By: Jessica Parant
Juon- A curse born of a strong grudge held by someone who died.
The place of his death gathers his grudge
Anyone who comes into contact with this curse shall lose his life and a new curse is born
Ju-On: The Curse (1998)
For one of my monthly Let's Scare Jessica to Death challenges, I was dared to watch The Grudge (2004), the American remake of the 2002 film Ju-On: The Grudge with both directed by Takashi Shimizu. I remember finding The Grudge to be a decent film with some good jump scares, but not overall horrifying and even at points boring. So when I looked up its predecessor from Japan, Ju-On: The Grudge, I decided to spend my rainy Sunday afternoon watching it. By the time the end credits were rolling, I was wrapped so tightly in a blanket clutching my pillow, terrified, but also drawn into the story. Recently, a friend of the podcast mentioned that this film was actually the third in a franchise, and that there were two short films along with two full-length features based on those short films that are a part of the entire Ju-On series. I even watched the Netflix new series Ju-On: Origins which uses the same premise of the films, but also creates its own story.
What is similar about all these films and television series is the use of the supernatural presence of the “Onryo” to trigger fear into the audience's heart. In Japanese mythology, an “Onryo” is a “Reikon” (spirit) of a person whose death was either unnatural, traumatic or from someone who had not received their last rights. Often these spirits are born out of acts of corrosive jealousy or crimes of passion (O’Sullivan). The most famous Onryo story comes from the 1825 play by Yotsuya Kaidan, which is a multilayered revenge tale of disfigured Oiwa who is seeking vengeance against her samurai husband who murdered her. She is depicted as having a distorted face, long black hair, a white funeral gown and regularly seen glowing (O’Sullivan). These wrathful spirits are driven by the desire to seek vengeance for a perceived wrong and enact it on anyone or anything it encounters. Their acts of vengeance are like food and they prefer to let the subject(s) of their hatred suffer for long periods of time --- they are all about lifelong torment (Matsuyama). The Onryo’s power can influence the environment around them, often becoming not only a curse on the place but the people who come into contact with it. Their vengeance is like a contagious disease that is more devastating than that of a “regular ghost” and the only way to appease the Onryo is to grant it a level of justice (Matsuyama). However, how can one determine if that level of justice is enough for the horrific way in which someone died? For the trauma that is impacted on their loved ones and families? Can vengeance ever be satisfied? The answer is no, and this is what the film franchise Ju-On explores.
Japanese horror movies scare me as they tend to spend more time building atmosphere and often veer away from overusing jump scares, as well their plots tend to involve subtle supernatural elements that do not overwhelm the film. Yet, what I find to be the most chilling and captivating element of this franchise, is not necessarily the supernatural appearances of Toshi, Kayako, and The Women in White (our Onryo(s)), but the very tragic and disturbing events that led to their deaths and rebirths as vengeful spirits in the first place. The truly unsettling aspect is the narrative of violence towards women and children, and the silent suffering they endure in their homes, within a system that is unable to help them. When Takashi Shimizu created these films he was not only inspired by the “Onryo” vengeful ghost mythology, but also the rise of domestic abuse cases that were emerging out of Japan in the late 90s.
Before the 90s, violence against women in Japan was largely unrecognized by both its government and Japanese society at large (Fulcher). For centuries, domestic violence was seen as something private to the household (just like in the West), and this was the prerogative of the husband and none of the police or criminal systems business (Siripala). Even as Japan continued to modernize and lead the world in technological advancements, a majority of politicians were socially conservative and didn't see Japan dealing with the same issues as the West. In their eyes, Japanese men were not violent like Western men (Siripala). Household violence was treated as an invisible issue. As depicted in Ju-On with the use of shadow and dark lighting, domestic violence existed only in the shadows. So by bringing Kayako (Takako Fuji) and Toshi (Ryota Koyama) into the daylight, this can be seen as bringing to light the violence that is often inflicted on women and children in the home.
The main premise of the Ju-On franchise centers around a cursed house in Nerima, Tokyo caused by the violent murder of housewife Kayako, her son, Toshio, and his black cat Mar, by her husband, Takeo. It was said that Takeo Saeki (Takashi Matsuyama) killed his wife and son in a jealous rage, believing the Kayako had an affair with an old flame and was passing Toshio off as the husband’s son. Due to the violent way that Kayako and Toshio died, they haunt the home and curse anyone who comes into contact with it. In Ju-On The Curse and Ju-On 2, we see Kayako’s origin story. She is an unhappy housewife stuck in a marriage in which she sees her partner as inadequate and has an unrequited love for a college crush who is now her son’s elementary school teacher. As Kayako becomes mentally unstable and experiences abuse at the hands of her husband, she becomes withdrawn and neglects the upkeep of her home as well as the basic needs of her son, Toshio. This is seen when the teacher Kobayashi visits the Saeki home to look in on Toshio, unaware that he is going to become another victim of the curse's vengeance.
In all the Ju-On films and series, women are seen as students, girlfriends, wives and mothers. Each role sees these women under the subordination of male patriarchal authority, either a father, brother, lover or husband. The women are often the victims of violence at the hands of a male figure. We see this in Ju-On The Curse when Taeko kills Kayako and rips out the unborn fetus from Kobayashi’s wife Manami, killing her in the process. This extraordinary violence against women is carried through the Ju-On: Origins series when Kiyomi is raped by a male student (Yudai) and possessed by the spirit of Kayako, and the tale of the landlord’s son Hiroshi kidnapping, imprisoning and raping a young woman until she gives birth and dies. While these are all extreme scenarios in which these movies/series depicted violence against women, they do not shy away from showing the impact of violence on a woman’s life and the trauma that influences all those around her.
Before 1998, domestic violence in Japan had not been seen as an infringement of human rights and that women were expected to remain quiet if being abused. When it is revealed that a woman is a victim of domestic violence, she is unable to turn to her family members as they would criticize her for being an inadequate housewife and encourage them to be better (Siripala). It was frowned upon to involve the police in these situations as the police felt that marital problems were not their jurisdiction and thus women were reluctant to reach out for help. It was not until some highly publicized cases of extreme violence against women, and the actions of non-governmental research groups, revealed that domestic violence in Japan was, in fact, a serious problem (Siripala). One can’t help but think about the severity of the violence depicted in Ju-On as only representative of these cases, and a commentary on how it took such levels of violence for a country to take notice of something all women knew and feared. It took a small feminist movement that had been working to help victims of domestic violence to call for an anti-domestic violence law - the majority of men resisted this (Rice). However, more funds were directed to create more women’s shelters in towns and cities to provide women with a safe, if not temporary, refuge from the violence they were subjected to in the home.
With continued efforts, in 2011 the first domestic violence law was passed by the National Legislature and went into effect nationwide on October 13 (Rice). This was a start, but it still did not recognize domestic violence as a crime. Even 20 years later as the prevention act expanded to cover non-physical acts of violence like psychological, financial abuse, molestation/rape, stalking that warrants police intervention, domestic violence against women is still not treated as a crime but as a violation of civil code (Rice). Perpetrators of these crimes do not face punishment and nothing is done to keep people from reoffending. In 2021, domestic violence cases have reached a record high due to the drastic lifestyle changes caused by the pandemic.
While the Onryo of the Ju-On series are women or children who have been victims of a jealous rage that led to their violent murders, the acts of vengeance each of these women inflict on people who enter their home can be seen as lashing out against a patriarchal society that failed to protect them. The “rights” of men to use violence against their wives when they are displeased or dishonoured by them is ingrained in Japanese culture and is seen as a normal part of marriage, especially for older generations (Rice). And just as these ideals are ingrained in Japanese culture, so are the stories of the Onryo, the vengeful female spirits who seek justice. These spirits carry with them the generational trauma felt by all women in Japan who have been victims of domestic violence, just as their Western counterparts do. And just as we have the urban legends about the Women in White, and the ghosts who haunt homes based on unfinished business, Japan has the Onryo, who make their victims suffer just as they suffered. They remind us how the violence against them and the violence they inflict on others is a part of a systematic issue that will never end as long as their silent screams and pleas for help continued to be ignored.
"Japan's Onryo Spirits Inhabit a Purgatory of Revenge and Cosmic Rage" by Dan O'Sullivan. Atlas Obscura https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/monster-mythology-onryo
"Onryo: Duality of Vengeful Spirits and Japanese Ghost Stories" by Hiroko Matsuyama. PATTERNZ https://www.patternz.jp/onryo-japanese-vengeful-spirits/
"Domestic Violence and the Rights of Women in Japan and the US" by Juley A Fulcher. American Bar Association https://www.americanbar.org/groups/crsj/publications/human_rights_magazine_home/human_rights_vol29_2002/summer2002/irr_hr_summer02_fulcher/
" Japan Adopts Tough Domestic Violence Law" by Melinda Rice. Womens News https://womensenews.org/2001/12/japan-adopts-tough-domestic-violence-law/
" Japan's Dometic Violence Cases Reach and All-Time Hight" by Thisanka Siripala . The Diplomat https://thediplomat.com/2019/04/japans-domestic-violence-cases-reach-all-time-high/