There’s a lot to like about the Ju-On/Grudge franchise. Several elements of the story have been derived from existing Japanese folklore (my other article has a bit on “The Girl in the Gaps”), and the creator Takashi Shimizu is, in my opinion, a truly inspired artist, who puts a lot of his heart into his work. This article is very much MY ranking, I can go ahead and tell you that some think more highly of the 3rd and 4th Japanese films than I, and the idea of whether the Japanese version of “The Grudge” is superior to the American version is hotly contested among the fans. Some find the American version to be unnecessarily Americanized, but as a trade-off Shimizu gets a chance to make minor changes he thought of after making and releasing the Japanese version. But enough of all of this heady philosophy, let’s resurrect some spirits…
Here’s your primer: When somebody dies in a horrific way, a grudge/curse (ju-on) can be born. This creates Onryō, which are angry ghosts that haunt a dwelling. When anyone enters that dwelling they are cursed, will die, and when they die a new curse WILL be born. Let’s go, starting with the worst:
#13 – Ju-On: The Final Curse
These were supposed to usher in (while ending?) a new era for Ju-On, with a new, sometimes inadvisable, take on the original Saeki family curse. Ju-On 3 introduces a new antagonist, in Toshio, who has been mostly benign until now. In Ju-On 4, instead of striking out in a new direction, it doubles down on what made it’s predecessor, Beginning of the End, such a hard watch. It also continues to change the origin of Kayako and her family, so tread lightly. You may want to judge for yourself, I say this because I have actually seen some Ju-On/Grudge critics that like these last two. One positive turn is that someone successfully destroys the original Saeki house, and that’s LONG overdue.
#12 – Ju-On: Beginning of the End
I just have trouble with the idea of Toshio being the big bad, I don’t think it’s what viewers generally came for. This one did not involve Takashi Shimizu, which is a bad sign. Many of the scares are recycled from previous films, with some unsatisfying twists added. Murderous husband of Kayako, Taeko Saeki, begins to receive a bit of a pass for his (completely unforgivable until now) crimes. Ju-On 3 & 4 collectively reuse all of the biggest Grudge/Ju-On scare scenes between the two of them, with a twist that you you will either love or hate.
#11 – The Grudge 2020
At least they show Kayako and recognize that the story we know DOES exist, that’s about it. This is actually a “soft reboot,” in that it takes place simultaneously with the first American Grudge film, but also begins a new story line, essentially unrelated. This version looks at the grudge/curse as an infection that spreads.
#10 – The Grudge 3
Well, they were trying with The Grudge 3, and it’s got a couple of moments worth not keeping. We continue with the wild story of the American movie The Grudge 2, and closing in on a (gasp) cure for the grudge/curse. The problem is, most of the movies begin by telling you the curse never ends, and, barring spoilers, this one doesn’t change that at all.
Check it out for one surprisingly creepy scene of Kayako, in an unusual mode of dress, pursuing a man down a hall, I don’t know what it is, but as we saw in Ju-On: The Grudge 2, when Kayako is pursuing right out in the open it’s actually kind of creepy.
#9 – Ju-On: Black Ghost
Black Ghost/White Ghost was released as a part of the tenth anniversary of Ju-On, and featured two standalone tales from the Ju-On universe. Black Ghost was directed by Mari Asato (Samurai Chicks, Boy From Hell), and it’s run time is 60 minutes. The plot revolves around a girl who has an unborn twin within her body, that seems to be possessed by an evil spirit. This is an interesting concept, but it’s kind of hard to understand, as it is cut into the traditional 8-segment Ju-On format.
#8 – Ju-On: White Ghost
White Ghost/Black Ghost is probably what, “Beginning of the End” should have been: New stories within the Ju-On universe. This one is pretty grim and it follows the grudge/curse formula well: Featuring a rage-inspiring set of murders that result in the haunting of an apartment in Japan.
Unfortunately, the budget is rock-bottom, the effects are painfully cheap-looking and the film quality looks different from the other movies (this seems to have been shot on video as opposed to film). There are also a couple of stylistic choices that are questionable: including the conspicuous inclusion of a basketball during several of the death scenes, you can’t un-see it.
#7 – Sadako vs. Kayako
Why not just take everything that’s cool about the series and make a love letter to J-Horror while you’re at it? This great versus movie does not take itself too seriously, and manages to pack some new tricks for both the Ring and the Grudge franchises.
Some cool additions include Masanobu Andō as “Keizō Tokiwa” and Mai Kikuchi as “Tamao,” two psychic and paranormal experts, excited to encounter the legendary ghosts. I would actually love to see those characters return, though it’s doubtful that Sadako vs. Kayako will be canon.
#6 – Ju-On: The Curse 2
This finishes the story of the original curse “circle” (part one has a huge cliffhanger), and sets up the immortal classic. The thing that pulls this one down is: It contains a full half hour of scenes from the first movie. It’s great to see the ending, but only 37 minutes of this movie are new material.
#5 – The Grudge 2
It’s clever, and it tries to explain more than most of the other installments. Sarah Michelle Gellar slays it again, and Amber Tamblyn ably carries the rest of the story, which features the grudge/curse moving from one city to another. The effects are very well done and the original creator really gets to flex and tell a story that hasn’t been told yet. Some may say it overreaches a bit: Kayako’s origin is altered heavily, and the changes only reappear in the American film The Grudge 3.
Fantasy Spot: Ju-On: The Curse (Fan Edit)
This is the entire origin story, in it’s complete form. This version can be found on YouTube, and couples the entire first movie onto the beginning of the second, equaling the 2-hour runtime a movie audience would have craved. I am a huge fan of this cut, you get the true origin, told in current time, and the first spread of the evil grudge/curse. I’ve mentioned the low budget, but the director really uses atmosphere and dialogue to convey the disturbing scenes herein. This set of movies features a small aspect of Takeo’s story that isn’t repeated in any of the following movies (though could be considered present in Ju-On: Origins, the TV series).
#4 – Ju-On: The Curse
Ju-On: The Curse is the actual beginning of the story, and I warn you, it’s brutal. You get to see the actual events that sparked the long-running Saeki curse. The downside has to do with its release: It seems like it was made for theaters, and then later split in two for separate DVD releases. As a result, this one seems to stop at a weird point. There is very little budget, but a credit to the Director, it doesn’t actually hurt it that much.
#3 – Ju-On: The Grudge
If time is linear, then this is the prototype for the series. This version tells the story of a young caretaker entering the Saeki house and dealing with the ghosts of a Kayako and Toshio (and the ghost cat Mar, to some extent). This is probably the best place to start the series, saving possibly the American version, they are actually pretty much the same movie, the biggest difference is the budget. this film is where Takashi Shimizu first gets a decent budget to portray his epic story.
#2 – Ju-On: The Grudge 2
Fans are gonna KILL ME for putting this here. This one came out less than a year after it’s predecessor, and many say it seems “rushed.” Perhaps, but I like to argue that this movie actually tells the newest, most different, tale of the movies, Kayako and Toshio exhibiting behaviors that don’t reoccur, different ghost powers, and the Director dipping his toe into traditional “J-Horror” tricks that are a bit more complex than the jump scares the series is known for. Also, the ending of this one is just unsettling to me, judge for yourself.
#1 – The Grudge
Takashi Shimizu at his best. Many will argue that the Japanese version is better, but even he has stated that the second look and increased budget allowed him to spread his wings in this second take on the immortal classic. Sarah Michelle Gellar is stellar in the lead, a veteran in the genre, and carries us through the story of the Saeki curse in a way that has hardly been paralleled. There are slight differences, the American lead, the nature of Mar the cat, but all-in-all, this is the vision in all it’s splendor.