatsuya’s apartment was once owned by Kobayashi, where Takeo murdered his pregnant wife in bloody fashion. What a coinkidink.

Tatsuya moves Kyoko and Nobuyuki to his parents’ house whilst he goes to investigate the Saeki house, only to be killed off by the new possessed homemaker. Meanwhile, everything just goes insane at the Suzuki residence as the ghosts invade. Kyoko’s behaviour is very strange, rocking back and forth, whilst clutching a doll; likely overwhelmed by the sorrow she experienced from the murders. The third act focuses on Nobuyuki, and the cops investigating the mysteries of the house.

Unlike the first film, the sequel lacks a genuine sense of terror. Intentional scares are marred by the cheap special effects, often making them unintentionally funny. One character is killed when Kayako appears on the ceiling as a dodgy projection. The ending is pretty trippy. Nobuyuki finds himself being stalked at school by Kayako, who chases him around, despite meant to have a broken ankle. Then Kayako corners Nobuyuki by somehow spawning a twin, and he is killed as a swarm of Kayako(es) hover outside; all croaking in unison. A weird ending for a muddled movie.

JU-ON: THE GRUDGE (2002)

The third film was a theatrical release when compared to the “V-Cinema” releases of the first two. At times, Ju-On: The Grudge feels like an attempt to recapture the magic of The Curse, trying to tell an engaging story, which more-or-less works. Yet, it does continue the cycle of familiar events, whilst introducing some new additions to the lore.

Rika Nishina (Megumi Okina) is a young, eager care worker who is assigned her first job. Guess where it is? Rika finds the Saeki house in a mess, with only an old woman by herself, her family already dead. Things soon get creepy when Rika finds Toshio trapped in a wardrobe covered in tape. Toshio, who is played by Yuya Ozeki here, is at his most creepiest, speaking in a monotone voice, as well as the usual meowing. Rika eventually encounters Kayako and faints, is briefly interviewed by the police, and then leaves the story for several years. Yes, the curse spares her for years before damning her to relive Kayako’s manner of death!

The police recruits a former colleague named Yuji Toyama (Yoji Tanaka), but he is reluctant to help, being the sole survivor of the original investigation. Perhaps the most frightening scene is when Toyama watches a surveillance tape where Kayako creeps down the hallway out of shot, only to leap up in front of the camera and glare at Toyama, reminding him that he is still doomed.

The film can be praised for how sympathetic the characters are. Most are oblivious to the curse, and are either murdered, disappear, get possessed, or go insane without knowing why. Toyama’s daughter Izumi (Misa Uehara) abandoned her friends in the house and is haunted by their ghosts, becoming withdrawn and insane over time. Oh, and her dad died offscreen. The film establishes that the house is able to warp reality, allowing characters from across time to meet, as seen when Toyama briefly meets Izumi as a teenager.

The ending is particularly unsettling. It depicts what appears to be a post-apocalyptic Tokyo, where the curse has spread to the streets. There are tons of missing persons posters, personal objects abandoned, and it is deathly quiet. Is this the inevitable outcome for the curse, or just a nightmarish fantasy that the undead Rika suffers from? We may never know.

JU-ON: THE GRUDGE 2 (2003)

The final entry of the original Japanese films, Ju-On: The Grudge 2 is a satisfying if unusual conclusion. While the previous film was a little slow and lacked a central conflict or story, its sequel makes up for it. The story is engaging, there is a sense of mystery to the ghosts’ actions, the acting is good, and even the scares and kills up the ante. There are plenty of chills, especially if you keep a weather eye on the background details.

Kyoko Harase (Noriko Sakai) is an actress who participates in a TV documentary exploring the old Saeki house with an intrepid team of investigators. The crew includes the director Keisuke (Shingo Katsurayama), the host and scriptwriter Tomoka (Chiharu Niiyama), and makeup artist Megumi (Emi Yamamoto), who has a sixth sense. Though the filming goes swimmingly, it is only afterward do things get serious. Kyoko and her fiancé Masashi are caught in a car crash orchestrated by Toshio, causing Kyoko to have a miscarriage. Masashi is comatose and Kyoko has brief encounter with Toshio, who intentionally touches her stomach. Three months later, Kyoko learns she is pregnant again.

As for the film crew, you can take a wild guess what happens to them. Aside from Keisuke, the others die in creative ways. Megumi’s death is a little silly, with Kayako emerging from a wig to kill her. What makes the scene frightening is Kayako’s jittery movements and bloodstained features. But, Tomoka’s has to take the cake. The curse’s ability to warp reality comes into full effect, with Tomoka and her boyfriend hearing a repetitive banging noise coming from their apartment’s wall at the same time every night. This turns out to be Kayako tormenting them about their future deaths; hanging both of them via her own hair. Toshio pushes their corpses against the wall, creating a time loop of sorts for the two lovers.

Kyoko’s mysterious pregnancy and Toshio’s behaviour lead to the series’ most mind-blowing twist. Kyoko goes into labour and is rushed to hospital, where she appears to give birth a fully grown Kayako. As you might have surmised, Kayako was resurrected thanks to Toshio. The ending cuts to several years later, when a clearly broken Kyoko cares for Kayako, only for her new daughter to push her off a bridge and abandon her, heading off for an unknown fate. This does leave a lot of questions, such as is this the end of the curse, was it always Kayako’s goal to be reborn, and what happens to her? It is certainly an inventive way to end the Ju-On franchise, though much like Kayako, the series would be reborn and the curse would continue.

THE GRUDGE (2004)

Following the success of The Ring, a ton of remakes were made of Asian horror films, with The Grudge at the forefront. Takashi Shimizu returned to remake his own movie, with horror and comic book movie icon Sam Raimi producing. The 2004 film is a composition of Ju-On: The Curse and Ju-On: The Grudge, often with direct shot-for-shot recreations of iconic scenes. Takako Fuji, Yuya Ozeki, and Takashi Matsuyama reprised their roles, successfully made even creepier through some special effects.

Sarah Michelle Gellar plays Karen Davis, essentially the role of Rika, who is sent to the Saeki house and soon becomes cursed. It was unusual seeing Buffy in such a vulnerable role, even when you expect her to whip out a stake. Other notable actors include Ted Raimi as Karen’s manager, and Bill Pullman in the role of Kobayashi’s counterpart Peter Kirk. Ryo Ishibashi appears as Detective Nakagawa, who is psychologically haunted by the murders in the house. Ishibashi is a veteran of Japanese horror, appearing in Audition and Suicide Club.

Admittedly, there isn’t really much to comment on, since the whole film is a near direct remake of the other films, but with a higher budget. The murders of the Saeki family are depicted onscreen in alarming fashion, showing just how crazy Takeo went. The movie was originally going to have a happy ending where Karen burns the house down, setting the ghosts free, but it was scrapped for a set up for the clunky sequels.

THE AMERICAN SEQUELS (2006, 2009, 2020)

The other three entries in the American continuity are nothing to write home about. The Grudge 2 continued the first film’s story, following Karen’s sister Aubrey (Amber Tamblyn) as she goes to Japan to retrieve her sibling, who is killed early on by Kayako. The movie introduced two new dynamics to the lore. One is that Kayako’s mother was a medium who fed her daughter evil spirits from exorcised patients; explaining Kayako’s behaviour. Two, that the curse spreads to a Chicago apartment block, opening the door for new directions to take the story in.

Too bad The Grudge 3 is a total drag. Gone are Takashi Shimizu, the established actors of the ghosts, and any sense of intrigue or atmosphere. The movie squanders any potential, turning Kayako into a serial killer with ultraviolent deaths, bland characters, and plenty of jump scares. Despite the sudden introduction of Kayako’s sister Naoko (Emi Ikehata), who arrives to exorcise her sister, even she is subjected to a violent end; resurrecting as a ghost herself. Aside from one memorable death scene, the whole movie is a wasted effort.

The Grudge (2020) lacked its own vision or identity. The film is a sidequel to The Grudge, occurring concurrently, leaving it anchored to its predecessor whilst making no attempt to tell an original story. The movie is frankly boring, despite good themes of grief and death, decent cinematography, and a pretty good cast.

JU-ON: WHITE GHOST & BLACK GHOST (2009)

To mark the 10th anniversary of the franchise, Ju-On: White Ghost and Black Ghost were released, a pair of interconnected movies that tell original stories. This is what Ju-On has been lacking: exploring new grudges and curses. Aside from a couple of cameos by Toshio, the Saekis are nowhere in sight.

White Ghost revolves around themes of past regrets. Akane Kashiwagi (Akane Minami) carries deep guilt for not helping her late friend Mirai Isobe, who was being abused and later murdered by her uncle Atsushi (Tsuyoshi Muro). We see in flashbacks that Atsushi was possessed by an unseen presence. Then a series of personal failures drive him to massacre his family. Rather than an unstoppable force like Kayako, the family’s curse is more dormant; summoned by Akane’s friends by accident using an oujia board. The ghosts are portrayed as sympathetic, though it doesn’t explain why Mirai’s ghost murdered Akane’s father. The story is a little disjointed, slow-paced, and almost dull at times. And the ghostly grandmother attacking people with a basketball is nothing compared to Kayako.

Black Ghost tells a more absorbing tale about a hospitalised girl, Fukie Yokota (Hana Matsumoto), whose strange behaviour leads her mother Kiwako (Maria Takagi) to discover she has a cyst; actually the spirit of her unborn twin. Like any good mother, she summons her sister Mariko (Yuri Nakamura) to exorcise the evil spirit. What connects the two films together is Mariko’s house will later be occupied by Mirai’s family. While White Ghost meandered in its pace, Black Ghost is more engaging, particularly as its own mystery unravels and the curse created is caused by multiple parties. All with tragic consequences.

These two films should have been the new direction to take Ju-On. But, much like Halloween, which tried to tell a different story, the franchise inevitably returned to its roots.

THE REBOOT (2014-2015)

As you may have noticed, Ju-On tends to return and rely on old scares and story beats. So it came as no surprise when the franchise was rebooted, gaining a new, tepid start, complete with an equally tepid sequel. The appropriately named The Beginning of the End is a rinse-and-repeat of the original films, but admittedly, tries doing a couple of things differently. Most notably is how they reimagined Toshio (Kai Kobayashi), depicting him as a ghost reborn. He was the ghost of a dead boy, impregnated Kayako with himself, only to be killed again!

Aside from that, the movie is just plain cheesy. Everything is over the top and silly. The titular grudge is spawned when Kayako (Misaki Saisho) tells Takeo (Yasuhito Hida) that Toshio isn’t his son without context, causing her husband to start mugging for the camera. Then for whatever reason, he decides to microwave the family cat.

The movie relies on recycled story arcs, scares, and deaths. They attempt to make cardboard boxes scary, one character is sucked into a fridge Ghostbusters-style, whilst the ghosts are more hammy than frightening. In one scene, a girl is “terrorised” by her ghostly friends on the subway; one having lost her jawbone per tradition. But the girl finds her less scary than another friend, who has ballooned into a giant for some reason.

The Final Curse, the sequel, tries better. It introduces us to Takeo’s sister Maki (Kanan Nakahara) and her daughter Reo (Nonoka Ono), who take in Toshio, unaware of his true nature. Toshio gains a more humane side, able to shift from living to dead on a whim. He befriends a terminally ill girl, bringing his cat along to share a tender moment with her. Of course, the usual ghostly terrors come, so it is actually sad seeing Toshio’s family get torn apart by their undead relatives.

SADAKO VS. KAYAKO (2016)

Following in the footsteps of Freddy vs. Jason and Alien vs. Predator, Sadako vs. Kayako brought together Ring and Ju-On for what was marketed as one hell of a clash. First announced as an April Fool’s joke, the crossover garnered such interest that it actually went into production. In some irony, the marketing campaign was more entertaining than the movie, with Kayako, Toshio, and Sadako appearing at baseball games, in theatres’ etiquette promos, and even family sitcom scenarios. The movie itself was, to be frank, a bit of a drag.

The movie mostly focuses on two college students, Yuri (Mizuki Yamamoto) and Natsumi,  (Aimi Satsukawa), who watch Sadako’s videotape. In a subplot, Suzuka Takagi (Tina Tamashiro) moves in across the street from the Saeki house, soon to be drawn into its reach. Medium Keizo Tokiwa (Masanobu Ando) and his blind assistant Tamao (Mai Kikuchi) suggest pitting Kayako against Sadako, cancelling out their curses. This only happens in the last twenty minutes of the movie.

If you were expecting there to be a grand battle royale between the queens of Asian horror, then don’t get too excited. Don’t get me wrong, it is great seeing the two characters fight, but about five minutes of brawling doesn’t make up for the previous 75 minutes of slosh. These two forces of nature have such potential; one a powerful psychic, the other an unstoppable reality warper. Sadako drags Toshio into a TV, Kayako beats her up, then Sadako blows up Kayako’s head. I wish there had been more, but the movie ends ambiguously with both ghosts leaping on Yuri, fall down a conveniently placed well, only to rise again fused together. The movie is fun when both franchises overlap, but it was a wasted opportunity.

JU-ON: ORIGINS (2020)

Finally, we have Ju-On: Origins; a miniseries that unexpectedly popped on Netflix last year. The series is strange, promoting itself as the “true events” that inspired Ju-On. No, it’s not a direct prequel or set up to the established movies, despite being set within the Saeki house. With quite a large cast and numerous subplots all occurring, the deeper story tends to become lost in the woodwork. The series makes numerous references to historical crimes as background detail, which we are to assume are being caused by the curse.

The series is spread out between 1988 to 1997, allowing for a lot of time skipping. We begin with actress Haruka Honjo (Yuina Hiroshima) recording strange noises in her apartment, which is interesting enough to be aired on a variety show. She soon learns her boyfriend is haunted by the same presence, a Kayako lookalike, and soon he dies of fright. She and paranormal investigator Yasuo Odajima (Yoshiyoshi Arakawa) soon connect her boyfriend’s death to the haunted house. It soon connects them to a troubled mother named Kiyomi (Riruka), who has had a miserable life, culminating in her son Toshiki being knocked into a coma by his father. Haruko, Yasuo, and social worker Kimie (Kana Kurashina) further join forces to look for the house.

The series attempts to recapture the unsettling atmosphere of the original films, succeeding for the most part. Yet, there is too much going on for just six episodes, meaning several subplots are dragged out or feel unresolved. There is more to explore within Origins, though there has been no word of a second season being in production.

Are you a fan of Ju-On: The Grudge? Which are your favourite movies? Leave a comment below, or on our Twitter feed.

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Mark Russell

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