When you sit down for a Ju-On story, you usually know what you’re going to get. The pale creepy ghosts, the hunched kids in the corner, stringy black hair of doom, the cat cries, and a lot of horrific tales about the real-life violence behind the cursed creepy specters. Since Takashi Shimizu‘s original 1998 shorts, through the feature films, sequels, American remakes, sequels to those remakes, this year’s reboot Grudge, and heck, even a 2009 video game simulator, the hallmarks of that visual language and tonal focus remained consistent. Netflix’s new series spin on the material, Ju-On: Origins, feels like something new, very much rooted in the traditions of the franchise fans love, but told through a new perspective — a much, much more brutal perspective. Sometimes it’s a welcome change of pace that expands the reach and impact of the franchise’s familiar fascination with horrific domestic violence. Sometimes, not so much, veering into exploitative shock value rather than honing into the empathy that makes these stories so enduring.
Origins also holds true to Ju-On‘s tradition of labyrinthine, overlapping narratives, following an ensemble of characters across time periods in one big spooky spider-web of interconnected atrocities. That structure, which has helped the franchise endure through an ongoing series of episodic sequels, converts to the series format surprisingly well. No doubt, the easy transition is largely owed to the wise decision to keep things moving at a clip with six 30-minute episodes. That story structure makes Origins a perfect binge-watch, if a bit of a traumatizing one, weaving together the ensemble arcs with a tight command that works whether you chose to watch it like a long movie in a single blast or space out the episodes.
Written by Hiroshi Takahashi and Takashige Ichise, the series purports to tell the “true story” behind the Ju-On mythology, which was inspired by the urban legend of Kayako. Set before the first film in the franchise, Origins focuses on the decades leading up to the story as we know it, digging into and expanding the mythology of the curse, filling in gaps and explaining how it is to be that the iconic haunted house came to be the home of such a malicious spirit.
Translating that “true story” focus into a more grounded, less jump scare-centric tale of terror, Origins first introduces us to Haruka Honjo (Yuina Kuroshima), an actress haunted by the sounds of running footsteps in her apartment ever since her boyfriend visited a mysterious spooky house. The kind of place you definitely know you shouldn’t walk into, but you do, and boom, that’s how you get ghosts. Haruka calls in the help of Yasuo Odajima (Yoshiyoshi Arakawa), a writer investigating paranormal occurrences, who deduces their troubles are in fact supernatural and becomes fixated on finding the mystery home he believes holds the answers to a powerful, deadly curse.
In a parallel story, we meet a teenage girl (Ririka) with a dark home life who sets out to make friends at her new school, venturing off to a fabled local abandoned home, where she’s violently assaulted. Afterward, she sees a ghost and that Grudge stays with her over the years, tying into one of many deeply twisted tales of domestic abuse. Elsewhere, a young girl is held captive and viciously beaten. It’s here, at the end of the first episode, where Origins begins to reveal how grim and grisly this new take on the material intends to get. It’s also here where I have to warn you in earnest that this is one of the most brutal and violent TV shows I have ever seen, even by Netflix’s notoriously unrated standards. There are acts of violence, particularly a sequence involving a pregnant woman and her rage-fuelled husband, which genuinely disturbed me. I am not known for having a soft stomach when it comes to gore.
The violence men perpetrate against women and children has always been at the core of Ju-On‘s brand of horror. It’s the crux of the mythology, the Original Sin of sorts that taints the scene of the crime, haunting those who happen upon it. In previous Ju-On adaptations, that core was exactly that — a constant center beneath the hauntings. It was the internal source of the external horrors. In Ju-On: Origins, that real-world violence is the external focus and the hauntings are on the periphery. To the series credit, here’s value in capturing the horror of abuse and confronting an audience with it. We’ve seen too many times that confirmed abusers will be pardoned and praised in the public eye, their violent crimes relegated to a sub-category on their Wikipedia page while the names of their victims are forgotten if not outright ignored. But at a certain point, Origins crosses the threshold from powerful depictions of abuse into explicit, borderline exploitative carnage.
That blunt approach to such a sensitive, stomach-turning subject is one of two main faults Origins runs into. The other is a byproduct of the series’ rapid-fire storytelling. It’s just very hard to keep track of what’s happening, when, and to whom, and I found myself rewinding several times to make sense of it all. There are a lot of characters, spread across disparate timelines and the series asks you to pay attention and keep up. Characters from early episodes are temporarily sidelined, appearing episodes later in a different decade, while others disappear entirely, their story closed out via news reports or second-hand anecdotes. Even if you don’t need the subtitles, this is not a show you watch phone-in-hand or folding the laundry. It demands your attention. But it also rewards attention. The arcs are many, and mighty complex, but they’re also compelling, complicated characters that are headed towards surprising, if grim as hell, destinations.
If you have patience and the stomach for it, Ju-On: Origins a bold new direction for the franchise, carving out a new cinematic language and richer mythology while carving through its victims. In the end, it lands somewhere between the creeping dread synonymous with the greats of J-Horror and a splatter-the-walls penchant for gore that’s more akin to something out of New French Extremity. It’s not for everyone and considering the trauma of it’s most extreme moments I’m not entirely sure who I’d recommend it to, but it’s certainly refreshing to see a franchise installment this late in the game that manages to bring something new to the table. In the end, it’s kinda like that creepy-ass house you know you shouldn’t enter. You’ve been warned and you’ll probably leave haunted, but those who decide to press forward are probably looking for a good scare anyway.
Ju-On: Origins is streaming now on Netflix.