In 2000, writer-director Takashi Shimizu was responsible for two 'made for video' horror films, JU-ON and JU-ON II. The films garnered a considerable following and, after directing the second TOMIE sequel (TOMIE: REBIRTH) in 2001, Shimizu decided to remake the films for a theatrical release in 2002. The result, JU-ON: THE GRUDGE to give it its full title, supposedly opened in a single cinema before becoming a great success, inevitably leading to comparisons with Hideo Nakata's RING (1998). Indeed, the comparison seems just given the quick-fire release of JU-ON: THE GRUDGE II (2003), which has recently been released in Japan and brings the series up to four films in three years. Not only that, but JU-ON looks like being the latest Japanese film to be bought up for an American remake (Sam Raimi is rumoured to be involved). And as if that wasn't enough, one of the film's two credited 'creative consultants' is RING screenwriter Hiroshi Takahashi (the other being one of my favourite Japanese directors, Kiyoshi Kurosawa). Given all of the above, one sits down to watch the film with higher than usual expectations...
Volunteer social worker Rika Nishina (Megumi Okina, also the star of the original JU-ON) becomes involved with a mysterious case... The Tokunaga household includes an elderly woman called Sachie. When the social worker assigned to her fails to report in to work, Rika is asked to visit Sachie in his stead. When she arrives at the house, Sachie behaves strangely. Rika finds a young boy upstairs, shut in a closet. She reports to her superiors on the phone, then witnesses something strange happening to the old woman. Next, we are introduced to Sachie's son and daughter-in-law, Katsuya and Kazumi. When Katsuya returns from work he finds Kazumi collapsed on the bed, before seeing the same little boy Rika saw. Katsuya's sister, Hitomi, arrives at the house, only to find Katsuya in a state of anxiety. She reluctantly leaves, and the film continues in this way, introducing characters and showing what happens to them, whilst gradually revealing the background to the house and the little boy.
Probably the biggest problem with the film is its episodic structure. There are six 'chapters' in the film, each named after the main character who will feature in that chapter. Obviously, this presents difficulties in that it's very hard for an audience to empathise with a character or to care about their fate when they're only on screen for a small segment of the film. Additionally, it means that the narrative is inherently fragmented – this is compounded by the fact that that narrative is weak at best, and really makes very little sense if one stops to think about it for any length of time. It is also very difficult to build any sense of tension or foreboding, as no segment is really long enough to work in such a subtle way. Having said that, there are some genuinely creepy moments – the scene involving the fate of a security guard (voyeuristically viewed by both Hitomi and us the audience through a CCTV camera) is especially well-handled, if perhaps too reminiscent of the famous denouement of the original RING. There is no gore or violence in the film, and Shimizu relies solely on atmosphere and brief shots of things like the ghostly boy or a bed covered in cats too scare the audience. This will either work well or irritate, depending on the viewer's personal appetite for yet more crawling, slow-moving, long-haired ghostly women and suchlike.
To say I was disappointed with the film seems a little harsh, but I can't really think of any way around it. It's attractively filmed, well acted and fairly scary, but in the end this is no RING or DARK WATER, and compared to the best of Shimizu's mentor Kiyoshi Kurosawa's work in the horror genre (CURE or KAIRO) it pales into insignificance. If you are simply looking for a creepy Japanese film then JU-ON is entertaining enough. If however, you want to experience more films of the caliber of RING or CURE then you'll really have to look elsewhere.
Note: The two original JU-ON films are available on DVD in Japan, as is the JU-ON under review. All three are unsubtitled.