HIROHASHI: Thanks for the effort.
I love a good horror movie. Fans of the genre know that quality horror movies are few and far between but we persist precisely for movies like this.
As a fan, I don’t scare easily. I have laughed my way through everything from Texas Chain Saw Massacre (imagine the final chase scene with Benny Hill music playing — absolutely hilarious) to Dawn of the Dead (there’s something about that bad 70’s make-up that makes me giggle). But there was no laughing with Ju-on.
The movie gives us a haunted house. Ju-on roughly translates as “Curse” or “Grudge” (as the Hollywood remake was called) — with this curse created by murdered Kayako Shibata (Mariko), killed by her husband and now exacting post-mortem revenge on the world. Anyone who comes in contact with the house is cursed and they can then pass that curse onto others. So it’s really a domino effect of supernatural badness.
But what makes this movie so different to every other fright-fest out there? Ju-on was originally made as two short, straight-to-video releases on a tiny budget. The consequent minimalism was maintained when Shimizu turned the two shorts into the theatrical release. So Ju-on focuses very tightly on characters and a small number of extremely creepy locations. Most of the movie is set in the one haunted house in Nerima, a suburb of Tokyo, and as the movie goes on and it becomes clearer how the curse works, there is a tension associated with anyone entering the house. As different characters are drawn towards it, we will them not to knock on the door, to ignore the voice of the ghostly little boy, to walk away and stay safe. My reaction to this house reminds me of the first time I watched Psycho as a young teenager — practically pleading with Sam and Lila not to go into the basement. You know that the danger is entirely avoidable, though few characters ever manage to avoid it, of course.
When I first watched this movie it was on those old VCDs you used to buy in Asia before DVDs had conquered the world. So my new wife and I were sitting in a dark room and when we came to the end of the first VCD the whole room went black. Neither of us would move. Sure, we wanted to know what happened but how could we be sure that there wasn’t a dangerously quiet ten-year-old waiting in the darkness to pass on the curse and send his vengeful mother after us? The truth was that we couldn’t, but I manned-up, changed the disc and was all the more surprised when things got much scarier.
One of the really disturbing elements of Ju-on is the way that certain horror movie tropes are ignored. Almost all great horror stories take place at night — if not the entire movie then certainly the pivotal moments. Daylight is a time of relative safety in the horror world. Not so here. Kayako strikes people in the middle of the day — once cursed there is no place of refuge. But the coup de grace occurs when Kayako has pursued her target (Megumi Okina) through the streets and then along the corridors of Rika’s apartment block all the while making an unsettling croaking noise. Rika runs into her apartment and pulls the bed covers over her head. In a scene surely calculated to terrify everyone even more, Kayako crawls out from under the bedcovers and kills Rika. My wife maintains that this scene is just pure sadism on the part of the director against his audience.
Like all great movies it is hard to explain the appeal of Ju-on. It is clever, suspenseful and terrifying in equal measure, and avoids the melodramatic theatricality which makes so many horror movies laughable.
If you only watch one Japanese horror movie this year, make it Ju-on.
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Starring: Megumi Okina, Misaki Itô, Misa Uehara, Mariko