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JU-ON: THE GRUDGE

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Okina Megumi, Ito Misaki, Uehara Misa, Ichikawa Yui
Director: Takashi Shimizu
Audio: Japanese Dolby Digital 5.1, English 2.0
Subtitles: English, Spanish
Video: Color, 16:9 anamorphic widescreen
Studio: Lions Gate
Features: Sami Raimi commentary, trailers, behind-the-scenes footage, cast and crew interviews, deleted scenes
Length: 92 minutes
Release Date: November 9, 2004

"Ju-On.  The curse of one who dies in a powerful rage.  Those who encounter it die, and a new curse is born."

Film ***

The original horror film Ju-On was a low-budget Japanese TV broadcast from 2000.  An atypical haunted house film, Ju-On focused upon a particularly evil home disrupted by the unresolved echoes of its ominous past and forever cursed to deliver certain death upon all who would dare to cross its threshold.  The film's success spawned a TV sequel, which in turn led to another sequel in 2003, this time a theatrical release.  This third film, called Ju-On: The Grudge, is the version most familiar (as simply Ju-On) to horror fans outside of Japan.  It was also the inspiration for the American remake, The Grudge, starring Sarah Michelle Gellar.

Ju-On can best be described as a non-linear jigsaw puzzle of interlocking vignettes.  Each episode is self-contained but drops various hints and names - a voice on the telephone or the ramblings of a senile woman, perhaps - which link it to a previous or upcoming storyline.  As a whole, the collection of anecdotes which comprise Ju-On are similar in spirit to traditional Japanese "unfinished" folk tales, whose most famous cinematic representation can be found in the classic Japanese horror film Kwaidan (1964).

The general story in Ju-On revolves around mysterious deaths and disappearances associated with the Tokunaga residence.  The film opens with a graphic but short prelude depicting a violent murder in this home.  Is this horrific crime perhaps the precipitating cause for the house's subsequent hauntings or merely another tragedy in a long string of disturbing occurrences at the home?

No concrete answer is provided as the film jumps forward an unspecified amount of time to its first real vignette, "Rika," a storyline involving a young welfare nurse (Okina Megumi).  One day, she arrives at the Tokunaga residence to call upon its current inhabitant, Ms. Sachie, a senile patient.  Rika is perplexed by the absence of anyone else in the unkempt home save for the rambling old woman.  While tidying up the house, Rika discovers the presence of a mysterious and creepy boy (previously glimpsed in the film's prelude) hiding in the house.  Soon thereafter, Rika will have reason to rue the day she entered the Tokunaga residence.

The second vignette, "Katsuya," is a step backwards in time.  Ms. Sachie provides a link between the storylines.  In this past storyline, the Tokunaga residence is a more tidy domicile occupied by the old woman's son Katsuya and his wife.  This storyline reveals the ultimate fate of the family, offering an explanation for the home's disheveled appearance by the point of Rika's arrival.

The third vignette, "Hitomi," jumps forward again into the present day and follows the activities of Katsuya's sister Hitomi (Ito Misaki) in a parallel chronology to the "Rika" storyline.  Following a brief visit to her brother's home, Hitomi begins to experience a series of strange and frightening events of her own.  A dark yet unrevealed threat seemingly shadows Hitomi's movements from her office to her apartment.

The fourth vignette, "Toyama," is actually a continuation of the "Rika" tale.  New faces also appear, including a crime scene investigator and a detective, Toyama, who years ago had investigated the murders depicted in Ju-On's prelude.

The fifth and sixth storylines, "Izumi" and "Kayako," take a leap into the future.  Izumi (Misa Uehara) is the grown daughter of Detective Toyama.  Years have transpired since the events shown earlier in the film, and yet the resonance of those tragedies continue to have grave repercussions for not only Izumi but also for her friends.  In this future setting, the "Rika" storyline also draws to a conclusion with a final visit to the condemned Tokunaga residence.

In terms of horror, Ju-On is an unusual film, relying more on primordial fears than on the blood-and-guts mentality commonly embraced in American productions.  There are essentially no special effects at all in Ju-On, which achieves its chills primarily through psychological means, albeit with an oriental twist.  Some of the Asian symbolism, such as creeping black hair (a traditional representation of horror or evil in Japanese culture) may even be lost on American audiences.

Of course, all this discussion about Ju-On begs the question how Ju-On compares with its Hollywood remake?  Well, The Grudge is a more polished product with much more evocative lighting, which makes a world of difference generally for the horror genre (in contrast, Ju-On is perhaps too brightly lit to be effectively scary for American audiences).  Makeup design is more frightening in The Grudge, which has a creepier aural environment, too.  Also, while The Grudge has received some criticism for its stars' performances, the film fares better in that category than does Ju-On, which has some occasionally stilted or campy acting, with Ito Misaki's Hitomi in particular seeming too bubbly and cheery.  Misa Uehara, however, is quite good as the freaked-out Izumi.

Where Ju-On is superior is in its more expansive story, which focuses more on the horrific aspects and less on the dull character development scenes that somewhat marred The Grudge.  Some sequences are a bit unintentionally humorous, but the film becomes decidedly creepier and definitely not so amusing further into the proceedings.  The two films are actually quite similar during the first half, with identical storylines and shot composition at times, but the second half of Ju-On introduces different storylines and does not prescribe to a tying-up-the-loose-ends finale as with typical Hollywood films.  The Grudge tried to wrap a conventional narrative around the non-linear elements of this Japanese story with mixed results.  The Grudge may be more gory and more intense, but ultimately, the Ju-On plays better within the context of Japanese societal fears, even if those cultural idiosyncrasies do not translate perfectly well into English.

In the final equation, viewers who did not like The Grudge will probably not care for Ju-On, either.  On an interesting note, though, director Takashi Shimizu directed both versions, as well as all the prior entries in the Ju-On franchise in Japan.  Viewers who enjoyed the American remake might find that this Ju-On film (actually, the third film in the series) offers many of the same thrills and a few extra surprises, too.

BONUS TRIVIA:  Takako Fuji has portrayed Kayako, the ghastly female spectre of Ju-On, in all the films of this horror franchise to date.

Video ***

Ju-On is shown in a 16:9 anamorphic widescreen format.  The transfer has been mastered at roughly 6 Mbps.  Skin tones are realistic, and the print shows little signs of defects or debris specks.  The video quality is fine but not too flashy.  The menu screens are a bit creepy, too!

Audio ***

There is an English 2.0 dub, although it is dreadful and really should be avoided.  Instead, stay with the Japanese Dolby Digital 5.1 track for Ju-On.  English subtitles are available but could have benefited from some extra proofreading.  The soundtrack is not particularly forceful and does not possess the polished sheen of typical Hollywood productions.  Still, the audio quality is adequate, considering the film's low budget.

Features ***

The features start off with a very informal commentary by gushing fanboys Sami Raimi and Scott Spiegel.  The two men frequently sound like a pair of frat brothers chugging down a few beers while having a blast getting spooked out by Ju-On.  They frequently hoot and laugh and utter exclamations of shock and surprise.  Occasionally, they even remember to voice a few actually insightful comments.  Raimi refers at times to The Grudge, which he was producing during the recording of this commentary, and both men allude to Raimi's past success in the horror genre.  In the end, they agree completely on one point - for them, Ju-On ranks among the top twenty horror films of all time.  Coming from a master of modern cult horror such as Raimi, that must be quite an endorsement.

The remaining bonus features are mostly in Japanese, but English subtitles are provided.  The most prominent features are three "Behind-the-Scenes" featurettes.  Hitomi (11 min.) looks at the filming of the "Hitomi" storyline at Hitomi's office and in her apartment.  It is interesting to see how relaxed and casual the atmosphere is on the set of this horror film.  Izumi and Chiharu (8 min.) follows the "Izumi" storyline, tracing the actresses from bubbly rehearsals and walkthroughs to the actual filming of the scenes.  Rika (10 min.) mostly follows the filming of the second half of the "Rika" storyline.  The candid camera essentially shadows actress Okina Megumi during actual filming and breaks, although she rarely speaks up or addresses the camera.  Much of this footage appears to have been shot on Okina Megumi's first day on the set.

Next, there are interviews with the cast and crew (10 min.).  This section starts with comments from director Takashi Shimizu, who discusses the premise and sub-text of the Ju-On films and his views on what makes them unique and frightening.  Female members of the cast - Megumi Okina, Misaki Ito, Misa Uehara, Yui Ichikawa - each briefly describe their individual characters, their movie debuts, and also their impressions of the director and working on the film.

Anyone with a hunger for more footage from Ju-On can check out the six deleted scenes, including an alternate ending, on the disc.  Each scene comes with commentary from Takashi Shimizu explaining the reason the scene was cut.  Available for viewing are a garden scene at the Tokunaga residence, and three extended sequences with Izumi and her mother, Izumi's friends, and then Izumi's mother alone arranging a small family altar.  Lastly, there is an extended shower sequence at Rika's home.

For horror fanboys, the disc offers trailers for the low-budget scream flicks Dagon and Undead as well as for Ju-On.

Finally, a small easter egg on the "Special Features" menu takes viewers to a single page with the DVD production credits.  It's not particularly interesting, though.

Summary:

Here's the lesson for the day - before buying a new home, be sure to research its history properly.  Otherwise, you might end up dead, just like the unfortunate souls in Ju-On!  This eerie little haunted house film is a creepy example of the psychological style of Japanese horror currently in vogue.  Check it out on a dark and rainy night!

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