Psychological horror films from Japan have won a cult following in the U.S. over the last few years, and “The Ring” showed that there’s an even larger audience for English-language versions of them (even if the remake was distinctly inferior to the original, “Ringu”). “Jou-on: The Grudge” is also on the remake horizon (Sarah Michelle Gellar, Jason Behr and Clea DuVall are among the stars), but the Japanese original is being released in this country as a sort of appetizer to the Hollywoodized one. From a craft standpoint it shows the usual virtues: writer-director Takashi Shimizu creates a mood of foreboding and quiet menace through the use of dark and shadow, and he paces things cleverly to keep viewers unsettled and on edge.
But for all the style on display, “Ju-on” is ultimately disappointing. The reason is quite simple and basic. Even a film dealing with supernatural events has to establish some rules and then hold to them. The premises in “Ringu” and an even better example of the genre, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s “Cure,” might not be entirely plausible, but they were made clear as the plots proceeded and adhered to more than not. And they had characters one came to know and to empathize with. Such isn’t the case with this picture. It’s essentially a haunted-house story, but as it proceeds, the spirits seem to roam wherever Shimizu’s fancy might take them and do whatever he can contrive. (One can argue, I suppose, that the haunted presence acts as a sort of infection, spreading from person to person like some awful disease, but that notion isn’t made at all clear.) As a result the movie becomes a series of scare scenes that seem arbitrary even by the lax standards of the genre. And since the plot embraces a surfeit of characters, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to identify with any of them.
“Ju-on: The Grudge” begins with a visit by Rika (Megumi Okina), a mousy young social worker, to a nondescript house, where she finds a catatonic old woman (Yui Ichikawa) and what might charitably be described as a messy state of affairs. When Rika investigates some scratching sounds upstairs behind a sealed door, she releases a ghostly child that apparently carries the seed of the place’s former evil–which involves a series of killings and disappearances. In a flashback we see the old woman’s son (Kanji Tsuda) and wife (Risa Matsuda), as well as the wife’s sister (Misaki Ito), among the victims. Eventually a couple of vaguely comic cops enter the picture, and in the course of their investigation contact an ex-detective (Misa Uehara) who handled a long-ago case centered there–of a man who killed his wife, and whose young son was never found–and who now fears that his daughter might be affected by the evil that emanates from the place, too. As the narrative moves forward and backward in what might be seen as concentric circles, Shimizu considerately provides character names in titles to indicate the beginning of each new chapter, but this device adds to the confusion rather than clarifying matters. In most of the individual episodes the director manages to generate some isolated chills and ratchet up the tension, but the relationships among the parts are never made clear, and so viewers are left with a generalized sort of creepiness occasionally punctuated by quick shocks, many provided by sound effects rather than any bloodletting. Indeed, “Ju-on,” like most of these Japanese efforts, relies more on suggestion than graphic gore. (That will probably change in the American version.) Since none of the actors get to build a real character, being limited to fairly stock roles with brief screen time, all the performances can at best be called utilitarian.
So the craftsmanship that has gone into building an atmosphere of brooding menace in the picture is impressive. But if you’d like a little logic to go with your cinematic chills, you’d better look elsewhere.