Summer is the season for ghost stories in Japan. Before such modern cooling conveniences as air conditioning, people had to rely on more, shall we say, spooky means to cool off. Kaidan, or ghost stories, were traditionally told on hot summer nights in order to elicit chills in the listener. Although 21st century audiences don’t need the chills quite like they used to the tradition remains, and so it was perfect timing that I should attend screenings of the two editions of Kaidan – Horror Classics at the Pucheon International Fantastic Film Festival on one of the hottest days of the year.
Made for TV by television network NHK and featuring four prominent Japanese directors, the four-episode series has been divided into two feature-length films for the festival circuit. Given the quality of the directors involved—Masayuki Ochiai, Shinya Tsukamoto, Sang-Il Lee and Hirokazu Kore-eda—it’s no surprise that what was shot for TV should make such an easy transition to the big screen, although this is not without its hiccups, of which I will get into later. Each piece was based on a story by a classic Japanese author but thankfully each director has infused his own sense of style into his adaptation, avoiding the kind of preciousness that can ruin an adaptation.
Kaidan – Horror Classics 1 opens with “The Arm,” based on a story by Yasunari Kawabata. An unnamed woman (Sei Ashina) has agreed to loan her arm to an unnamed man (Mitsuru Hirata), who intends to take the arm home with him. This is no prosthetic arm but the woman’s actual flesh and blood. She removes the arm bloodlessly and hands it to the man, who is obviously enraptured with it. The woman even agrees to let the man swap it for his own arm. He takes it home and the arm begins to talk to him, setting off an inner monologue of the type so common in Japanese narrative works.
It should be obvious by now that the world of “The Arm” is not our own, at least not in waking hours. The director Masayuki Ochiai, best known for horror films like Shutter (2008), infuses the film with a Lynchian sense of surreality. It takes place in some unknown, dream-like past, in a town enveloped in a menacing fog with disembodied laughter around every corner.
It should also be obvious that this is not a traditional kaidan, in that there are no ghosts. It’s part of the early 20th century literary tradition of ero-guro-nonsensu, or erotic-grotesque-nonsensical, pioneered by writers like Edogawa Rampo. Ochiai makes it into a fetishistic mood piece, never giving us an explanation of how a woman can remove her arm, or who these people are. It’s genuinely creepy, the strangeness heightened by the film’s unique look, which is located somewhere between The Twilight Zone and Eraserhead.
If the film has a fault, it’s that it looks too much like an episode of a TV show. Ochiai exploits out-of-date blue screen technology to give it a surreal touch, and while it is unique it distracts from the overall mood. Perhaps on the small screen, taken in the context of a television show and not as a film, it would be more effective.
The second story in the first Kaidan omnibus, “The Whistler,” is served the least by the transition to the big screen but not through any fault of the director, Shinya Tsukamoto. Tsukamoto is no stranger to horror films, having established himself in the genre with Tetsuo The Iron Man in 1989. With “The Whistler,” however, and a decision to shoot primarily in extreme close ups, he has made a movie that would work much better on a smaller screen. When projected large, the effect is overwhelming, a situation compounded by an intentionally shaky camera.
The story is from Osamu Dazai. It is 1937 and though the war is ramping up overseas, in rural Japan it still seems far away. Two sisters live with their father deep in the forest, and though the older sister (Aoba Kawai) is of marriageable age, she stays at home to care for her 18-year-old younger sister (Eri Tokunaga), who has been given only 100 days to live. The older sister is in love with a local boy who is going off to war but her father (Jun Kunimura) refuses the marriage, seeing no future in the boy. One day, the older sister finds a package of letters written to her younger sister from a mysterious man known only as M.T. Her own romance shattered by war and obligation, she reads the letters with relish, her face betraying both shame for violating her sister’s privacy, and excitement in living vicariously through them.
The story itself, rather small and private, with most shots centering on the face of the older sister, is not that creepy, and although a ghost does pop up at one point, it’s gone before you know it. To compensate, Tsukamoto tries to ratchet up the intensity by shaking the camera. As the film builds towards its climax, the shaking becomes more intense. For anyone who has seen a Tsukamoto film before, you will know that he favors a kinetic camera style, but for “The Whistler” it seems extremely out of place. Vital (2004), which had a similarly quiet story, was extremely beautiful and benefitted from a still camera. I know what the director was going for in “The Whistler”: the volcanic shaking of the camera mirrored the intense emotions of the characters. However, it also made it extremely difficult to watch. On a small screen this might not be as noticeable but on the big screen it was positively nauseating. (I should mention that I’m prone to motion sickness so other viewers may not have the same experience.)
Also, it was disappointing to see yet another ghost crawl across the ground like Sadako in Ringu. I’m happy that there’s still a place for Butoh in modern Japanese arts but after more than a decade of stiff-limbed herky-jerky ghosts, it’s time to find something new.
If Kaidan 1 was better at exploiting the medium of television, Kaidan – Horror Classics 2 was definitely more cinematic. Both directors, Sang-Il Lee and Hirokazu Kore-eda, chose to film in their normal styles, rather than “dumb down,” as it were, for TV. For the viewer in the cinema, this means an experience that in no way betrays its origins as made for TV.
“The Nose,” the first of the two short films, comes from Sang-Il Lee, who is best known outside of Japan for 2006’s Hula Girls, but if he has one defining characteristic it’s probably a lack of working in any one specific genre. He adapts to what the story demands, and “The Nose” is no exception. Written by Ryunosuke Akutagawa and set in the Heian Era of Japan, roughly 1000 years ago, the story concerns a monk (Yutaka Matsushige) who has left a comfortable position in Kyoto, the capital, and taken to wandering because he can’t stand the way people make fun of his large nose. And it is indeed large, drooping down from his face like a rotting pickle. He keeps it covered in public, removing his mask only when in private. While staying in a small village, he is pestered by a group of children who throw rocks at him. When one of the children falls into the river the monk wades in to rescue him. During the recue attempt, the mask falls away and the boy becomes terrified, shouting, “Monster! Don’t touch me!” In a moment of weakness and shame, the monk pushes away the boy and watches helplessly as the river carries him away.
There is a monster in Japanese folktale possessed of a very large nose, the tengu, and anyone in Heian Japan seeing a man with a nose such as this monk’s would immediately think him a tengu. When the boy screams “Monster!” at him, he likely believed it. But of course it’s the monk’s actions, and not his appearance, that define what he is, and the rest of the story is devoted to how he comes to term with what it means to be a monster.
Most filmic depictions of the Heian Era concentrate on the aristocracy. These were the days of the court nobles, of The Tale of Genji and high culture. But this was just a small percentage of the population of Japan at the time. The majority of the people were like the ones in Lee’s film: filthy, poor and gravely superstitious. Although this seems miles away from our modern life, at heart the people are not so different from us. Though our beliefs may have changed, our sense of shame has not. The power of this message undoubtedly comes from the source story but Lee also does a wonderful job bringing it alive on the screen.
The second film, “The Days After,” was directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda, who may be the best director working in Japan today. I was intensely curious to see what he would bring to the kaidan genre, one very different from his usual quiet dramas. (After Life, from 1998, may have been about dead people but it was certainly not a ghost story.) Based on a story by Sasei Muro and adapted by Kore-eda himself, the film is a small triumph, a muse on grief and loss, delivered in Kore-eda’s usual unassuming and unhurried way.
It is the early part of the 20th century, and a young couple are periodically visited by a young boy. There is no exposition. What we know is revealed slowly and through conversation, so we only come to realize that they lost their son a number of years ago when he was one year old. Although the visitor is eight years old, they are convinced that he is somehow their dead son come back to life.
Although this is technically a kaidan, with a ghost that shows up only at his own whim, this is as far from the classic Shin-Toho vengeful ghost chiller of the 1950s as you can get. Kore-eda places the grief of the parents at the center of the story and it encompasses everything they do. It is revealed in the eyes of the actors, particularly in that of the mother (Yuri Nakamura), who, though smiling, still betrays the depths of her pain. Ryo Kase as the father is typically excellent. I am always pleased when I see his name in a film’s credits because I know at the very least he will be worth watching. Of course, he is just one of many outstanding elements in this film.
These films are available on DVD in Japan, in both single formats and as a double pack with all four stories. Although it’s something of a mixed bag stylistically, all four of the films are worth a look. It’s Kore-eda’s contribution, though, that really impresses. It measures up against any of his theatrical releases, and could be considered a major work in itself. If just for this film, the two Kaidan films are highly recommended.