The Grudge: White Ghost/Black Ghost (2009)
By: Mr Intolerance on October 12, 2010  | 
DVD
Eastern Eye | Region 4, PAL | 1.78:1 (16:9 enhanced) | Japanese DD 2.0 | 103 minutes (Full Specs)
The Movie
Cover Art
Credits
Director: Ryűta Miyake; Mari Asato
Starring: Akina Minami, Hiroki Suzuki, Mihiro, Ichirota Miyakawa, Ai Kago, Koji Seto, Yuri Nakamura, Masanobu Katsumura
Screenplay: Ryűta Miyakel; Mari Asato/
Country: Japan
External Links
IMDB Purchase YouTube
If you're a horror fan and you don't know what the premise of the Ju-On franchise is, then you really haven't been paying attention. Ghost stories seem to have maintained their relevance in Eastern culture much more than in the West (until, of course, the original Asian flick gets remade by Hollywood). We've had haunted websites (Kairo), haunted video tapes (Ringu), haunted phones (One Missed Call), haunted body parts (The Eye) – hell, we've even had haunted prosthetics (The Wig). If anything, the Ju-On franchise takes us back to a more traditional place for a haunting: the haunted house.

The concept is simple: a person who dies in a great rage doesn't join the infinite – their furious spirit inhabits the place of their death (although they can go for a bit of a wander as well, once their victim has been unlucky enough to enter that place, even if only briefly), and preys upon those too ignorant or too foolhardy who might happen to move in, joining the spirit in death – the Ju-On curse transmits like a virus, you see; those killed by the curse in turn can become killers themselves. The spirit usually takes the form of a white ghost (regardez-vous the right) or a black ghost (in this instance a young woman with staring white eyes). The child and the black cat from previous films only really put in cameo appearances here.

Oh, and two other quick things before we look at the two DTV mini features (61 and 60 minutes respectively) contained within. Firstly: there is no escape. Secondly, take your ideas about linear narrative and throw them away. While I was researching this, I came across this factoid (courtesy of Asian Cult Cinema magazine) – apparently the director of the original Ju-On films (that's the two made-for-TV features Ju-On and Ju-On 2 and the two cinematic releases Ju-On: The Grudge and Ju-On: The Grudge 2 – he also directed the first of the American remakes, but let us never speak of that again), Takashi Shimizu, had the idea for the structure of the films – interweaving short stories out of linear order – early in his career, shooting quick three-minute films. Now that structure is strictly adhered to here as well; each vignette is separated from the one "before" it by a black intertitle with the feature character's name.

Ju-On: White Ghost

Let me start by saying that this is the better of the two films on display here, showing real originality with a premise that's, let's face it, is starting to wear a little thin. White Ghost flies in the face of such criticism by presenting a thoughtful and at times quite chilling narrative that knocks most short horror features (if that's not contradictory) into a cocked hat. There are parts of this film that made my flesh crawl even on the second viewing when I knew they were turning up. And they weren't the supernatural parts either.

Guess which house an upwardly mobile family move into at the start of the film? That's right – the wrong one, the one where Mrs Saeki and her son Toshio were violently murdered all those years ago, putting the curse in motion (but don't expect to see Kayako come crawling down the stairs here, although the Saekis are referenced explicitly a couple of times). They're not a happy bunch either. Dad's annoyed because his son by his first wife Atsushi keeps failing his bar examinations, mum's not happy because of all the family discord, their very young daughter Mirai's unhappy because of something horrible, and grandma's unhappy because of what's happening to her granddaughter, and also because she's losing her marbles. And Atsushi is unhappy because…well, just watch and find out.

Mirai's friend Akane is also unhappy as a child she experiences some bad things, and even when we see her as a teenager (the film seems to take place over the course of some ten, maybe twelve years), she is still haunted by experiences she had as a child to do with Mirai's step-brother Atsushi (Mirai calls him "uncle", but the relationship is explained during the course of the film), and what happened to her jolly cabbie dad.

And then there's poor old Fumiyo, the cake delivery boy who just happened by the house in order to do his job and saw the aftermath of the event that sparks the vengeance against the living of the White Ghost of the title. Not even the cops who enter the house are spared – seven years after the crimes were committed. With all of this unhappiness – something's got to give, right? And give it does – innocent, guilty: all suffer.

Look, this probably seems unnecessarily ambiguous, but there are a couple of big spoilers I'm trying very hard to avoid, and if I gave you a full synopsis of the film, there'd be no point to watching it, and watch it you should. Quite honestly, I think that this first film is worth the price of admission alone. As the disparate story strands draw together, the clever construction of the film becomes evermore apparent. Writer/director Ryuta Miyake most definitely kicked a goal here – a name to watch out for in J-horror.

A few things you'll notice when watching White Ghost that make it stand out from the other films in the franchise, Japanese or US. Firstly, it's a lot more violent than I remember any of the others being (although it has been a while). Secondly, the 60-minute time frame makes this film work. The only problem I ever had with the Ju-On series was the fact that the films couldn't quite go the distance, running out of puff two-thirds of the way through. This is a much tauter beast, and that works in its favour. There is not a wasted second here.

The only negative I have to say about the film is that there are one or two CG moments where the budget shows through. An early scene depicting a skinned corpse was very average indeed, and there were one or two other moments where I was almost jarred out of the film. Almost.

But, I hear you asking, does it still have all the things that I loved about the original films? Calm yourself, chillun, you still get creepy ghosts who move funny, long black hair that has a life of its own, boo-scares that actually made me leap out of my seat on more than one occasion and raised the hairs on my arms giving me goose pimples, the ghosts make that horrible death-rattle as they're doing dreadful things to their victims, that atmosphere of iced evil as the inexorability of the ghosts becomes ever more apparent – all there, along with some social commentary, lacking from the original films, and not too intrusive, to boot. Family relations, honour, justice or the lack thereof, schoolyard bullying, gender roles – all pass under the microscope, and what White Ghost has to say about the ways average suburban Japanese families interact, and what goes on behind closed doors isn't pretty.

As you can probably gather – I liked Ju-On: White Ghost a lot.

Ju-On: Black Ghost

Black Ghost on the other hand, I felt a bit let down by. It seemed much more conventional and writer/director Mari Asato's script seemed a little like an exploration of one of the central ideas in Ju-On: The Grudge 2. Not a bad concept to explore, except that I saw it in that other film over six years ago. There's even a similar, if much nastier device held over from that other movie to explain the sound of knocking on the wall from the flat next door. The originality of White Ghost is most definitely lacking.

Anyway, another hapless family moves into the Saeki's old place, a new series of terrible events unfold, and the curse is reborn to wreak havoc among the living, from the implacable hatred of the jealous dead. There is, however, a slight twist in terms of who the ghost actually is…or rather, was – and this is what the entire plot hangs on. The director holds off showing us some horror, with a restraint that's actually quite admirable in this day and age, for longer than expected, but while I do like some quiet horror, that's not what I come to the Ju-On franchise for. Plus, the actual ghost make-up really doesn't cut it, and low budget or not, this is what the film needs to base the scares on – it's a ghost story, after all.

I realise that this is an even more ambiguous synopsis than the one I gave the previous film, but again, massive spoilers preclude any further detail (even though the back cover practically gives the whole thing away) – it'd be like that Homer Simpson moment when he walks past a bunch of folks waiting to see The Empire Strikes Back and says, "Who would've thought Darth Vader was Luke Skywalker's father?" Okay, given the film, that might be a bit of an overstatement, but you get the idea – the plot hinges on one particular device, and to reveal it would be doing you a disservice.

As with its sister film, Black Ghost goes down the path of introducing a few social issues into the mix of blood, terror and mayhem. Family relations, that perennial issue regardless of country of origin is raised, as is a more specifically Japanese one – or at least one that seems more prevalent in Japanese horror films from Miike's Audition to Kiyoshi Kurosawa's entire oeuvre, but particularly Kairo, that of a lack of connectedness between people – you can never really know one another, and essentially, you're alone in a dismal and desolate world without comfort.

Another thing I think worked against Black Ghost was the fact that it missed its beats. The vignettes were too long, and contained too little substance to really scare the viewer. Similarly, he said, warming to a theme, the sound design was lackluster, and didn't really enhance the experience the way it did with White Ghost. Plus, some of the action was…well…silly. There's an exorcism scene that I reckon they must have blown the entire budget on that made me giggle – I'm sure it was meant to have me in paroxysms of fright. I haven't rolled my eyes so much since the last Rudy Ray Moore film I watched. There are many reaction shots shown, but bugger all of what the characters are reacting to. I mean, Lovecraft might have tantalized readers with his depictions of "nameless horrors" and things "indescribable", but at least he gave you something to hang your hat on. I spent half of this film being mystified as to what was actually going on.

All-in-all, this is a much more amateurish and less assured film than White Ghost – where that film was prepared to take a risk and stumble and then recover, Black Ghost plays it safe and as a result never achieves the jolts, the terror, the highs and lows of the other film. Even the points where it's meant to be frightening are 50/50 at best, usually failing at worst and provoking a "who cares" response at best, which is not what you want from a horror film.

In summation, if you like the Ju-On franchise, this is definitely worth buying for White Ghost alone. If you're not a fan – don't bother; neither of these films will turn your head around. If you've never seen any of the series, start with Ju-On: The Grudge instead, and Eastern Eye's version of that is cheap enough at the moment to take that risk.

Video
The picture quality is fine, but bear in mind it was shot on video and looks it. If this is an issue for you, man up, why don't you? The only issue with the picture I had was the fact that the CG is occasionally quite poor, revealing the obvious budgetary limitations the films must have had.
Audio
Sound is important in the Ju-On films; it's an effective way of delivering the scares – and while the 2.0 track is serviceable enough, the ghosts making that noise coming from just over your shoulder would have you run a mile, and thus be more effective. The eerie, despondent electronic stings and hits really add to the atmosphere in White Ghost, but don't really cut it in Black Ghost.
Extra Features
One thing that you get is what they refer to on the back cover as the "theatrical trailer", but as the research I've done and the fact that the titles read "Toei Video" and not "Toei Films" would indicate, as well as the picture quality and their durations – these were DTV films, without a cinematic release. Do NOT watch it before watching the film – too many spoilers, too many scares ruined. There are a bunch of Eastern Eye trailers, too, for Kamui, Love Exposure, Goemon, Cure (a Kiyoshi Kurosawa masterpiece; go out and buy it now, now, NOW!), and The Grudge box set. Nit-picking aside, it's a bit lack-lustre, to say the least.
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
On its own, White Ghost gets a 4 for its boldness and its reinvigoration of a franchise I really like - Black Ghost would get maybe a 2, but more likely a 1; a tepid affair best left forgotten. That said, if you're a fan of the franchise, this disc is worth getting for the first film alone; save the second for a rainy day when you've nothing else to watch. If you must. Wow - it's true what they say: comparisons are odious!

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