Hideo Nakata's return to film-making in his native Japan involves a rather back to the future approach. The movie is an adaptation of a ghost story that has been brought to the screen previously by the great master of Japanese horror, Nobuo Nagakawa, and the period century setting is a novel milieu for a director known for creating two of the best of modern J-Horror in Ringu and Dark Water. Nakata seems more than aware of this different historical setting and has produced a film that tries hard to be as convincing in its sense of period as his earlier successes, the locations, sets and costumery are all first rate and the deportment of the actors seems perfect for the time.
Nakata has shown in his career that he can handle emotional drama with real assuredness, and in fact this is the principal reason that Dark Water exceeds its brief as a spooky tower block movie and becomes much more frightening as the characters involved are so sympathetic. In Kaidan, the director tries hard to keep the drama on track but his film seems poorly conceived and lacking a coherent plan of campaign when compared against the 1957 adaptation. Nagakawa's version was one about a ghastly revenge visited on the descendants of a foul lord, the following of a curse through to its inevitable conclusion. Nagakawa's film enjoyed the karmic justice and tried less hard to humanise the victims of the spell, and this meant that the audience could enjoy the richly deserved retribution. Nakata's film is less clear about the victim being worthy of their fate, but at the same time fails to redeem him by not skimping on the dreadful things that he has done in order to save his own sorry skin.
Beginning with a brilliant black and white exposition of the original curse that seems to deliberately reference the theatrical and cinematic forefathers of this film, the opening of the film is delivered quickly and superbly as the blind money lender is murdered by the blackguard Lord. This episode is revealed as 25 years before the film's central story which deals with the Lord's son, now a tobacco salesman, and his fling with the older daughter of the money lender, now an instructor of young women. Scandalously the two live in sin, and the affair is thrown into chaos when the teacher's pupils start making eyes at her lover. Jealousy and fights follow and the woman falls ill with an infected eye like her father's, only to die cursing her lover as he is in another's arms. Her curse leads to murders, blackmail and disfigurement and soon the descendant is paying the ultimate price for the sins of the father.
Nakata's film is over detailed in terms of plot and exposition and it requires the viewer to accept that every woman who sets eyes on the male lead falls immediately for him. The director's fastidious approach means that simplicity is not given a chance and the frequent turns in events become seriously melodramatic. The single worst problem with the film is its failing to choose whether it is a tale of a man destroyed by the fates, unlikely as he is quite a phenomenal shit, or a much deserved comeuppance for a line of bad seeds, again a view not fully committed to as the script tries too hard to explain this foul man.
In terms of sheer effort and craft I feel a little guilty concluding that the film is too long and confused, but it is I am afraid. Nakata has mounted an impressive production including one excellent swordplay sequence and a number of fine scares using his confident skills in editing and sound design. The actors are all committed to their characters and the solid design is notable, but the film suffers from a direction that isn't wholly sure of what it is trying to achieve. This particularly bedevils the leading actor who is never certain whether he should be mendacious or seem lost, and this confusion resulted in a thorough lack of concern for his fate. More certainty of purpose and a pruned screenplay may have led to a much more satisfying project and something as easily enjoyable as Nakagawa's movie.
My abiding impression is that the humanity that distinguished Dark Water is replaced here by admirable mechanics and a lack of understanding of the viewer. Nakata wouldn't be the first director to have lost his way after going to Hollywood, and Kaidan, regardless of how it tries to remind people of the great legacy of Japanese ghost stories, is a film without a moral compass.
Kaidan is presented in a dust sleeve with the same art as the disc cover and offered with no special features on a single layer disc. The choice to use a single layer compromises what is a very beautiful looking film, and a long film, and I noticed a lot of evidence of compression artefacts during the film. The black levels are disappointing as well with the darker sequences looking very gray, and for what is a new film this is a merely acceptable treatment.
The audio comes in the original Japanese 5.1 and a Cantonese stereo track. As with most J-Horror, the provision of a strong surround track is essential given the importance of the use of flesh crawling noises and sound effects and here the disc does not disappoint with rich definition and use of the rear and side channels to spook out the viewer. The effect would presumably be more impressive given a higher bit rate, but this track has enough clarity and power when it needs either quality. The English subtitles are strong but not perfect in their grammar.
An interesting idea which is never as good as its first ten minutes, this release is an affordable English friendly option which will eventually be surpassed with R2 or R1 discs.