A Rollercoaster of Timelines Haunt Ju-On: Origins

© Netflix

As the name suggests, Ju-On: Origins is an origin story for the entirety of the Ju-On/The Grudge franchise. It’s meant to showcase “what really happened,” explaining why the series’ house is haunted by such an iconic spirit. In that sense, don’t expect much of a connection to the franchise at large aside from the standard tropes—cursed house, a string of women being brutalized in connection to the house, and the lurking presence of a ghost in a white dress. The show avoids being pinned down by the franchise’s established timelines and characters by delivering an all-new cast, with events taking place well before the onset of the hauntings that arcs through the films. This is one of the show’s strengths. Instead of using too much of what the audience is used to, it tries to eke out an almost wholly independent plot.

In Ju-On: Origins, the spirits of the living and the dead coexist in a restless cycle of hauntings. Time warps fluidly throughout the series; those alive in the future haunt those stumbling through the past, only to find that they’re being haunted too. The narrative line curls and spirals in on itself and you’re being taken along for the ride–a passenger strapped into a rollercoaster on a Möbius strip. With a timeline so interwoven (there are six distinct major points, spread out from 1952 to 1997) it’s difficult to take stock of what and who matters, really, and that is one of Ju-On: Origin’s largest failings.

© Netflix

Because of this nonlinear take, it’s also difficult to describe the timeline of the series without scratching the surface of a few serious end-of-season spoilers. The best way to follow it is to cling to the 1995 timeline as the present-day. In 1995, we’re introduced to Yasuo, a paranormal investigator who turns his findings into various anthologies, Haruka, a celebrity who becomes Yasuo’s de-facto assistant after being haunted herself, and Kiyomi, a woman grappling with a horrendous amount of trauma from her teenage years. Yasuo is as close to an audience conduit as we get, even though his motivations and personal progress take a back seat until the closing episodes of the show. As we dip in and out of various points in time, we unlock details surrounding the murky history of a nondescript house that becomes the connecting point between all of the horrors of the series.

Like many modern takes, this redux of the franchise has eased away from the concept that ghosts are otherworldly, menacing figures. The spirits of Ju-On: Origins are living, breathing threats–the scares are derived from the secrets and wrongdoings that compel people to hurt one another–at least, until the show spirals in the final two episodes. This concept, on paper, I could not be a larger advocate for. The brutal lack of humanity surrounding the crimes that carry the story of Ju-On: Origins is, to me, more shocking and more likely to have me question the safety of my apartment than an omnipresent specter with long hair. That being said, even with this “murder is more terrifying than a haunting” idea rooted in place, I wouldn’t call Ju-On: Origins scary. There are startling moments, and unnerving moments, and a wealth of gruesome, bloody moments (no episode in this series is family-friendly), but there was no point in time where I could say I was afraid to look over my own shoulder. Others might pan the show for this exact reason, and argue against its validity in the franchise for its inability or unwilligness to give us what we’re expecting—darkened shots where someone is chased down a hallway by a figure in white, snappy scares as a ghost appears just as a character opens a sliding door—but in truth, I didn’t find myself missing a jump-scare throughout the series.

Instead, I found myself missing my sympathy. With so many characters to keep track of, it’s difficult to feel bad for, or to otherwise worry for the safety of, any specific person. In other iterations of the series, we are given reason to care about a character in the moments before they set foot in the cursed house that will ultimately send them to their doom. But for this series, the rules are a bit more fast and loose. Wandering into the cursed house doesn’t always specifically mean your death, one way or the other. In some instances, characters step over the threshold, are treated to a spooky vision, and then can walk back out onto the street, stuck only with a lasting impression and nothing more. In other cases, just being connected to someone in the house is enough to get the curse placed on you. It’s a complexity that makes the major fear factor of the series—the house—feel less threatening.

© Netflix

For their part, the cast do their best to instill the unease that runs underneath each scene. There’s a plentiful number of shrieks and screams, and a really great moment of tears in the last few episodes that briefly gave me the emotional weight I’d been expecting to feel earlier in the season. Watch this with the original Japanese audio for those pangs of emotional authenticity and for some solid line deliveries—the English dub fell flat for me.

So where does that leave the series? Is Ju-On: Origins worth streaming? The show isn’t perfect by any means, but that doesn’t make it bad. It’s dark and moody and pulls no punches when it comes to delivering a bloody scene. And it introduces something fresh to a classic franchise that deserves revitalization and a little bit more screen time. The format of a show instead of a movie affords Origins the opportunity to forgo trying to fit into the franchise timeline, as another movie would have to. It’s not bone-chilling in the traditional sense, but it is gruesome and disturbing, and the three-hour run-time feels like no time at all because each episode is only half an hour long. With August coasting ever closer into our sights, and with the last dregs of summer making dawn and dusk last just a little bit longer, Ju-On: Origins is a perfect show to settle in with.

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