Shimizu studied under Kurosawa at the Tokyo Film Seminar/Film School of Tokyo. This relationship proved crucial for Shimizu because Kurosawa got him his first professional directing job helming two segments for Kansai TV’s 1998 Haunted School G series. These would form the basis for the Ju-On films which Shimizu is most remembered for.
Ju-On – A curse born of a strong grudge held by someone who died. The place of his death gathers his grudge and works on anyone who comes into contact with those places. Those with this curse shall lose their life and a new curse is born.
The film is split into six vignettes. Each one follows a separate person and they are not in chronological order. The first follows a teacher named Shunsuke Kobayashi who is concerned about the absence of one of his pupils named Toshio Saeki. While paying a house-call Shunsuke notices Toshio is injured, Toshio’s mother Ayako is nowhere to be found and the household in disarray with objects strewn around and the environment suggesting abuse. After helping Toshio apply first aid Shunsuke makes the decision to wait little realising the house is haunted. Cut to a few years later and new occupants are in the house. The Murakami family consist of the mother Noriko, son Tsyuyoshi and daughter Kanna with a father off-screen. Each of these people and those they interact with become haunted over time as the curse spreads and it becomes clearer that the house is haunted and the curse is spreading.
Originally a direct-to-video (original video) release, Ju-On: The Curse is the start of Shimizu’s highly popular run of yurei in suburbia titles that culminated in his helming the American re-make and even two films celebrating the tenth anniversary of the series which were directed by two new directors. I wrote yurei but it might be more accurate to call them onryou because these spirits are intent on harm. They terrify their victims (and the audience) to death with Shimizu playing on every fear an urbanite might have about their surroundings. The film is low-budget but high on imagination.
Centered on a house with a ‘past’ in a Tokyo with normal suburban streets, back alleys and a school, the people in this environment are also relatively normal. It is an urban sprawl that is both familiar and unremarkable, a massive contrast to the deadness seen in Kurosawa’s films. What makes this film and all of the Ju-On films so damn spine-chilling are the ghosts that follow the various characters around turning safe environments into supernatural gauntlets.
Who the ghosts are is probably no secret by now considering eleven years have elapsed and there have been five further films. In the cold light of day both Toshio and Ayako are somewhat underwhelming. It is the sound design and staging that makes them so terrifying: they have a horrible habit of popping up at the most unexpected moments and signalling their presence with a range of blood chilling sounds from Toshio’s miaow to the death rattle sound of strangle victim Ayako.
Shimizu’s intelligent use of simple physical effects and sound design makes every location morph from normality into an alien space as we and the victim gradually become aware of another presence lurking nearby. It plays on the fears of everybody about the stranger downstairs who wasn’t invited in.
Shimizu shares Kurosawa’s use of slow build-up and a steady camera and long-takes in order to establish environments and set up scares. Just by turning off a light, positioning a camera to catch a glimpse of legs or a reflection Shimizu builds up tension in the haunting. The first segment in the multi-narrative story has an oppressive silence. When we revisit that segment later in the film the silence becomes ominous because of what we know. Then the silence is punctured by voices just about heard in the background as the ghosts’ converse over their victim. In another segment taking place in day light one girl left alone hears Ayako’s strangled noise and tries drowning it out with music but CD jams. Seriously freaked out she steps through door into darkness, a Silent Hill other world. The switch between light and dark is very unsettling but worse still is the noise Ayako is making is getting louder!
A haunted house may not sound original but the way the film is structured keeps things fresh and there are surprises in store for the patient viewer who pieces together the clues. The twist is both disturbing and entertaining. Making the horror come to life is a cast of brilliant actors. Genre stalwarts like Denden (Cure) and Yanagi Yuurei (Ringu) Yoriko Doguchi (Cure) are uniformly excellent and Chiaki Kuriyama gives one of her best performances as a school girl spooked by Toshio. Considering this was an original video production the calibre of acting is pretty damn awesome.
Unlike other original video releases like Ghost System, Ju-On has depth with its abuse and obsession subtext which serves to ground it even more for the audience but the mystery that plays out and the way it is executed is where it truly shines. The film is a wonderful haunted house with enough well-executed and original skin-crawling moments to make it memorable and worth watching. It is not that scary but the unfolding of the story is very original. No wonder this was the first of a hit series.
Release date: February 11th, 2000
Running time: 89 mins.
Director: Takashi Shimizu
Writer: Takashi Shimizu, (Screenplay),
Starring: Takako Fuji, Ryota Koyama, Takashi Matsuyama, Yurei Yanagi, Chiaki Kuriyama, Hitomi Miwa, Asumi Miwa, Taro Suwa, Denden, Kazushi Ando, Yuuko Daike