Ju-On: White Ghost and Ju-On: Black Ghost (2009): Grudge of a Different Colour

I have opted to review both these ‘films’ together as their total running time apiece is 61 minutes, hardly the length of your run-of-the-mill movie. Despite their title’s making use of the Ju-On phrase that had been developed by Film Auteur Takashi Shimzu, these films have nothing to do with the original films that shot Shimzu to such heights of popularity in the horror world.

The film’s credits do give a grudging (sorry) nod to Shimzu as the Ju-On creator with a ‘based on characters created by’ tag. Both the Ju-On’s were released simultaneously on the tenth anniversary of the original Ju-on’s as a sort of ‘honour’ to Shimzu and his films.

Ju-On: White Ghost (originally titled Ju-On Old Lady in White) is directed by Ryûta Miyake. I may be a bit obtuse, but after watching this film twice, I cannot for the life of me understand several things about the film. Why, for instance, is the ghost a ‘little old lady’ who carries a basketball with her everywhere? Why is that considered terrifying by those who meet her? What connection does this little old lady ghost have with the school girl in the yellow hat?

Do you even care?

That this is a homage is obvious. the director uses all the same shock tactics and build-ups that Takashi Shimzu used in his films that later became a standard for all his Grudge films. The only thing that Miyake’s film has in common with Shimzu’s original  is the murder of a family in  Japan‘s suburban world.

It is an interesting film. Scary in the right places and utilizing the slow build-up and disjointed segments that Shimzu used so well in his films. It is a homage and as such does not rely on blazing originality to make it’s point. At 61 minutes it is better to watch this one with it’s ‘sister’ film Ju-On: Black Ghost to give you a more ‘cinematic’ feeling when you’re done rather than the’special of the week’ feeling that a film just over an hour long leaves you with.

Now on to Ju-On: Black Ghost (or Girl in Black, the original title) it too is 61 minutes long. Directed by  Mari Asato the plot of Black Ghost is a bit convoluted and confusing. It never goes on to explain why the Grudge spirit in this film is all in black. Like the basketball playing grandma in the first film, we never find out why this black apparition is terrifying or why she’s even there.

The plot of this film revolves around a cyst found in a young girl (Fukie) that is the result of her ingesting her unborn twin while in her mother’s uterus. Sound familiar? If it does, it’s not because it was ever used as a plot device in any of the original Ju-On films.

Neither film has a whole lot going for it apart from the claim that they are ‘honouring’ the original films by Shimzu. They are worth a look but only as a stand alone curiosity and not as a sort of sequel or prequel of the original films. They are scary (a bit) and best watched at night.

As I am sitting here finishing this article, I have been playing the White Ghost on the telly. I have decided that the basketball playing grandma was much scarier when she was alive.

Final verdict? Don’t go out of your way to find these films, they’re not worth the effort. If you find them ‘accidentally’ like I did (live streaming on LOVEFILM) go ahead and watch them. They do have a certain novelty value. But if you want ‘real’ scares?

Watch Takashi Shimzu’s originals.

Crows Zero (2007): A Yakuza Is Born

Cover of "Crows Zero"

Adapted from Hiroshi Takahashi‘s manga Crow’s, the screenplay was written by Shôgo Mutô and directed by the iconic Takashi Miike. I have read that this is a ‘loose’ adaptation of the manga, while that may be true, the film itself is visually impressive and the plot fairly easy to follow.

The film, except for the fact it’s adapted from the manga, could be called The Birth of a Yakuza. Crows Zero is set in the fictional  Suzuran All-Boys High School. It is said to be the “hardest” school in Japan.  It is certainly the most dilapidated. When the cameras pulled back to show a panoramic view of the school, I felt like I had put in the wrong film. The school looked like it belonged on the set of a horror film.

It seems that Suzuran is a school where the students are engaged in daily battles over ‘turf’ and who rules the entire school’s ‘turf.’ Although different factions hold different levels of power, no one gang has ever ruled the whole school.

Enter Genji Takaya (Shun Oguri) a tall bean-pole of a lad whose dad is a local Yakuza boss and alumni of Suzuran High School.  He has told Genji that if he can rule the entire school, he can take over his Yakuza gang.

The main competition is Tamao Serizawa (Takayuki Yamada) who so far has the toughest gang, but they do not rule the school. There are several factions that control different year groups and different areas. There is even one faction that is made up of just one member, but he is the size of a barge and has never been defeated in a fight.

On the first day of school a local Yakuza lieutenant, Ken Katagiri ( Kyôsuke Yabe) comes on the school grounds with several men to dispense punishment to Serizawa for beating up one of his men. Genji is mistaken for Serizawa and Katagiri is told by his men that they will take care of this kid while he goes to get sodas and ice cream.

Genji proceeds to mop the floor with the Yakuza tough guys. Meanwhile the real Serizawa has been chased back to the school by the police. This has the effect of ending the Yakuza attack. Later, Katagiri catches up with Genji and realises that they were after the wrong teenager. Katagiri likes Genji and tells him that he can help Genji to rule the school.

In this fictional world, there is no time or need for school work. Instead it appears the only requirement for graduation is to show up to  school. In this setting the teen criminals have all the time they need to recruit different gangs to support them in their fight to “rule the school.”

The film is enjoyable, if not typical Takashi Miike fare. It felt like the genre hopping director wanted to try his hand at entertaining the teen demographic for a change. Everything about the film felt tailored for the younger film goer up to and including the minimal amounts of blood shed in the fight scenes (well, minimal for Takashi Miike at any rate).

The fight scenes are choreographed well and look fairly realistic, if you can overlook the fact that if the kids had really fought that hard the fights would not have lasted nearly so long. The shooting schedule for the final big battle at the end of the film must have been Miike training for that big battle in 13 Assassins . It must have taken weeks to film, but it was worth the effort because it does look great.

My only complaint was there seemed to be too much time spent watching ‘J-rock’ bands perform and letting Genji’s love interest Ruka Aizawa (Meisa Kuroki) sing a couple of R&B songs. The time spent on the music in the film was a dead give away that the film was aimed at a younger market and it slowed the film down.

It is a good film if you enjoy watching young Yakuza “wanna-be’s” beating each other bloody. It does have Miike’s stamp all over it at any rate and that alone makes it a film worth watching.

Ichi The Killer (2001): The Way You Make Me Feel

Cover of "Ichi the Killer [Blu-ray]"
Cover of Ichi the Killer [Blu-ray]
Based on Hideo Yamamoto‘s manga and directed by the iconic Takashi MiikeIchi the Killer has a cult statusthat very few other ‘cult’ films enjoy.

As popular with audiences now as it was in 2001, Ichi has lost none of it’s power to mesmerise, horrify and shake-up the viewer.

Starring Tadanobu Asano (Thor, Zatoichi, Battleship, and in 2013 Thor 2), Asano is the closest thing Japan has to a superstar. His work on Ichi as the sadomasochist Kakiharo enabled him to “steal the show” and  made him a cult favourite with fans.

Nao Ohmori (not as well known to western audiences, but a jobbing actor who has been working since 1997) played Ichi. Ichi is mentally unbalanced and finds violence sexually arousing. He has been brainwashed by Jijii – Shin’ya Tsukamoto (TetsuoTetsuo II: Body HammerBullet Balletinto believing that he witnessed a rape when he was younger and not only did he not help the girl, but he was aroused by it. Jijii convinces Ichi that he must kill the boys who perpetrated the rape and he points them out for Ichi.

The first ‘perpetrator’ is Anjo a Yakuza boss whose enforcer is Kakiharo. Ichi using the razor sharp blades in his boots, cuts Anjo into pieces and Jijii disposes of the body parts. Kakiharo wants to know where his boss is and suspects a rival Yakuza gang of killing or kidnapping him.

Jijii makes sure that Kakiharo suspects the rival gang in the hope that they will kill each other off, with Ichi’s help of course, and then he will run that area of town.

Ichi The Killer is typical Takashi Miike. Gallons of blood. Violent acts that the camera shows unflinchingly. And of course black humour crops up in every other scene.

Some of the violence is almost unwatchable. In one scene, Kakiharo is questioning another gang’s boss. They pierce the skin all along the back of his body and hang him face down from the ceiling. When Kakiharo does not get the information he wants, he pours boiling oil on the bosses back. The combination of the smoke, sizzling sounds and the victims screams make this one of the hardest scenes in the film to watch.

Yet Miike’s humour pervades the film. Whether it is Ichi gleefully telling a girl that he has saved from being beaten to death, by her boyfriend by killing him,  that now he can beat her. She is, somewhat understandably, not thrilled by the proposition.

Or when one of Kakihuro’s minion decides that he doesn’t want to look for the missing boss Anjo any longer, Kakihuro slams a board with a nail in the end onto the minion’s foot. This action changes his mind and he decides he does still want to help Kakihuro and they all walk down the street, with the minion dragging the board that is still impaled in his foot.

And of course the most amusing of all is the reason that Kakihuro wants to find his boss. It turns out that no one else can give him the pain he desires like his boss.

This is classic Takashi Miike and one you definitely need to see, if you haven’t already.

Takashi Shimizu: A Director With a Grudge

Takashi Shimizu

Takashi Shimizu is one talented guy. Not only is he a writer and director, but he is also a producer. Shimizu wears all three hats easily. His first foray into the world of cinematic horror was a short two part project to go into a film being produced by a friend. These two shorts were later incorporated into his first ‘proper’ film.

Takashi Shimizu was able to produce his first horror feature because of the popularity of his two short segments in his friends film. With a tiny budget, Shimizu’s first proper film was a “straight to video” called Juon The Curse and Juon The Curse II. Despite the lack of budget and the minimalist approach to special effects, word of mouth soon turned both these films into popular films with audiences in Japan.

With Hideo Nakata‘s The Ring (Ringu) gaining world-wide fan-dom and pretty much starting the J-Horror phenomenon, the popularity of Ringu gave Shimizu the “green-light” to start filming the first of many versions of Ju-on The Grudge.

Ju-on The Grudge is basically Ju-on The Curse with a bigger budget. With the extra money, Shimizu was able to expand the story and increase the expenditure for special effects. He also used the “ghost woman” aka “the grudge girl” who he had first used in the video versions of the film. Takako Fuji has the distinction of being the ‘Grudge Girl’ in all of the Ju-on films until Grudge 3. By the time that Hollywood had taken the reins from Shimizu after the re-make of Grudge 2, they no longer needed the original ghost.

Ju-on: The Grudge 2

*sidenote* Don’t bother watching The Grudge 3, it is execrable.

That Shimizu was able to keep coming back to the “Grudge well” repeatedly is pretty amazing. Especially considering  that right up until The Grudge 2 (Japanese) and the two American re-makes he was able to keep ‘tweaking’ the scare formula and increased the reach of the Ghost each time he re-invented it.

The selling point of all the grudge films is the fact that you don’t have to enter the house or to interact with the ghost to have it come get you. No, the curse or grudge can come calling if you just know someone who has been in the house. Pretty powerful and super scary.

My daughter and I have seen every version of the Grudge films. We have also set through several “making of’s” and listened to several cast and crew commentaries as well.

The first thing you discover is that the man who is responsible for helping to keep J-Horror on the map, loves to laugh and loves to play practical jokes. He is also the one who does the A-h-h-h-h-h-h-h sound that comes from the ghost. We also found out how much trouble he had with the studio brass when they asked him to direct the two re-makes.

Takashi Shimizu had his work cut our for him on both of the American re-makes. The Hollywood producers could not understand why he did not explain the origins of the ghost and a way to defeat it. In their parlance a ghost film had to have a beginning, a  middle and an end. It also had to give the lead protagonist a way to defeat the ghost. They also felt the audience would not be able to follow the film if there was no explanation.

Never mind that the original Grudge films had a rabid international fan-base despite having none of the requisite’s listed by the Hollywood brass. They had gone to the trouble of getting the original director to helm their Hollywood versions and they wanted him to film it their way, damnit.

Shimizu stuck to his guns though and made brilliant remakes of his classic Ju-on series. Ultimately though. he grew tired of the on going battle with the Hollywood execs. That is why on the execrable Grudge 3 (can you tell I didn’t like it?) his name is on the project as being the writer of the original series.

Shimizu has moved on from the Grudge world and continues to make scary films for the J-Horror devotees. He has lost none of his creativity or his humour. His next film, 7500  is due out later this year and Scared of the Dark is currently in preproduction now.

Audition (1999): Pins and Needles

Audition (film)

Made in 1999 and directed by Takashi Miike, Audition  (Ôdishon)  was Miike’s ‘break-out’ film. Already quite prolific with his output, Miike had yet to garner world-wide recognition. Audition changed all that and Miike (pronounced Meekay) became synonymous with all that is weird and wonderful in Japan.

Miike cast Ryo Ishibashi as the lead character Shigeharu Aoyama. Ryo is something of a legend in Japan. He is, in essence, Japan’s version of Mick Jagger. He was a rock star first and foremost and as he got older he branched out into acting. More successfully than Jagger, whose random foray’s into the acting world have been, mercifully, brief.

Ishibashi Ryo
Ishibashi Ryo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The film opens with the death of Shigeharu’s wife. He and his son, Shigehiko both go through a period of mourning. They soon set up a routine and life marches forward.Widower Shigeharu starts getting lonely and wonders how he can find someone to be a companion.

He is very hesitant to start searching despite his now 17 year old son urging him to find someone. He explains his situation to his friend and colleague Yasuhisa Yoshikawa who is a film producer. Yasushisa decides to help his friend by setting up a ‘fake’ film audition. This, Yasushisa  explains, is the easiest way to meet and date prospective girls.

Although Shigeharu is reluctant at first, he soon gets into the swing of it and finally finds one girl who catches his eye. She is Asami Yamazaki (played brilliantly by Eihi Shiina in what was only her second film) Although Shigeharu is quite taken with Asami and is keen to build a relationship with her, Yasuhisa and Shigeharu’s personal secretary don’t like the girl. Both people urge him to slow down in his pursuit and Yasuhisa has even had the girls past investigated.

Shigeharu disregards their well meaning advice and continues pursuing Asami. But the words of caution do worry him as is evidenced by the dream he has where he introduces Asami to his dead wife. He makes up his mind to make love to Asami on a romantic weekend away and to confess his feelings for her.  Once they arrive at the hotel, Asami reveals that she was abused as a child. She also states that if Shigeharu does really love her, he can love no-one else. After sleeping together, he falls asleep. The hotel phone wakes him up, the front desk is calling to see if he will remain in the room as Asami has left.

What follows next is a knuckle biting, nerve wrecking, and cringe worthy journey. Shigeharu attempts to find Asami and when they are re-united it is not a happy event.

Audiences have for years hotly debated whether what happens after Asami and Shigeharu re-unite is a dream or not. I have my own opinion, although it took a lot of “to-and-fro-ing” to get there. The entire film is at turns sad, hopeful, uneasy, scary, uncomfortable, weird and perverse. In other words a typical Takashi Miike film.

Photo of Japanese director, Takashi Miike, at ...
Photo of Japanese director, Takashi Miike, at New York Comic Con 2009. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If this film is not on the top 100 films to watch before you die, it should be…and it should be at least number 2.