Ju-On: The Grudge (2002) review


Takashi Shimizu proved with his two direct-to-video releases of Ju-on that one is able to make an effective eerie horror-film with little time (i.e. nine days) and under budget-constraints. In fact, with his minimalistic approach, he demonstrated that he was a master of creating an atmosphere that slowly gets under the spectator’s skin.

Of course, with the success of these two V-cinema films and the international success of Hideo Nakata’s Ring (1998), the choice to make a theatrical sequel was easily made. With the help of his mentor and horror-masterKiyoshi Kurosawa and Hiroshi Takahashi, the screenwriter of Ring, Ju-On: The Grudge hit the theatres in 2002 to critical acclaim.

Yet, as the years went on, the Japanese horror boom started to fade and started to struggle to re-define itself. In fact, as J-horror films nowadays mainly aim for the domestic market, the genre is either cheaply exploited as a frame for idols’ acting debut or forced to remain formulaic. That’s why, after all these years, fans of horror still grasp to the J-horror classics of the past. Does Shimizu’s Ju-On: The Grudge (2002) deserve to be called such a classic?      


One day, Rika Nishina (Negumi Okina), a volunteer at the social welfare centre, is asked by one of her colleagues to go to the Tokunaga residence to care for Sachie (Chikako Isomura). He tells her he would normally send Takahashi, but he cannot be contacted.

Rika enters the house – the door is strangely unlocked, and finds Sachie in the Japanese room. While cleaning the house, Rika finds a crumpled family photograph with the mother cut out. While there is no trace of Katsuya (Kanji Tsuda), Sachie’s son, or his wife Kazumi (Shuri Matsuda), Rika does discover a child called Toshio (Yuya Ozeki) locked up upstairs in a closet.

Ju-On: The Grudge (2002) by Takashi Shimizu

Ju-On: The Grudge combines the classic haunted house element with the popular Japanese horror trope of the onryō, the vengeful spirit to deliver a fleeting exploration of the dynamic of abuse and a subtle critique on society’s failure to deal with those violent and destructive eruptions of discontent.  

The post-war dynamic of domestic abuse that Ju-on: The Grudge stages is closely linked with the decline of paternal authority and the rise of capitalism and consumerism. While, in the feudal past, violence within the familial sphere was, generally, an exertion of one’s authority over the familial other, domestic violence is, since the birth of modernity within Japan, an expression of the continued frustration of being without such power. The brutality is born from the clash between a lingering desire to realize the traditional paternal fantasy and the continued emasculating frustration of such desire within the familial and the societal field.  

Ju-On: The Grudge (2002) by Takashi Shimizu

The fragmentary chapter-like structure of Ju-On: The Grudge invites the spectator to question the indestructability of the curse (Structure-note 1). In our view, the curse retains its violent thirst because the Other, the address of its continued brutality, remains unchanged. The grudge violently acts out, murdering anyone who it encounters, in an attempt to confront the societal Other with its complicity to the bursts of domestic evil that plagues the societal field, either by orchestrating familial tragedies or by remaining blind to signs of physical abuse (Narra-note 1). Such blindness, as recent news-reports in Japan underline, continues up until this day.   

The persecutory nature of the curse, which causes the subject to become consumed by paranoia, thus has an ethical dimension. While this grudge might be vengeful to the other within the societal Other – steadily accumulating victims, its violence is ultimately a demand for societal change, a demand to eradicate the blindness to familial evil and do good. Yet, as the narrative implies by mentioning the myriad of families that met their demise in the house, its demand remains unheard and misrecognized.

Beyond the ethical dimension of the curse, the grudge also tries to re-stage the familial trauma – i.e. the phallic injury that ended in a bloodbath – by taking control over those who move into the house. In other words, the curse repeats its trauma. The repetition of this bloody trauma does not only echo the continued presence of domestic violence in the societal fabric, but also society’s failure to respond to and resolve the suffering it instigated. The curse is doomed to repeat itself as the symbolic ‘catharsis’ fails to materialize and no symbolic intervention is made to deflate its vengeful rage.

Ju-On: The Grudge (2002) by Takashi Shimizu

The composition of Ju-On: The Grudge offers an effective combination of slow-moving dynamism, fleeting shaky moments, and static moments. Dynamism is, unsurprisingly, utilized for its foreshadowing effect – it echoes the unseen presence of the curse – and can readily be exploited to heighten the spectator’s fearful anticipation.  

Shimizu couples this use of dynamism with a focus on facial expressions, either via sudden close-ups or by elegantly using camera movement. What makes these facial expressions (e.g. of surprise, of disgust, of fear, … etc.) so effective in unsettling the spectator is not the expression as such, but its emphasis on what the spectator cannot yet see. This neat little trick plays with the spectator’s anticipation and heightening the unsettling impact of the ultimate reveal. Moreover, this trick opens up a gap wherein the imagination of the spectator can fleetingly run wild, hereby aggravating his/her uneasiness.

Both elements – i.e. foreshadowing dynamism and the focus on facial expressions – are essential in making Shimizu’s staging of what we would call a horror of stillness successful. It is because these elements create an effective frame of fearful anticipation that the static moment that presents ghostly imagery attains its haunting quality. The stillness of the unsettling imagery, which echoes the inability of the characters and the spectator to escape the impact of the curse,  allows these images to linger in the spectator’s mind long after film has finished.

Ju-On: The Grudge (2002) by Takashi Shimizu

The narrative’s effectiveness of instilling a quantum of fearful anticipation in the spectator is of course also function of the thoughtful use of eerie sounds (e.g. a mewing cat, the squeaking of the chandelier, …) and the minimalistic musical pieces – the sudden bursts of eerie music as well the nearly inaudible auditive decorations that make silence present and emphasize the eerie sounds that rhythmically break it (Lightning-note 1). In the case of slow musical pieces, it is not simply their rhythm that is effective at unsettling the spectator, but how these pieces turn a repetitive sound into an accentuator, reverberating the atmospheric eeriness while also crafting gaps where the eeriness dictated by sound-effects and visuals can further blossom.

Ju-On: The Grudge remains, after all these years, an effective horror film and a J-horror classic in its own right. While Shimizu’s horror flick might not offer an experience of atmospheric dread his teacher Kiyoshi Kurosawa is so well-known for, he masterfully utilizes his composition to heighten the spectator’s fearful anticipation and confront him with horror-imagery that, due to its stillness, will haunt the spectator long after the credits have rolled.


Structure-note 1: The structure of the narrative might confuse some spectators. While some critic have criticized how the narrative unfolds, the repeated removal of the spectator’s place of orientation plays, in our view, an essential role in heightening the impact of the unsettling imagery and making him more ill at ease.  

Narra-note 1: For the curse, all its victims are, in one way or another, complicit to ‘murder’. Rika, who works at the social welfare centre as a volunteer, as well as the police officers represents the failure of official societal instances. Yuji Toyama (Yōji Tanaka), the former police inspector who was in charge of the Saeki investigation, represents the usual societal response to burst of violent discontent, i.e. repress the truth by trying to destroy the house.

Lighting-note 1: The lighting-design of Ju-On: The Grudge is fantastic. Shimizu refuses to cheaply exploit darkness to make the scares and horror stronger. With the natural lighting-design, both the shadowy parts and the well-lit parts can become a site where an image of horror can appear


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