The Ju-on franchise had been dormant for a few years, but for its tenth anniversary in 2009 it hiccoughed out a whole bunch of stuff. America released a straight-to-DVD movie called The Grudge 3, while Japan did a Wii game called "Fear Experience: Ju-on" and a double-bill of two 60-minute movies called Ju-on: Shiroi Roujo (Old Lady in White) and Ju-on: Kuroi Shoujo (Girl in Black).
The one I watched this morning was Old Lady in White and I've seen some internet comments about it that are pretty retarded even by the standard of internet comments. Apparently it sucks both because Ju-on has been going on too long and also because it has points of difference from the previous instalments. Both of these criticisms are incorrect.
Firstly, Ju-on has indeed shown that it can go on producing sequels almost indefinitely, unlike Ringu, but there are more prolific J-horror franchises out there. Tomie, for instance. The important thing is that Ju-on is good. Takashi Shimizu hit on a winning formula and I really like his time-twisting take on the classical ghost story. As for the second criticism, this particular film is completely Ju-on. It's oozing Ju-on-ness from every pore, with the only things missing being the J-horror equivalent of catchphrases. They've got new ghosts. That's about it. Admittedly they could perhaps have been scarier, especially the little old lady with the basketball, but it's still a haunted house story set in different time periods in which terrible fates are inflicted upon the innocent. These ghosts have the same make-up as their predecessors and the same modus operandi. It's business as usual, in other words. One could reasonably accuse the Ju-on films of being remakes of each other rather than sequels, but hardly to a significantly greater extent than you get all the time in horror and in any case there's always a new cast of sympathetic characters and a new plot structure being built around them.
What's different this time is that the story's only an hour long. This helps the film's momentum and gives it focus. It feels like a proper movie, not a TV episode, but at the same time this lets them get away with a rather odd ending that probably wouldn't work in a full-length film. I'm not sure what they were trying to do there. Why isn't she dead? It would be nice to be able to believe that a certain ghost wasn't merely malevolent and instead had retained some vestige of the feelings she'd had in life, but one doesn't expect things like that in Ju-on and so in practice one's simply waiting for something deeply unpleasant to happen. That probably needed more work if we were going to see it as deliberate ambiguity, but a film of this length can get away with it. We've followed the story of the house and now it's complete. It doesn't matter so much if thereafter the film seems to stop rather than conclude.
Besides, I like the plot structure. We begin with a sequence so cheap-looking that you'd think this was a home movie, in which a man in a Santa suit tries to deliver a birthday cake to a spooky house. We see images and some extremely bad things, but then the segment ends and we're trying to see how the taxi driver and a school's art room fit into the story. Hopefully you'll realise that those two scenes share a common character, except that seven years have passed in the meantime and she's grown up into a different actress. We soon return to the house, though. A nice family move in there, one of whom is a grandmother dressed in white. We watch her. We haven't forgotten the film's title. Gradually the time zones spiral in towards their focus and the plot threads come together, until we find ourselves remembering that opening segment in extreme detail and discovering that there's always one last appalling detail you hadn't anticipated. I won't spoil the one I'm thinking of, but that was just nasty.
What the Ju-on franchise does well, I think, is to update the hoary old ghost story cliches and make them work. In one scene three girls are pushing a coin around a table as part of an attempted seance, when we realise there's a fourth finger there too. If this were a BBC Book at Bedtime, you'd laugh. It's so mindless and simple that I don't know whether to call it a cliche or classical. Nevertheless this series can make you jump with moments like that, because you know you're in a J-horror franchise where the director's just waiting to stick an ice pick in someone's eyeball or something. It's a fictional universe that's elegantly purist in the style of its ghost stories and yet shamelessly in-your-face when it wants to be.
It's pure cinema, really. It wouldn't exist any more if you translated it to a non-visual medium. However at the same time these are films that can't be watched with your brain in neutral, because of the non-linear narrative and inwardly spiralling plot structure.
This probably isn't the scariest Ju-on film, but it worked for me. I cared about the characters, especially that girlfriend who's trying so hard with a boyfriend who just can't get into the Christmas spirit. (In a small way, this is a Christmas movie. They should show it instead of The Wizard of Oz.) The basketball-wielding granny ghost is a bit surreal, but apparently she's a reference to the same director's segment of Kaidan Shin Mimibukuro, aka. Tales of Terror (2004). That's an anthology of 33 low-budget horror shorts from different Japanese directors and there's apparently one from Ryuta Miyake that's foreshadowing this film, just like Shimizu's In a Corner and 44444444444 did for the original Ju-on. The only thing I don't like is that as so often in Japan we've got pop singers, gravure idols and porn stars dotted among the cast, not all of whom are entirely convincing as actors.
Personally I'd recommend this film. I think the shorter format suits it, making it a bit more accessible to the newbie. It's not really trying to be a direct Ju-on sequel in plot terms, but if you're desperate for references to the Saeki murders then there's a cameo for little Toshio. Incidentally its storyline reminds me of the second Amityville Horror movie, except without the post-massacre rip-off of The Exorcist. I thought it was good.