I'm cringing for starting with this, but screw it.
The *ahem* curse of every Ju-On property since its debut in 1999 with Ju-On: The Curse is abstraction. Unlike other horror franchises, the Ju-On movies didn't have a poster monster to speak of—though many would appoint the contorted crawler Kayako from the original, especially after the ridiculous 2016 crossover flick, Kayako vs. Sadako. What they had, however, was a feeling, a thick atmosphere that—at least in the first few films—director Takashi Shimizu had honed to near-perfection.
Twenty-one years later, Ju-On: Origins seems afflicted by the same curse. The story unfolds similarly to the original—in moody, fragmented vignettes. A handful of characters make the fatal mistake of stepping inside the now-infamous grudged house, and we tail them as they descend each into their respective bloody ends. This time, the story is set in the 80's Kyoto, a choice that feels as fully significant as serving as an obvious indicator that Origins is actually a prequel to the early movies, even if it sometimes feels disinterested about being one.
There's a sense that it wants to unmoor itself from the original. Written by Takashige Ichise and Hiroshi Takahashi, writers who are, interestingly, known for other J-horror titles, like Dark Water (2002) and Ringu (1998), the series goes further into the curse's history, which it posits that to have been birthed in the 50's, where a woman and her unborn child are sadistically seized and locked up in the attic. Its stern persistence on keeping itself somewhat removed from the movies can be seen, depending on who you ask, as either a smart choice or a major cop-out. I'm leaning towards the latter.
That isn't to say that the series is devoid of interesting spins to the now all-too familiar story. On the contrary, each episode presents different dynamics of varying effect. Perhaps the most noteworthy happens a couple of episodes in, when a high schooler named Kiyomi (Ririka)—at this point afflicted by the curse already—seems to utilise the Grudge to unshackle herself from her abusive, nymphomaniac mother. But this comes after a now-infamous rape scene perpetrated by a couple of petty classmates, one that drags on for far too long to merely drive a point.
And that's what pulls me in and repels me from the series' out-of-left-field choices. They exist to more explicitly exhibit the ugliness that the Grudge draws out of its host and the cycle of cruelty it mounts by infecting others that get too close to it. So much, in fact, that the series feels embraces the ugly for ugliness' sake.
A familiar vignette happens midway through the film: a scorned husband catches an adulterous wife (in the original, Kayako didn't cheat on her husband, it was the Grudge that made her husband obsess over the idea). The sequence plays out the way one expects in this sort of movies—in blood. The whole thing concludes with an impromptu c-section, an inarguably heady moment that makes even the strongest-willed horror fans, including this writer, wince.
This, including a time-jumping element intro'd in the later episodes, aren't anything new. Just about every intriguing angle has been played out across all thirteen film entries—inevitable, for a franchise that can't entirely ride on story, because there isn't enough. The prospect of crafting a proper prequel, however removed from the franchise, is a towering task. By the sixth episode, it's clear that even the series-makers are unsure how they can offer a Ju-On "origins" story that won't leave a nasty taste in the mouth. So...to hell with it.
2020 // Netflix
Direction: Sho Miyake
Screenplay: Takashige Ichise, Hiroshi Takahashi
Cast: Yoshiyoshi Arakawa, Yuina Kuroshima, Ririka, Koki Osamura, Seiko Iwaido, Kai Inowaki
Netflix's first major foray in original Japanese programming is a frustrating mess.