This Halloween season it’s pretty easy to feel dread and fear around us. Maybe you have some fears that go further back than 2020 or 2016. Perhaps you have a building on your street that’s vacant of people, but is full of uneasy dread. Or did your parents tell you about a time when they nearly had a brush with death in their own neighborhood? Do you have lingering unanswerable memories of past trauma? Ju-On: Origins, currently streaming on Netflix, suggests that ghosts are the residue of a perpetual cycle of cruelty and tragedy.
Directed by Sho Miyake, starring Yoshiyoshi Arakawa (Survive Style 5+) and Yuina Kuroshima (Blue Fire), Ju-On: Origins is the “true story” that influenced the long running horror film franchise. Arakawa plays Yasuo Odajima, a paranormal investigator that is tracking a series of deaths connected to a nondescript suburban house. He crosses paths with Haruka (Kuroshima), an actress experiencing strange noises at night that may be related to the house he’s seeking out. Parallel to Yasuo and Haruka is a flashback segment in the 1980s in which a young transfer student named Kiyomi (played by model Ririka), is invited by some classmates to explore an abandoned house. From there Ju-On: Origins interweaves these lives over the span of decades, and how they are all affected by one home’s gruesome past. Ju-On addresses the gruesome past in more ways than one though.
One of the central motifs in Ju-On: Origins is potentially lost on viewers that aren’t versed in modern Japanese criminal history. Since the show skips around time and characters, the era is typically denoted by scenes where various atrocities play out on the news. The rape, torture, and murder of Junko Furuta in 1989 (her body was found incased in concrete), the 1994 Matsumoto sarin gas attack (a grisly prelude to the subway attack in 1995), the 1995 Hanshin earthquake, and the 1997 Kobe school killer in which a decapitated head was left in front of an elementary school; these events dot the story and on a surface level, it’s an easy way to convey what year a particular scene is set. These events linger in the air, making the viewer wonder if these atrocities are a byproduct of supernatural malice permeating throughout Japan or if Yasuo's journey to find his own answers a trivial matter compared to the unending carnage perpetrated by the flesh and blood world. For the most part these are background elements and don’t directly interact with the story, but Ju-On makes an exception with the character M. who is a clear allusion to serial killer Tsutomu Miyazaki. Miyazaki, known for his vast collection of video tapes, carried out a series of grisly murders on children in the late 1980s, and M is introduced as a child murderer with a fondness for tape collecting. M provides some hints on Yasuo’s quest to find the cursed house (imagine if someone made an American horror film and the main character got tips from a guy named D. Berkowitz). While Ju-On deals with the fantastical and supernatural, it very much wants to remind you that the living world is full of terrors that are very real.
While the J-Horror subgenre of ghosts in urban settings isn’t at the level of popularity it once was in the early 2000s when The Ring, Dark Water, and Ju-On first washed onto American shores, the Ju-On franchise is truly massive and still growing. What started as two shorts directed by Takashi Shimizu for the TV movie Gakkô no kaidan G, has led to eight films in Japan (plus one crossover movie with The Ring), and four American entries (two of which are called The Grudge much to my SEO-conscious chagrin). Considering how long running and lucrative the series is, it’s no surprise that Netflix would want an entry of its own to capitalize on Ju-On while also being an entry point of sorts for newcomers. Ju-On: Origin is a prequel of sorts, but the title makes it seem like there’s a reliance on knowledge of the movie series to enjoy this entry. Think of it as like a ghost story told retold at a different campfire. Every time you hear it it’s a little bit different, but there’s always certain key elements. And like one very big, very old campfire, this ghost story has elements that have been passed down through the centuries.
Spousal abuse, matricide, the death of a child, disfigurement, and guilt are hallmarks of the Ju-On series, but these are elements that can be traced back to the very inception of Japanese horror fiction. One of the most major stories to perpetuate these motifs is the Kabuki play Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan (The Ghost Story of Yotsuya). Yotsuya Kaidan follows a greedy Samurai, Iemon, who slays his wife and is haunted by her vengeful spirit. The play was double billed with another of the most famous works of Japanese fiction, The Loyal 47 Ronin. In the world of kabuki, a man that kills himself is the height of honor and nobility, but a woman that won't stay dead is the ultimate in terror. The Ghost of Yotsuya is performed to this day with uncountable adaptations in comics, TV, and film (arguably the best one is the 1959 film adaptation directed by Nobuo Nakagawa, which is currently streaming on the Criterion Channel), and set the model for many vengeful spirits within Japanese fiction. Ju-On: Origins keeps many of these themes from Yotsuya Kaidan alive, but it also brings back a special effects artist from the more past.
You can’t have a horror series without at least a few special effects, and Ju-On: Origins marks the return of legendary effects artist Screaming Mad George. Born Joji Tani in Osaka Japan, he moved to the US to attend SVA in NYC. While producing paintings he also started horror-punk band The Mad in the late 70s, combining punk rock with gory stage theatrics. Nothing grabs an audience’s attention like on stage auto-castration. George became more and more interested in makeup and special effects, and after moving to LA and studying under Rick Baker, he became a fixture in the special effects world, working on films such as Predator, Big Trouble in Little China, Freaked, and The Guyver, making him a legend in the effects world. Now in his sixties George’s output in the film world has slowed down in recent years, with his last major film work being 2003’s Beyond Reanimator, which makes his return in Ju-On: Origins all the more exciting. Ju-On: Origins is hardly a creature feature, but George still gets to flex his creative muscles on the practical effects work, designing mangled corpses, and contorting creatures. Much of J-horror as it’s known in the west is associated with what we don't see (1. Sadako comes out of the TV, 2. ?????, 3. you’re dead), but Ju-On: Origins goes for a shockingly visceral approach. Episode four really lets George’s work shine, with a gruesomely drawn out segment of death and bodily mutilation that I won't spoil for you readers.
Ju-On: Origins is a very unpleasant world of murder, rape, infanticide and despair while it embodies traditions in Japanese horror fiction and cinema. At a lean 6 episodes it’s a quick watch. Enjoy it this Halloween season with the lights off.