It's the first ever Ju-on film, if you don't count those two "blink and you'll miss them" snippets in a 1998 TV anthology movie. There's been a lot of Ju-on, but this film predates both the Japanese and American theatrical franchises. It was a straight-to-video movie. You get quite a lot of that in Japan, with some directors (e.g. Takashi Miike) often deliberately choosing to make straight-to-video films because you get more creative freedom and less censorship. Obviously it also means less money and public profile, but every so often word of mouth will start going around for a V-Cinema film (as they're often called).
That happened with Ju-on. Takashi Shimizu made two straight-to-video Ju-ons in 2000, then three years later was doing cinema versions. This original is still well worth watching, though.
The one-line summary is that it's still Ju-on. There's no real difference between this and the later films, except for budget and length. It's still hopping around within its own timeline, dividing itself into chapters and doing horrible things to anyone who goes into its haunted house. We've even got the same actors playing the adult ghosts, although I think there's a different boy. Yes, Ryota Koyama. He only played Toshio for the two 2000 V-Cinema films. Anyway, if you like the other Ju-on films or indeed J-horror, there's no reason why you shouldn't like this too. The lower budget certainly isn't a problem. Low-budget horror is one of those traditional genres that everyone knows is capable of working every bit as well as the big boys and that's the case here. The film has a grainy immediacy.
The mythology's a little different. In a couple of the segments, we're not sure that Toshio is even dead yet! That was startling. Admittedly the white-faced version will appear too, but even so the Saekis in this film are more alive. Their tragedy isn't something you look up in old newspapers. It's fresh. Toshio's teacher even comes to his house to talk to him, which suggests either that the murders haven't happened yet, that the bodies haven't been discovered or else simply that in this film it all happened differently. A Saeki might phone you up and hold a conversation. This makes them feel a bit more like characters rather than plot devices and I liked it.
One's made very aware of Toshio's cat, which is a motif Shimizu would continue in later films. However you're likely to be puzzled by the 4444444444 telephone call if you haven't seen the 1998 Ju-on segments of Gakko no kaidan G. In Japanese, "four" shares a pronunciation with "death".
Is the film creepy? Yes, it is. It's got moments subtle enough that I was pausing and going back to see if I really had seen what I thought I saw. Personally I think I find it scarier to see something that's a bit odd and wrong rather than wildly gruesome, although obviously you need the latter to give weight to the former. There's one scene in particular where I didn't expect them to show what we knew was coming... but they did. That was quite an image. In addition I found an unexpected dimension of creepiness in certain early scenes when the film wasn't trying to be sinister at all, because I've seen other Ju-on films and so it gave me the willies to be introduced to a likeable and heavily pregnant young lady. She's cute. I wanted her and her unborn baby to live a long and happy life. Quick, get out of the movie! On the downside I'd say the film's closing chapters aren't its scariest, but its non-linear episodic nature means that surprisingly this isn't a problem. Unlike a normal movie, you'll remember it holistically.
I didn't understand the last shot, though. The best I can do there is suggest theories, I'm afraid.
The acting's more solid than in some later movies in the franchise. Kuroi Shoujo, I'm looking at you. Admittedly a couple of this film's actors could perhaps have done more in their terrified reaction shots, but I really liked the general naturalism. It all feels real. Obviously there are a few names here who never appeared in anything else, but surprisingly there are also some people you might have heard of, most obviously a young and round-faced Chiaki Kuriyama. I wasn't sure if it really was her, but it is. She must have been fourteen or fifteen at the time. This came out in February 2000, the same year as her appearance in Battle Royale, but obviously she'd also later do Kill Bill, Exte, etc. Yumi Yoshiyuki and Hitomi Miwa also provide a double crossover with Crazy Lips, which was released fifteen days after this film. (Admittedly that one's not exactly famous, but I only watched it on Monday.)
Incidentally, Yumi Yoshiyuki (born 1965) acted this year in Big Tits Dragon: Hot Spring Zombies vs. Strippers 5. Awesome, eh?
I think I've pretty much said everything there is to say about this one. It's Ju-on. It's a good Ju-on. If you know Ju-on, you know what that means. It's certainly good enough that I don't understand why to date it's only been made officially available in Japan, Germany, Scandinavia and the USA, although of course these days one can buy DVDs from anywhere and download from anywhere else. It should say quite a bit that apparently the other V-Cinema Ju-on is a recycled sequel that includes quite a lot of this first film's footage, but I'm looking forward to watching it anyway.