IFFR 2011: KAIDAN - HORROR CLASSICS review!


In August of 2010, the Japanese commercial broadcasting station NHK aired a television series of 4 episodes called "Ayashiki Bungô Kaidan". Kaidan are traditional folk stories, most often dealing with ghosts, which can be compared to the Brothers Grimm tales from Europe.

August is the time for scary stories in Japan so by itself this television series might not seem that remarkable.
But two things set "Ayashiki Bungô Kaidan" apart from regular made-for-TV-dross:

1: Each of the episodes had to be based on a story written by a renowned writer.

2: Each of the episodes had to be directed by a renowned director.

I'll have to confess here I am not that familiar with Japanese literature, so the names involved didn't immediately ring any bells. On the director front though I nearly jumped when I saw the list: Tsukamoto Shinya, Kore-eda Hirokazu, Lee Sang-il and Ochiai Masayuki.

Renowned indeed!

The series has now been bundled together into one 160 minutes long movie and given the international title "Kaidan - Horror Classics", and the International Film Festival Rotterdam showed it, the first public screenings outside of Japan.

Was it any good? Read on!



The Film:

Managing expectations can be very important. I went into this film's second screening with feelings of trepidation, having been told that it was "crap" by people who had been at the premiere. And the audience rating after the first screening was so low that I considered switching this film for another one. Curiosity won out though, and I am glad it did. For "Kaidan - Horror Classics" turned out to be one of the best and most moving films I have seen this year at the Rotterdam festival.

The cause of the low ratings can be found in the film's title. People flocking to see thrills, gore and J-horror will no doubt have been very disappointed to be shown four slow, mostly gentle dramas. No blood, no gore, no jumpscares, no terror and well... no horror.
Just people trying to cope with their conscience, their memories, their shames and their regrets.

I have labeled this review in the "drama" category and not in the "horror" category. That is on purpose and not an oversight. For three of the stories the case can be made that there is nothing supernatural happening at all, while the fourth takes place in some strange, abstract dreamscape.

Fans of Kore-eda's films may have been surprised to see his name in the list. I sure was! But his movies actually give the best reference of what to expect here. And although the directors each worked on their own episode in isolation, and each kept their own distinct style, they all landed more-or-less in Kore-eda territory.

For this review I will approach the stories as stand-alone episodes, because that is what they are. These were separately aired on Japanese television after all...


The Arm
(directed by Ochiai Masayuki, based on a novel by Yasunari Kawabata)

kaidan_Arm-ext.jpgA man is intoxicated by the beauty of a young woman, and convinces her to let him borrow her arm to spend the night with. She detaches her arm and he takes it home with him. When he arrives in his apartment the arm starts talking to him, to his delight, but this also causes him to face his own desires and shortcomings.

Of all episodes this one is by far the weirdest, and the farthest removed from what you'd normally expect from a Kaidan or ghost story. From the moment the girl bloodlessly detaches her arm as if she is a Barbie-doll you know this story isn't happening exactly in our world. The man's travel home through a misty digital-backlot city (think "Sin City" for reference) seems like a noirish dream, and so do the surreal events happening after he is finally safe (?) at home.

"The Arm" is a story about the inner mind of a fetishist, so much so that Tsukamoto told the press he was annoyed he hadn't picked this story for himself. Thing is, while it all remains interesting to watch, I never really felt involved, nor could I always make sense of all the weirdness on display.

But bizarre though it may be, this episode sure does look good. Ochiai has always had a good eye for what to do with a camera, and his segment is the most visually distinctive of the four. Several people have told me this was their favorite, although it wasn't mine.


The Days After
(directed by Kore-eda Hirokazu, based on a novel by Saisei Murô)

kaidan_Days-After-ext.jpgA grieving couple are visited on a daily basis by an eight year old boy. They suppose he is the ghost of their son, who died years ago as a baby. But is the visitor really their son, and can they cope with the thought that he isn't?

Kore-eda was only willing to do a Kaidan if he was allowed to focus on emotions and drama, instead of making a straight horror film, although the idea of losing your child is of course horrific enough in itself for any parent. The Days After looks at the feelings of a couple who had it happening to them, and the "ghost" in this story forces them to acknowledge just how raw their emotional scars still are, even years later.

Being a parent myself with a boy about the age of the one in the film, this episode struck me, and struck me hard. Yep folks, it's "Grace" time: even though this is the longest and most sedate of all episodes, for me it was akin to a rollercoaster ride, getting the cold sweat and everything. Masterfully acted and gently paced, this one left me drained and satisfied. Results might differ for each viewer though: with less empathy for the leads this one will probably seem ponderous and bereft of thrills. For me it hit a dint in my armor and I am now officially in awe of Kore-eda. If you are a fan of his earlier work I urge you to try and go see this.


The Nose
(directed by Lee Sang-il, based on a novel by Ryûnosuke Akutagawa)

kaidan_Nose-ext.jpgA monk has a huge and grossly disfigured nose (think of a big pickled gherkin and you're close in both size and shape), and hides his face because of it. When children tease him he causes the death of a young boy in his anger. When the monk seems to bring the child back to life, the villagers start to revere him. But the boy won't let him live in peace...

This episode stands out for two reasons. One: it is a historical costume drama taking place in medieval times. Two: this is closest to what people probably expect when going to see this film. This is about as straight a Kaidan story as you can think of, with someone performing a terrible act and ghosts starting to haunt him because of it.

But Lee Sang-il covers this territory with a little more empathy and intelligence than most J-horror films show, while sacrificing most of the scariness. Therefore it fits in well with the rest of this series. Although the monk's actions are never really justified, the attitude of people towards his deformity (shown here realistically as a localized case of Proteus Syndrome) is abysmal too. The evil act itself falls somewhere in a grey area. Very dark grey, but still grey. It's a moment of weakness, and the paranoid monk's slow realization that it is not his nose which makes him a monster is well done.


The Whistler
(directed by Tsukamoto Shinya, based on a novel by Osamu Dazai)

kaidan_Whistler-ext.jpgA young woman is forbidden by her strict father to marry the man she loves, and spends her days tending her sister who is terminally ill. One day she is shocked into jealousy when she discovers a bundle of love letters sent to her dying sibling...

Like with Kore-eda's episode, this story centers on the emotional content rather than the horror and it is just as effective. There are other similarities like the secluded setting. Tsukamoto's signature is strongly apparent though: the conflicting feelings of the lead are not just conveyed by way of acting (stellar though that is, by the way) but also through the excellent use of noise and shaky camerawork. Tsukamoto never allows style to rule over subject here (no weird color-filters this time). Surprisingly enough this story feels the most real of them all, despite several premonitions and nightmares suggesting otherwise. Anyone who has seen their plans ruined by having to care for a loved one can easily relate to this.

When the denouement comes it is a strong one indeed, and instead of scary it is very touching. Together with Kore-eda's episode this was my favorite piece of the four.


Conclusion:

Each anthology has its stronger and weaker episodes, but after having spoken with several of the people who LOVED "Kaidan - Horror Classics", it turns out each has their own favorite amongst these. My personal favorites are the Kore-eda and Tsukamoto episodes, but all were definitely worth watching and each had its own distinct flavor.

I don't regret spending my time or money on any of the four episodes, and two of them I'd label as "must-see", especially if you are a fan of their directors.

As a whole this makes "Kaidan - Horror Classics" a film I VERY HIGHLY recommend to everyone.
Provided you're interested in drama, not horror.

Thankfully word-of-mouth got this film the right audience for its final screenings, and the initial abysmal rating went up to 3.4 out of 5 in the end. Still way too low in my opinion, but scratch that one up to the horror fans who bought a ticket and didn't get to see any scares.
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