In my quest to watch a whole mess of Korean films, I got sidetracked visiting a Japanese horror film. Of course, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that in my eyes, because I thoroughly enjoy Japanese cinema, and next to Korea, they have been producing some of the best scary movies of the past decade. Excluding the madness that is Audition, Ju-on is perhaps the most well known film to emerge from Japan's rise in horror popularity, mostly due to its being remade into the American film The Grudge, but also, because of its excellent composition, slow burning suspense and socially aware narrative. It is perhaps so popular, because it is not necessarily a horror film, as much as a narrative of societal distancing and the general dissonance of Japanese culture as it moved into the 21st century. Ju-on is incredibly scathing, but a cinematic spectacle that invites reference to all the great Japanese directs, including Kurosawa, Ozu and Suzuki. However, Takashi Shimuzu's film is its own work that invites a variety of different film criticisms and praises and as noted earlier helped to affect a revolution in horror filmmaking not only in Japan, but on a global scale as well. While not as universally known as Halloween or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre it, undoubtedly, has the same, if not greater, cultural presence.
Ju-on, as the title suggests, is a film about grudges, particularly those held by a vengeful ghosts. These ghosts, as the opening sequence of the film implies is that of a young child and his mother, who died at the hands of an abusive and drunk patriarchal figure. The result is that any person who comes in contact with the house containing the ghosts eventually dies at the hands of either one or both of these spectral beings. In some cases, the ghost manifests itself as a pale version of the mother and son, other times as a black cat, and in the most disturbing instances as a large smokey projection that only reflects a human in the vaguest of senses. The people who encounter the grudge ghost often have their own series of problems prior to engaging with the presence of the house. In once case it is a group of high school girls who dispense their time drinking and slacking off as opposed to pursing academics, another is a security guard who is flippant and unreceptive to the requests of others to investigate issues in a building. In other cases, the people who encounter the ghost often suffer from their own past failures, as is the case with a cop who was unable to save his family from an attack and thus harbors guilt over the situation. Ultimately, it suggests that the individuals who encounter Ju-on are to some degree receptive to the ghosts, because of some act or failure to act in their lives up to the point in the film. In fact, the only person who appears to be unaffected by the actions of the ghosts is a lone social worker Rika Nishina (Megumi Okina) who realizes the tragedy of the two ghosts deaths and makes an effort to console them, with a considerable amount of success. However, as is the case with most horror films Ju-on ends with an implication that the curse will continue and subsequent sequels have assured this fact.
As I mentioned in the introduction, Ju-on is certainly concerned with issues of societal disconnect within Japan. Despite the film depicting clear connections between each of the narratives shown, it is clear that their personal experiences are distanced. The characters who engage with one another are either unreceptive to the individuals around them or completely unaware of their interactions. This holds true for the young high school girls who are so preoccupied with their own popularity that they care little for the despair, and deepening madness, of their friend or their ultimate demise at the hands of the ghost. Even the detectives assigned to the case fail to be aware of the overarching issues of the case, and disregard any possibilities of supernatural interference, despite warnings from many individuals within the film. It is not until they encounter the ghost in person that they realize its validity, tragically, at this point neither are capable of escaping because they are frozen in disbelief and shock. Rika is the only one who manages to move through this world, but as noted, she was also the single person to notice a picture that implied murder that resulted in suffering souls. This all comes together as an astute social critique of peoples failures to notice a dissolving social unity in modern Japan. While it is not particularly easy to pinpoint a result to this decay it is clear that technology and lack of questioning the patriarchy play some role in this problem as both are continually commented on within the film. If this is indeed the case, it makes Rika's power as a heroine all the more pertinent.
Ju-on is a great movie and incredibly well composed. If you find yourself with some extra finances snag the DVD, you will not be disappointed.