It is really no wonder that the absolute saturation of J-horror, even here in the US, can create eye-rolling in the best of us and out-in-out laughter in everyone else. In many ways Hideo Nakata started the entire avalanche in 1998 with Ring. Since then there have been so many similar films come down the pipe that it is hard to separate the worthwhile nuggets from the useless chaff. Although I have done my best to embrace the genre, I find myself getting tired of no-faced women with long hair (although Sion Sono's silly-sounding Exte: Hair Extensions is a very worthy diversion.) So it was a great relief to hear that Nakata himself was planning a period horror film in the tradition of Nobuo Nakagawa. I wrote about my excitement (here) last August when the film opened in Japan. I was immediately seduced by the beautiful production stills and equally as stunning trailer. (I would still encourage anyone with some time to check out the official website; just click on the circle at the center of the screen.) The DVD came out with English subs a couple months ago in Hong Kong, and a snatched it up. I finally got a chance to sit down and check this film out, and I was not disappointed.
The characters in Kaidan are all burdened with a tragic connection to fate and a curse that is more powerful than human will. When a humble but enterprising moneylender is murdered by a callous samurai who refuses to pay his debt, a curse, uttered in the throws of death, set the course for the film. Fast forward 20 years to the next generation, innocent to their parents connection, Shinkichi and Toyoshiga feel drawn to each other despite a difference in age and what might be seen as an inappropriate relationship. The more involved the two get, the more possessive Toyoshiga gets over the young and handsome Shinkichi who has many young admirers. Passions run high between the two of them with a chemistry that the viewer understands is powered by the curse of their parents. Things unravel in a manner that is neither surprising nor horrific, but undeniably compelling.
Kaidan is at the very least a grand homage, not only to the origins of Japanese horror but also to classic Japanese cinema, referencing the austere and precise aesthetic not only of Nakagawa, but also masters like Kenji Mizoguchi and Masaki Kobayashi. Nakata pays tribute without parody creating an overall visually stunning experience with every frame, something that is evident with the screenshots. Although the most memorable elements of Kaidan may be the aesthetic, the remaining components render nothing less than an absorbing film. Kikunosuke Onoe and Hitomi Kuroki as the two leads are taught with emotion yet graceful in their expressions of these emotions. Kaidan may not break any new ground, dolling out the mainstay fog over the lake and bewitching ghosts that float to the surface, but provides a certain amount of comfort without being lazy.
It's rewarding to watch Nakata confidently work outside what has so far been a niche comfort zone and succeed with such a strong film. (Nakata has subsequently sprung back into the realm of fanboy fodder with a sequel to the very popular Death Note series, L: Change the World.) Unfortunately, Kaidan has nowhere near the cult marketing potential of his previous films and it remains to be seen whether or not it will get a US release on DVD.