Wow, these J-horror franchises can get complicated. This one's almost as bad as Ringu. Ju-on started life as two three-minute segments called Katasumi and 4444444444 in a horror anthology TV movie called Gakko no kaidan G, broadcast on Kansai TV on 27 September 1998. Coincidentally that was also the year when Ringu turned the Japanese horror industry on its head, which was good news for Ju-on. It's become a franchise. Since then we've had two straight-to-video TV movies in 2000, two Japanese theatrical movies in 2003 and two American ones in 2004 and 2006, plus third films going into production for both the Japanese and American series.
What's more, so far almost all of it has been directed by Takashi Shimizu and starred Takako Fuji and Takashi Matsuyama as the bloody instigators of all this supernatural mayhem, Kayako and Takeo Saeki. Their son Toshio was played by Ryota Koyama in the original straight-to-video Japanese films and Yuya Ozeki in all the theatrical ones. Personally I love all that and it's the reason I've chased up everything I could throughout the franchise rather than ignoring all the non-Japanese stuff. The only non-Shimizu Grudge instalments are an eight-minute mini-anthology called Tales from the Grudge (2006) and the in-production third American Grudge film, both by a chap called Toby Wilkins. I'm not here to talk about him, though.
This particular Ju-on, either number 1 or number 3 (depending on taste) is one weird, creepy film in which you're unlikely to have a clue what's going on. Characters die offscreen and we only hear about it second hand through newspaper reports or the like, yet later we see them still alive. Apparently this was meant to indicate jumping back and forth in time as we follow the different characters' stories. You know, like Pulp Fiction. Embarrassingly I didn't realise this while watching it and instead assumed it was just another way in which the ghosts were playing silly buggers with reality, causality and our minds. Thinking about it, I'm not sure I don't prefer my interpretation, although the intended explanation might make for a more interesting rewatch.
I also didn't understand the rules. Who lives? Who dies? What pushes you over the line from "lucky" into "doomed"? I started the film knowing only to expect a haunted house that killed anyone who went into it, but afterwards wasn't even confident of that much. There are ghosts. There's a house. Lots of people die. There would seem to be some kind of connection going on, but the details you'll have to sort out for yourself. It's the complete opposite of Ringu, which lays out its rules with beautiful clarity and basically plays fair by them. Here you'll work out with great speed that the cat, the boy and his mother are to be avoided, but how to achieve that will be far from clear. Their house is dangerous, but so is knowing someone against whom they've taken a dislike or even in one case just being employed as a security guard. He seemed like a nice chap, too.
Did I mention that this is a ghost story? In Japan that's a flexible term, just as M.R.James similarly seemed to feel that even vampires counted. I don't know what those three schoolgirls turned into, but they looked like zombies to me. The traditional approach to a ghost story is that "less is more". Keep your ghosts out of sight. Play on the audience's imagination. Takashi Shimizu however has other ideas, although he still achieves most of his effects through atmosphere and spookiness since there wasn't the budget to go hog-wild with gore and special effects. The style is minimalist in a rather Ring-like way, such as with the non-use of music.
The fractured narrative might play tricks on you, although it helps that each new section gets introduced with a title card bearing the name of each new protagonist. One normally expects the main character at the start of a horror film either to get killed inside ten minutes or to become the hero. In this case, neither of those options is true. Personally I found this film to be incredibly creepy, a big part of which was its disorientating narrative. The opening is sick and would have been even more so if we'd been allowed to see more than momentary snippets, but one of the nastiest things about it is the possibility that the son had been watching throughout. That's all he does throughout the movie. Think about that motif of eyes peeping through fingers. I don't want to even think about what seeing that might do to a child.
Browsing the internet, I've noticed that people who've seen the original 1998 Ju-on TV movies often seem to prefer them to the theatrical remake. If I ever get to watch them for myself, I'll let you know.
This isn't the kind of film that sustains a long discussion, being driven by neither its plot nor its characters. It's about disorientating weirdness and lots of frightening things happening rather than anything else. It has symbolism and motifs. There's a thing going on with old people, for instance. However all you really need to know is that it's scary.