Ju-On: The Grudge (2002)
Written & directed by Takashi Shimizu
One of the common themes I’ve seen in my look at J-horror thus far is an exploration of loneliness and a focus on the victimization of women & children. If you’re making existential horror in Japan, then it makes sense there will be some big ideas to tackle. They apply to almost every nation on Earth, but these movies look at them from the Japanese perspective. This movie is also a weird anomaly in that many viewers assume it’s the first in the Grudge franchise but is actually the third picture, just the first to get a theatrical release. You wouldn’t know it by watching Ju-On as one of its strengths is that it slowly lays out the core haunting and the bits of history behind it. It’s a franchise encompassing 13 films, including the horribly bad 2020 sequel. The less said about that one, the better.
The film opens with social worker Rika (Megumi Okina) being sent to a home in Tokyo to care for an elderly housebound woman. Rika discovers the house in complete disarray and the woman in a near-catatonic state. After some exploration, the social worker comes across a cat and little boy hiding in an upstairs closet. She freaks out and rushes downstairs only to see a ghost with long black hair sucking the life from the old woman. The film breaks with linear progression and jumps back to show us the old woman’s son and his wife who used to live there. They, too, encounter strange occurrences and entities until they are killed. The haunting passes on to the wife’s sister, and she’s eventually found dead in her apartment. The movie ultimately makes its way back to Rika, where the police have gotten involved. The two detectives investigating seek out Toyama (Misaki Ito), a retired detective whose last case was about this strange house. He becomes involved in the investigation only to end up dead. This progression of evil makes its way back to Rita, who summons up the courage to revisit the home and try and bring this seemingly unending nightmare to an end.
I can’t say I was a massive fan of Ju-On as a final product, but the ideas it was presenting, and themes it wanted to explore did appeal to me. I think the disjointed nature of the narrative, presented almost as an anthology with interconnected stories, felt like the story was being reset every ten minutes. In turn, that made it hard to become attached to any characters because it didn’t seem like Rika would play much of a role beyond the first act of the movie. Toyama’s teenage daughter Izumi suddenly gets the spotlight in the second act, only to become yet another victim before Rika is reintroduced.
But Ju-On is a fantastic exploration of the theme of vanishing victims. The camera lingers on missing person posters throughout the film as characters pass by, lost in conversation. Director Takashi Shimizu sets his haunted house story not in the rural environs we often expect from those tales but in the heart of a bustling major city. The story of this house is all about victims whose deaths were ignored and forgotten, likely the reason they are so filled with rage in death. Rika arrives at a home that appears nice from the exterior but reeks of trash that’s been sitting around for who knows how long. We later see that the police are aware an elderly woman is now living in the house unassisted, but it’s clear a considerable amount of time passes before social services are sent in. These houses are crowded together, so why hasn’t a neighbor stepped in at this point?
One justification for the fragmented nature of the narrative is that it reflects the collapse of the social bond. Cities and cultures have grown to such massive sizes because, at one point long ago, a group of people agreed to live in cooperation with each other. Now that these cities are overflowing with millions and new people are coming in every day, those social bonds have broken apart. As a result, life in urban spaces is often Darwinian, every person for themselves and most people keeping their heads down, staying out of others’ business.
The deadly specters skulking around the movie feed on this isolation. Victims aren’t immediately killed by the entities; instead, a sense of depression creeps in, causing the people to isolate themselves. They can be in the shower or lying in bed when the ghosts like to strike. That creates unease for the viewer because even in the places we expect to be the safest, we are actually sitting ducks for this incomprehensibly angry spirit. This seems to reflect the ghost’s anger over being so brutalized by someone they loved in a place that was meant to be their home. If they could not have that peace of mind, then they believe no one can and will make sure as many people suffer as possible. We don’t see the killing that is the source of these events, but during the opening credits, we’re shown just enough to understand how violent they transpired. The original victims were a mother and child, two people that can easily be stepped all over in an overcrowded society.
Reflecting back on Audition, the source of evil at the heart of that movie was another young woman victimized by unfeeling men. These abuses give justification to some extent; it makes sense why these women lash out with such unbridled anger. How could you not when having gone face to face with the cruelty of society in such a way? The very nature of this curse to just keep going, spreading into other homes, indicates how cycles of abuse & violence occur naturally in society. Those who are abused often grow up to become abusers, the experience of having so little power pushes them into desiring to offload their pain into another person. As Ju-On shows, this never works out and just results in abject misery, something that the more it devours, the hungrier it becomes.
I don’t hold Ju-On up as my favorite of these J-horror movies, but I certainly respect the hell out of it for bringing up these ideas. A straight film about abuse just wouldn’t have the impact a horror film would; the anger the mother and child feel is best expressed as this phantasmagorical force of nature, tearing through people and their lives. You almost get the sense that these ghosts derive a sick pleasure from what they do to people, the little boy quietly contemplating all the details while his mother moves into place and exacts her revenge. Ju-On is a revenge story where the victimizer is already dead, yet the ones he harmed can’t stop wanting to relive that pain and suffering again & again.