A little while ago we went deep on the start of the J-Horror phenom franchise The Grudge, from short film origins to blossoming into V-Cinema. This time we’ll be following the line further in, as the curse cemented itself as an icon and caught the eye of Hollywood. We’ll be chronicling the Japanese mainline films Ju-On: The Grudge 1 & 2, where the series really got a hold of the industry, and set itself up to burst forth worldwide.
The two Ju-On: The Grudge films were both popular and quality, bringing in a respectable box office as well as garnering the attention of the American film industry. With Japanese horror film remakes being the new hot thing, and with the success of The Ring causing the public to thirst for more, it was a perfect time to pull the trigger and bring The Grudge over to Hollywood. Luckily, they kept the very Japanese cultural sense of the films, even setting it in Japan and bringing Sarah Michelle Gellar over just to be the center. Takako Fuji puts in the performances of her life through Ju-On: The Grudge to The Grudge 2, the salad days of J-Horror in the West.
Through this piece I’ll be detailing the initial end of the original Ju-On continuity. We do return to the original Ju-On story later on, but that’s for another time. This piece takes us through the halcyon days where J-Horror hit a peak in Western awareness. Quickly following these films was the American remakes, which I’ll be covering in the next article, but in the meantime join me as I take you through the beginning of the Ju-On franchise’s most successful time, when The Curse Takes Hold.
Ju-On: The Grudge
Takashi Shimizu hit success in Japan with the two Curse films, and his vision for The Grudge extended well past that. Getting the funding for a higher budget resulted in a much more competent project that pushed the Saeki curse forth to new boundaries. Since The Ring was remade and released in America in 2002, the promising Ju-On: The Grudge from a blooming talent in Shimizu was picked up quickly by Screamfest Horror Festival in the US, where it debuted before releasing in Japan, showing that the American audience was already hungry for those ferocious J-Horror spirits. There’s a lot to unpack from this film, as it solidifies or sets up tropes, iconic scenes, and aspects of the Curse that are maintained even through the various remakes of the franchise.
Ju-On: The Grudge starts deep into the live Takeo’s brutal act. We see more detail here than ever before in the series, and threads between Kayako and Toshio’s deaths and their actions as spirits all come together. We get Takeo grabbing Mar (you may remember the family cat), Kayako’s body in a bag, and him leaning over the corpse with a boxcutter whilst Toshio hides in another room. Combined with what we’ve learned and seen from The Curse, what exactly went down that day is being slowly but steadily filled in.
Our main character is introduced shortly after this tone setter, a 23-year-old volunteer social worker named Rika Nishina. Bright, kind, and completely unaware of what she’s walking into, she picks up a job (unfortunately for her) caring for a catatonic elderly woman named Sachie Tokunaga over at the old Saeki residence. The Tokunaga family are the current owners (post-Kitada from The Curse 2), and have lived here not only long enough to put up a nameplate at the front gate, but also for some of that lingering evil to seep into Sachie. She seems aware of the presence of Kayako, but at the same time too foggy of mind to process it properly.
Rika cleans up the mess that seems to steadily return to the house over time, and vacuums up a photo of the Saeki family, back when they were happy, which is the first of the little artifacts we saw back in the Curse films. Then, in hearing something from above, she comes to the fateful closet, where unbeknownst to her Toshio had been locked in as his mother was murdered. There’s a thick layer of electrical tape around the closet doors, which is one of those J-horror things about keeping out (or trapping in) spirits. This is almost certainly a nod to Shimizu’s mentor Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s iconic film Kairo (Pulse). The tape side of things isn’t as direct as it is in Pulse, as later on we see layers of newspaper used in a similar way to try keep out the Curse spirits.
After a good bit of buildup, we finally see our favorite ghost lady, Kayako. She appears as a shadow of sorts, a ‘black ghost.’ It’s the first time we get to see the ‘shadow’ apparition side of things, so I should explain it for later reference. There’s never a real definitive explanation for the difference between the regular ‘white ghost’ side of things and the shadows, but generally the shadows don’t do any of the actual killing. Here, it’s almost like she’s feeding off the torment she’s putting onto Sachie, but in other instances the shadows cause paralyzing fear, stalk individuals, or lead them to their doom. They also do a little bit of possessing, but that’s to come way down the road. In short, shadows could be said to be a ‘soft haunting,’ despite them being very much terrifying too. But when the white ghost side comes out, things get real.
Kayako appears above Sachie and Rika, scares Sachie to death, and mentally scars Rika. So the first victim of the film literally succumbs to fear itself. We now begin the non-linear narrative weaving that Shimizu does so excellently, and move back in time to Katsuya Tokunaga, Sachie’s son. He sees his wife upstairs in a catatonic state from the frightening aura that the dream team of Toshio and Mar put forward, as the two of them accost her whilst she’s home alone with the barely present Sachie. An actual shadow is cast over Katsuya as he tries to get away from the pale little boy meowing at him, and we cut to Hitomi (his sister) arriving.
It’s not outright stated, but judging by his mumblings to his sister soon after, we can assume Katsuya was possessed by Takeo’s spirit. It might be strange to think at first that Kayako’s murderer is one of the powers behind the curse, but the way The Grudge works is that the overbearing evil originating from such a terrible scene created a curse, which acts as a sort of whirlpool of death and terror, and uses whoever it pulls in to strengthen and spread. It’s why previously the Saeki curse overshadowed and encompassed Manami’s in The Curse 2, and why we’ll see it often use the bodies of its victims.
As a bit of an aside from the Ju-On lore, the man playing Katsuya Tokunaga here is Kanji Tsuda. He’s a sort of bridge between worlds here, also starring in Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Tokyo Sonata, and is quite a prolific actor, having some really interesting credits to his name (Vampire Girl Vs. Frankenstein Girl, Mutant Girls Squad, and even the Sion Sono film Guilty of Romance).
As Katsuya’s sister is leaving her office building, she starts to feel that lingering presence of Kayako stalking her. The security camera scene with the officer is one of those iconic moments that is crafted so well that is was put in almost one-to-one in the American remake, as is the scene immediately following it, where Toshio shows up on every floor as the elevator makes it’s way up. Continuing this stream of iconic shots redone time and time again throughout the series, we see a TV breaking up and slowly having the sound turn into the Kayako croak; it’s a small detail, but used so effectively. Finally, with the last of the many cinematic contributions Hitomi’s scenes have brought, we get Kayako pulling Hitomi under the covers and disappearing completely. The curse itself seems to have no limit on what it can do in regards to its victims; some are left terrified to death, some are physically maimed, some are attacked by those the curse possesses, and some simply just disappear.
A lot of people would have come into Ju-On: The Grudge with no prior knowledge of Ju-On: The Curse, but armed with that, the Saori scene has a whole new level of greatness to it. I said in my previous article that one of the shining aspects that makes me love these films so much is their inter-connectivity, and how they piece together the narrative and let it unveil in a gripping way. Here, with Saori and her friends breaking into the house on a dare, we flash back to the ending of The Curse 2, where the very same thing happens (albeit during the day).
Yuji Toyama walks right into a memory, an event that happened within the house. It’s surreal, uneasy, and builds up tension so strongly, with all involved eventually succumbing to the Curse. This is an ‘atemporal connection,’ when the curse causes victims to see themselves or each other, disregarding time and space (though mostly centered within the house itself). Sadly, this surrealist element never really made it to the American films, but it shows up every now and then for these two Ju-On films.
When we get to the denouement and Rika is well within the Saeki house, she does this strange thing where she splays her fingers across her face to cover her eyes, just as she saw a few others do throughout the film. This lets her see Kayako as she was when alive, with healthy skin and good looks. Being able to see Kayako like that connects with her somehow, allows her to understand her pain,and she dies, a tear even falls down her cheek.
In the end, the Curse doesn’t care for ‘understanding’ or ‘compassion,’ and Takeo walks down the stairs to finish the job himself. He inflicts upon Rika exactly what he did to Kayako, with her compassion leading to a very unwelcome walk in her shoes. And in a deleted scene, this mirroring is taken even further, with Takeo taking her corpse upstairs and cutting her just as he did before.
Some absolutely amazing shots end the film, with the streets are empty, victims gone now, and no one else around. It’s not a shot that carries into the future, but in a few ways mirrors the ending of both The Curse 2, and strangely 4444444444. These shots of empty streets and areas, with ominous aura about and a light wind streaming through, happened to a minor degree in 4444444444, whilst the ending of Curse 2 hit us with the many Kayakos strewn about the place. It’s an ending that embodied the feeling of the Curse spreading and being cyclical, but not one that carried over to the next film in such a momentous way. It feels exciting in those moments to breathe and take in what we saw, and it’s a perfect way to cap off the impactful beginning of The Grudge series.
Ju-On: The Grudge 2
Ju-On: The Grudge 2 marks the end of what I can only assume was Takashi Shimizu’s grand plan, as everything before and including this fits together so well, connecting as a cohesive, grand plot. The Saeki story of the curse born from great tragedy may not be neatly wrapped up at the end of this film, but it certainly feels complete. This film also released outside of Japan first, hitting the Hamburg Fantasy Film Fest in Germany on August 15, 2003, a full week before its Japanese debut.
There’s not much in the way of new aspects of the Curse brought into this one, but the spirits show just how far they can stretch their bounds, and to what extent the terror they spread can affect all those around. The beginning shows Toshio pulling the strings and making things happen, only for Kayako to be brought forth as things get crazier. Their goal as spirits is to replace horror movie actress Kyoko Harase’s child in her womb with themselves, and have the curse be born back into life. It’s not immediately clear why they would desire this, but it brings in pregnancy and motherhood to the layers of horror the Ju-On series covers.
To kick things off, we join a TV crew as they’re setting up to film in the cursed home. The director, named Keisuke Okuni, is disappointed at first with the Saeki house and the lack of activity. He “thought it would be scarier.” Almost immediately afterwards, we do get some strangeness, though in a way that’s just for the audience. In an interesting scene, we get to see the often-overlooked time when the Saeki household was a happy one. Behind Kyoko, (and unbeknownst to her) we see a fragment of the past, with Kayako and Toshio talking and moving about in the kitchen, fully non-Grudged in appearance.
This isn’t the first instance of a fragment of memory from before the murders being made visible through the Curse, but it’s certainly a rare occurance. The most interesting aspect of this is that past Toshio actually notices Kyoko spill her drink, and comes over. Despite us getting a peek into what daily life was like for the Saeki family before the incident, the Curse is still in full effect, and so the spirits are still aware and hostile beings.
Later on we get another vision of the past, though this one is quite a bit less pleasant. The hairstylist for the shoot, Megumi Obayashi, has some psychic ability, and whilst she’s being accosted by the Grudge, she sees the cause behind a deep stain in the carpet of the Saeki home. It’s Kayako, in the garbage bag Takeo put her body in, scratching at the ground as she bleeds profusely all over. Insane imagery aside, Takako Fuji, as always, absolutely nails the movements and absent expression as Kayako approaches for Megumi’s rough demise.
For their grand plan, the spirits spook actress Kyoko and her husband, Masashi, as they drive home, causing a serious crash. Masashi is put into a coma, but miraculously, Kyoko’s unborn baby is deemed unharmed. However, unbeknownst to everyone involved, Kayako has already put some part of her energy into Kyoko’s womb. It’s a bit of a superstition that filming things concerning evil and determined spirits often leads to tragedies overcoming many in the cast (like with The Exorcist over in the West), and we see everyone that went in to film at the Saeki house being picked off by the curse.
Shifting over to the next characters’ focus, we settle on Tomoka Miura, a television host for a horror show named Heart-Stopping Backgrounds (not the most creative or exciting show name). With what has fast become the highlight of style in The Grudge’s storytelling, we get another set of interconnected scenes, with a phone call Tomoka makes to her partner Noritaka. We heard this very same phone call earlier, albeit from the other side, before witnessing both their deaths. Whilst the jumps around in time aren’t always obvious, once things fall into place, it feels so satisfying to see the whole narrative unveil.
In regards to this, we see that the very beginning of the film, the accident that left Masashi in a coma, took place around the center of the narrative. It’s a piece that feels like it fits, but then when the timeline is laid out a bit in dialogue by the director midway through, it slides smoothly into its place. For a while, it does feel a bit like the curse is simply striking out at random, but here we find out that it was in fact all born from the group going to the Saeki home to film that TV special.
There are two major tools used for effective terror throughout the Grudge series. One is technology, channeling Pulse and Ringu with spirits using technology to reach and affect their victims. There was the security cam footage from Ju-On: The Grudge, as well as the film crew reviewing their footage and seeing the possessed Kyoko taking shape as Kayako. The other is hair, which is used as a VERY effective spooky element, as Kayako’s long black hair is incredibly iconic. This film is where it hits full sprint with the idea though, from the lattice of hair stitched across Tomoka and Noritaka’s ceiling which drapes down and hangs both of them, to the wig Megumi is taking care of coming to life as Kayako channels herself through it.
The director, when about to leave the house post shoot, comes across a familiar book seemingly presented to him before the exit. Kayako’s diary is a central element of the franchise, it being the catalyst for Takeo’s murders, and also the method most characters unravel Kayako’s unhinged obsession. This is the first film where the diary is forced upon those who entered quite so insistently, since the plot led up to finding out what went down in the house in the former films and thus it was found during a search. Here the director finds it simply sitting on the table by the door, and flicks through to find the disturbing collection of notes and drawings inside. Then later, Megumi (piloted by the curse at this point) brings the diary to him and Kyoko. It’s implied that Kayako wants her story to be known. Sure, all the people who read it end up dead, but it does add a bit of humanization to the ruthless Onryo.
Megumi’s spirit makes the rounds in this film, though hers is not the only extra one seen. Something not really brought up much in the Ju-On series is other spirits, those who have not been pulled into the curse. Kyoko, fast asleep, doesn’t notice Megumi now fully controlled by Kayako (judging by the iconic jerky movements) rising from her floor and approaching. However, she’s awakened by her mother’s hand shaking her, and her voice calling Kyoko’s name. It’s a touching moment, however brief, and shows that whilst The Grudge pulls in everything it can down into it’s murky depths, there are still spirits that can be forces of good and protection as well. This also does imply that whilst Toshio was visibly there for Kyoko’s mother’s death, her passing could have been natural, which would explain her not immediately becoming a part of the Curse as well.
As the final few of the film crew are feeling the pressure of the rapidly approaching scourge that is The Grudge, we transition away from Kyoko and over to teenager Chiharu. We’ve not really hit surreal like this at this point in the series, with Chiharu and her friend Hiromi in this looping nightmare, going from outside the house to in, pulling things from one side to the other. It’s an incredible section, with great writing and some mindbending scene fades, coupled with erratic yet on point acting from Yui Ichikawa as Chiharu.
After Chiharu meets her end through her mind being broken down, we get a Kayako segment to tie everything together and cap us off. And this one is probably the strangest of all, though also featuring some of the strongest imagery. Kayako is literally birthed from Kyoko, the only one not consumed by the encroaching darkness, crawling out of her womb and claiming the entire room of doctors, as well as Keisuke, who barges in to see if things are alright. When Kyoko finally wakes up, there are no bodies, only stains on the floor, just as Kayako had left as her corpse leaked blood up in the attic. On the floor, however, is a little bundle of joy, a crying child wrapped up.
Despite this obviously being a very very wrong thing, Kyoko can’t help but pick up and care for the baby, as after all it is a part of her too. Flash forward, and we get a delightful little scene of a tired looking Kyoko out for a walk with the adorable little kid Kayako. Despite getting back to the physical world and having a body once more, the evil that has grown inside of her is still ever-present. She pushes Kyoko down some stairs and walks off into the sunset, presumably to cause havoc someplace else now.
This brings us to the end of the original Saeki storyline, though not necessarily to the end of the original timeline. From here, we move on into remake territory, and all that we’ve learned doesn’t necessarily hold true. But with those two standalone films I mentioned before (White Ghost and Black Ghost), the original timeline is technically continued (albeit in a way that doesn’t relate in any real way to this original run of films).
Ju-On: Victim Timeline
Here you can find every victim of the curse through the main two Ju-On films, and what exactly caused their end, in chronological order. These films do a great job of melding timelines together and keeping things non-linear, but we’ll do our best here to present it all in the actual chronological order.
Kazumi & Katsuya Tokunaga – Katsuya, after finding his wife paralyzed in fear from Toshio’s presence, becomes possessed by Takeo. It’s not certain when he himself dies, though as we decided in The Beginning of the Curse, possession is effectively death anyway. With Takeo’s influence, Katsuya brings his wife into the room Kayako was ultimately murdered in, and presumably ends her life (though judging by her body found later, in no way as cruel an end as Kayako got). Two kills for Takeo, on a technicality, but it counts nonetheless.
Security guard & Hitomi Tokunaga – Through Kayako’s stalking of Hitomi, hunting down every member of the Tokunaga family currently residing in her house, an innocent security guard is led into a bathroom and never seen again. Hitomi makes it home, only to succumb to the infamous bed pulling scene, where Kayako appears under her blankets and pulls her down and out of existence.
Sachie – Scared to death, quite directly, by black ghost Kayako (one of the very few kills a shadow ever gets).
Hirohashi – The employer at the welfare center Rika works at meets his end in uncertain terms, but being found dead underneath the sink sounds like a potential Takeo murder.
Igarashi, Nakagawa, & Yuji Toyama – As we’ll see going through these two movies, where Toshio did his share of the consuming in the Curse films, it’s all Kayako and Takeo here. These three detectives working on the growing number of bodies surrounding the Saeki house meet their end to Kayako in the entrance way to the house. Well, Toyama made it out of the house at the least, but met his end soon after.
Mariko – Rika’s friend, dragged into the curse in an almost identical fashion to Shunsuke Kobayashi (both teachers, checking up on the constantly absent Toshio by heading to the house and thus dooming themselves). Whilst we can’t be entirely sure of who did the taking, it does seem like Toshio is the most likely culprit, so we’ll throw him a bone and chalk up another for him.
Rika – Our main protagonist finds herself relating to Kayako, and even seeing herself as Kayako in the mirror. Which is bad news, since Takeo grabs hold of her and enacts the same death sequence Kayako went through in life. It’s a nasty end.
Saori, Chiaki, & Ayano – We know these three school friends were taken by Kayako, with Yuji Toyama seeing strange visions of their experience whilst in the house himself, but specifics around it are a bit unclear. Another three for Kayako however.
Izumi Toyama – The detective Yuji Toyama’s daughter, she went in the house with her friends Saori and the rest, and their ghosts (along with her father’s) tormented her as Kayako brought her into the death realm as well.
Noritaka Yamashita & Tomoka Miura – Whilst there’s definitely overlapping storylines between Ju-On 1 and 2, thankfully for the timeline’s sake the events of the second all actually take place after the first. So here’s the first two from Grudge 2, two members of the film crew in different ways being hung in their apartment by Kayako’s ever powerful hair. The first deaths through hair in the series as well, which is something that the American films really focused in on.
Megumi Obayashi – One of the handful of ‘sensitive’ characters through the series, those in tune with the supernatural and able to detect things from the curse to more general things (in Megumi’s case, she could tell Kyoko was pregnant as well). Megumi gets hit by some hair tech as well, with a long black hair wig Megumi was tending to morphing into Kayako herself.
Aki Harase – Potentially the only on-screen character to, mercifully, fall to a natural death. It’s a bit up in the air, could absolutely be due to the lingering curse on Kyoko that spread to her mother, but the circumstances around her death and the relative peacefulness of it, plus the fact that she has the power to come back as a helpful spirit in the future, points to a natural death.
Watanabe & Sooma – Bit unclear here, and these two can’t really be chalked up for any of the spirits in particular, but cameraman Watanabe and sound technician Sooma disappear along with all the others who were there for filming that day. It’s around this time that their disappearance is noted, so it should fit in somewhere here.
Chiharu – Chiharu meets this incredible, surreal, and terrifying end culminating in being pulled away by Kayako. She skips around in time and space, drifting between reality and nightmares, it feels almost like Shimizu was making a different horror short, but it still managed to fit in perfectly with the rest of the film.
Doctors/Nurses, Masashi Ishikura, & Keisuke Okuni – The four doctors/nurses in the operating room along with Kyoko as she’s birthing a now physical Kayako fall to the curse, right before Keisuke bursts in and follows suit, after the adult Kayako is literally birthed by Kyoko. All at the same time Kyoko’s husband Masashi, up on the roof of the very same hospital, decides to take his own life by jumping off it. So 5 more for Kayako, and Masashi escapes the curse the unfortunate way.
Kyoko Harase – And finally, the last kill of the original Japanese Saeki timeline. After being reborn into the physical world, Baby Kayako gives Kyoko a shove at the top of a set of stairs, and that’s the end of our main protagonist. Baby Kayako wanders off into the street, prepared to carve a path of terror through the open world.
And now for the final body count, through the whole of the original Japanese timeline, from the short films all the way to Ju-On: The Grudge 2. 52 total deaths, with 48 total victims of the curse throughout that whole timeline, beginning with Kayako herself, and ending with Kyoko.
Kanna – 1
Toshio – 3
Takeo – 8
Kayako – 36