5.0 out of 5 stars The Kasane ga Fuchi legend
At the very start, it is best to advise that “Kaidan” is not a typical entry in the genre that has become known as J-Horror. The expectation will be there, as director Nakata Hideo (Ring, Death Note 3: L, Change the World) is someone whose name has become almost synonymous with the genre. He is the one who took Japan’s long tradition of ghostly storytelling and brought it to the world, introducing Westerners for the first time to creatures like yurei and onryo. However, after a sojourn in the Hollywood system filming the English-language Ring Two, Nakata returned to his native country and directed a beautiful tribute to the horror legends that were the foundation of his success.
“Kaidan” is a film with an impressive pedigree. Written originally in 1825 by legendary storyteller Sanyutei Encho, the “Kaidan Kasane ga Fuchi” story has been a staple of Japanese horror in various media and incarnations. It was first filmed in 1926 by equally-legendary filmmaker Mizoguchi Kenji (Ugetsu), and then several times more over the years including a 1957 version by Japan’s first genre-horror director Nakagawa Nobuo. Nakata’s version “Kaidan” is roughly the sixth time the Kasane ga Fuchi story has appeared on film.
While others have played with the story a bit, Nakata does a fairly direct translation of Encho’s original version. In a bit of inspired genius, Nakata even has Living National Treasure Ichiryusai Teisui perform the opening monologue, a fitting homage to the stories beginning as a piece of rakugo storytelling. From there, we are treated to a classic story of inherited karma, of the sins of the father passing on to the son and daughter, of a dark swamp that hides many secrets and just some good old fashioned ghostly revenge. Encho’s stories, told on the cusp of the Meiji era when Japanese audiences first encountered stories like “Romeo and Juliet,” have always been tinged with a certain romantic sadness. His mix of ghostly elements with sorrowful love stories define Encho’s style, and Nakata skillfully wrings every heart-wrenching and heart-stopping moment from the Kasane ga Fuchi story.
Along with realizing Encho’s story, Nakata has also paid and obvious homage to director Kobayashi Masaki (Kwaidan, Samurai Rebellion) both with certain visual elements and the overall pacing. Kobayashi’s films have always seemed like a keg of dynamite with a long, long fuse, where the drama slowly and patiently builds over the film’s beginning and middle leading up to a massive explosive ending.
History and homages alone do not make a good film, however, and fortunately Nakata has also put a strong cast into his film. The lead role, Shinkichi, is played by famed kabuki actor Onoe Kikunosuke V, whose striking face was last seen in the 2006 film “The Inugami Clan.” As an onnagata, one who typically plays women’s roles in the all-male kabuki theater, Onoe carries himself with a certain sensitivity that helps sell the character of the cursed Shinkichi, doomed to attract women and then witness their deaths. Veteran actress Kuroki Hitomi (From Nakata film Dark Water) plays Oshiga, Shinkichi’s older lover and the woman whose curse he bears. Inoue Mao, a popular junior idol and star of the live-action “Boys over Flowers” series and Kitaro movie, is beautiful and captivating as the young Ohisa who lures Shinkichi away. Seto Asuka (Death Note) drips sex appeal in her villain’s role as the prostitute Oshizu. And somehow, Nakata managed to track down one of the scariest babies I have ever seen.
It is hard for me to find flaws with “Kaidan” because this is exactly what I personally love in a film. I devour the old Edo and Meiji period Japanese strange stories, I love haunting ghost stories that don’t rely on cheap shocks and jumps but instead are atmospheric and “spooky” rather than scary. If I had to find fault, I would say that Nakata relies too much on CG effects in two scenes in particular, and they are a little jarring. I am a fan of CG used effectively in ghost stories, such as in the The Others, but I find that all that carefully built atmosphere and tension can be ruined by a badly placed CG snake wriggling around. Some of the characters are not as developed as well as they could be, and some plot lines seem to frizzle out rather than be resolved, but I don’t mind that too much. The DVD itself is disappointing. This is a bare-boned presentation that should have supported a short documentary on the Kasane ga Fuchi story and its origins and evolution.
It would probably be better to think of “Kaidan” as a Gothic film rather than a Horror story. That better suits this kind of romance-tinged ghost story that is a class of Japanese storytelling. Nakata Hideo has filmed the story beautifully, and I personally would love to see more films made in this vein.