Grudge Match: Ju-on vs. The Grudge – By Timothy Martinez

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As February 1st sees the release of last years The Grudge on DVD, I thought it would be interesting to compare it with the original Japanese film on which it is based, Ju-on.

Ju-on started life as a direct-to-video project that, despite spawning a sequel, was not deemed too much of a success in Japan. However, this did not deter director Takashi Shimizu, who was able to remake the original film as a theatrical production. It was this version that met with both critical and financial success, with a theatrical sequel following it. When American filmmaker Sam Raimi (The Evil Dead and Spider-Man films) first saw it, he proclaimed it one of the scariest movies he had ever seen and spearheaded the movement to make the inevitable American version. However, unlike The Ring, which was a heavily Americanized retelling of Ringu, The Grudge was destined to retain a great deal of it’s Japanese feel and cultural nuances. This was accomplished chiefly by having Takashi Shimizu direct the American version as well, as having made it twice already, who could know it better?

The story is based on a simple idea: when somebody dies in the grip of a powerful rage, a curse is born that infects all that come into contact with it. In this case, the curse is represented by the ghosts of two murdered people – Kayoko and her son Toshio. They do not take kindly to anyone who enters the house in which they once dwelt and where they met their violent ends at the hands of Kayoko’s jealous husband. Everyone who enters the house is touched by this curse and sooner or later, the ghosts are going to come for them.

The two films are simultaneously very different and very similar. Each employs a broken narrative approach, where the events of the film are not told in a linear fashion, but are presented as a collection of shorter vignettes that are tied together by an overall story. This approach is less noticeable in the American version which does not include chapter titles like the original did. Plus, one of the segments in Ju-on was left out of The Grudge. This particular sequence pushed the limits of the time-jumping narrative by looking ahead several years at the daughter of a secondary character. Needless to say, this was dropped for the American release, as the bulk of Western Audiences would have no doubt found it confusing.

Both films are typified by their focus on mood and atmosphere rather than blood and gore to achieve the chill factor. This comes across best through the use of lighting and sound. The house which Kayoko and Toshio haunt is creepy even during the brightest part of the day. When night falls, look out! The use of shadows here expertly plays upon the primeval fear of the dark we all have to varying extents. Added to the creepy sounds used, such as Kayoko’s croaking sound or Toshio’s cat-like wail, and hairs are almost guaranteed to stand on end. With the larger budget, The Grudge was able to make fuller use of such techniques and in the end looks and sounds much more cinematic.

Both films are set in Japan, but The Grudge utilizes an American cast. While I understand why this was done – to make them more identifiable with American audiences, it still seemed a bit odd to see so many Caucasians, including entire families, living and working at various jobs in Tokyo. Some of the relationships are changed as well. The most notable is how the close friend to Ju-on’s main character has now become the boyfriend to Sara Michelle Gellar’s character in The Grudge. It just couldn’t be an American film without some sappy romantic subplots, would it?

Where the two films differ is more of a cultural thing than any other. In Japan, just seeing a ghost is a terrifying event, whereas in America seeing a ghost is not always perceived as inherently frightening. Thus, the ghosts in The Grudge have been “spooked up” somewhat to make them more terrifying for American audiences. This is accomplished through scarier expressions on their faces and in their movements. In Ju-on they never moved threateningly – just appeared with rather blank looks on their faces. In The Grudge, they jump out from dark corners with expressions best described as heart stopping. However, these changes are not too heavily used and the remake still has many instances where scares are set up from the simplest things. Moments when just informing the audience of something makes it scary, rather than having it pushed at you with a resounding, “BOO!” This method is what really helps create the mood of the film. Also, a few set pieces have changed in the translation. An encounter that took place in a public restroom in the original now takes place in a stairwell in The Grudge. A sequence with a housekeeper in the remake was never included in Ju-on. Several small touches such as these differ between the two, but really do not impact the overall story in any way.

Different as well are the films’ storytelling approaches. In Japan, audiences are much more forgiving of tales that do not necessarily explain every last detail or leave plot threads unresolved. Such things in America would have audiences whining and complaining to no end. Thus, The Grudge contains much more explanation than the original. This is highlighted by the ghostly origins of Kayoko and Toshio. In Ju-on, we are told they became specters because they were murdered by Kayoko’s husband and Toshio’s father. Not much more is revealed, other than that he was in a jealous rage when he committed the murders. In The Grudge, we get much more backstory detailing the events that led up to his violent acts, including a new American professor character that was not in the original.

Despite the differences, both films are excellent. One just has to understand that each film was made for a different culture. That being said, I must confess to enjoying The Grudge more than Ju-on. Maybe because the larger budget allowed for a more cinematic approach, maybe because it was “spooked up” for American audiences or maybe just because I happened to see it first. I really can’t say.