Ju-On Origins (2020)

Since its release “Ju-On” (Takashi Shimizu, 2001) has established itself as a classic horror, spawning sequels, remakes and a crossover with “Ring” (Sadako vs. Kiyoko, Koji Shiraishi, 2016). This mini-drama, six half-hour episodes, first takes us back to 1988. Yasuo Odajima (Yoshiyoshi Arakawa) is a paranormal investigator who is introduced to the story of the mysterious house by a co-presenter, Haruka Honjo (Yuina Kuroshima), whose partner recently visited the place while house hunting. Certain spirits that inhabit the house haunt many people who come into contact with it, often terrifying them to death or causing some violent or fatal misfortune. Around the same time a schoolgirl, Kiyomi (Ririka), is tricked by her classmates into visiting the house and there subjected to sexual abuse. The series then moves forward, to 1995 and 1998, as occurences at the house and in the lives of people connected with it become more gruesome and bizarre.

Written by Hiroshi Takahashi and Takashige Ichise, and directed by Sho Miyake, “Ju-On Origins” creates several interwoven stories that all converge on this same ill-fated residence. The short half-hour episodes and multiple narratives mean it is fast-paced, moving swiftly from one story to another, often more of a detective drama that straight horror. The mystery of what is happening in the house twinned with genuine concern for the characters makes it gripping from start to finish. For fans of the original films there is also interest in seeing these new characters and revisiting the cursed residence. The scares are a mixture of bloody body horror, more visceral and shocking than anything in the original films, and the more familiar creepy moments. These subtler moments are often more effective, creating an uncomfortable atmosphere from often simple things: mewling cats, ringing telephones, small details in the background. However, when it does go for more disturbingly graphic scares, it hits the mark, reinventing and exploring the more gruesome aspects of the “Ju-On” myth, including spousal and child murder, and sexual assault. The direction uses some of the techniques of the original film, off-kilter angles, holding on a scene until the audience realises there’s a figure in the background, but also features great use of light and colour, with scenes shifting from light to dark. There are more special effects involved in this series, which can be hit and miss, but are nevertheless audaciously extreme. The cast all do a great job in bringing the curse of the house to life, creating real characters in an unreal situation. In particular Yoshiyoshi Arakawa in a rare serious role, and Ririka whose complex character is one of the most intriguing.

One of the things that makes “Juon Origins” interesting is the meta reading of the film. In several episodes we hear or see news reports of real-life crimes and tragedies, two very high-profile murders, the Sarin Gas Attack, and the Kobe Earthquake. These add a disturbing aspect to the film, almost drawing horror from these true crimes into the narrative, providing an uncomfortable reminder that horror and evil exist in our own world. Odajima, one of the first characters we are introduced to and one whose story is intricately linked with the house, is asked on a number of occasions why he is writing a book on the paranormal; and this question could also be asked not only of this film, but horror films in general. The question of human fascination with evil, whether real-world or supernatural, is a pertinent one, especially considering the inclusion of the genuine stories mentioned above. The idea of the cursed house, spirits calling for revenge, unsatisfied rage, anger, despair, are things that are seen as resulting from the violence and abuse that took place there. In part, the series is not questioning the origin of this cursed house, but the origin of the film “Ju-On”, and indirectly all horror. That is, why do writers, artists, and film-makers, make disturbing works. It does not spring from some imagined fear, but from the horrors they see in the world. Whether this is a form of escapism or an attempt to explain our relationship with evil is up for debate. “Ju-On: Origins” is a series that takes it’s subject matter seriously, creating a potent dread that is as much to do with our own fears as the supernatural horror.

Carved: The Slit-Mouthed Woman (2007) by Koji Shiraishi

Based on a playground urban legend, this slightly silly horror sees a monstrous figure begin a terrifying rampage of kidnap and killing. The film begins with groups of children telling the story of the Slit-Mouthed Woman, who removes her mask to reveal a face sliced from ear to ear, and who cuts her victims in a similar way with a pair of large scissors. After an earthquake strikes the town, this woman begins to appear and snatch children in plain sight. When her student Mika (Rie Kuwana) is taken by the Slit-Mouthed Woman, teacher Kyoko Yamashita (Eriko Sato) along with Noboru Matsuzaki (Haruhiko Kato) set out to try and stop her and save the children that have been taken. They are helped by a schoolboy who has collected data on the woman, and Noboru’s personal experience as a child.

Directed by Koji Shiraishi (Noroi: The Curse) and written by Shiraishi and Naoyuki Yokota, “Carved: The Slit-Mouthed Woman” is standard horror fare, with a supernatural monster coming after young children, a dark backstory, violence and even a spooky old house in the woods. Part of the problem is in making such an urban legend into a believable figure. The Slit-Mouthed Woman’s appearances seem random, happening in broad daylight, witnessed by everyone, before equally sudden and inexplicable disappearances. This robs her actions of any tension in the buildup, often happening before you’re aware that there was even a threat. As a villain she also seems remarkably easy to stop or simply shove aside, as any character who attempts it ably demonstrates. The second narrative problem is in her motivation, which is muddled at best and non-existant at worse. The film may work better for children, with the children being the main victims and the non-supernatural horror revolving round mistreatment of children. It is this balance between a slightly spooky fable for children (watch out for strangers) and a genuinely terrifying horror for adults (keep an eye on your children) that sees the film perhaps pull back in certain moments, never fully developing the more troubling themes it hints at. On the positive side the film does have a great, if comfortably familiar, third act, when they finally track down the monster to her hideout and a fun showdown ensues. The sound design and score by Gen Wano and Chika Fujino also does a good job of evoking the eerie, sinister atmosphere of a ghost train.

The urban legend of the Slit-Mouthed Woman references a childhood fear of strangers and a parental fear of their children going missing. This film also weaves in a secondary horror that is more interesting than that primary narrative. We learn that Yamashita hit her young daughter, meaning that she is now no longer in contact with her. Her daughter lives separately with her father. Mika also suffered violence at the hands of her mother, as did Noboru. This theme of maternal child abuse provides a dark undertone to the film, and one that makes parts of it an uncomfortable watch. It is never made clear why the women act this way, presumably due to mental health issues, post-natal depression and multiple-personality disorders are hinted at. Instead the film seems to suggest that women occasionally turn violent for little reason. The depiction of such women as evil seems a step backwards in the understanding of such conditions. “Carved: The Slit-Mouthed Woman” is a fun horror that doesn’t expect too much from its audience, but could have used its platform to tell a more interesting or more nuanced story.

The Guard from Underground (1992) by Kiyoshi Kurosawa

Akiko Narushima (Makiko Kuno) is on her way to a new job as an art appraiser at a large company. At the same time another new employee appears, the mysterious Fujimaru (Yutaka Matsuhige), to join the security guard team in the building. The towering, terrifying figure of Fujimaru soon begins a murderous rampage, killing off a fellow security guard and members of staff. Akiko finds herself in a fight for survival agains this killer on the loose and also battling the unwanted advances of her superior, Kurume (Ren Osugi), in this satirical slasher.

“The Guard from Underground”, directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa and written by Kurosawa with Kunihiro Tomioka, is a typical horror film, with a satirical self-awareness of its inherent silliness. There is no explanation given for Fujimaru’s actions, other than a rather cryptic proclamation by him late in the film. Instead we have all the elements familiar to old-fashioned monster movies but with a modern twist. Instead of a monster we have the figure of Fujimaru, distorting the image of the helpful security man to a figure of terror and danger; the damsel-in-distress trope is similarly subverted in the resourceful Akiko, who proves more than a match for the men around her. Makiko Kuno is perfectly cast as the modern woman taking on not only sexism, but the hulking figure of a killer stalking the building. The ensemble cast do a great job with straight-faced performances providing just enough believability to the outrageous premise to maintain tension. Director Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s skill is evidenced here in the creation of shadowy, claustrophobic locales, transforming the familiarity of an office into something terrifying, with danger lurking around every corner. The music by Yuichi Kishino and Midori Funakoshi creates a sense of dread that seems purposefully to test the limits of parody, over-emphasising each scare. That is not to say that the film doesn’t have some great gory moments, such as a man being crushed to death in a locker, but they are made so outrageous as to be clearly intended to entertain rather than shock.

Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s “The Guard from Underground” is on the surface a slightly silly slasher film, but just under the surface there is a clever deconstruction of office politics. The film draws a direct comparision between the idea of a murderer on a killing spree with the far more common dangers faced by women in the workplace, sexism and sexual harrasment. The similtanous arrival of Akiko and Fujimaru speaks to this sense of certain threats being inescapable, or sadly just something she has to deal with as part of her job. A fun slasher film that displays the directors skill at creating atmosphere, “Guard from the Underground” bolsters its somewhat ridiculous premise with a thematic depth discussing sexual politics and more everyday dangers faced by working women.

Monsterz (2014) by Hideo Nakata

A man (Tatsuya Fujiwara) with the power to control other people’s actions comes up against his greatest adversary when he meets someone who is impervious to his abilities. After a traumatic childhood, Fujiwara’s sinister protagonist turns to a life of crime, using his abilities to freeze people in time and manipulate them to his will. He is shocked to discover that a young removal man, Shuichi (Takayuki Yamada) is unaffected by this and sets out to destroy him. Shuichi also seems to have peculiar qualities of his own, recovering exceptionally quickly from accidents that would be fatal to others.

Hideo Nakata (The Ring) directs this film in what is a departure from the straight horror fare he is best known for. “Monzters” is a remake of an earlier Korean film “Haunters” written by Min-suk Kim, with the Japanese script here by Yusuke Watanabe. It is a dark superhero narrative, with a villain and hero fated to do battle, leaning more towards action that suspense. There are a few moments of horror, such as the opening sequences and scenes in which people are forced to snap their own necks, but the tone remains fairly light throughout. The story is hard to take seriously and there are moments that tip over into pure farce, such as the two boxers being controlled to come and beat up Shuichi, or the scene in which he saves a baby by diving over a railing. Part of the problem with the film is a lack of significant characterisation. There are ideas here that are never fully developed Fujiwara and Yamada do a decent job with relatively little to work with. Fujiwara is suitably unlikeable as the villain, evoking a degree of sympathy with a tragic backstory, an outcast who has turned against the world; while Yamada’s Shuichi is a likeable protagonist. The supporting cast include Ochiai Motoki and Nakano Taiga as Shuichi’s friends, and Satomi Ishihara. Kenji Kawai’s score is one of the highlights of the film, lending some much needed emotionality and tension, with a poignant undertone to the drama and sinister clanking industrial soundtrack supporting Nakata’s darker visuals.

While for the most part “Monsterz” is a fairly formulaic superhero action film, there is an interesting concept at work in the Fujiwara character. The question of whether criminals, or ‘monsters’ as he is described in the film, are born or made is one that has been discussed in many works of film and literature. The film unfortunately relies on the trope of disability as an indication of evil, Fujiwara’s limp becoming a symbol of his sinister nature as with Richard III’s hump-back and disfigurement. Similarly, there is little grey area in the portrayal of Fujiwara and Yamada. The villain has certain sympathetic motives, hated and abused by his father, cast out from society, but these points are again brushed over, and we mostly see him only as the ‘monster’ he is seen as by others. A more nuanced take on both him and Shuichi may have benefitted the film, adding a little more nuance to the depictions of good and evil. Overall, a fairly entertaining dark superhero narrative, but it feels as though Nakata was restrained by the material, a crowd-pleasing action film, and unable to deliver something truly thrilling.

The Complex (2013) by Hideo Nakata

Atsuko Maeda has restless spirits to contend with in this horror from “Ring” director Hideo Nakata. Asuka Ninomiya (Maeda) has just moved to a decrepit apartment block with her parents and younger brother, Satoshi (Ruiki Sato). The reclusive neighbour begins to take on a terrifying aspect when Asuka hears scratching on the other side of the wall at night. She also meets a lonely boy playing in a nearby park, named Minoru (Kanau Tanaka). Asuka’s strange experience grow even stranger as she begins to suffer from déjà vu and learns that the apartment may be haunted.

Director Hideo Nakata knows just how to build tension from the smallest incident. Everything from the flickering lightbulb outside the apartment and the scratching on the wall,, create a sense that something is slightly off. The script by Junya Kato and Ryuka Miyake blends traditional ghost house aesthetic, with the setting of an old rust-stained apartment block, and psychological terror as we are not sure what Asuka’s experiences really mean. There are moments in the film that are genuinely terrifying without the need for excessive gore or violence, the slow turn of a head, or the sudden cut to the following scene. The use of lighting and colour is also noteworthy, particularly in the later half as it is used more dramatically. This use of simple techniques, rather than the need for outrageous effects, helps the film develop natural scares. Unfortunately, this is undermined somewhat later in the film with a couple of moments that are almost parodic in their excessive attempts to shock. The story also devolves as things progress, beginning as an interesting ghost story with a psychological angle, it seems that too much is expected of it later on and it starts to break apart slightly. Mostly the plot-holes and weaknesses in the story are counterbalanced by the fantastic horror elements, which may not be original but are nevertheless handled expertly.

As with Nakata’s previous work “Dark Water”, “The Complex” breaks down the ghost story and attempts to weave through it something with emotional depth. Ideas of an afterlife and restless spirits are interwoven with themes of survivor guilt and regret. Similar to “Reincarnation” (2005) by Takashi Shimizu, the film becomes an exploration of Asuka’s psyche as she deals with the trauma of her past. The appearance of Minoru seems to be an element that is somewhat misplaced as his story doesn’t tie in exactly with either of the protagonists. It feels a little like a separate film has intruded, one about vengeful demons and infernal punishment. An intriguing horror that lacks a little of the depth of Nakata’s earlier works, but nevertheless delivers its fair share of chills.