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Review: ‘Ju On: The Grudge’ (2002) – Mythos and Murder

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Review: 'Ju On: The Grudge' (2002) - Mythos and Murder

To somebody who’s not a horror fan, the whole genre might seem kinda impenetrable sometimes. There are so many sequels and subgenres, so much history involved. And there are always new, great horror films coming out. How do you immerse yourself in a genre that’s always changing, and has existed for as long as movies?  How do you become a horror fan now? It must feel like boarding a moving train.

Perhaps a more optimistic metaphor, and one that better suits the hopeful horror fanatic might be: It will feel like jumping into a pool. There’s still hope. And there’s no fear of drowning, because there are so many resources available. The internet is filled with encyclopedic references and articles about any and every scary movie ever. So take the plunge. You may find yourself doing a little research when you get there, but it’s so easy to do these days.

That research can be one of the best parts of horror fandom. Seeing the connections and context makes viewing a much more rich and rewarding experience. Especially because this genre is a monster that’s constantly building on itself. With a proper understanding of its foundations and origins, you can trace an entire lineage up to any given movie. Psycho begets Halloween which leads to Friday the 13th which gets referenced in Scream. It’s a very incestuous part of film history, and it’s very hydra-like in the way the branches of the Horror Family Tree constantly bifurcate and sprout new franchises. But most movies can be followed back through their influences to a defining work. Or, even better, you’ll find that a movie is completely without precedent, a fatherless little anomaly of a movie, although that’s extremely rare.

Regardless of one’s findings, it’s crucial to ask questions. If you’re truly going to engage with horror, that curiosity will only lead to further curiosity. Through what lens can I best understand this movie? Is there an anthropological study that would clue me in to what the filmmaker is pointing at? Does this movie’s country of origin have anything to do with what makes it scary?

Takashi Shimizu’s 2002 Japanese horror film Ju-On: The Grudge is as successful as it is eccentric. Or, at least it was at the time. Looking back on it, eighteen years later, it’s clear that the original is muddied by subsequent imitation and parody. Look past that though, and you have a real gem of a movie. Ju-On is a truly innovative, scary movie that frightens viewers in at-the-time new and exciting ways. In 2020, well after the J-horror wave has crashed and receded, Ju-On: The Grudge stands in its wake as a film that can still upset and surprise its viewers.

Ju On The Grudge Movie Image 1

It’s crazy to think back to a time when The Grudge wasn’t a monumental cash cow of a horror franchise. In the years since Ju-On’s 2002 release, the series has racked up an additional ten films, each with differing results. The movie has been remade for American audiences. There have been sequels to the remake. The remake has been rebooted. There’s been a crossover movie with The Ring series. Ju-On has well outgrown its humble beginnings, and become a brand, with its own iconography and associated imagery.

But cycle back to the first big film in the series, Ju-On: The Grudge. It’s a movie that raises a lot of questions, with or without the context of eighteen years-worth of sequels and remakes. What exactly are these ghosts? Are they from Japanese mythology? Or is there some real-world inspiration for these characters and scares? Because the iconography of this movie was so unique, it’d be easy to assume that the imagery is all completely original unto itself. But dig just a little bit deeper, and you’ll begin peeling back layer after layer of information about the story’s foundations.

Ju-On: The Grudge isn’t the first time we see the series’ iconic images. It’s not even the first feature film to showcase them. That honor is held by the previously released Ju-On: The Curse, released in 2000, which then saw a sequel that same year. But the threads of Ju-On: The Grudge reach even further back still, with two earlier short films establishing the beats that would be further explored in the rest of the series.

Ju On The Grudge Movie Image 2

Katasumi and 4444444444 are both super low-budget short films directed by series-creator Takashi Shimizu in 1998. The then-student was commissioned to produce the two shorts for a TV anthology called Gakkô no kaidan G. Shimizu was able to secure the opportunity through his professor, filmmaker Kiyoshi Kurosawa. Kurosawa, notably the writer and director of Kairo (remade in the States as Pulse), was impressed by an earlier horror student film Shimizu produced for class.

Katasumi is the story of two young friends volunteering to tend to their school’s pet rabbits. While they’re working, one of the girls cuts her hand and immediately begins bleeding quite badly. The other friend elects to go into the school building to get a bandage from the nurse’s office. When she returns, however, she discovers her injured friend is missing. Stranger still, the rabbit cages are all empty, with even more blood and fur all over the area. As the bandage-bearing friend searches for her missing classmate, a strange, crawling woman watches from afar. Just as the girl finds her friend’s body, the crawling woman approaches. The screen fades, doom draws nearer, and we are left unsure of the girl’s final fate.

4444444444, on the other hand, tells the simple tale of a young man who finds a cell phone. He seems to be walking home when he hears a phone ringing. After a little bit of searching, he finds the source, but the call seems to be coming from a number that’s just ten 4’s in a row. Confused, he picks up anyway. He tells the caller it’s not his phone. The only response over the line is a super unsettling meowing from the other end. The man tries best to rationalize the admittedly unsettling event, at first assuming that it’s some sort of prank call. But as he continues the conversation, the meowing escalates, and our protagonist becomes more and more frightened. He hangs up, but the same number dials back immediately. He answers, and asks “Are you watching me?” A voice answers “I am,” but the sound isn’t coming from the phone. Very suddenly, right next to our main character is sat a very pale boy drumming his fingers on his knee caps. We smash  cut to a super zoomed-in shot of the little boy, as black goo drips from his mouth while a final weird cat-like yell is uttered.

They’re both bare-bones but effective. They deliver. They’re only about three-and-a-half-minutes each. You ought to watch them. Because most importantly, these two short films (both available on YouTube in abysmal 240p quality) are the origins of two of the most iconic images associated with the Grudge franchise.

The crawling woman and the pale boy aren’t named in their respective shorts. But by the time of Ju-On: The Grudge, they have both names and fully fleshed-out stories. The woman is named Kayako, and she’s played by Takako Fuji.  Fuji studied acting at Aoyama Gakuin University, but it’s her training as a ballet dancer and contortionist that best characterizes the Kayako character. It’s incredible just how much Fuji can unsettle with simple body movements. You can tell that this is an actress with a deep understanding of kinesiology, as she subverts human movement to create a completely otherworldly way to move across the screen.

The pale boy here is played by Daiki Sawada. There’s not much for him to do except be creepy, but the kid does that remarkably well. The patience he exudes just sitting there and drumming his fingers on his knees works so well as a disquieting little detail. Most of the fright though is from the fact that this little boy is making these weird disembodied cat noises. This would, of course, become one of the true calling cards of the Grudge series.

Fast-forward to Ju-On: The Grudge in 2002, the first theatrical release in the series. This movie uses an anthological structure to explore and expand some of the mythos introduced with Katasumi and4444444444. Each entry in the movie, each block of story is dedicated to one of the hapless people who end up haunted by the two beings from the shorts. It’s in the movie’s introduction that we learn who they are, and more importantly, why they’re ghosts. The woman, Kayako, is married to a man named Takeo, and together, they have a son named Toshio. Toshio is seen with his pet black cat, here named Mar. In a fit of violent rage, Takeo murders his wife and son. It’s this rage that traps the spirits of Kayako and Toshio, creating a curse that makes them haunt their house long after they’ve died.

From there, it’s much easier to understand the plot of Ju-On: The Grudge if you look at it like a haunted house movie. The key difference is that the curse itself affects anybody who enters the house long enough, and will even follow them if they leave.

So by the time Ju-On: The Grudge is released, there’s already this deep mythology explaining the curse and the ghosts, and the movie recaps it all in the first few moments. But the idea of the story building upon something from the past is what makes it such a rich experience. There is so much text to explore, with the films, the shorts, the sequels that would come afterwards. There is a lot to learn about and a lot of twists and turns. But this very fleshed-out and lived-in mythology is why Ju-On: The Grudge works so well. It’s not just some random ghosts haunting random people. It’s a fully developed curse trapping these two souls, Kayako and Toshio, in the moment of rage that ended their lives.

Ju-On: The Grudge is available for free on the Tubi app. It’s also available to watch as part of your Amazon Prime subscription.

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