“Ju-on: A curse born of grudge held by someone who dies in the grip of anger. It gathers in the places frequented by that person in life, working its spell on those who come into contact with it and thus creating itself anew.”
With these words starts Takashi Shimizu’s 2002 masterpiece of terror Ju-on: The Grudge. It’s all there in those two sentences. All you really need to know to understand the story. It is the most terrifying ghost story imaginable; the kind there is no escape from. You cannot exorcise it, a prayer meeting or a cleansing ceremony will not help you. You cannot appease the spirits by giving their earthly remains an honourable burial or bringing the person who killed them to justice. From this haunting there is no release. It is fuelled purely by hatred and rage of indiscriminate nature. Who you are, what you do, where you come from, does not matter. Once it’s made it’s imprint on you, it has you and soon you too will become another cog in its never-ending circle of hate.
It’s weird how certain films stick with you. While I have many life-long favourites that I cherish and dig out on certain occasions or when I’m in particular mood, for the most part I could not tell you when or where was the first time I saw them. These details just don’t really stick with you. Why would they? They are, in the great scheme of things, completely unimportant. However, as in all things in life, there are exceptions, Ju-on being one of them. I can tell you exactly where I was, what age I was and who I was watching it with. Hell, I can even tell you where I was sitting. Not that any of that matters, what matters is the fact that the impact that this film had on the 17-year old me was such that for some reason all those details have stuck in my mind. All of that and the fear. The absolute horrible, gut wrenching fear that I felt when seeing this film for the first time; a fear that I hadn’t felt since I was around 10 years old and saw The Exorcist for the first time. While that fear is not the greatest of companions when you have to get a glass of water in the middle of the night, it’s still one of the most glorious things life-long horror fan like myself can imagine.
While some find Ju-on’s episodic structure somewhat confusing or fractured, I personally feel it tell this particular story in a perfect manner. All these lives, seemingly unrelated but underneath it all linked in this horrific web of destruction, telling the tale from several different points of view. It just works. There are so many great scenes it’s hard to pick just one. Many great moments of terror in the most mundane of situations where the everyday is penetrated by horrifying forces, making things like simply getting under the covers the stuff of nightmares.
However, one of the scariest but also one of the most significant scenes is the very last scene in the whole film. It’s the scene that everything else has been building up to. This is the moment where we meet Kayako at her most terrifying, but also most relatable. It’s of course not the first time we get a glimpse of her, she is very predominantly present throughout the film, but this is the moment where we see her in all her bloody glory. Rika, the healthcare worker introduced in the very beginning of the film, has returned to the house to find her friend Mariko who foolishly has entered the premises. After finding Mariko dead in the upstairs closet, Rika rushes downstairs but is stalled by a fleeting reflection she catches in the hallway mirror. Instead of herself, she is faced with Kaykao, who proceeds to show her flashes of her and Toshio following Rika around ever since their first encounter. Kayako’s hands and head appear from inside Rika blouse, only for her to disappear and simultaneously reappear upstairs. Preceded by her blood curdling death rattle, she drags her mangled, blood covered body down the stairs, all the while Rika helplessly stuck to her place, unable to move away from the horror that is coming towards here. The whole thing plays out like a nightmare. The kind where you know you’re dreaming but are unable to do anything to stop it. The kind that conjures up a deep, primal scream that starts from the pit of your stomach and sounds nothing like you thought it would when it comes out. That is if you can even scream at all, as you might find yourself just as paralysed as Rika, unable to move or speak, only to experience the terror coming your way. I remember getting that cold lump in my stomach, as you do when something truly terrifies you, unable to turn away but wanting to close my eyes at the same time. Oh, what absolute joy.
However, once you get over the terror, a certain nuance of the plot starts to seep through. It’s made to terrify yes, but not only that. Kayako is finally showing herself as she was when she died without hiding any gruesome details. While we are never shown the morbid details of her death, it is clear that it happened as a result of significant violence. She is a frightening sight with her disjointed limbs, ghostly white skin and blood shot eyes, but as she reaches the bottom of the stairs and reaches out to Rika, the gesture does not seem like a hostile one, but more like a cry for help. Instead of killing her, Kayako chooses to show Rika what really happened to her. For some reason something in Rika has reached out to the person inside the hate filled spirit and made her share the tragedy of her death. The mood of the scene changes from heart pounding terror to one of melancholy and sadness. When Rika, frozen with fear, finally dares to look up from behind her hands, she sees Kayako’s bloody face changed into normal, almost as if she has somehow made a transformation from a terrifying onryō to simply the wronged woman she was when she died. After another flashback, Kayako disappears, but this does not by any means mean that Rika is safe and the curse has been lifted from her. Instead she ends up as the victim of the most hateful spirits of them all: Takeo.
When it comes to the numerous sequels that followed or the American remake, the character of Takeo is largely forgotten, with Kayako and Toshio in the forefront of the hauntings. Even in Ju-on, he is very much in the background and only appears in a handful of scenes. Despite this, the real source of all the hate and the creating force behind the whole rage filled curse is indeed Takeo. He, with his despicable acts of violence, was the one who set this destructive force loose on the world. While Kayako and Toshio might both still retain some of their former human selves, Takeo is pure rage; an onryō with indiscriminate need to destroy, making him the most dangerous spirit of them all.
After Kayako disappears, Takeo descends the stairs. The same scene of a bloody hand reaching out to Rika is repeated, but this time it is not to tell his story, or to ask for help. Everything in Taeko’s demeanour, from the way he carries himself to the dead look in his eyes, screams hateful menace, and while we are left with simply the images of his hand reaching towards Rika, it’s obvious that her story is not going to have a happy ending.
The last images of the film are of Kayako’s body, wrapped in plastic and laying in the against the attic wall. As the camera zooms in she opens her bloody eyes and looks straight at us, signifying the continuum of the curse and the fact that her spirit has certainly not been laid to rest. Picture cuts to black, end credits roll, and we are left with the uneasy knowledge that no matter what, there is no getting away. I suppose that is what I love about this film and this particular scene so much; the absolute darkness of it all. Even when we are given a slight ray of hope that maybe, just maybe, there is a hint of humanity left inside all the horror, that hope is very quickly snipped away by a force even more hateful than those who preceded it. There is no escape from this curse, not for its victims and not for those keeping it in action. There’s only darkness, hate and rage and so forever shall it remain.