Ringu and Ju-On 2: The Grudge

Grady Hendrix grady at subwaycinema.com
Mon Feb 2 09:34:33 EST 2009

Back in 2004 I wrote a short piece on the JUON films for Film Comment. I
couldn't find it online, but here it is, warts and all. And, to be honest, I
think there are more warts than anything.

Grady Hendrix

    If it wasn't a wildly successful horror movie franchise, Takashi
Shimizu's JUON would qualify as a performance art project whose theatrical
life has been engineered to mirror the workings of its plot. The word
"franchise" seems a little tacky for JUON, whose success is based on careful
craftsmanship, but a franchise is exactly what these movies are: individual
films, arranging and rearranging the same familiar elements in order to
present the viewer with a marginally new experience cushioned by the comfort
of familiar elements. Following this formula, JUON has become the new horror
movie franchise to beat, with two video features, two theatrical features
and an upcoming Hollywood remake to its credit.
    The JUON films are mosaics of incidents and setpieces that are arranged
and re-arranged, but remain structurally the same. Each film centers on the
primal scene of an enraged husband, Takeo Saeki, losing his marbles over an
imagined infidelity, and murdering his wife, Kayako (Takako Fuji), and son,
Toshio (Yuya Ozeki). The film is predicated around the notion that the
hatred Kayako feels at the time of her death infects the family's suburban
home like a virus. Families, television crews, schoolgirls and realtors will
all venture into the Saeki house and be either instantly consumed, or the
greedy ghosts of Kayako and Toshio will follow them back to their
apartments, schools, television studios or houses and consume them there.
Unlike the novel-based RING, with its plotlines and rule-bound curses, JUON
is based on a three-minute short director Takashi Shimizu made for Japanese
TV, and its strengths lie in cinema's ability to evoke the uncanny. There
are almost no murders; instead the movies are broken up into segments that
function as little more than stylistic setpieces. Each builds to a reveal
shot of the ghost -- usually crawling Kayako -- before discreetly cutting
away to black and the title of the next segment.
    The segments are arranged in a non-linear jumble, with characters and
incidents crossing over from segment to segment, and from film to film. The
primary drive is stylistic, not narrative, and so while we rarely learn
anything about the characters, the sound design and surreal visuals are
given plenty of room to slowly unfold, and editing is used to carve up the
screen space with a disturbing illogic. Characters appear and disappear
impossibly, and huge, blooming chunks of impenetrable darkness are often
sources of dread, occasionally becoming mobile and flowing down hallways.
JUON is married to its medium, and its horror is a complicated by-product of
camera placement, editing, sound design, and lighting.
    The fictional Juon curse, whereby the act of viewing Kayako or Toshio is
a signal of both impending doom and contagion, is a metaphor for the films'
ever-expanding fortunes. Takashi Shimizu's three minute short was noticed by
producer Taka Ichise (the David O. Selznick of Japanese horror) who greenlit
a straight-to-video JUON. It was a flop, but spawned a straight-to-video
sequel, which also flopped. But taking note of the videos' on-line
popularity, Ichise put up the money for a theatrical JUON and, ten days
before it was released, he confidently greenlit JUON 2, another big screen
extension of the franchise. The first JUON came out on two screens, but
within three months it was playing in 100 theaters. JUON 2 came out, and
doubled the screens and the box office take of the original. Sam Raimi saw
JUON, bought the rights, and hired Shimizu to direct a Hollywood remake,
which he obviously hopes will generate a sequel of its own.
    The ghosts of JUON are as concerned with the reproduction of the self as
the producers of JUON are concerned with the reproduction of their
franchise. Kayako makes a memorable exit from a pregnant woman's womb,
copies herself on a Xerox machine, and populates a rainy schoolyard with an
army of doubles. But while the first theatrical JUON film sports a
self-consuming ending in which the curse has de-populated Japan, the sequel
seems to already have its sights set on traveling beyond Japan's shores with
its baby Kayako leading her mommy down a city street and into a bright
    Shimizu has, either through skill or through luck, hit on a winning
formula, and by the end of JUON 2 it's clear he could keep doing this
forever without drastically diminishing his returns. JUON has become a
complicated, pleasurable visual meme that seems virtually indestructible.
Which is a fitting tribute for a movie about a pair of supernatural memes
who empty the world of everything but themselves.
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