Ju-on I & II (video)

juon2For Ju-on to work, belief is the key — belief, suspension, and total immersion in the cinematic experience. The series is antithetical to the movie-going habits of the U.S. (at least those witnessed by me in L.A.), because it requires the viewer to drop his/her ironic stance. If you approach these films wanting to laugh, to demonstrate your superiority, there isn’t much to glean.

But for the more believes-anything person, there is a wealth of tension and revelation. Ju-on has five incarnations: two direct-to-videos (which I review), two Japanese theatrical films, and The Grudge, the American remake of the first Japanese theatrical. (For the most part, The Grudge rehashed the video series – excising, for reasons I don’t know, the series’ most disturbing images.) They’re all about the legacy of violence, and they have a similar narrative thrust.

Here’s where the suspension of disbelief is needed, because the videos go straight into the more improbable events with little lead time to get you in the story. A teacher tells his pregnant wife that he needs to visit the house of a missing student and talk to his parents – one of whom the teacher may have had a relationship with. At the boy’s house, we see him bruised and cut, the place a mess. The boy is silent, strange and, when the teacher’s back is turned, meows like a cat.

This scene is the test. If the boy unnerves you, you are the audience for Ju-on. If not (because you think a little boy that meows is stupid), send the DVD back to the bootlegger. Because that is the level at which the film operates – bizarre events just on the edge of understanding, (violence on the cusp of motivation, ghosts barely appealing to logic), all collapsing into a stream of incoherence. To some, it may be empty and silly. To me, Ju-on is an apotheosis and distillation of the modern J-horror rag, losing the extraneous plot connections that make no sense and, to use their logic, have no real sense of the supernatural. Ju-on‘s approach to horror is to see it as a storm, a random confluence of events with no real moral underpinning. The world beyond is not a fair place, but a wounded animal, striking out at anyone near.

The narrative moves from victim to victim, six per video, each one named by title card. Few of the segments are gory, but most are little slices of dread, moments of senseless doom from which there is no escape.

The first Ju-on video is the most satisfying of the two. Ending on a rather ambiguous note, it comes to a dramatic resolution that is both disturbing and unfair. The teacher gets punished for crimes he didn’t commit, in a manner he can’t revenge — a very tight sixty-minute package. Ju-on 2 is less involving. The first twenty minutes recap the last two segments from the first video. The introduction is a startling conclusion, and yes, the information is good for narrative coherence, but we’re not here for that. In fact, making the source of the curse more explicit takes away some of the mystery. Things perk up near the end, with an apocalyptic vision that universalizes the curse.

These films have neither the catchy gimmicks of Nakata, nor the rich thematic depth of Kiyoshi Kurosawa. But, in these videos and the films that follow, Shimizu shows an understanding of the real nature of supernatural fear: That there are things superhuman which lack the morality most humans have. And there is no quarter.

About Kent Conrad

To contact Kent Conrad, email kentc@explodedgoat.com