Continuing with our 2nd Annual Halloween Movie Marathon, “The Unenthusiastic Critic”—my wise-assed, horror-hating girlfriend “N.”—joins me for a dose of J-Horror as we sit down to watch Takashi Shimizu's 2003 ghost story Ju-On (The Grudge). As always, spoilers follow, so if (like my girlfriend) you haven’t already seen Ju-On, and if (unlike her) you would like to, you should really do that first.
Why I Chose It: I fully admit that I am guilty of skewing N.'s cinematic consumption towards films released before she was born, so I wanted to include something from the 21st century, and there's little doubt that the dominant force in horror in the new millennium has been Japan. I was, however, actually a little hesitant to do a Japanese horror film, mostly because I never feel like I can talk about them very intelligently: horror is always reliant upon—and usually commenting on—a shared cultural identity. Most of my favorite American horror films have qualities that mark them as particularly American: they are products of the society that produced them. Whether the fear is of the social unrest of the 1960s in Night of the Living Dead, the perceived moral decay of the '70s in The Exorcist, or the banality of '80s suburban sprawl in Poltergeist, these movies are playing on very peculiar national fears that had bubbled up through the collective American consciousness.
This is not to say that countries can't import and export horror successfully: in fact, the incredible international influence of Japanese horror in the 21st century is proof that scares can travel. (Beginning with director Hideo Nakata's Ringu in 1998—and Gore Verbinski's 2002 American remake The Ring—you couldn't swing a dead cat in an American movie theater for the next 10 years without hitting a scary-ass ghost with long black hair and pale white skin.) All I'm saying is, having little understanding of Japanese culture, I personally don't understand—or respond to—their horror in quite the same way, and I certainly can't discuss it from the same relative position. It always feels like there are probably things going on, thematically, that I'm missing.
At the same time, I wonder if that isn't why Americans find J-horror so scary: there is something peculiarly alienating, unsettling, and incomprehensible about ghosts that are not our ghosts, rules that are not our rules, and fears that are not our fears. I know why the ghosts in Poltergeist are pissed, and I get what it's going to take to placate them: if you built a bunch of McMansions over my unmoved grave, I'd haunt your ass too, and I wouldn't stop until I got some justice. But I have only vague ideas about why the ghosts in Ringu or Ju-On are so mad, and I have absolutely no idea what to do to make them stop. That's scary.
What My Girlfriend Knew About It Going In: As always, I quiz N. before we begin to find out what preconceived notions she might have about the film we're about to watch.
She: I don’t know anything about this, except that it’s a Japanese horror film, and that Japanese horror is a particular kind of horrifying.
Me: Have you seen any J-horror?
She: I’ve seen the American version of The Ring, which was creepy. But I was in college, so I don’t remember it well.
Me: We get it, you're young.
She: I have the image in my head of the creepy woman crawling out of the TV set, but that’s about it.
Me: So what are you expecting from this?
She: I’m expecting to be creeped out. You seem to have been fairly creeped out by it.
Me: Me? Nah…
She: “Oh, I just watched The Grudge and I’m sooooooooo scared.” That’s what you said.
Me: Really? Did I say it in a weird, high-pitched, little girl's voice like you just did?
She: Yes, you did. And I believe you may have wet yourself.
For the record, there was no high-pitched little girl's voice, and there was no wetting, but I will cop to being creeped out. I watched Ju-On for the first time by myself, in a pitch-black room, sitting in front of a laptop. (Don't ask me why, but watching a movie like this with your face in a computer is somehow creepier—closer, more intimate—than watching it on a TV, and scary in an entirely different way from watching it in a movie theater. Granted, I was trying to creep myself out—I believe in giving horror movies optimum conditions in which to scare me—but I will admit—to you, but not to her—that I succeeded in giving myself a pretty good case of the willies.)
Me: I don’t recall this at all. I suspect you’ve just made it up. I am fearless.
How It Went: Creepiness achieved, but not a home-run.
One of the reasons I find Ju-On so creepy is that it really seems to have no other mission statement but to creep you out. The film is composed of six vignettes, each documenting one particular character's encounter with the ghosts—or yūrei—who haunt a small house where a murder-suicide took place. The six stories are presented out of chronological order, and are only loosely linked: there is very little in the way of over-arching story. It's just concentrated scares: it's cinema as haunted funhouse, not as narrative.
The film begins with a brief pre-credits sequence, in which we see choppy and disturbing shots of a crazed-looking, blood-splattered, nail-biting man, Takeo (Takashi Matsuyama) who has apparently murdered his wife Kayako (Takako Fuji), while his small son Toshio (Yuya Ozeki) is in the house. This is the original crime from which all the evil in the house is born.
She: Is that Gogo?
Me: No, that is not Gogo. And I’m pretty sure that’s a really racist thing to say.
She: It is. Sorry. Strike it from the record, please.
Me: No. There’s no striking. That’s the whole reason we have a record.
From there we go into our first short story, set several years later, as a volunteer social worker named Rika (Megumi Okina) is sent to check on a family that has since moved into the House of Evil. Rika arrives to find the place in total disarray, and the nearly catatonic, grey-haired old woman (Chikako Isomura) alone, neglected, and soiled.
She: That’s my worst nightmare: a ghost that just wants to fuck up my house.
After cleaning the old woman, Rika sets about tidying the house. Upstairs, however, she hears what sounds like a cat trapped in a closet that is heavily taped to keep it shut.
She: Maybe don’t go near the door that is all taped up. Maybe there’s a reason it’s all taped up.
Me: But there’s a kitty trapped inside!
Me: No, there's no kitty. And if it is a kitty, then the kitty is evil, and it should stay in the closet.
But Rika, of course, doesn't yet know she's in a horror movie, and so begins removing the tape from around the door.
She: Rookie mistake.
Inside, she does find a kitty, but she also finds a strange little boy (Yuya Ozeki). She, of course, doesn't know that these are the same kitty and boy who were in the house years earlier when Takeo killed his wife.
Understandably unnerved by this discovery, Rika phones her employers to get some backup. When she returns, the little boy is staring at her through the grated window at the top of the staircase. "What's your name, little boy?" she asks him, hesitantly.
"To-shi-o!" he says in a slow, creaking, monotone voice.
She: Uhn-uh. Fuck that shit. Time to go.
Me: You'd leave the kid alone?
She: Hell yeah. You talk all weird like that, I’m gone. Sorry. I’ll call someone to come check on you, but it ain't gonna be me. I’m just a volunteer. I don't get paid enough for this shit.
One of the reasons I think Ju-On is so effective—and why Japanese horror in general is so popular—is that it brings ghosts into the 21st century. The sheer mundanity of the house works in its favor: this is not some dark, oversized Gothic mansion that just screams "I'm haunted," but a typical small starter home, with modern fixtures and good lighting. Apart from the Japanese-style sliding doors, it looks like the small house my college girlfriend shared with two of her friends off-campus; it looks like an apartment I once had in Boulder, CO. It looks, in short, like a place any of us might live, and the fact that it could be stuffed to the rafters with concentrated evil is kind of terrifying.
Downstairs, Rika tries to get some answers out of the old woman, who is now muttering at someone she can see, whom we can't see. "I told her over and over," the old woman says. "Again and again I told her, just the way you said to."
She: "I told her, over and over, not to take the damn tape off the closet door!"
And then we hear, for the first time, the signature sound of evil in Ju-On, the weird stuttering gurgle commonly refered to as the Death Rattle. (Here's a link to the sound, and yes, I'm going to try to secretly install this as the ringtone on N.'s phone. Don't tell her.) Suddenly Rika—just before she faints—sees a dark, shadowy figure crouching over the terrified old woman.
She: Smoke monster!
Me: So would you like to be a volunteer social worker? Do home visitations?
She: Oh, hell no. But part of that is, I would have been out of there when I saw the old woman had shat all over herself. You couldn't pay me enough for that. Forget the paranormal stuff, I’m scared of feces, so I would have been gone long before I discovered the noises in the taped up closet.
From there we go into our second vignette, which is a flashback so we may discover just how the old woman got left alone in the house. A young married couple—Katsuya (Kanji Tsuda) and Kazumi (Shuri Matsuda)—are living in the house with the old woman, who is Katsuya's invalid mother. (Only on the second viewing do I notice that the old woman's hair—in this scene—is brown, not white: whatever turned her hair white has not yet happened.) One morning, after her husband has gone to work, Kazumi hears noises upstairs: she rounds the landing on the staircase to see the cat—and then to see two ashen arms reach out to pick the cat up. "Who's that?" she asks.
She: Not an important question! You just need to get out!
Me: You’re always against investigating in these situations.
She: I don’t need to know shit! Something ain’t supposed to be there, I’m getting the fuck out! Peace!
Kazumi—whose sense of self-preservation is nowhere near as well-developed as my girlfriend's—enters the upstairs bedroom, and we hear her scream. Several hours later, Katsuya returns home from work to find his wife catatonic on the bed, apparently scared nearly to death. As he investigates, we keep seeing fleeting glimpses of the little boy moving behind him, but every time Katsuya turns around, there's no one there.
Katsuya finally comes face-to-face with the kid, and the encounter leaves him changed: his face darkens, and we see him chewing at his fingernails, just like Takeo was doing in the beginning of the movie.
Me: I don't think he's quite himself now.
She: There has been a change.
Katsuya's sister, Hitomi (Misaki Itô) arrives for dinner with the family, but her now Evil Possessed Brother is busy disposing of his wife's body. He rudely throws Hitomi out of the house, muttering about how the child is not his. (Katsuya doesn't have a child, of course.) Upstairs, we see the first dead wife—Kayako—staring out from one of the rooms.
The third story is the one I actually find most frightening, as the curse—the grudge—transfers to the sister, Hitomi. We see her the next day at work, in a large, modern, eerily empty office building: once again, Ju-On makes great use of modern spaces, showing us that clean, well-lighted corporate corridors can be every bit as creepy as dark, cobweb infested mansions.
One of the best examples of this is Hitomi's trip to the Ladies Room. (Isn't there always something a little creepy about public bathrooms? Don't you always wonder who might be in the stall next to you?) Hitomi tries to call her brother, but her cell phone just starts making that creepy-ass death rattle noise. Then, after she hangs up, the same sound seems to come from the bathroom stall next to her. "Who's there?" she asks.
She: Again, not an important question! Get the fuck out!
She does, but not before she glimpses the shadow monster—aka, the ghost of Kayako—emerging from the stall.
Hitomi quickly reports the strange incident to the highest authority she can find: the building's lone security guard (Yoshiyuki Morishita).
She: Oh yeah, he looks like he can handle it.
(Morishita, by the way, may be familiar to American audiences as the pervy businessman N's old friend Gogo stabs in a bar in Kill Bill. His luck with women has not improved, it seems.)
Hitomi hangs around just long enough to watch on the security feed as Asian Barney Fife encounters—and is apparently subsumed by—Kayako's hair-monster form, and then she—sensibly—buggers off for home.
Ju-On makes consistent, clever use of one particular horror movie technique: the things the audience sees that the characters don't. In the elevator of her (again, eerily deserted) high-rise apartment building, Hitomi is too frazzled to look out the window: if she did, she would see Toshio staring at her, from every floor she passes.
It's such a clever shot, I'm concerned that N. might have missed it.
Me: You saw that, right?
She: The creepy, ashy Asian kid? Yes, thanks.
Inside her apartment, Hitomi gets a call from her brother, who says he is just outside her apartment: nervously, she goes to the door, looks through the keyhole to confirm it's him, and opens the door—only to discover an empty hallway. In her hand, the phone starts making the death rattle noise again.
She flees to her bedroom, and crawls under the covers like a terrified child.
She: Oh, yeah, super safe now. “I need you to get under the covers. They’re coming to take you.”
Me: Everybody knows that you're safe in bed, as long as you don't dangle your feet over the edge.
She: [In a total non sequitur] I don't like that bedding.
My girlfriends complaints about Hitomi's logic and interior decorating aside, what I like about this scene is that Hitomi does everything that should make a person feel safe from imaginary threats: she's in her own apartment, the lights are on, and she turns the TV on for noise and comfort. But the ghosts in Ju-On don't play by those rules: technology is no barrier, as they proved with the phones, and as they prove again here by making Hitomi's TV reception go all squiggly and demonic.
She: Evil interference!
And the comfy bed—the place where we feel most safe and secure—proves to be no sanctuary. As Hitomi cowers beneath the covers, a lump slowly forms at her feet, and she lifts the blanket in terror.
She: HELL NO!
Me: Apparently not so safe. Which is weird.
She: Yeah, you'd think that bed thing would totally work.
Me: And suddenly I have a great idea for a prank to play on you when you're alone in bed.
She: Make no mistake: I will stab you in the fucking face.
The fourth vignette focuses on the police investigation led by Nakagawa (Hirokazu Inoue) after Rika is discovered in the house by her boss (Chikara Ishikura). She is alive—if traumatized—but she's discovered beside the body of Grandma, and Katsuya and Kazumi are found dead in the attic. This, the detectives explain, was also where Kayako's body was discovered, so many years ago. This leads the detectives to the cop who originally worked that case, a haunted man named Tôyama (Yôji Tanaka). They show Tôyama the security footage from Hitomi's building, and he watches the guard get drawn in by the black shape of Kayoko's ghost. And then he sees her dark silhouette walk towards the security camera, finally rising up slowly to stick her face right in the lens, staring out at him.
She: AH! THINGS YOU CAN'T UNSEE!
Meanwhile, Rika—who hasn't quite been through enough yet—wakens to discover that she has some visitors in her bedroom.
She: And now I'm never sleeping in a bed again, thanks.
Tôyama has the first good idea anyone has had in this entire film: to burn the motherfucking house DOWN. He sneaks in at night—not such a good idea—and starts spreading gasoline around. But he's interrupted by some voices coming from upstairs.
She: No! Keep going! Torch it!
But Tôyama must investigate. Suddenly it's daylight, and he sees a teenage girl (Misa Uehara) fleeing the house, and goes upstairs to discover several other teenage girls hanging out in an upstairs bedroom. (This, as will become clear in the next segment, is not actually happening now, but is Tôyama seeing into the future and getting a vision of how the curse will affect his own daughter, Izumi, and her friends.)
Suddenly the vision fades, and it's night again, and we hear the death rattle sound—and something worse. Kayako is coming, but she's dragging her broken, distorted body across the floor in a creepy crab crawl, and it sounds like her disjointed bones are rubbing against each other in unpleasant ways. She crawls down the stairs after him as he flees in terror.
She: That chick has some pretty serious chiropractic issues going on. Osteoporosis. Rickets. Something.
Me: What the hell are rickets, anyway? Do you even know?
She: I’m just saying, she doesn’t look good.
Kayako crabwalks her way down the stairs, just as the detectives burst in: it is they who become her victims, as Tôyama makes his escape from the house.
I'm going to skip quickly over the fifth vignette—and, for my money, the weakest one—which concerns Tôyama's daughter Izumi, who is glimpsed briefly as a child in the previous segment. It is several years later, and she is a teenager in a high school. As Tôyama's vision confirmed, she and three of her school friends had snuck into the "haunted" house as a gag, but Izumi had become scared and run away: the other three friends were never seen again. Now Izumi is in a deteriorating mental state, following the path of her father, who went crazy before he died, shutting himself in a room and covering the windows with newspaper. Some other classmates, picking up photographs from a school event, find that every photo of Izumi and the missing girls has their eyes blackened with evil.
She: Facebook it! Tag me!
Izumi has barricaded herself in her bedroom, having covered the windows up, but she awakens from a dream of her father to discover that the newspaper has torn away and her three missing schoolmates—now dead and ashen—are staring through the glass. They chase her through the house, before she is finally grabbed by Kayako, who emerges from the family shrine and pulls Izumi in.
The sixth and final segment circles back, full circle, to Rika, who is now volunteering at an old folk's home. One of her elderly patients, Mr. Saitô (Isao Yatsu), keeps playing peek-a-boo with someone he seems to see walking beside Rika.
She: The moral of this seems to be to listen to old people. When they start acting weird, it’s time to go.
Rika meets her friend Mariko (Kayoko Shibata) for lunch, but runs screaming from the restaurant when Toshio suddenly appears beneath the table. That night—in what is, perhaps, the most unsettling split-second in the film—Rika is in the shower, washing her hair, when she momentarily feels an extra set of fingers on her head.
She: And now I can't take a shower ever again. Thank you very much.
Me: I thought you'd like that.
Later that night, Mariko—a schoolteacher—calls Rika from the home of a pupil who hasn't been coming to school: the pupil, of course, is Toshio, and the home is the House of Evil. Rika rushes over to the house just in time to see Mariko getting pulled into the attic. Following her, Rika comes face to face with the crab-crawly version of Kayako.
Rika flees downstairs, but in a passing mirror catches a glimpse of herself as Kayako. Suddenly, Kayako seems to emerge from Rika herself, seeming to confirm that Rika is, somehow, turning into the dead woman. Finally, Kayako crawls down the stairs, followed shortly thereafter by the ghost of Takeo, who—presumably—does to Rika whatever it was he did to his wife. When last we see Rika, she is trussed up dead in the attic, but her long hair and complexion marks that she has somehow become Kayako; she opens her scary red eyes, to assure us that the curse will live on, and the movie comes to a close.
I've admitted that my first viewing of Ju-On scared me fairly thoroughly. On my second viewing, however, already knowing where the scares were, I was less impressed. The film is a bit of a one-trick pony: granted, it's a good trick—the sudden, unsettling appearance of those scary-ass ghosts—but each vignette is just designed to hit you with these images. In its focused, visceral delivery of scares, Ju-On is structured more or less exactly like a porno film, except each short segment is designed to creep you out rather than get you off.
But what did my girlfriend think of it?
She: They probably should have kept that tape on the closet door.
Me: You know, those ghosts could do pretty much anything. It doesn't seem to me like they would have a lot of trouble with tape.
She: It was holy tape.
Me: So otherwise, what did you think?
She: I don't know, actually. I don't know how I feel about that one. But maybe I just didn’t connect with the characters. I felt very removed. And I don’t know if that’s just an issue of it being a foreign film, and having to read subtitles.
Me: Maybe you just don’t like Japanese people.
She: Well, not creepy ashen Japanese ghosts, no.
Me: But that’s fair: you barely get to know any of the characters. There isn’t really a strong narrative; it’s just short stories designed to provide that short, intense experience, over and over again.
She: Yeah, so not my favorite. I feel like I was just shown a creepy image over and over again.
Me: It also bothered me more, watching it this time, that the things can just appear anywhere, and do anything. On the one hand, that makes it scary. But on the other hand, there are no rules, so there’s no sustained tension…It feels like it’s cheating, in a way.
She: Right, because no matter what you do, those things are going to pop up.
Me: Another thing that makes it different from most horror movies, I think, is that there's no moral compass. I mean, those people didn't do shit. None of them deserved what they got, for any reason.
She: Well, they went to the house.
Me: They just went to the house. They didn’t do anything wrong. Half of them were only there a minute.
She: But that’s enough.
Me: So your whole “get the fuck out” theory of horror movies doesn’t work here. They got the fuck out, and the creepy ass ghosts followed them home.
She: You have to get the fuck out quicker. Once you see it, or see one of the victims, then you’re done.
Me: So if you linger more than a second, you get evil on you? “Aw shit, I stepped in evil.”
She: Exactly. It’s like bedbugs. You can track them into your own home.
Me: So did it scare you?
She: It was creepy. The images were creepy as hell. The sounds were very effective. And I probably will have nightmares about that kid.
Me: Good, I’d hate to feel this was all a waste of time. But I think part of the problem is that I’m here, so you feel safe. Maybe in the future you should really watch these movies by yourself, in a dark room.
She: Yeah, I’m not going to be doing that.
Me: By the way, if you happen to see any ashen little Asian kids out of the corner of your eye as you walk through our apartment, you should probably mention that.
She: I won’t have time to mention anything. When you see me packing my shit, that’ll be your cue that I saw something.
Next for The Unenthusiastic Critic: We break format a little bit to have a serious conversation about a highly controversial recent movie, Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained.