*. Is J-horror over now? And, if so, can we say, looking back, that it ever amounted to much?
*. I think most Western audiences know of J-horror only through its two greatest exemplars: Ringu (1998) and Ju-on: The Grudge (2002). Both movies were remade by Hollywood (as The Ring and The Grudge respectively), and both were only instalments in what turned into long-running horror franchises in both countries. Indeed, in the case of Ju-on: The Grudge we’re talking about the third feature in a series that actually began with a couple of shorts (Katasumi and 4444444444), though it was the first instalment to receive a theatrical release.
*. Outside of these two franchises the translation to English-language productions has been thin. Dark Water (2005) was good. One Missed Call (2008) wasn’t. Nothing to get that excited, or frightened, by. Since then Hollywood has gone back to making Godzilla Japan’s number-one entertainment export.
*. This being the third Ju-on movie, I think most people coming to it at the time probably already knew something of the back story or (as we like to style these things now) mythology. That would help, as none of it is explained here. But even if they were up to speed the narrative is so random they probably felt some confusion. There’s certainly more a sense of something episodic in this movie than was the case with the American remake, though it does hold together in a loose fashion. If you’re just coming to it cold, however, I think you’d likely be lost. I know I was, even having seen The Grudge several times.
*. Watching this movie alongside The Grudge I had much the same feeling as watching Ringu and The Ring. Some of the effects here are really crude. Kayako’s ghostly form hovering over the old lady looks especially bad. Hollywood was able to help things along in this department, as well as putting together a somewhat tighter ship in terms of the script (the opposite of what Gore Verbinski did with Ringu). I think the remake is a scarier movie. But, even with the language barrier, I much prefer the performances in Ju-on and think the presentation has a kind of honest simplicity about it that works. Kayako’s head looming out of the bathroom stall looks awful, but still manages to be terrifying.
*. Overall, I think this is an excellent movie. Some of the parts don’t fit all that well, especially the Izumi chapter. This adds to the episodic character of the story that I’ve mentioned. But it also has a strong sense of personal style, as in the delightful nod to Fuseli’s “Nightmare,” or the final montage of empty streets. But to return to my initial question, was J-horror really anything special? If Ju-on: The Grudge is one of its greatest achievements, and I think it is, it seems fair to ask.
*. I think J-horror was good, and important. Despite being derivative in some regards (even of itself, including some straight steals in this movie from Ringu), several of the qualities that would become typical of J-horror were necessary and new. Among these I’d flag the monstrous women (empowered? rising up against male oppression?), the importance of technology as a spiritual medium (these aren’t your grandparents’ ghosts, they can even use cell phones!), and the destruction of the innocent.
*. Hollywood would pick up on all of this, without doing much that was interesting with any of it. Despite having their pick of the crop, I don’t think the American version of J-horror was very successful. For some reason the male leads in both The Ring and The Grudge strike me as particularly weak, as though the producers didn’t know what to do with movies where men were secondary. Note, for example, that Rika doesn’t have a boyfriend in this film, and returns to the haunted house to save her female friend. Was that just not going to fly in the U.S.?
*. The real thing here however is that even twenty years and many films later this still holds up as great entertainment, with a handful of unforgettable moments. Rough around the edges to be sure, but nevertheless it’s proven durable.