Japanese Film Reviews #9: Takashi Shimizu’s JU-ON

This installment discusses Shimizu Takashi’s 2000 hit JU-ON.

J-Horror Classics – Shimizu Takashi’s JU-ON: THE GRUDGE

Despite the popularity of the 1998 RING, by 2000 it seemed like the Japanese horror boom had ended. At least, no films had been released that really could rival Nakata’s smash hit. In February, Shimizu Takashi released a straight-to-video film called JU-ON: THE CURSE. The production company expected it to a quick cash-in on the horror genre, nothing more. But Ju-On quickly became an underground hit much like The Ring had before it. The straight-to-video production of Ju-On had been made for the diehard purists, the kind of horror fans who line up to see movies on opening nights and whatnot. Realizing they could make a lot more on Ju-On, the studio funded a theatrical remake of the Ju-On which was released in theaters in January 2003 (This has been released in America as JU-ON: THE GRUDGE to distinguish itself from its predessor). The theatrical remake doesn’t offer too many changes to the original Ju-On story and has preserved the non-linear storyline that is a staple within the series. The only real change was the creation of the main character Nishina Rika, played by Okina Megumi. In fact, the roots of Ju-On can be traced all the way back to 1998.

Shimizu Takashi was still a young, inexperienced writer/director and he was hired to work on the made-for-TV Gakkou no Kaidan G (or Haunted School G). Ultimately, the producers hired him to write and direct two 3-minute pieces for the series. The first segment, called ‘4444444444,’ is about a high school student who receives a mysterious phone call from the number 444444444. As some of you may know, 4 or ‘shi’ is a homonym for the Japanese word for death and considered extremely unlucky in Japan. The boy finally gets the courage to answer his phone, but all he hears is a cat meowing. He turns to see a ghostly boy behind him, blood oozing from his mouth. Anyone who has seen the 2000 television of Ju-On will recognize the mysterious phone number from Kuriyama Chiaki’s scene in the empty school and, or course, will remember the freakishly scary little boy, Toshio.

In the second segment Shimizu created for Gakkou no Kaidan G, called ‘In the Corner,’ two high school girls go to school to feed their class rabbit. One girl leaves only to return finding her friend and the rabbit murdered. She then sees a woman, dressed in white with her hair covering her face, crawling towards her. Though unnamed, both the boy and the woman ghosts in these segments are none other than Toshio and Kayako themselves. Shimizu Takashi was so attached to his terrifying creations that he cast the same actress to play Kayako in all of his subsequent Ju-On installments.

Why exactly is Ju-On so scary? In my opinion, I think it is because Shimizu Takashi has refined the viral element of Japanese ghosts and curses to its most terrifying. The viral nature in which curses spread is another extremely common component of Japanese horror. In The Ring, Sadako spreads her curse through a video, the deadly equivalent of a ghostly chain letter. In Chakushin Ari (One Missed Call) death spreads through the cell phones of the victims. In Ju-On, anyone unfortunate to enter the cursed house is guaranteed a horrifying death. In later editions of the series, the curse of the house gains the ability to move beyond the confines of a single piece of real estate and begins attacked the family members of anyone associated with the house. Furthermore, unlike in The Ring, there isn’t even a possibility of reasoning with the angry spectors. They don’t want their story to be told, they don’t want to be helped – they just want to spread the pain and terror that they have suffered to others.

Adding to the sense of dread within Ju-On, Shimizu Takashi refused to abide by standard horror movie conventions. The characters are just as vulnerable during the middle of the day as they are at night. Hiding under your bed sheets won’t help nor will being in the company of a loved one. And getting out of the house won’t help you escape the terrible curse. In short, you’re screwed and there is nothing you can do about it. Not to mention the fact that Shimizu Takashi has created one of the most disturbing noises in any horror film, the raspy moan of the strangled Kayako and the inhuman yowl of Toshio and his pet cat (who was also murdered and, therefore, also angry enough to kill anyone it comes in contact with).

But most importantly, Ju-On is a fantastically well-made film that gives the audience what it wants without being boring. This is in no small part due to the strong writing and directing of Shimizu Takashi. Ju-On employs a non-liner narrative to tell the story, which forces the audience to piece together the details of the plot as the scenes jump backward and forward through time. The film is not only scary, but it forces the audience to pay attention and play an active role as an observer while watching it. Another impressive fact is that Shimizu was able to shoot Ju-On AND the sequel Ju-On 2 in only 9 days. Later, he would repeat this accomplishment by filming Marebito in only 8 days in 2004, which is very different from Ju-On but also my favorite film by Shimizu Takashi.

Ju-On also presents the same microcosm of Japanese society I discussed in my previous entry about The Ring. However, Ju-On stays away from the horror movie conventions employed by its predecessor, such as psychic powers or hermaphrodites. Instead, Shimizu draws the terror of the film out of a domestic crime so terrible that it leaves a deadly stain on the house in which it occurred. Much like Sadako, Kayako is a woman who denies her traditional role within society. However, Kayako’s deviation is much more negative than Sadako, who is clearly a victim of the unfortunate circumstances of her life. Kayako betrays her family and fails to fulfill her duties as a mother due to an unhealthy obsession with her son’s homeroom teacher. This betrayal leads to her brutal murder at the hands of her enraged husband, Takeo. The man also drowns his own son and the pet cat before hanging himself. Their brutal murders lead to a curse that spreads the pain and rage of their death onto everybody.

In comparison to the awful husband Iyemon in the Japanese classic Yotsuya Kaidan who killed his unoffending wife for no reason other than he was tired of her, Kayako is definitely guilty of some marital infidelity. However, her transgressions hardly merits the awful punishment exacted upon her by her husband, much like the revenge Yamazaki Asami extracts from Aoyama in Miike Takashi’s Audition. The curse in Ju-On not only represents the awful consequences of deviations from the family structure for both the individual and the society as a whole but also demonstrates the tragic consequences that Japanese society will face if it cannot adapt to the changes that are occurring within the modern family structure.

By this point it should be apparent that vengeful female ghosts are a common theme throughout the Japanese horror genre. When asked why this is the case, Shimizu Takashi has been quoted saying, “I think that men physically are very strong and women are weak, but inside, like a mother’s instinct, women are really strong inside. Psychologically and mentally, women are a lot stronger than men, so when it’s a serial-killer-type violent movie it may make the audience more scared [to have a male villain], but with a woman as a ghost it’s scarier, because she looks like us physically but inside she has lots of strength, and that’s what makes it really scary subconsciously.” Whatever the reason, Shimizu Takashi has created some of the most terrifying apparitions in all of horror cinema, be it Japanese or American.

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