Megumi Okina as Rika Nishina
Misaki Ito as Hitomi Tokunaga
Misa Uehara as Izumi Toyama
Yui Ichikawa as Chiharu
Kanji Tsuda as Katsuya Tokunaga
Kayoko Shibata as Mariko
Yukako Kukuri as Miyuki
Shuri Matsuda as Kazumi Tokunaga
Yoji Tanaka as Yuuji Toyama
Takashi Matsuyama as Saeki Takeo
Yuya Ozeki as Toshio
Takako Fuji as Kayako
Chikara Ishikura as Hirohashi
Chikako Isomura as Sachie
Daisuke Honda as Detective Igarashi

While visiting the home of a bedridden woman, a homecare worker named Rika finds a young boy and a black cat sealed in a closet with duct tape. In letting them out, she releases an angry spirit that kills and then possesses those it encounters, beginning a chain of events that leads back to a grisly murder that took place in the house years earlier. The spirit’s victims include a schoolgirl, the former detective who handled the murder case and most of Rika’s friends and family, forcing Rika to solve the mystery before she becomes its next victim.

With the Asian horror market finally getting attention in the United States, the phenomenon surrounding Japan’s Ju-On is pretty amazing. Based on the buzz surrounding two direct-to-video horror films by director Takashi Shimizu, the producers of Ringu (the original Japanese horror film that inspired The Ring) produced a feature film around Shimizu’s concept of a spirit of vengeance. Even before its Japanese release, a sequel was greenlit, which ended up doing significantly better in Japan. The story doesn’t end there though, as Sam Raimi brought Shimizu on board to direct a bigger budget English language remake called The Grudge, starring Sarah Michelle Gellar, which comes out in October. Shimizu used many of the same Japanese actors and even the same location as the original movie. With that in mind, the original Ju-On gets a theatrical release in the States to try to build on its cult audience.

Even without knowing the history, the original film comes across as a bit of a work in progress, partially because Shimizu’s filmmaking is not particularly sophisticated. All of the ideas are there, but something gets lost in translation, making it that much harder to understand what is going on. After Rika is introduced, the movie cuts between a number of segments where a person visits the house, has an encounter with one of the spirits and then is killed. The spirits comes in a number of forms throughout the movie, although the most memorable one is the creepy young boy named Toshio, his black cat and a longhaired female apparition that bears more than a passing resemblance to the girl from Ringu.

Unfortunately, that is the biggest problem with Ju-On. With so many elements in common with that better-known Japanese horror film-odd photographs, static filled television sets-it’s almost impossible not to see this as a blatant rip-off. Although both movies use strange surreal images to create tension and horror, Ju-On is different in that it revolves more around the spirits and their appearances than the mystery surrounding them. It’s more straight horror along the lines of The Amityville Horror and Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street, dealing with haunted houses and nightmarish visions, but with only half the scares.

Ju-On‘s best moments are the more subtle ones where you see quick flashes of the spirits in the reflection of a window or a mirror, giving you the haunting feeling that they’re always present. Some of the spirits are a bit cheesy looking and rather unmenacing, making it hard not to laugh as they crawl across the floor or make a sudden appearance, but the music and sound effects are used effectively to create a sense of suspense around the ghosts’ appearances reminiscent of The Sixth Sense. As far as the acting, there are few standout performances worth mentioning besides Rika and the young boy; most of the characters aren’t even alive long enough for you to get to know them.

Sadly, most American audiences will have a hard time deciphering some of the clues and getting around the film’s non-linear storytelling. At first, it seems like the story is jumping backwards in time, but you soon realize this isn’t the case at all. Like other movies with difficult chronologies, the more focused you stay, the more likely you will be able to piece together the puzzle and figure out the relationships between the characters. It’s the type of movie that demands repeat viewings, although its very nature makes it hard to sit through it more than once. Hopefully, Shimizu will work out those problems for the American version.

The Bottom Line:
Despite its notoriety, Ju-On is far from the perfect horror movie, and it’s not even particularly scary, although it does show off some of that fine ingenuity typical of Asian horror. Parts of the movie can be hard to sit through due to the slow and often repetitive nature of the storytelling, but there are enough eerie images and interesting ideas to make it an enjoyable experience. Then again, many will simply discard Ju-On as a second-rate Ringu, which is a shame since Shimizu has a unique vision and approach to the subject of ghosts. If nothing else, Ju-On is worth seeing to have some sort of reference for the impending big budget Hollywood remake.

Ju-On opens in New York and Los Angeles this Friday and in other cities over the course of July, August and September. The English language version, The Grudge, opens on October 22nd.

(Thanks to Grady Hendrix from Subway Cinema for his help with the history of this film.)