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From its relatively humble beginnings in 2000 as a direct to DVD release, the Japanese horror “Ju-on” series went on to become one of the modern Asian ghost genre’s most influential franchises, and one of the country’s most popular domestic blockbusters and exports, also inspiring a series of Hollywood remakes. Original developer, writer and director Takashi Shimizu returned in 2009 to mark the tenth anniversary of his shrieking ghosts with two new short features, “White Ghost” and “Black Ghost” (literally “Old Lady in White” and “Girl in Black”), which now arrive together on one DVD. The two continue very much in the manner of the classic originals, being scare packed spook shows rather than aiming for the more psychological terror of “Ringu” and other key J-Horror releases.
The first of the two, “White Ghost” was directed by Miyake Ryuta, who previously worked with Shimizu on the omnibus “Tales of Terror”, and stars actress model Minami Akina as a high school girl with psychic powers called Akane who starts experiencing strange and threatening visions. In true “Ju-on” fashion, the plot jumps around between different characters, revealing a dark secret regarding the murder of her childhood friend and her family. Asato Mari (“Twilight Syndrome: Dead Go Round”) helmed “Black Ghost”, which features former pop star Kago Ai (recently with the legendary Sammo Hung in “Kung Fu Chefs”) as a nurse looking after an unfortunate young girl (Matsumoto Hana) who has a mysterious growth in her stomach. As is often the case, the growth turns out to be her unborn twin, who is understandably angry at having been denied her chance at life, and who is keen to exact revenge on the world in general.
As might be expected, the two films, which both run around an hour, hark back to the very first “Ju-on” outings in that they are low budget, shot on video affairs. Of course, money is by no means a prerequisite for imagination or creativity, and the films certainly manage to capture the spirit of the originals, with their many scares having a decidedly surreal edge and with the viewer being primed from very early on to expect the unexpected. The ghouls of “Ju-on” have always been a very active, hard working lot, and here they continue very much in the fine tradition of suddenly appearing in ridiculous places, grabbing at characters, their black eyes wide and enthusiastic, making their trademark throaty clicking. Although some of the frights do verge slightly on the daft, not so much defying the laws of common supernatural sense as completely ignoring them, there are a good few genuine surprises and entertaining shocks, even for grizzled J-Horror veterans. The fractured narrative approach that the series is known for works as well as ever and both films are nicely constructed and ambitious in their story telling and design.
Of the two, “White Ghost” is the stronger outing, with a more engaging and wide-reaching plot and an unsettling air of perversity. Although the makeup effects for the titular spirit are a touch odd, this does make for some sinister scenes, not least since Ryuta also throws in a few visceral touches and some splashes of gore. “Black Ghost” is somewhat more straightforward and focused, and is less effective as a result, with its unborn twin plot being overly familiar. This having been said, it still holds the interest, and performs far better than the similarly themed recent Hollywood effort “The Unborn”, with a satisfyingly grim ending and a winningly eerie ambience. The two directors both make good use of the short film format, keeping things moving at a fast pace and packing in plenty of scares along the way. Although inevitably some of these have been lifted quite blatantly from the earlier “Ju-on” efforts they still work well enough, and if anything give the films a charmingly old school feel.
Certainly, both “White Ghost” and “Black Ghost” are worthy additions to the franchise, and serve as a fine reminder of why the series became so popular in the first place. Whilst effectively there is nothing here that fans have not seen before, the return of the industrious, pale skinned ankle grabbers is very welcome, as will be further sequels if this level of quality can be maintained.
Ryûta Miyake, Mari Asato (director) / Ryûta Miyake, Mari Asato, Takashi Shimizu (screenplay)
CAST: Kôji Seto, Kuniteru Shigeyama, Kana Tsugihara, Ai Kago, Hiroki Suzuki, Ichirôta Miyakawa, Natsuki Kasa, Akina Minami, Marika Fukunaga