Thursday, June 18, 2009

Takashi Shimizu's Ju-on 1 & 2 (2000)

The origin of Ju-on began with a couple of shorts, directed by Takashi Shimizu in 1998. In 2000, Shimizu would shoot Ju-on: The Curse 1 & 2 for the V-cinema market (e.g. direct-to-video) in Japan. With a larger budget and a more linear storyline, Ju-on: The Grudge (2002) was released theatrically in Japan, followed a year later by Ju-on: The Grudge 2 (2003). Hollywood smelled blood and asked Shimizu to remake Ju-on: The Grudge for an American audience as simply The Grudge (2004). That film was so "ka-ching"-alicious that Hollywood asked for another from Shimizu, The Grudge 2 (2006), a true abomination of cinema, in which Amber Tamblyn and Edison Chen compete for the film's worst performance, surrounded by total unenthusiasm from all, including Shimizu. The Grudge suffers from the linear storytelling of Ju-on: The Grudge, but as Saturday afternoon matinees, neither really disappoints. Ju-on: The Grudge 2 is standout and a lot of fun: Shimizu presents the tale of a paranormal team investigation, which is a combination of old school "haunted house" scares and Scooby Doo. While Shimizu may be done helming the Ju-on flicks, the American market is not, as Toby Wilkins's The Grudge 3 was released straight to dvd this year. Japan is also seemingly far from putting the Ju-on series to bed, as well. But back to the beginning, beyond the short, to the original Ju-on: The Curse 1 & 2. Virtually no money is seen anywhere in this production nor is there any high-gloss (shot on video) nor is there a lot of sweeping visual flourishes (lots of still shots). In fact, there's no traditional narrative--no three-act structure nor a real protagonist. Ju-on has some pretty bad acting, at times, to boot. The film(s) does have, however, a talented director, who would show a lot of that talent further in Marebito (2004), his J-horror comedy tv show, The Great Horror Family (2004), and Reincarnation (2005). Most surprisingly, perhaps, is that Ju-on is scary creepy. Modern Tokyo has never seemed so familiar, like any other modern city, and while its population gets on and off the subway, goes to work and comes home to dinner or to go shopping or watch t.v., a real anger and resentment flows quietly through a few unfortunate folks in the form of a supernatural entity. Shimizu captures these emotions through a series of short and connected episodes across Ju-on 1 & 2.

Ju-on begins with a title sequence which explains the phenomenon--one who dies in anger and resentment creates a curse and plagues the living by perpetuating the curse (as it seemingly never ends). Gary Ashiya's fantastic and low-key score follows an unknown woman descending the stairs from the subway platform. The woman passes a house while walking in an alleyway and she stops abruptly. A sense of dread is seen in her face upon viewing the house. "Toshio" begins as the first episode. A young man in a suit arrives at his apartment home to his pregnant wife. After dinner, he opens his files and makes a telephone call and receives no answer. It's revealed in dialogue with his wife that the young man is a teacher named Kobayashi. The file he has open in front of him is for student, Toshio Saeki, whose mother, Kayako, Kobayashi knew in college. Kobayashi is going to have to visit the home to see where his student has been the last couple of days.

Kobayashi arrives at Toshio's house and is greeted by the eeriest of images, two young toddler arms hanging loosely out of a window. Kobayashi greets Toshio at the window, and the boy's face is covered with cuts and bruises. Toshio topples over from the window, and his teacher decides to enter the house to check on the boy. The living room is a distressing sight, littered with trash, and Toshio is in no better shape. An open first-aid kit lays on the floor, as Toshio has been bandaging the wounds on his knees and elbows, presumably from other falls. Kobayashi asks where his parents are and gets an innocently evasive answer from the child. With the condition of the house, Kobayashi senses neglect and decides to wait for the parents to arrive.

In a harsh transition, "Yuki" is introduced as the second episode, and she's the tutor for Kanna Murakami, the daughter of the family now occcupying the same home, where Toshio and Kobayashi were seen previously. Yuki doesn't like cats and she keeps hearing them and something else around, but Kanna doesn't, so they resume their teaching session. Soon the members of the Murakami family begin leaving the home: Kanna's mother goes out shopping, Kanna quickly remembers a task that she has to do at school, and Tsuyoshi, Kanna's brother, leaves with his bike in his school uniform. Yuki is all alone. She pulls her CD player from her satchel but is unable to listen, because the CD begins skipping. Pulling her headphones away from her ears, she hears a low gutteral sound coming from Kanna's closet. In fear, Yuki gathers her belongings and rushes into the hallway. The house is unusually dark on a bright sunny day and a black cat appears scaring her. Back in Kanna's room, Yuki investigates the sound in the closet.

"Mizuho" is the third episode, and with another harsh transition, Chiaki Kuriyama, as Mizuho, is seen out front of a school, where she is looking for her boyfriend, Tsuyoshi Murakami. His bicycle is parked out front, but Tsuyoshi is nowhere to be found. A supervisor, walking the halls of the school, tells her to go home, since school's over; however Mizuho is sure that Tsuyoshi is still in the building. The supervisor becomes suspicious over her behavior and commands her into the office while the supervisor sweeps the halls one more time for Tsuyoshi. While alone in the teacher's lounge, Mizuho makes a call on her cell phone and asks for Tsuyoshi. The lights go out in the office and her cell phone begins ringing, with the numbers "4444444" (an allusion to the original Shimizu short). Mizuho gets a ghostly visit, and then cut to the next episode, "Kanna," where Kanna and Tsuyoshi's mother arrives home from shopping. She answers the phone, which is presumably Mizuho from the previous episode and asking for Tsuyoshi.

Prior to the phone call in the "Kanna" episode, two police officers are talking to a doctor who found a ravaged corpse at the school. The corpse cannot be identified. On a small tray, the cops ask the doctor what is that? "It's a jaw bone," says the doctor. "It doesn't belong to the corpse that we found." As Kanna's mother is speaking on the phone, in the background a tattered and bloody figure shuffles up the stairs, leaving a trail of blood. The mother investigates and the person is Kanna in her school uniform. She turns around and reveals her new face to her mother.

The next two episodes of Ju-on are pivotal episodes: "Kayako," which wraps up the storyline with Kobayashi, the teacher, and Toshio, the student whom he visited and reveals the origins of the curse, and "Kyoko," a psychic character who goes and visits her realtor brother, who is selling the house previously occupied by the Saeki (Toshio and Kayako) and Murakami (Kanna and Tsuyoshi) families. The final two episodes of Ju-on 1 are repeated in Ju-0n 2 with a slight expansion of the "Kyoko" episode and different credit sequence. The transition between the two films is seamless, and since there is no real narrative arc, this is how I believe that both are arguably one film. The details of the "Kayako" episode should remain hidden, because it is one of the most satisfying in terms of story revelation and creepy visuals. I'm a fairly jaded viewer and have lived in some violent, crime-ridden cities, but I don't remember my heart pounding as quickly as the first time that I saw the "Kayako" episode.

In "Kyoko," Kyoko goes to visit her brother, Tatsuya, presumably a recent widow, at his office. He's purchased a house to sell but is unable to do so, because of the recent deaths and disappearances which have taken place there. Tatsuya asks Kyoko to visit the home with him and give her opinion. It's really a well-located and quiet home, and if it's haunted or something, then maybe Kyoko could help him. The two visit the home, and Kyoko immediately encounters the ghostly spectre in the house (very creepy). She tells her brother not to sell the home to anyone who might be sensitive to the evil that resides in the home. Kyoko believes that distilled liquor can reflect one's sensitivity to the paranormal (an in-joke on "spirits"), and anyone that drinks the liquor and it tastes sour, should not reside in the home. Tatsuya takes a drink and he's okay. Kyoko has later learned that her brother has sold the house to a couple, the Kitadas. Kyoko passes the house once more, and the woman standing at the window is the new owner, but she looks eerily like Kayako.

Tatsuya asks Kyoko to come and see her nephew, Tatysuya's son, Nobuyuki, who he says is acting strange. Tatsuya and Nobuyuki have moved into a new apartment, and it is the same apartment where Kobayashi and his pregnant wife resided in the very first episode. In the "Kayako" episode some extremely violent events took place in that apartment, and the evil which visited the apartment on that night, still very much lingers. Kyoko visits Nobuyuki who's scared out his wits. Kyoko and Nobuyuki see a vision from the recent past within the apartment closet and it traumatizes the two, never to be the same again.

The "Tatsuya" episode follows, as Ms. Kitada walks out to her mailbox in her new home and receives a package from a courier. Inside, someone(thing) delivered a freaky-looking portrait done by Toshio and Kayako's diary. Ms. Kitada's eyes glaze over as if she's been possessed. She goes into the home, and her husband, over breakfast, complains about the eggs. Before her husband can even take a bite, Ms. Kitada kills him with her skillet, as quickly as she can sit and enjoy her own breakfast. Out in the countryside at Tatsuya's childhood home, Nobuyuki stares blankly out at the fields. There is no emotion in his face, and Tatsuya's sister rocks back and forth holding a baby doll. Her complexion has changed as Kyoko is much paler and her eyes have grown darker. Kyoko's father believes his daughter is possessed and tells Tatsuya to go remove the evil in his apartment or Tatsuya will eventually die, also. Before Tatsuya can go back to Tokyo, he receives a call from his secretary, telling him that Kyoko is waiting in his office. Tatsuya knows that that is impossible, and finally convinced that something truly evil might be happening, he decides to visit the Kitadas and see how they're getting along.

Ms. Kitada is affable and amiable and offers Tatsuya a cup of coffee upon his visit. Nothing seems amiss to Tatsuya until he sees Toshio's drawing on a table and Kayako's diary. Ms. Kitada draws her head down and covers her face with her hair. She says that the picture was drawn by her boy and that is her diary that Tatsuya is holding. Under a low hum in the soundtrack, Ms. Kitada confronts Tatsuya, showing him a literal and figuratively new face. The final three episodes are "Kamio," a police officer investigating the deaths and disappearances, "Nobuyuki," the final survivor of the original events, and "Saori," an unseen character, presumably a teenager who has broken into the cursed house, who will encounter the curse anew (shot with one still shot). The final three episodes draw the curse and the film to a conclusion, which is, in some ways, exhaustive and mysterious. Like a chain letter, the curse has affected many disparate and connected people, all of whom, save a few, are innocent victims. Hence, the curse: the resentful dead who hate the living.Shimizu really takes a cue from quiet horror maestros, Hideo Nakata and Kiyoshi Kurosawa. As opposed to the visceral, torture-laden horror era, Shimizu examines an unidentifiable evil, which exists solely in the supernatural. However, Shimizu is able to make it extremely natural, as if it was just another current of electricity flowing through a home or a small gust of wind blowing through the park. The use of still shots in medium close-ups of the action makes the creepy goings on appear like the opposite side of the mirror of a Rockwell painting. Shimizu really captured a vibe that few have been able to capture. If you have made it this far in reading, I say thank you and give a belated warning: seeing Ju-on: The Curse 1 & 2 for the first time, well after its later incarnations, might take the sting out of a viewing. However, keeping in mind that Ju-on is fueled on imagination and talent, then it might possibly disturb a few of the willing, alone in their home on a dark, quiet night.


Aaron said...

Sounds awesome. I've never been a big J-Horror expert, but from what little (good ones) that I've seen, they sure know how to create a frightening atmosphere.

Would you say that the Asian ghost story movies have been run into the ground or are there still some effective filmmakers out that goes?

Aaron said...

*as far as that goes

Hans A. said...

It's been run into the ground, seemingly to me. Korea has moved on to more horror, like the U.S. with Saw- and Hostel-like films and traditonal thrillers. Japan has been quiet as of late, in regards to interesting horror, but Shimizu has a new one coming out soon, there. Thailand still puts out some decent atmospheric thrillers. H.K. usually puts out horror/comedy. However, I've got a batch of horror flicks from Asia en route to me now, so I'll see what everyone's been up to. Again, thnx for reading and commenting, Aaron.