Everyone’s ghosts look different. We’ve got some that are Patrick Swayze from Ghost (1990), just people with unfinished business taking on a spectral form. Other times, they’re Patrick Swayze but so far removed from their lived life and warped by the years that become something twisted and horrid thing. And sometimes, a ghost is just a feeling imprinted on a moment of time and space. In Ju-On: The Grudge, a ghost is a stain.
This isn’t a slight against Miss Kayako Saeki, the franchise’s iconic ghost. It’s just that the ghosts in Ju-On aren’t Casper nor are they undead murder goblins like Jason Voorhees and his ilk. So, let me explain what I mean when I refer to the ghost[s] in Ju-On as stains.
The movie opens with the following text:
JU-ON: The curse of one who dies in the grip of a powerful rage. It gathers and takes effect in the places that person was alive. Those who encounter it die, and a new curse is born.
1.) “The curse of one who dies in the grip of a powerful rage.”
Kayako Saeki’s husband brutally murders her and her son, Toshio, in a fit of jealousy after discovering she loves someone else / is having an affair. The “grip of powerful rage” Kayako dies in is her own. She’s understandably fucking pissed. Her last moments alive are spent boiling over with fury. She’s a cauldron of bubbling rage and with his final, horrendous act of violence, Kayako’s husband knocks it over.
2.) “It gathers and takes effect in the places that person was alive.”
Now her viscous, pitch-black vitriol is spilling all over the place and is splashed all over the house.
3.) “Those who encounter it die . . . and a new curse is born.”
Not much to explain here (yet). Her husband is the first to fall victim to the curse. . .
4.) “. . . and a new curse is born.”
. . . and now the spot where he died is Cursed. Her husband is part of the franchise’s peanut gallery of ghosts forever.
5.) Repeat forever
The ghost we know and love and refer to as Kayako isn’t actually the person known as Kayako Saeki. Miss Saeki, the human being, leaves a stain on her house, an imprint of her anguish, that will never dry and can never be scrubbed out. So when the characters of the film, like Rika the social worker and Izumi the high school student, step into the house, they’re stepping into a pool of jet black, uh, Kayako. The movie unfolds as they track Kayako everywhere they go, spreading the curse like animals dispersing plant burs. And then, of course, Kayako swallows them up too. The stain that was initially confined to Saeki household spreads and shows no signs of stopping.
This comes through how she manifests in reality as well. Kayako first appears as an encroaching black mass, inching closer to poor Grandma Sachie before completely engulfing her. She transitions from “living shadow” to “amorphous blob,” which is a basic observation but I think it’s important for how we come to understand Kayako. We see her as an imprint at first, a moving shadow against the wall, but then she reaches off the surface into into our 3D world.
It’s clearer with a scene of her caught on a security camera. The video seems normal at first, and then what appears to be a shadow starts acting funny. And then, it’s not a shadow at all.
What initially passes as a shadow cast by some off-screen figure becomes a figure itself. She seems utterly natural until she’s anything but. She glides across surface of the monitor screen (or even the film camera itself), like a malevolent cue mark. This is Kayako. A seeping stain, evil ink splashed against space and time.
Kayako’s curse is one that claims the land in terms of space and time. You see this in the structure of the film itself; it’s fractured, told achronologically, divided into the experiences of a handful of Kayako’s victims. At one point, a character witnesses his teenage daughter, who hasn’t even been born yet in his life, enter the house and contract the curse. Every time Kayako appears on screen, we can imagine people occupying that same space across points in time feeling her presence. She’s an imprint inextricably connected to Kayako Saeki’s life, but she’s also her own entity. No one in our world is particularly equipped to grapple with this brutal act of violence, so it spawns a being that operates outside our reality.
Shifting gears a bit, a few reviews of The Grudge compare it and Kayako unfavorably to The Ring (2002) and that movie’s spectral girl, Samara (Sadako in the original Ringu series which I haven’t watched yet because I’m fake). It’s 2019 and we’re not pitting successful women against each other, but I do want to talk a bit about both of them because they are cut from the same cloth.
Prior to events of The Ring, Samara Morgan dies and leaves behind a lethal curse that’s primed to spread. In this case, it’s a VHS tape that threatens to kill anyone who watches it within 7 days, unless they make a copy and give it to someone else (although we don’t find out about that until a little later.)
Our protagonist Rachel spends the movie trying to uncover Samara’s past, hoping that giving Samara closure will free Rachel and her son, Aidan, from the curse. She succeeds in uncovering a tragic history, recovering Samara’s body, and giving her a proper burial. She can’t wait to break the news to her Aidan that their nightmare is over; however, he looks more horrified than ever, and tells her “you weren’t supposed to help her . . . she never sleeps.” Because Samara, like Kayako, isn’t some lost spirit trapped between worlds. Who knows where the young girl known as Samara Morgan is now. What we’ve got left is Samara, a stain of her hate. You can’t fault Rachel from trying to help her. We’re primed to believe Rachel is going about things in the right way. That is, by helping bring Samara closure, Rachel can help her “move on” and break the curse. We’re inundated with stories like this. You can go back to something like Hamlet or to something as recent as Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark (2019) and find narratives along the lines of “a ghost can’t rest because they’ve got unfinished business” or “because they never found peace.”
Unfortunately, The Ring and The Grudge aren’t those kinds of ghost stories. There’s no catharsis to be found. Closure is for the living, and to The Ring’s credit, that’s part of its horror. Rachel’s (and our) mistake is thinking she was dealing with a translucent human. We can appeal to a human, but to an emotion? How can you bring peace to Distilled Rage Incarnate? Samara Morgan and Kayako Saeki are gone. Samara and Kayako are what’s left: the lingering hate and anger of two people brutally silenced. In a strange way, death grants them both the agency and space she was denied in life. But it’s also infuriating she was denied that to begin with, and equally infuriating that it took them dying to be granted a semblance of control.
I know I’ve been saying that Kayako and Samara are pretty similar, but there’s one significant difference I wanna explore too.
In The Ring, the vector for homegirl’s curse is film footage. You watch the film, you get cursed, and you die in 7 days unless you pass along the footage. A bunch of people die in The Ring, but,,,theoretically, Samara could have ended up with a kill count of zero. If everyone passed the video along in time, the curse would never be lethal. Obviously this presupposes that everyone knows to pass the tape along, etc. etc. but the point is, the deaths could feasibly just stop after that knowledge comes to light. And I think that’s the whole point. She’s characterized as a Supernatural Evil Kid, but I mean, she was also a young Japanese girl adopted and hated by white parents, abused by a white community, and then murdered and thrown into a well. No comment! There’s also an inherent juxtaposition in the film of Aidan and Samara: two psychically inclined children but guess which one didn’t spend most of their life locked in a basement? Samara Morgan was a young girl who suffered in silence and isolation at the hands of someone who was supposed to protect and love her. The vector of her curse being visual footage that must be passed along suggests a story that demands you not only hear it, but you talk about it, you see it. (“But, Gregor!” you cry. “What if no one watched the video in the first place?” You fool. You absolute buffoon. What a boring outcome! You think there’s a timeline where her accursed VHS tape gathers dust for all eternity in some decrepit Family Video? Absolutely not. Samara is too pissed to not pull some magic bullshit and force it into someone’s possession. And if that’s not a satisfying answer, consider this: obviously I would watch it.)
Samara’s curse afflicts the world as a whole, holding literally everyone responsible for what happened to her. Rachel, Aidan, and most everyone else in The Ring had nothing to do with Samara, but in her head, everyone who reaps the benefits of the world that killed her is complicit. Regardless of how rational or “fair” that is, at its core, the curse is really only trying to hold people and communities accountable. Sure, it’s got some cruel methodology, but I can’t say I’m particularly mad at it. Let’s take this to an incredible extreme and say that the tape gets passed around forever. There are 250 humans born each minute, so there’s no way the tape will ever loop around. In the world where Samara’s curse has the lowest possible kill count, everyone knows her story. Everyone inherits her story. Everyone complicit in Samara’s abuse is exposed to the world and no one will ever forget what they did. Why would that be a bad thing?
On the other hand, Kayako’s curse offers no way out. Whereas Samara hands the world an evil baton, Kayako unleashes a malevolent infection. Contracting the curse is a death sentence whether or not you pass it along. You can wash your hands of Samara to an extent, but Kayako? Sorry! That being said,,, her kill count could also be way lower too. If her curse is an incurable, virulent disease, we could just quarantine it. If we were to designate all the land and space she’s already claimed as Her Territory, Do Not Trespass, we might see the deaths come to a halt. The land would stand forever as a monument to her. While her rage would continue to burn forever, it wouldn’t claim anymore lives. But that’s asking too much, isn’t it?
To not only acknowledge the very blatantly misogynistic violence enacted against Kayako Saeki but to give her memory and her story physical, unbreachable space, seems more of a reach than shooting a YouTube link around every 7 days. The movie isn’t even interested in unraveling the story of what happened to her because everyone already knows. The case was open and shut. Domestic violence. Coldly, no one is particularly surprised to hear of an instance of violence like this. Like Samara, Kayako holds the whole world accountable for her pain. “The Grudge” is an incredibly fitting name. She’ll never forgive and she’ll never forget, and why should she? The titular “grudge” could be referring to a bunch of things but ultimately I feel it’s Kayako Saeki’s grudge against the violent man who killed her, as well as her grudge against a world that enables and implicitly forgives such behavior when it chooses to just, forget about it. The only way to halt the spread of Kayako’s curse is to remember her on a systemic, structural level. On a meta level, the fact that the franchise continues to grow suggests we’re just not capable of that.
The Grudge and The Ring aren’t interested in the kind of ghosts that can move on and “go into the light” because they understand that nothing ever really goes away. Central to the horror of these stories is that catharsis is a fantasy. Rachel thinks everything is over and solved when she gets Samara out of that well and seemingly grants her closure. It’s a pretty thought. She learns too late what the original detectives on Kayako’s case already know. You can solve the mystery and put the case to bed but in the end, it’s only the bodies that stay buried.