JU-ON: Origins is a strange blend: peculiar yet vague, macabre yet scare-free, bizarre yet intriguing. Whether these assorted qualities make a project good or not, I can’t say for certain. I’ve yet to decipher and compartmentalise my feelings. In any case, the six-episode series of 30-odd minutes each has titillated my senses enough to seek out director Sho Miyake’s earlier works.

As far as Origins is concerned, seeing the American film series doesn’t help (coincidentally, I’d just finished binging The Grudge series, a few days back).

Tonally, Origins fits right in with the movies. Narratively, it left me befuddled by the questions it raised without supplying answers. This ambiguity, again, could be a good thing. Who knows?

Ju-On and The Grudge are designed to be awfully jumbled pieces of fiction. The curse is strangely esoteric, as are the frenzied rationales it forces into its victims’ minds, that lead to horrible actions.

The clearest general idea one gets of how the curse works comes from the tagline at the start of the movies: When someone dies in the grip of a powerful rage... a curse is born. The curse gathers in that place of death. Those who encounter it will be consumed by its fury.

What the tagline doesn’t mention is that the curse originates at a specific dwelling — a small, unassuming, quiet house in the middle of similar unassuming houses in Tokyo. Within the span of Origins, the curse affects three different families between 1988 and 1997.

Unlike other horror stories where evil is omnipresent and the characters it takes over are loathsome to begin with, in JU-ON: Origins the people are pitiful, morose souls commandeered by powers beyond human comprehension

In 1988, actress Haruka Honjo (Yuina Kuroshima) appears as a guest on a talk-show to reveal that she’s heard mysterious footsteps in her home. Frightened out of her wits, she moves into her boyfriend’s place, but the haunting has tagged along. Yasuo Odajima (YosiYosi Arakawa), a paranormal investigator searching for stories he can author into non-fiction horror books, finds out that Haruka is being haunted by the curse from the aforementioned house. The catch is that no one knows where the house is.

In an unconnected story, Kiyomi Kawai (Ririka), an emotionally distant young girl, has suddenly transferred to a new school. We soon learn that the mother and daughter are living through a strained relationship, because the daughter had seduced her own father. Like most backstories in Origins, we’re kept in the dark on what happened to the father, or why they are alone. A warped rumour leads to a ruthless and inhuman turn in Kiyomi’s life, when she ends up at the same cursed house. Kiyomi and Haruka aren’t the only ones affected by the evil’s machinations; the curse seizes almost every supporting character in the series as the stories continue to jump forward in time.

By 1994, the house is owned by a new couple, Nobuhiko and Keiko Haida (Shinsuke Kato and Nana Yanagisawa). Unknown to his wife, Nobuhiko is having an affair with a pregnant woman named Chie Masaki (Haruka Kubo) — a woman whom he dated while they were young. Chie, vibrant with Nobuhiko, is an uncommunicative shell of a human being when she is with her caring husband Keiichi (Ryota Matsushima).

The lives start intersecting, at first linearly, until the stories reach a chilling, bloody, and distressing climax by the last two episodes. This is also when the series’ prevalent trope of time and events folding in on itself starts filling in structural gaps of individual stories.

Unlike other horror stories where evil is omnipresent and the characters it takes over are loathsome to begin with, here the people are pitiful, morose souls whose wits are commandeered by powers beyond human comprehension. There are almost no jump scares, or other hackneyed horror tropes; their inclusion would’ve sullied the mood anyways.

Miyake is sympathetic to his characters and the realism ingrained in the story’s setting. It’s a nice touch. For example, new incidents from the curse are almost always followed by man-made or godly catastrophes in Japan. Some stories, like a brief but prominent bit on a kidnapper and killer of school children, may not fit right in with the narrative on first thought. In retrospect, it makes some sense.

Years in the future, or perhaps a few years in the past (which is a fitting statement, because passage of time is irrelevant in the series), I could have directly compared Origins’ thought-provoking ambiguity with The Wailing, a far more mature, decisively abstract South Korean horror film — but not now. I’d much rather mull on where it stands after a repeat watch or two.

Streaming now on Netflix, JU-ON: Origins is rated R for violence, rape, sex, implied nudity, blood and gore. A scene where a character performs a cesarean on a woman’s corpse is as unsettling as it gets. The series is not for everyone — even if they are fans of the genre.

Published in Dawn, ICON, July 31st, 2020