Watching Japanese movies with the lights off. GAH.
This week I’m thinking to finally focus a little more on some foreign horror. I know I’ve talked about a couple of foreign horror films – Nosferatu, Them, Troll 2 which may as well have been foreign – but mostly I’ve been focusing on American made movies. This week, that all changes.
While tomorrow I’ll be shifting over to the Italians, tonight I’m going to kick things off with a Japanese movie: 2002’s haunted house scare piece Ju-on: The Grudge. Later this week (or maybe next week since we’re busy) my roommate Margie is gonna come back and talk about Japanese horror movies and give a little bit of cultural context. For now though, I’m just going to talk about how scared I am.
It’s been a while since I watched any Japanese horror films actually. No really good reason why. I think I maybe just hit a saturation point a while back and kind of moved on. After subjecting myself to Entrails of a Beautiful Woman, I needed a break. Yeah… that happened. Don’t ask. Please.
I first got into Japanese horror in 2002 when the American remake of The Ring came out. Same year as The Grudge actually. Which is not a coincidence. After watching the Naomi Watts Ring, I became really curious to see what this Japanese thing was all about. I actually still like the American remake of Ring, it’s a good horror movie, and that’s why I was so curious about the originals. So I started off hunting down a copy of Ringu, enjoyed that, and sought out more. Ju-on was actually maybe only the second or third movie I found. I read about it online where everyone was talking about how terrifying it was. Scarier than The Ring even. Obviously I had to see it. It also wasn’t available in the states yet.
My copy might be region coded for Macau. It’s not the only one though. My copy of Battle Royale is region 2. Dark Water is 2 or 3. I have no idea what region my copy of the excellent Korean made A Tale of Two Sisters is from. I feel like it was a lot harder to get these movies back then, the early 2000’s. Is it really easier now? I mean, all of these films are available on Region 1 now. Or was I just super impatient and now I’m not as on top of what new films are happening?
I’ve watched a lot of Japanese horror by the way. Some Chinese, a little of Korean. But mostly Japanese.
Ju-on: The Grudge – Japan, 2002. Dir. Takashi Shimizu. Starring Megumi Okina, Misaki Ito, Misa Uehara.
I decided to re-watch Ju-on mostly because it had been so long. When I first watched this movie, huddled over my laptop because it was the only way I could play a non-US DVD, in my dark living room back in South Florida, I remember thinking at the end that it was one of the scariest movies I’d ever seen. Forget The Exorcist, this thing was the real deal. I had nightmares for a week. At age 20.
Tonight, as I prepared to watch it again, I wondered if it would hold up. Or would it, like so many movies I’ve revisited this month, seem silly and contrived?
And what the hell is it about this movie that’s so scary anyway?
Well, to answer the first question, yeah, it holds up. This movie still has me sitting now, twenty minutes later, completely jumpy and creeped out.
Like I said, watching a Japanese horror movie in the dark. GAH.
Even the menu creeped me out.
I’m sure a lot of you are probably familiar with if not Ju-on, then it’s American remake starring Sarah Michelle Geller and called simply The Grudge. I’ve actually seen that one as well and while it is by the same director, follows much of the plot, and even takes place in Japan, I find that one to be more forgettable than terrifying. Maybe because I had seen a lot of it before, maybe because something was lost in translation, I don’t really know. It certainly had its moments and it even brought something new to the table storywise, it just isn’t the same. It doesn’t live up to this original.
Ju-on is ostensibly a haunted house story. It’s about a grudge, or curse, that is born after a family meets a gruesome end. From that point on, anyone who enters their home where the deaths occurred then becomes themselves cursed. It’s self-perpetuating and all consuming. An infection that spreads with no cure, destroying families across generations and transcending time itself. There is no escaping this curse. For some the end will come quickly. For others the curse will linger, years may pass even, but still it will come. As I said, there is no escape. There is no help. There is no hope.
It’s a bleak story and there is a feeling of genuine tragedy to it. There’s so much anger, sadness, and terror expressed in this movie. While the acting is occasionally cheesy (or at least, different than what we may be used to), the emotions are rich. That so many of the characters are connected – husbands & wives, brothers & sisters, fathers & children – only serves to make it all the more poignant. It adds something to the horror I think.
The jump scares are there too of course, the flashes you catch at the edge of the frame, the quick reflection in a mirror or window, the shadow through a door. It’s not the visuals that make this movie so effective though. In a very visceral sense, it’s the sounds.
The sounds of this movie are not uncommon ones. They are nails scratching on glass, a cat crying, the sound of bones cracking, paper crinkling, stairs creaking… that weird noise you make in the back of your throat if you yawn funny… they’re all things we hear all the time and yet here they are combined in such a menacing way that once the movie ends, you’ll be effectively jumping at the drop of hat. Because you just heard a hat drop and that meant something terrible was standing right behind you.
It’s when these movies make use of the everyday, the seemingly inane and harmless, that they really make an impression. If a movie makes the crinkling of a candy wrapper menacing, the ring of cell phone signify a threat, if it takes away the safety of hiding in our own beds… nowhere is safe, nothing is sacred.
This movie isn’t perfect by any means. Some things just don’t translate across cultures. Others are genuinely confusing. The narrative is non-linear and the timeline becomes increasingly convoluted as the movie gets closer to the end. That it’s intentional is not a question, whether or not it works is another thing entirely. I don’t think that’s necessarily an issue of the movie not holding up though, I think that’s just a function of having seen it before and having had the mystery removed. Once you know where the scares are, the viewing experience changes regardless of whether or not the movie is any good.
Once you know what happens, you’ll never be scared in the same way again. That’s just the nature of the beast.
I’m starting to ramble though and I’ve already gone on long here. Plus, I want to watch another movie before bed. I know, I’m crazy.
So I’ll leave you with this. If you’ve never seen Ju-on and you like legitimately scary ghost stories, you should check it out. Maybe its cultural moment has passed, I don’t know. Either way, it’s good for a few jumps. If you’re anything like me with the haunted house movies, it’ll leave you twitching. The mark of good scary movie, don’t you think?