The Ju-on franchise is returned to the safety of Japanese hands in this strangely lo-fi dual release. Mark Lee reviews.
The franchising of the ‘Ju-on’ mythology accelerates at seemingly the same rate as the dreaded curse itself, thundering between its doomed victims. The chilling Japanese original had barely been granted time to drag audiences towards the precipice of cloth-touching terror before it was being remade by the adoring American film industry, never shy to Westernise, water down, and profiteer from a decent Far East shocker. Ju-on 2, whilst returning to Japanese hands, displayed similar cynicism by shoe-horning copious amounts of footage from the original into the ‘new’ picture. Then, before we could do anything about it, the evil curse sailed back to America again for the ‘straight to DVD’ release of The Grudge 3….
It’s almost something of a relief to report that the latest instalment – or should I say, ‘instalments’, present a less predictable format for those fans still willing to bear a grudge (groan). Ju-on: White Ghost & Ju-on: Black Ghost, released by 4Digital Asia, is a dual release of two new one hour-long Ju-on stories, sharing similar narrative structures, stylistic and thematic elements, occasional plot overlap, and veteran Ju-on writer Takashi Shimizu. Whilst Shimizu may have penned both of these chilling yarns, the two movie shorts are delivered by separate directors.
First up is Ryûta Miyake with Ju-on: White Ghost, and it’s clear from the opening scenes that this production has been built on a modest budget, one which is considerably lower than that of the Japanese film industry’s moneyed peers across the other side of the Pacific. Performances are slightly rigid, the movement of the camera is steady – yet lacks the confidence to inject some real flair, and the lighting feels a little sterile, in that its often all-encompassing illumination snatches away some of the atmospheric opportunity that should have lain menacingly in the shadows.
Yet considering the budgetary constraints and the relatively limited experience of director Miyake, Ju-on: White Ghost – a grim tale documenting the murky depths and devastating results of family dysfunction comprising shame, abuse, and vengeance – is a remarkably eerie and disturbing experience, not least because of the somewhat unlikely object of our fear; a crazy old lady clutching a basketball, emitting odd noises, and rushing towards hapless victims. The non-linear narrative structure certainly helps to maintain the interest, with the story unfolding from the perspective of a number of different characters as the film progresses. There are some occasional moments that verge upon genre parody, admittedly, but this hour long low budget effort is, in terms of unsettling Far East horror, not at all bad.
Ju-on: Black Ghost continues with the same narrative approach and basic premise – a Grudge passing from person to person unleashing its foul consequences – yet there’s immediately something a little more alluring and altogether snappier in this Mari Asato-helmed feature. Within a few moments, Asato delivers an adrenalin shot to our hearts with a carefully executed sequence featuring a child at a window, and the judicious use of sudden silence beneath the alarming visuals produces a result that is enjoyably bizarre and suitably disturbing.
As the tale of child Fukie develops, we are rewarded with a number of similarly unsettling scenes, and the accompanying delivery is bolstered by some more rounded characters, improved performances, and the welcome introduction of a smattering of humour. The movement of the camera is more imaginative and natural, the composition more thoughtful and delicate, and the lighting proves decent enough to generate the requisite discomforting atmosphere.
Whilst the production does suffer from many of the shortcomings of its predecessor, including a sometimes over-exposed image, and an overall delivery that flirts dangerously with TV-movie territory, the tension amasses to generate a suitable sense of dread and trepidation, with some of the hospital scenes in particular proving to be pleasingly uncomfortable. Underpinned by a fairly compelling story, Ju-on: Black Ghost for all of its unexpectedly low budget, proves to be a well-executed and ultimately frightening yarn, and whilst its …White Ghost sister is slightly inferior, the pair present an unusual, lo-fi, but intriguing package which may, unfortunately, only really appeal to the ready-converted J-Horror community.
The two features, each approximately one hour long, are provided on a single disc, accessible via a title menu offering immediate access to both movies or a scene selection. The clips from the films running alongside the menu options are distinctly unsettling, and plenty enough to separate the hardened J-Horror fans from the newbies!
The features are presented in 1.78:1 aspect ratio, and the image itself is generally very clear. Despite this fact, the whole piece still feels a little low budget, and definition can be lacking where the image includes slightly darker shades. Colours are generally rich and vibrant, but the main problems become evident where brighter lights are included in shot. Take the moment in …Black Ghost, approximately 7.50 minutes in, where the youths are discussing neighbour Yuko; the bright light through the window behind their heads is over-exposed and the previously clear definition is lost. Overall though, for a budget release, the picture is actually fairly decent.
The English subtitles are certainly good quality, with natural-sounding translations and nothing noticeable by way of errors. The size of the subtitles is well pitched, opting for a slightly more modest size font, in white with a thin black outline to separate from white backgrounds. The characters show perhaps a little in the way of pixel outlines, but overall the subtitles are well done.
Sound is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 format, so you should expect a fairly standard stereo distribution of audio; there is no surround sound option on offer. The sound is reproduced with sufficient clarity and without distortion, though perhaps understandably the overall delivery doesn’t quite have the richness and impact you might expect with a larger budget release.
That said, the audio does carry acceptable punch to deliver the required shocks and jumps, and whilst the bizarrely schlocky soundtrack clashes somewhat with the style of the movie, its delivery is technically acceptable.
Predictably, there aren’t any extras, save for a generous raft of 4Digital trailers which are viewable from a menu, rather than being thrust upon your unwilling gaze. These include some genuine underground gems such as Death Note, the already legendary Tokyo Gore Police, Meatball Machine, and Vampire Girl vs Frankenstein Girl. Watch them all sequentially, and it’s almost like a movie of its own.
Long time Ju-on contributor (writer, director, and producer in various instalments) Takashi Shimizu (writer in this instance) continues to bear a grudge with these two new hour-long features, and whilst the concept is a little tired and the delivery at the lower end of the budgetary scale, the two movies contain enough by way of shocks and scares to squeeze some more life out of the successful ‘series’. It’s a shame that the DVD doesn’t contain more in the way of extras, but hey, you can amuse yourself for hours with the wodge of fantastically obscure trailers 4Digital Asia have bundled together for you on this disc.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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