The writer-director on recreating his Japanese horror hit as The Grudge, with Sarah Michelle Gellar.
“It never forgives. It never forgets.”
That’s the tagline for THE GRUDGE, the upcoming horror film (slated for an October 22 release in the U.S.) starring Sarah Michelle Gellar as an American nurse in Tokyo who is exposed to a mysterious curse that spreads like a virus as it claims new victims. What many mainstream Western audiences may not realize is that THE GRUDGE is based on an excellent series of Japanese horror films that have revitalized the genre with a kind of intensity seldom seen on the movie screen. The four previous films that make up the “Grudge” series (titled “Ju-On” in Japanese) are filled with a barrage of imagery that is nightmarish, surreal, and at times confusing, but the style should not be completely unfamiliar to non-Japanese viewers.
Some of supernatural manifestations (female ghosts with long, dark scraggly hair obscuring their faces) are reminiscent of the 1998 Japanese horror hit Ring, which was remade in American in 2002 as The Ring. The Ju-On films up the ante, however; whereas Ring featured a strong narrative, laced with unseen menace, that built slowly to its terrifying climax, Ju-On and its sequels eschew traditional plot structure in favor of an episodic approach that shifts point of view as each new character comes in contact with the “curse” that will doom them. With no clearly identified protagonist, the films spend little time on characterization and back story; the running time is devoted almost totally to staging the hauntings.
It’s a safe bet that THE GRUDGE will put Gellar’s nurse front and center, turning her into an active character who tracks down and solves the mystery (rather like Naomi Watts in the Americanized The Ring). Yet there is reason to hope that THE GRUDGE will not be a completely watered down version of the Japanese originals. Writer-director Takashi Shimizu, who created the Ju-On series, is also the director of the American remake, which was filmed in Tokyo, Japan, and two key cast members are returning as well: Takako Fuji, who played the ghostly mother Kayako in all the Ju-On films, and Yuya Ozeki, who played Kayako’s equally spooky son Toshio in three of the previous films. The English-language script was written by Stephen Susco (based on Shimizu’s earlier scripts). The film was produced by Sam Raimi’s Renaissance Pictures (Sam’s brother Ted has a role in the film), and U.S. distribution is being handled by Sony’s Columbia Pictures. Jason Behr (the Roswell TV show), Clea DuVall (Ghosts of Mars), and Bill Pullman (Independence Day) co-star.
Officially, THE GRUDGE is a remake of the third Ju-On film, but the lineage is considerably more complicated than that. The first two films in the series, Ju-On and Ju-On 2 were direct-to-video efforts released in 2000. Their cult popularity led to the making of a somewhat more expensive film, entitled Ju-On: The Grudge, which was released theatrically in 2003; a sequel, Ju-On: The Grudge 2, followed later the same year.
Takashi Shimizu promises that the American remake will be “basically the same as” Ju-On: The Grudge, but he adds that “in Japan there are two video versions of the story before this one, and there is already a Part 2 in theatrical release. So the remake version is a mixture, a little bit from those two video versions and also the second [theatrical] one.”
This is good news for American viewers, many of whom found Ju-on: The Grudge to be confusing. The first theatrical film assumes a basic familiarity with the mythology established by the two video efforts, and it offers only a brief prologue glimpse of the gruesome murder that gave birth to the “curse”—a plot point that took up a whole episode in the Ju-On 2 video.
Still, Shimizu is quick to state that any lack of understanding is not necessarily due to Western ignorance of the earlier films or of Japanese mythology. “I get the same kind of question a lot, but even Japanese people get confused trying to understand this movie,” he admits. “It’s easier for Japanese people to understand, because we know basic Japanese ghosts—what they like or how they possess or where they show up—but still it’s confusing, so don’t worry about it!”
Much of the confusion arises from the film’s time-jumping structure, in which the various episodes sometimes take place out of sequence. “The first two video versions are also a mixture of short stories—past, present and future—the story doesn’t go on time-wise,” says Shimizu, adding that the second Japanese theatrical feature Ju-On: The Grudge 2 “is even more confusing in its mixture of past, present and future. The survivor from Part One dies in Part Two.”
The only survivor killed off? Just about no one survives the curse in the Japanese films. One wonders if a similar fate awaits Gellar’s character in the American version. “I’m sure you want to know if she’s going to die or not,” Shimizu teases, “but you have to go see the movie to find out.”
One slight cause for concern among fans of the original films is the news that, after wrapping principal photography, stars Gellar and Behr (who plays her boyfriend in the movie) were called back for two weeks of additional shooting. Gellar told audiences at this year’s San Diego Comic Con that the extra scenes added “a new element” to the film. “What they actually did was give us a more extensive back story, which I think always makes you root for people more.”
This is exactly the kind of material that the original films eschewed, keeping the focus on the horror rather than the drama. Shimizu says little about tailoring the film for American tastes, but he is clearly pleased by his American star, whom he calls “a really hard worker.”
Despite changes like this, one essential element that will be retained in the American version is the ghostly mother-and-son duo. “It was my idea to keep them for the remake,” says Shimizu. “When I got the first offer to direct the remake, I didn’t want to do it, because I didn’t understand why they wanted to use the same director. But if I could use the same characters of Kayako and Toshio for the remake, I would do it, because in my opinion, I can make only make dark-haired Japanese women scary, not American women. The studio was fine with that.”
As for the by-now almost familiar cliché of making the Kayako character seem sinister and threatening by obscuring her features behind her long, dark head of hair, Shimizu explains, “The person who plays that character is very well known in Japan, so hiding her face by the hair” hid her familiar appearance. “I also named her after my ex-girlfriend,” he jokes. “I get inspiration from there.”
Besides the alarming visuals, another aspect that contributed to the effectiveness of Ju-On: The Grudge was the sound design by Komatsu Masato. “I worked with [him] for the first time, but I knew his work before, so I just trusted him,” says Shimizu. “I kept telling him to intensify the sound and the music.” Masato may not be back for the remake, but at least one soundtrack element will return in the American version: “The ghost’s voice is my voice,” says Shimizu, demonstrating with a deep rattling sound from his throat.
Like Ju-On films, THE GRUDGE was filmed in on location in Japan, but the residents were not necessarily happy to see Shimizu’s crew again. “It’s suburb somewhere in Tokyo, but the exact location I cannot say, because when we made [Ju-On: The Grudge], it was a low-budget movie, but since it became a really big hit and people get to know where we shot, people started gathering around the house, and the neighbors started complaining!”
Although watching his films is an intense experience, Shimizu insists that making them is exactly the opposite. He doesn’t find it necessary to resort to the sort of tricks used by William Friedkin on the set of The Exorcist (e.g., firing guns to get shocked reactions shots from his cast). “Actually, I don’t do anything to keep tension during the shooting,” says Shimizu. “As long as I keep in my mind the thing that scares normal people, I can make scary horror movies.”
He adds, “I started shooting horror movies because since I was a kid I liked to scare people. I always loved to watch scary movies, but I never particularly wanted to shoot scary movies. So during the shoot, the atmosphere in the studio is very relaxed, and people are having fun. When we were shooting, I was holding [back] my laughter. One of the actresses said, ‘Is it okay to have this much fun in a studio for a horror movie?’ Actually, I like to see some of the audience laughing in my movies instead of being scared.”
Shimizu also avoids the Exorcist-style hype of pretending that supernatural events occurred during the filming of his horror efforts. “I get that kind of question a lot, also,” he says. “In any country, they ask me, ‘You can see ghosts, right?’ I have no such ability. I don’t see ghosts—no such phenomena. I can’t see them!”
Despite his expertise in the genre, Shimizu insists that there are no personal themes to be found in his work; he simply enjoys the visceral effect of a good fright. “There are no particular personal meanings, but since I was a kid I loved to scare people,” he explains. “When my brother went to the bathroom in the middle of the night, when he left the room, I was sleeping in the bed, but when he came back I was not in the bed; I was hiding somewhere, to scare my brother. I look back on that stuff I did when I was a kid to use in the movies. Also when I’m writing scripts, I sometimes hide myself underneath the bed, thinking, “Oh, this might be scary.” I have to be careful, because sometimes I fall asleep hiding under the bed!”
As for the films that inspired him, Shimizu says, “I am influenced by lots of filmmakers and movies, so it’s hard to name everything. I like art films like Decalogue and big-budget Hollywood movies like Spider-Man 2, but I fell asleep in Spider-Man. Sorry, Sam!” he jokes, referring to Spider-Man director Sam Raimi, who is producing THE GRUDGE.
Finally, is it artistically satisfying to make horror films?
“Yes, of course!” Shimizu answers quickly. “I also love to make people laugh, but since my first hit was a horror movie, I am already labeled as a horror director in Japan. So even if I want to make a comedy, it’s hard. But I’m going to start making my comedy series in Japan, for a TV show.”