I've worked out what's special about the Ju-on films. I hadn't been able to put it into words before, but watching Ju-on 2 nailed it for me.
They have no characters.
Of course that's not strictly true. What I mean is that the Ju-on films are constructed like an interweaving anthology of short ghost stories, linked by a shared cast and the same 'monster'. Most films are at least theoretically trying to be novels. Even something like Pulp Fiction doesn't break the mould. It's just shuffling up its chapters a bit.
However a short story can ignore all that. It can be all about mood, or plot, or characterisation. It doesn't need to worry about building ninety minutes' worth of storytelling material, but instead can simply choose to aim for a single target and then stop once it's hit. The short stories comprising Ju-on 2 have no noticeable characterisation except that which comes from the actors. No one has any motivation, beyond going about one's daily routine and trying to stay alive. If you tried to take away the six-part vignette structure from these films, you'd have nothing left.
That's how it seems, anyway. Thus I'm curious about the American remake, directed by Shimizu but scripted by one Stephen Susco. Since it's a Hollywood product, I suspect they'll try to reinterpret Shimizu's anthology structure as a non-linear narrative. That'll be interesting, but I can't stress enough that I don't mean these comments as criticism. On the contrary, I think it's what makes the franchise interesting and I'm perfectly happy for Ju-on 2 to have no characterisation. Short stories can be great too. Here we have six of them and together they're outstanding, certainly far more frightening than most of the Western horror I've been watching.
So if these stories aren't about their characters, what are they about? Well, being scary, basically. These are ghost stories. Nothing in their fibre isn't devoted to the task of setting up imaginatively horrible fates for the cast. There's a purity to them, a simplicity that's rather wonderful. They showcase an impressive range of different kinds of spectres, including both the murderous stars of the show and their victims. There's even a benevolent ghost, although only for a moment. Ghosts echo both the future and the past, which is of course exactly what the film itself is doing as it jumps back and forth in time to all the different segments. Sometimes ghosts don't even realise that they're ghosts.
I love the ideas here. There's enough material in Ju-on 2 for three regular films. On the one hand, you could obviously keep this franchise going for ever, since there's no overall story and it's just a series of vignettes as random folks get involved with the ghosts and die horribly. However on the other hand, I have to wonder how they could keep up this density of ideas.
This is all fascinating, but you've got to be paying attention to notice it all. The film's fragmented anthology style tends to reduce the punch of its ideas. Something intriguing will pop up... but then whoops, it's time for another segment and soon you're concentrating on something completely different. What's more, this movie demands all of your attention all of the time. No matter how carefully you think you're looking, there will still be at least two points where you'll suddenly wonder what the hell you were just looking at. It's downright scary to be made to realise how much the human eye will ignore until what you're looking at moves.
It's interesting on a technical level. It may not have a plot in the usual sense, but it has a main character (comparatively speaking) and lots of ingenious interweavings. I loved the scene which we see twice from different points of view, even using much of the same footage. I'm now really looking forward to rewatching Ju-on and picking up on all the interlinkings I missed. It also experiments with things like scenes where it's the sound that's all-important, or one of the most effective moments of sunlit horror I can remember offhand.
Takashi Shimizu also isn't worried about going too far. I had to laugh at the creeping wig, although thirty seconds later I wasn't laughing any more. This is also probably the only horror film you'll see in which a major supernatural manifestation is the mark left by someone's bottom.
I mentioned a main character. That would be Kyoko Harase, played by someone who's just become one of my favourite Japanese actresses. Her name's Noriko Sakai and she's so good that I can't believe she hasn't done more work. Her imdb page is practically empty. Nevertheless here she's impressive in everything they give her, from being funny and charming to being in mortal terror. She gets some unborn baby horror, which is powerful stuff and allowed to build more gradually than anything else in the film. I was initially disappointed in its payoff, but was soon reminded that in this film, what you see isn't necessarily what you think you see. This ends up going somewhere that I'm going to guess seems weirder to Westerners than to Japanese people, since I remember something similar in Rasen. I'm tempted to draw a line from it to Buddhism. It's certainly much closer to that way of thinking than it is to Western Judao-Christianity.
Going back to the baby though, for a moment I was convinced it was going to turn into the cat. Ju-on 1's killer ghosts were a boy, his mum and their cat. Here we get the first two, but the cat gets squished right at the beginning and never returns. I still like that idea, actually. It would have made sense. I was half-expecting the cat thing to be leading somewhere, although had Tiddles turned out to be the big twist of this horror movie I don't think I'd have ever stopped laughing.
There's an actress who talks like Daffy Duck. Japanese women's voices, gyaaah. Well, some of them.
There's also a funny moment with a crass line from a TV presenter, although this film certainly isn't a comedy. "Actresses are said to have stronger intuition, so do you feel anything here?" I don't think I've mentioned yet that the film's based around a TV show coming to film in the haunted house, which adds another layer to the usual mix of reality, dreams, ghosts, hallucinations or whatever. I liked that. One of the segments here even explains the backstory of one of the segments in Ju-on 1. Yes, that's the same Chiharu, again played by Yui Ichikawa. However you don't need to have seen that film to enjoy this one.
A difficulty is that you'll have to be paying attention to names and faces. If you don't, you'll drown. This will be particularly challenging if you're not Japanese. Another problem is familiarity. Ju-on 1 kept me wondering what the hell was going on, but in Ju-on 2 I knew where I stood from the beginning. That's less frightening. However that's the inevitable problem of all horror franchises and these are still seriously scary films. At least I got lots of cleverness to make up for it, not to mention a ton of sadistically imaginative filmmaking.
I've written a lot of stuff that probably belongs in my review of the previous film, but what the hell. So far I almost prefer this franchise to the Ring series. They're great as well, but with them I'd been led to expect something that would freeze my blood and strip the flesh from my bones. Didn't happen. However the Ju-ons came out of nowhere and surprised me. I don't know how long they'll be able to keep up all these tricks without it getting old, but for now I'm happy to keep following the series.