With its multiple sequels, remakes and requels, not to mention the non-linear narratives within most of the entries, tackling Takashi Shimizu’s Ju-On franchise can seem like a daunting task. Ju-On has gone from humble beginnings as two shorts (4444444444 and Katasumi) featured in the 1998 DTV anthology School Horror Story G, to becoming one of the key films to popularize Japanese horror in the Western world during an era commonly referred to as the "J-horror boom."
Over 25 years, the Ju-On franchise has hit highs and lows, but always retained its iconic status thanks to the throaty death rattle of Kayako Saeki, the wailing meow of her black-eyed son Toshio, and the nebulous, ominous curse that envelopes anyone in their path. As a newcomer, the prospect of tackling 15 movies – yes, we’re including the American remakes! – might be scarier than Takeo Saeki coming at you with a boxcutter. Luckily for you, you don’t need to watch all of them in order to enjoy the best scares that the Ju-On franchise has to offer, as this handy ranking will tell you which are more worth your time than others.
NB: For consistency (and this writer’s sanity), this ranking will only include movie entries within the Ju-On franchise.
The Grudge (2020)
Moving a franchise out of its original location isn’t automatically a bad idea – just look at Scream 6 or, err, Jason X. But when the mythos of a franchise is so directly tied to the culture and country that inspired it, it can lose all sense of self and identity in the process. Look at 2020’s The Grudge, a horror that, despite its efforts to bring gore to the table, ends up bogged down by uninspired jump scares, stripping the story of the subtle scares it was once so beloved for and churning out a pretty forgettable entry in the process. The Grudge’s biggest sin, however? Turning the iconic Kayako into a generic, totally unremarkable ghost who most viewers couldn’t pick out of a lineup. Not even Andrea Riseborough, John Cho or the great Lin Shaye can save this one – skip it.
The Grudge 3 (2009)
2009’s The Grudge 3 marks the last of the original American remakes – and thank god for that. This DTV sequel plods along with all the urgency of Kayako coming down those damn stairs, and although Saw icon Shawnee Smith tries her best to inject some prowess to the mix, on the whole it’s an entirely forgettable expansion of a story that was spinning its wheels an entire movie ago. Plus, little Toshio looks way too old in this one and it’s silly.
The Grudge 2 (2006)
OG director and series creator Takashi Shimizu returns for his fifth and final retelling of the Saeki story, which (despite a couple of good scares) is a pretty average follow up to the above-average 2004 American remake. The scares are cheap, the '00s horror "sallow tint" is cranked up to the max, and while mostly forgettable, The Grudge 2 does boast some of the weakest performances across the entire franchise (notably from the questionable and weirdly sexualized high-schoolers). Of course, as any horror fan worth their salt knows, the more you know about an evil entity, the less scary it becomes. With Shimizu’s declaration that The Grudge 2 was going to finally solve the "big mystery" of Kayako’s backstory, the iconic yurei loses the simplicity of the tragedy of her story.
Ju-On: The Final Curse (2015)
Slap bang in the middle of horror’s "requel" boom comes a Ju-On reboot from Masayuki Ochiai. A key player in the early J-horror scene, the Kansen director bought an entirely new take to the lore behind the Saeki house, resulting in an admirable shake up of the (by this point, pretty stale) mythology. As a follow up to The Beginning of the End (more on that later), The Final Curse continues the questionable timeline in which Toshio was no longer once an innocent, murdered child, but was instead always a malevolent spirit. The scares are light and predictable, with poor old Kayako carrying the entire responsibility of effective frights on her back. No wonder the poor gal crawls everywhere.
Here’s where it all began: an entire franchise spawned by two low-budget DTV shorts. Under the tutelage of Japanese genre legend Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Shimizu developed and shot 4444444444 and Katasumi, which introduced the now-iconic Toshio and Kayako Saeki to the world (respectively), along with fledgling set pieces that he would later rework with more detail. Little Toshio, in his first ever appearance, does come across as slightly comical without his much more threatening mother, hence why 4444444444 just misses out on a spot in the top 10.
Katasumi, the superior of the two School Horror Story shorts, follows the time-honored Japanese horror tradition of scaring the bejesus out of schoolgirls. While Kanna and Hisayo would have their stories fleshed out in the following features, what makes Katasumi unnerving to this day is the sheer unexplainable nature of Kayako. What is she? Why is she there? Why is she torturing these two school girls? All these questions and zero answers in under 10 minutes - terrifying. The only reason these two are this far down the list is that there simply isn’t much to ‘em!
Ju-On: The Curse 2 (2000)
So, here’s where things start to get confusing. Most of Ju-On: The Curse 2 is a recap of Ju-On: The Curse, which probably explains why it's the franchise entry that most seem to forget. While recapping your own movie isn't hugely unusual (especially among Japanese filmmakers, as any Hideaki Anno fan will surely attest), there needs to be something that stands out, just to differentiate it from the original. Ju-On: The Curse 2 does offer up a pretty terrifying prospect of worldwide Kayako domination towards the end, but things are pretty non-eventful before that.
Ju-On: Black Ghost (2009)
The sole entry in the Ju-On franchise to be directed by a woman, Mari Asato’s Black Ghost was released alongside another short, Ju-On: White Ghost, in honor of the series’ 10th anniversary. Black Ghost admirably brings a fresh take to the series’ titular curse, removing the Saeki family entirely and focusing on a new, similarly croaky, spirit. While the swings don’t always connect and the DTV charm will certainly be lost on many, there’s an interesting combination of themes of birth anxiety and "womb horror," something that The Grudge series often hints at but never outright explores further than in Black Ghost.
Ju-On: The Beginning of the End (2014)
As mentioned, Masayuki Ochiai's reboot series drastically alters the origin story of the Saeki curse and, for the most part, that's a welcome revamp. While the Ju-On series has always thrived within its low-budget confines, it's undeniable that The Beginning of the End makes for a much sleeker viewing experience with its higher-budget scares. While original Kayako actress Takako Fuji declined to return to the role, Misaki Saishō does a good job making the character her own, with a sinister air that adds a different flavor of creepiness to her expanded dialogue and backstory. The scares don’t always land, and a few of them border on downright silly, but overall The Beginning of the End is one of the higher points of the franchise.
Sadako vs. Kayako (2016)
In a time-honored tradition of pitting horror powerhouses against each other (Freddy vs Jason, Alien vs Predator), 2016 saw Japan’s two most iconic horror symbols go head to head … for about 15 minutes. A goofy idea, made somewhat iconic by some ingenious and hilarious marketing, Sadako Vs. Kayako shouldn’t work, and it mostly doesn’t. As director, found footage master Kōji Shiraishi (Noroi, Cult) brings his own particular brand of tentacled insanity to the ending, but by the time that rolls around, it’s much too little too late.
The Grudge (2004)
The early ‘00s were a hot bed of remakes, and when it comes to Japanese remakes of the era, generally, only two are considered worth revisiting: Gore Verbinski’s The Ring and Takashi Shimizu’s US version of The Grudge (the less said about One Missed Call the better). Hitting the jackpot with a brand-new market (American audiences too lazy to read subtitles), Shimizu had, by this point, more than enough experience in remaking his own film, and so The Grudge is a lean, mean, distinctly 2000's horror that served as many young fans’ introduction to the terrifying world of Japanese horror. It might not have held up as particularly scary, but for this alone, The Grudge deserves its flowers.
Ju-On: The Curse (2000)
Despite humble beginnings for the very first, very low-budget feature-length entry into the Ju-On franchise, The Curse still manages to be scarier than a lot of its flashier sequels. There's a distinctly ominous atmosphere throughout, helped by the grainy quality, low-key scares, and our first introduction to the menacing-yet-mundane suburban Tokyo home where most of Ju-On takes place. The Curse not only launched the franchise, but also helped to launch the career of Battle Royale standout Chiaki Kuriyama, who would go on to achieve international recognition as Kill Bill’s psychotic teen assassin, Gogo Yubari.
Ju-On: White Ghost (2009)
As the second part of Ju-On’s 10th anniversary double feature, White Ghost takes the titular curse to places darker and more depraved than ever before, combining the more fantastical elements of the curse with the extremely harrowing and very real horror of child abuse. Much like in Black Ghost, White Ghost is a Saeki-less story (with the exception of a small Toshio cameo), instead introducing a whole new family torn apart by a lingering evil. Some vicious kills, a truly dread-inducing atmosphere and new lore mean that White Ghost is a short and (not so) sweet entry into the franchise that’s well worth your time. If nothing else, you’ll never look at a basketball in quite the same way ever again.
Ju-On: The Grudge 2 (2003)
The hauntings get bigger, bloodier, and bolder in Shimizu's sequel to Ju-On: The Grudge, with the Saeki curse extending out of the house and even further than before. Kayako is more omnipresent than ever, making her sinister presence known in ceilings, photo copy machines and even, err, wombs. While the series was never famed for chaos, Ju-On: The Grudge 2 goes full tilt batshit towards the end, with a birth scene to rival the best of 'em. Shimizu is having a blast, and it's obvious - the only thing keeping Ju-On: The Grudge 2 from the very top spot is that one entry in the franchise is simply unbeatable.
Ju-On: The Grudge (2002)
Croaking away proudly at the top spot of this ranking is Ju-On: The Grudge. It might be a predictable choice for the top spot, but there's a reason that this film is still freaking people out almost 25 years after its release. The third in the series yet first to be released theatrically (told you it was confusing), Ju-On: The Grudge took the creepiest moments from its predecessors and fine-tuned them to perfection, Kayako's downstairs crawl especially. As one of the key movies necessary to understanding and appreciating the J-horror subgenre, Ju-On: The Grudge's influence can still be seen in a whole host of modern horrors, including It Follows and 2018's Suspiria, eschewing blood and guts for slower, more subtle scares and imbued with a heavy gloominess and palpable tragedy. If you can only handle one trip to the world of Ju-On - make it this one.