Content warning for discussions of rape, domestic abuse, child abuse, and spoilers for Ju-On: Origins, too.
If you’re familiar at all with Japanese horror, you know Ju-On (2000), its sequels, and English remakes in The Grudge series. Quite possibly you even have chips to lay down on Team Sadako versus Team Kayako. If you’re not, here’s a brief precis: really bad things happen in a bad house over and over. It is a tale as old as time, but then again, time is the tricky bit in the Ju-On series, because the bad things that happen don’t always happen in quite the right order. Characters are interlaced and events are discontinuous; the first thing you see may be the last thing that actually happens. It is, with apologies to Doctor Who, a big ball of timey-wimey stuff, but in this context, the unconventional narrative not only sets up scares and varies the pacing–a jump scare in one part will pay off with the dawning dread of recognizing doomed characters in another–but it feeds into the films’ ethos of blunt, stupid, unfair inevitability.
And the inevitability is key. The first film begins with a title card reading “Ju-On: the curse of one who dies in the grip of a powerful rage. It gathers and takes effect in the places that person was alive. Those who encounter it die, and a new curse is born.” Bad makes bad. That’s the only rule governing the world of Ju-On, but it’s not a Creepshow-esque assurance that the wicked will be punished with grisly cosmic justice. I mean, they might, but that’s a side effect. What it really means is when someone dies in such a rage, a rage that has nothing particularly to do with justice or innocence but makes both impossible, it opens up a big dark something that will never be put to rest, fooled, or exorcised. Bad makes bad forever and ever, and it’s just waiting for anyone to step across its threshold to help it make more.
In the films, the original terrible event that authored all of the suffering connected to its cursed house was the story of Takeo and Kayako, although in Ju-On’s mixed-up narrative, theirs will be nearly the last story we’re explicitly shown. That story is that once upon a time, a man, Takeo, discovered that his wife, Kayako, had feelings for another man. Just feelings, mind. Believing he had been cuckolded and imagining that their young son wasn’t his, an enraged Takeo first brutally murdered Kayako, crushing her throat and assailing her with a box cutter, and then drowned their son Toshio together with the family cat in an upstairs bathtub. Later, his wife’s vengeful spirit, preceded by a now iconic death rattle, returns to murder him back. But bad makes bad, and nothing is settled. Through the sequels, remakes, and the 2020 “sidequel,” we see Kayako’s misery follow the doomed unwary (also my high school band name) across town and across the ocean. You can’t take the house out of the Grudge, but you can take the Grudge out of the house. Except wait, stop the presses. Maybe Takeo and Kayako weren’t the first Bad Thing to happen in the house. Maybe there is more to the house than that one atrocity’s location, location, location?
Enter Ju-On: Origins (2020), a limited series that purports to tell the “true” (wink) story of the cursed house, and we begin with what appears to be a genuine, linear beginning, with a paranormal researcher and an actress appearing together on a TV show in the 1980s, discussing a legendary spooky house, its reputation grim, but its exact location, or even its confirmed existence, unknown. Their interest seems to overlap; the actress, Haruka Honjo (Yuina Kuroshima), reports hearing ghostly running footsteps in their apartment at night ever since her boyfriend Tetsuya (Kai Inowaki) visited a mysterious house, and…paranormal researchers gonna paranormal research, right? Meanwhile, poor Tetsuya is concealing the fact that he can see ghosts…and that he saw ghosts. And that he is still seeing them.
In another part of the story, beautiful transfer student Kiyomi Kawai (Ririka) is tricked into visiting the same house by jealous classmates. There, she is brutally raped by Yudai (Koki Osamura), the boyfriend of one of her so-called friends, and afterward, she spies an apparition so terrifying, she cleaves to her rapist. But while Yudai is focused on Kiyomi, one of her classmates quietly goes missing. Later, a pregnant woman plots with her boyfriend to murder each other’s spouses. When she confesses her infidelity to her husband, he offers her a glass of wine. “What about the baby?” she asks. “We can all die together,” he replies, smiling. And where do you think they live? And this barely begins to skim the surface of the grim, barbed wire braid Ju-On: Origins makes of its characters’ individual fates. And, yes, there’s a creepy cat, too.
The remarkable thing about Ju-On: Origins though, both for the franchise and as a horror title in general, is the way this series fixates on original sins rather than the implacable supernatural curse we expect. I mean, yes, there are ghosts, but they’re just not that big a deal in Ju-On: Origins. For all the spookhouse talk, it’s a bit of a bait and switch. Skip the preliminaries, especially early on, and you could mistake this show for a grisly procedural drama like Criminal Minds. To that end, it is unrelentingly cynical and brutal. The six episodes are short, just 30 minute chunks, bite-sized, but there’s harsh little fish hooks secreted in those bites, meant to catch and tear going down. Not quite slaughterporn, but certainly sufferingporn. You won’t be flinching from terrifying white-faced specters nearly as often as from man’s inhumanity to man. There’s rape, child abuse, domestic abuse, mutilation, prostitution, and only a few of the series’ cast resist the call to debasement and vengeance. What they are and what they make each other is the Ju-On curse in the flesh. You will see how Kiyomi’s abusive mother and classmates torment her into a fine, shining cruelty of her own; thus empowered, she watches her once rapist, now lover Yudai beat her mother to death at her behest. Later, he will beat her as mercilessly and put their young son in the hospital. Through abuse, sorrow, drugs, and prostitution, we see Kiyomi’s soul destroyed over and over. She’s not Kayako, but the wrongs laid on her fashion her into a different kind of vengeance demon, one which has its own strange, time-looping relationship with Kayako’s house.
The time-looping doesn’t seem to be important at first, and for the first couple episodes, I wondered if the usual discontinuous narrative might be taking a backseat to the unrelieved grimdark as much as the ghosts were. At that point, the involvement of the house in all of these criss-crossing stories seemed convenient more than anything, and the segments proceed in a linear path–at least, they seem to. Rest assured, there is some weird purgatorial Möbius strip business going on by the end of the series that will tie everything up in a nice paradoxical bow, but again, for the Ju-On franchise, it’s weirdly unimportant that time is fragmented in the house. The house ends up acting almost like a TARDIS that takes you to the worst possible moments of your life, but it’s the people in those moments, much like Takeo’s horrible crime of passion in the first film, that is what’s really wrong.
Ju-On: Origins includes all the mainstays the fans of the films will know and expect: bad things in closets and attics, a yowling cat, dehumanizing violence, some pretty corporeal-looking haints, gotta say, plus earnest police and well-meaning social work types having no idea what they’re getting into. The point of this series though is not so much Ju-On and a lot more Origins, not just as a provocative hook to dig a new basement for the series mythology, but to take an unflinching look at the unnatural consequences of natural evil. It’s often a hard watch, particularly the violence against children, but its unrelenting focus boils down the thesis of the entire franchise and presents it in naked, natural light: bad makes bad and nothing, nothing, will ever make such bad things right again. There are dire consequences to giving in to cruelty, and if you do, the best thing for you might be if you do hear Kayako’s death rattle at your ear.
Ju-On: Origins is currently streaming on Netflix.
Angela is, of course, Team Kayako.