Sordid Cinema

The History of The Grudge: The Beginning of the Curse

Ju-On, or The Grudge, is an iconic J-horror franchise with some of the most chilling films the genre has to offer. The first entry, Ju-On: The Grudge came out back in 2002, and the series is still going today. With several reboots and a few spinoff films, there is a lot to unpack when digging back through the franchise. As it’s a series that any horror fan should make themselves familiar with, I’ll be putting together a history of The Grudge, from its short beginnings all the way to its possible future, detailing the history of not only the Ju-On films but also the timeline and victims of the curse itself — as well as how it develops as that infinitely dark mark left in that house grows and grows.

Needless to say, spoilers abound.

To set things up, a young and aspiring filmmaker by the name of Takashi Shimizu was attending the Film School of Tokyo in 1998. He studied under one Kiyoshi Kurosawa (a filmmaker with his own fame, but completely unrelated to Akira Kurosawa), who invited him to assist with making a horror anthology. This is where the curse begins…

‘4444444444’ & ‘Katasumi’

The first two shorts in the Ju-On story are around three minutes each, and are more like single concepts backed by the idea of the curse. Originally, Takashi Shimizu had planned on more to contribute to the horror anthology film Gakko no Kaidan G (or, School Ghost Story G), which these two shorts became a part of. It’s possible that some ideas brought forward to the followups of Ju-On: The Curse 1 & 2 were ones he had played around with in the making of “4444444444” and “Katasumi.”

Whilst the two are singular entities that can stand on their own as concept shorts, Takashi Shimizu himself does see these as the beginning of it all, referring to them as “almost like the true prequel of the story.” If you’ve not seen these two before, they’re highly worth the time, and can be tracked down on YouTube easily enough. It’s also really satisfying to go from these to The Curse and see how the narratives fit in together.

The ‘Toshio’ side of the shorts actually showcases some talented control over camera angles and framing.

“4444444444” deals with the technology aspect, with the ringing phone bringing a student riding home to his demise. After finding a strange phone left beside some junk in an alleyway, he sees that it’s getting a call from the number “4444444444.” The number might seem a bit odd to Westerners, but the number 4 is closely associated with death in Japan (due to the similarity between one reading of the number, “Shi,” and the word for death, also “Shi”) and is considered unlucky. Upon answering, he’s met with…

A cat meowing. Somehow, Takashi Shimizu makes a cat meowing creepy, with an odd and almost pained vocalization. Cats making prank calls aside, the student hangs up, a little frustrated, but instantly gets another call. Frustration with the cat prankster turns into unease as he starts to believe whoever is on the other line can see him. After asking as much, a voice replies in the affirmative.

And here’s Toshio! It’s the first appearance of the franchise’s weird naked boy ghost. Whilst the ending of “4444444444” is pretty goofy and smacks of student filmmaker, there are a lot of little elements that would be polished and brought forward through the entire series. We get the technology influence, the pained cat, and Toshio (who appear together most of the time), in addition to some solid camerawork. It’s the weaker of the two shorts, but still has merit.

Takashi Shimizu’s other contribution to the horror anthology, a bit more ambitious in approach.

“Katasumi” also exists within a single space, but this time there are two female student characters tending to the school rabbits after everyone else has gone home. Broadening the static (but well-placed) angles that Takashi Shimizu focused in on in his other short, he he employs voyeuristic handicam shots that break up the simple dialogue. After Kanna, one of the girls, somehow manages to cut her finger on a clipboard by picking it up, the other, Hisayo, goes off to find a bandage. She soon returns to find her friend missing.

Whilst “Katasumi” doesn’t present many iconic elements that would continue on, there’s one major part that went on to be the core of the series. We get our first look at Kayako Saeki (played by Takako Fuji) stalking out from the shadows. The actress played Kayako all the way until Grudge 3, and made the character terrifying. Her unnatural movements, iconic look, and dedication to creating the character carried Kayako Saeki to becoming a genre icon.

Seeing Kayako for the first time is amazing, but the weird noise she makes is somewhat…off. It’s still creepy, but the ragged outtake of breath that went on to be so closely associated with the character lends itself to subtlety a bit more. Not that Kayako doesn’t make a similarly strange moaning sound later on in the series, but the croaking is much more commonplace here. On the topic of sound, we see that Kanna has succumbed to the curse, and is now manipulated by it (another element Shimizu holds onto strongly as the series continues), as she turns and makes some sort of dinosaur-like sound. It’s an odd choice, but these little bits of jank make for a charming start, and set up so much that Shimizu would hone as he developed his vision.

In the end, Gakko no Kaidan G featured four segments, with Shimizu contributing to less than 10% of the runtime, yet it’s his segments that gave birth to greatness.

Ju-On: The Curse 1 & 2

The curse begins, two halves to make a whole as evident by the covers.

The first film in the Ju-On catalogue weaves in the events of “4444444444” and “Katasumi,” rather than simply bouncing off the ideas. Throughout Ju-On: The Curse those two shorts come together as a part of the whole narrative, and things start to make a lot more sense when context is provided. Whilst it jumps around in timeframe, it should first be noted that The Curse 1 & 2 were released to V-cinema (Japan’s straight-to-video catalog) and theaters in the same year, and feel like two halves that make a whole. Hell, even the first thirty minutes or so of The Curse 2 was lifted directly from the ending of the first in order to catch viewers up.

The Curse gets audiences caught up with the events that transpired within the Saeki family home that led to the Grudge forming, though in no clear, direct way. It’s a non-linear experience that expertly moves between characters as we fill in the story, taking place over three distinct time periods. This is truly where the mythos begins, getting into the swing of things with a chaotic but incredible piece of J-Horror cinema that helped define the genre.

Kayako is one of the pillars of that ‘long haired ghost girl’ image so synonymous with J-Horror.

As the film progresses, it is revealed that in a particular house Takeo Saeki was driven into a jealous rage that resulted in him brutally murdering his wife, Kayako, son Toshio, and the family cat, Mar. Only a little bit of backstory of Kayako herself is revealed, and in a subtle way as to never plot-dump. When she was at university, she fell head over heels for a man named Shunsuke Kobayashi; unfortunately, due to being shy and seen as rather creepy by those around her, she couldn’t act on her love before Kobayashi began dating Manami Midorikawa. So instead, Kayako met and married Takeo, who seemed to be the only one who understood her.

Her obsession for Kobayashi only grew over the years, and she journaled her borderline-stalker inner feelings long into her marriage with Takeo. Once Takeo found out, he flipped, and an argument ended with him viciously attacking her. As we get into the remakes later, the origin of the curse is flipped a bit, but in the original it comes from the intense way Takeo sees to the end of Kayako’s life. The actual act isn’t clearly shown throughout these two films — only hinted at — but it appears as if she was stabbed to death. This evolves over time, and her death directly relates to the way in which she manifests, but for the moment all we get is repeated stabbing.

The main thing to take from the The Curse is the forming of the curse itself through this violent act, with Toshio’s fate as of yet unknown, outside of dying around the same time as his mother (the same can be said of Mar, as it’s revealed in a future film exactly what went down with those two). Takeo’s murder spree leaves a dark imprint of tragedy upon the house, and even extends out to Manami and her unborn child as well. This is how the Grudge itself begins, and how the franchise sets off on its path. Two more families eventually occupy the Saeki home over the course of this film — the Murukami family, and the Kitada couple — with the Murukamis meeting quickfire ends through the curse claiming them, whilst there is a glimpse of Kayako possessing Yoshimi Kitada.

The Curse brings forth the very non-supernatural tragedy Takeo inflicts upon his own family as well as the Kobayashis, and that fetus-in-a-bag is a terrifying detail.

Despite its CG aging and the lower film quality (even for 2000), there’s so much iconic J-horror flavor bursting forth that The Curse is well worth tracking down. Sure, Ringu set the bar for J-horror pretty high, but Shimizu was up to the task at putting forward his own induction to the genre. Having this alongside the two short films creates a fantastic jigsaw that fits together so well (with the children of the Murukami family being the subjects of the two prior shorts), and it’s a joy to piece together as the film goes on. Whilst the series really hits its stride later on, with Ju-On: The Grudge itself, The Curse has that special something that makes this whole series such a satisfying one. Its interconnectedness — those non-linear segments that slowly reveal the big picture as time goes on — is something that sadly is forgotten the further into the series one goes.

Meanwhile, The Curse 2 has a lot more imagery that doesn’t hold up very well, though it maintains that incredible atmosphere for the most part. However, there are some absolutely shining moments that deserve mention, like Kayako standing in the rain in the distance, a few great shots of her moving around almost unnoticeable in the background, and the many Kayakos scratching at the windows.

Most of the more effective imagery comes late in this second film.

The Curse 2 also introduces a new mechanic, as the Grudge grows ever stronger and is now is able to spread through it’s victims, affecting those who haven’t even set foot in the house itself. Tajii and Fumi Suzuki — mother and father of the real estate agent in charge of selling the cursed house, Tatsuya Suzuki — are taken by the lingering spirit infecting their daughter, Kyoko (who did enter the house, though her parents did not).

Another interesting element put into the curse — which is never explored again through this individual — is that of Manami. The woman murdered by Takeo whilst she was heavily pregnant has her own grudge, and curses Nobuyuki Suzuki, the son of Tatsuya, while he lives in her old apartment. Her grudge has the same overbearing presence and deadly end for him as the Saeki family one does, but despite Manami’s curse being on him, he is still haunted and eventually succumbs to Kayako herself.

Manami’s curse is also upon Kyoko, even possessing her, but ultimately the spirit of Kayako overtakes it. It’s possible that Kayako’s curse is just far stronger, and it takes on other ‘Grudge’ scenarios and feeds on them. Throughout these two Curse films, Kayako’s influence and ability only grows stronger and stronger, and she finds she can reach out well beyond the limitations of those who set foot inside the central location of the curse. Whilst the sea of Kayako clones looks pretty goofy (outside of that one amazing shot of them all scratching at the windows), it gets over the cyclical and never-ending nature of the curse, and really hammers home the inevitability of this consuming all around it.

Despite the over the top hammering of spooky imagery the finale of the film presents, there’s some understated but certainly effective shots as well.

These films laid the groundwork for what would become the series, with two solid and memorable J-Horror installments building towards what would be the breakout hit of Ju-On: The Grudge in 2002. Shimizu’s shorts impressed enough that he got a few producers interested in funding a two-part, full length project. Releasing them as V-Cinema minimized the risk, putting them comfortably amongst other lower budget horror flicks whilst having a limited theater showing alongside the release. And hitting audiences almost as hard as Ringu put Shimizu’s name out there, as well as showed his growing prowess at building eerie tension alongside some genuine scares.

Up next we’ll hit the glory years of The Grudge, with the phenomenal success of the next film in the series inspiring not only another sequel, but also an American remake series to explode forth. Stay tuned for the next part in our detailing of the history.

THE CURSE: Victim Timeline

Every victim of the curse, and the events that caused it, in chronological order. MAJOR spoilers follow, but it’s interesting to lay out everything the curse consumes over these films. And, hell, let’s rack up the body count as well.

Kayako & Toshio Saeki, Mar – Kayako is murdered viciously by Takeo, creating the curse. Mar the cat is also murdered. It’s worth noting that Takeo also killed Manami and her unborn child, but they did not figure directly into the curse. On the note of Toshio, however, despite Takeo leaving him in the attic to die (a scene not yet shown, but it’ll come later down the road), it’s Kayako’s spirit that graces him with a quicker death and brings him into the curse.

Manami Kobayashi & her unborn daughter – The heavily pregnant and soon expecting Manami is killed by Takeo, along with her unborn daughter.

Shunsuke Kobayashi – The object of Kayako’s secret affections, a school teacher who comes to the house in order to check up on Toshio, as he’s been absent for some time. Kobayashi is the first victim of the curse, not counting the murder commited by Takeo before becoming a spirit. Kayako and Toshio show their Onryo side, and Kayako, in a very rare moment, actually speaks and calls his name. It’s right before killing him, but still, a nice final gesture.

Takeo Saeki – Kayako takes final vengeance on her murderer, though vengeance is not enough to quell the incredible power of the curse itself.

Yuki – Tutor and friend of the Murukami daughter, Kanna. With the Murakami’s being the new owners of the Saeki house, she unfortunately finds herself alone for a few moments inside. Investigating that iconic croaking sound, Yuki comes face to face with Kayako in the attic.

Kanna Murakami & Hisayo Yoshida & Noriko Murakami – Kanna forgets that she needs to go to school to feed the rabbits, and leaves her tutor, Yuki at her house whilst she goes to do it. These events are detailed in the short film “Katasumi,” as Kayako finds her and her school friend, Hisayo Yoshida, meeting their gruesome end. It could be argued that Kanna, as she appears bloody and missing a jaw later on, survived for longer than the next two victims. However, what is much more likely is that this severely abused form was her body piloted by The Grudge itself, rather than her surviving to stumble home. Seeing as her mother, Noriko — the one that finds her — also disappears, it’s safe to say the curse claimed her through Kanna.

Tsuyoshi Murakami – Not knowing what has happened just one room over from his own, the Murukami’s son, Tsuyoshi, decides to go to school to meet his girlfriend. Along the way the events of “4444444444” happen, with him finding a phone ringing. Toshio is the spirit that appears before him, and is implied to be the one claiming him for the curse.

Mizuho Tamura – Tsuyoshi’s girlfriend, searching for him at school. A teacher tells her that no one is left, despite his bike being there. Whilst the teacher searches the school once more, Mizuho gets a call from the same number, and once again Toshio is there to collect.

Kyoko Suzuki & Yoshimi Kitada – Kyoko is the sister of the real estate agent in charge of selling the Saeki house, and is also conveniently sensitive to spirits. An odd one to place on a timeline, but she — as well as the newest resident in the Saeki home, Yoshimi Kitada — is possessed by Manami and Kayako, respectively (though Kayako overtakes Kyoko’s possession as well). As soon as the possession takes hold, there’s no real hope for either of them, so they’ll be placed as victims here.

Hiroshi Kitada – Victim of frying pan to the head from his wife. Yoshimi was possessed by Kayako, however, so she racks up that point.

Tatsuya Suzuki – The real estate agent, checking up on the new residents. Once again, the possessed Yoshimi Kitada kills him, and once again the point going to Kayako.

Tajii & Fumi Suzuki – Briefly seen parents of Kyoko and Tatsuya. The curse emanates from the possessed Kyoko, and presumably it is Kayako’s presence that appears to frighten them to death.

Yoshikawa & his wife & Kamio – Detective Yoshikawa is in charge of working out all the murders linked to the house, and is seemingly driven mad by his investigation. He and his wife are taken out by Kayako, who then moves on to another investigator, Kamio, whom she brazenly attacks right in the police station, showing that there is no safe place from her curse.

Noboyuki Suzuki – The final member of the Suzuki family — and final body count for these two films — is ruthlessly pursued through school and claimed by Kayako. Potentially due to his similar appearance to Toshio, Kayako holds him like a child, and his skin goes the same pale color as Toshio’s is.

Despite possession playing a large part in the second film, the first doesn’t make any real allusion to it, and thus Kanna still gets her point, as it appears that her spirit was drawn into the curse, and lashed out on its own. So, there we have it: 23 victims down, and pulled into the grudge. Here’s a quick scorecard, to see the exact weight of murder throughout the series at this point.

Kanna – 1
Toshio – 2
Takeo – 4
Kayako – 16

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