Kaidan’s an experiment in contrasting forms, shilling for conflicting. Take one of the samurai-horror flicks of the Fifties and Sixties, bring it up to date with modulated acting styles, psychological realism and understated visual style, and then force the conceits of the first to co-exist in the same story with the manner of the second. It’s probably not a huge surprise that the scientist responsible for this experiment is Hideo Nakata, he who gave us the sum total of modern Japanese cinematic horror in Ring and all of its derivatives.
As with many such experiments, I enjoyed it in the abstract more than I did in the particular. As a filmmaking exercise, it’s impressive; as a story, it suffers from having the conceits of two totally dissimilar approaches forced to share the same film. This doesn’t mean the old-school approach worked better than a more modern one; they’re both of a piece. It’s just that when shoehorned together, the end result is a kind of cinematic cognitive dissonance. Individual moments may work, but the whole thing doesn’t quite hang together.
Kaidan (not to be confused with Kwaidan, even if they’re both ghost stories) is an adaptation of a samurai-era ghost story that’s actually been filmed many times before, Shinkei Kasane-ga-fuchi. It deals with a young tobacco seller and an older woman, a music teacher. They fall in love despite the problems this causes in both of their lives. She becomes obsessed with him, goes mad with jealousy and dies, but before her death swears to haunt her lover if he goes with another woman. He soon settles down with another girl and tries to build something like a conventional life, but the past comes back to him in more ways than one—not all of them supernatural, either.
There’s actually a complication from a previous life here. Once upon a time the man’s father killed the woman’s father, as we learn in an explanatory prologue, and their cursed destinies have been passed down the line. Nakata shows us this by alluding as specifically as possible to it—where one father injured the other by giving him a cut over an eye, a squabble between the two lovers ends the same way. Ditto a brawl with a sickle. It’s the kind of foreshadowing that can cut both ways, and here it merely makes the story feel lockstep instead of imbuing it with dread.
Even if the movie’s attempts at evoking earlier horror paradigms simply register as contrivance, there’s still a lot here that’s quite good. This is Nakata’s first period picture, and he uses the same restrained camera style and pacing he employed in all of his modern-day movies. He doesn’t use the setting as an excuse to fill the frame with garish costumes and extravagant camerawork, and it’s the right choice. He also startles us nicely with a couple of well-deployed moments, as when the ceiling of the tobacconist’s house turns into a swamp and he gets sucked up (down?) into it. What’s missing is the sense that Nakata saw this material as a starting point instead of simply a destination. It’s as if he said to himself, “Let’s make an old-fashioned horror tale,” and while we get that, the emphasis here is on old-fashioned. Especially in terms of the story logic.
Not long before this I read Akira Yoshimura’s novel On Parole, the inspiration for Shohei Imamura’s film The Eel. The movie was a wretched mess that borrowed only the vaguest semblance of the book’s story, but the novel itself created a more profound sense of dread and unease than anything I’d read in a long time. There is even, now that I think about it, a parallel thematic element: a main character who becomes increasingly disturbed that the attention of a woman will unleash demons in his life. But Parole was far more unsettling—not just because there was no genre safety net, so to speak, but because Yoshimura made it possible for us to believe either heaven or hell was waiting for its hero, and we had no way to know where he would go until we read all the way through.
Maybe that’s the problem. What I liked about Nakata’s Ring (and even its American remake) was how the real shocks in the film struck a balance between being inevitable and unexpected. The final moments in particular always get to me, when you realize that sometimes a mother will do literally anything for her children. Kaidan starts off with borrowed dread, and never quite germinates any of its own.
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