There you go. Simple premise, yeah? Like most Asian horror films, Ju-on is short on plot and long on scares. The preceeding paragraph, as written text, opens the picture and gives you everything you need to know. From there, all you can do is sit tight and wait to be horrified.
This isn't to say there's no real plot to the film; it is, however, painfully simple. A man suspects that his wife is cheating on him and his son may be the product of an affair. The man kills his wife and, presumably, the child as well. The house they live in becomes haunted by the spirits of the dead. If they see you, you die. There's no escape, there's nothing you can do about it...you die.
The story is told in vignettes that unwind across time. One of the pleasures of Ju-on is figuring out who relates to whom, where the various scenes fit in the timeline of the big picture, and then piecing together what exactly happened. It's not difficult, really, and the jumping back and forth from place to place and time to time doesn't feel so much like a conceit as it does in, say, Memento.
Were this an American film (and let me qualify that by saying I haven't seen the American remake of Ju-on, The Grudge, starring television's Sarah Michelle Gellar as a journalist or something. I have no idea how that version stacks up or how much of an improvement or bastardization of the original it is, and having seen said original I don't really feel the need to watch it at all. The Ring, on the other hand, well, I saw the American version first and I--wait, where was I? Oh yeah...), an original American film, the plot would most likely spiral out of control with subplots and "reasons" and "explanations" for everything that happens. The Japanese like to keep things simple in their movies, and thus we don't get bogged down in details. It's more like:
Ghosts. Scary image. Die.
And dammit, I like it like that sometimes. These flicks just get to the goods. They're little more than a series of frightening images and sound thrown at you...and I must say, some from Ju-on reduce me to a babbling mess, clutching a pillow to my chest, waiting for it to be over. This movie's got the scary, baby, and sometimes it's the simplest things: the sound of someone shuffling behind you as you walk down a hallway (of course there's no one behind you...); walking into a room with a closet door that's taped shut...then hearing scratching from behind that door; or how about a ghost getting you when you're hiding under your fucking bedsheets? I thought that was a safety zone! No fair!
But that "no fair" is what makes it so good. The conventions of the standard ghost story are turned on their head in Ju-on (and The Ring as well). There's no appeasing a spirit done wrong, a la The Changeling. There's no guiding anyone into the pretty light a la Poltergeist. One character in Ju-on pleads with the spirit "I did what you asked! Stop tormenting me!"...but guess what, folks? This house cannot be cleaned. They will not stop, ever. They're malevolent. They're a curse. And they will kill you.
Most of the ideas behind the Asian horror films come from terrifying folktales that have been passed down through generations. Maybe it's because of this that the movies don't spend alot of time with characters who don't (or won't) believe what's happening before them...there's few, if any, unbelievers or naysayers around. In Ju-on, everyone in the film immediately knows that the house is haunted. The pale woman staring at you from the foot of your bed is simply a fucking ghost. No fuss, no muss, no questions asked, easy, breezy, beautiful. While this approach helps move the plot along more quickly, I think it also helps suck the audience into the action- there's no one on screen constantly playing the cynic card, reminding us that this is all fake. If everyone in the movie simply accepts that this is all real right off the bat, well...couldn't something like this be real?
I can tell you, honestly, that The Ring and Ju-on are the only movies in recent memory that have left me scared long after the credits rolled. Having grown up on ghost movies like Poltergeist, I never figured ghosts to be just plain evil. There was always something to be done to get them off your back, and any "guilty parties" were the only ones who actually paid any price. But these new movies taught me that everything I know is a lie! A LIE! Ghosts hate me- even if I did nothing wrong!- and they will kill me. That's not cool at all. It is, however, quite terrifying.
All this praise for Ju-on doesn't mean I think every Asian horror offering is pure gold. Firstly, I'm not terribly well-versed in the subgenre. Secondly, it seems that the Asian horror scene bites its own tail as much as say, the slasher flicks do. There's some that rock, some that are derivative, and alot that are simply watered-down versions of the classics. Before you say "Meh, seen one long dark-haired girl, seen 'em all!", though, check out Ju-on. It'll get under your skin. I give it 9 out of 10 hold me, mommy!s.