Three of Japan’s finest directors (Shinya Tsukamoto, Lee Sang-il, Kore-eda Hirokazu) take on three classic ghost stories by Japanese literary masters…
There’s something a little old fashioned about this trio of films, and that’s not a bad thing. These period dramas, on the whole, approach their material with reverence, and a measured pace. The more accurate translation of Kaidan (怪談) as ghost story is a better description than ‘horror’, but perhaps after some 30 odd years of watching Asian, American and Italian horrors that’s because the word means something very different to me.
Perhaps it’s deliberate that the name recalls that of the Masaki Kobayashi’s classic 1964 anthology Kwaidan, based on stories from Lafcadio Hearn’s collections of Japanese folk tales. The stories are reminiscent of those ghostly, atmospheric tales and others such as Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu Monogatari. That they’re Jidaigeki, period pieces mainly set during Japan’s Edo period, rather than contemporary, seem part of their appeal.
These films started out as a NHK television production, screened over consecutive nights, and have since made their way round the festival circuit. Each notable director took in turn a classic ghost story from distinguished Japanese writers; a concept not unlike the American TV series Masters Of Horror. Showing as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme for 2013, one significant difference with how they’ve previously been presented was the omission of Masayuki Ochiai’s (Infection, the US remake of Shutter) The Arm – perhaps because it’s surreal, futuristic take didn’t fit with the theme of this years programme.
In this context it’s Shinya Tsukamoto’s film, The Whistler (Hazakura to mateki), that somewhat jars with the following films. The digital filming qualities, typically fast editing and dissolves that Tsukamoto uses, and synthetic musical accompaniment did not sit well with period backdrop. More so the addition of Ju-on: The Grudge style scare moments, with which Tsukamoto so successful creates unease, but at the expense of what really is a rather quant ghost story.
It tells of Yuko (Aoba Kawai, Meatball Machine, Love Twisted, Blazing Famiglia), who spends her days caring for her terminally ill younger sister Itsue (Eri Tokunaga, Hula Girls, Achilles and the Tortoise). However, when she finds a bundle of anonymous letters addressed to Itsue, Yuko is determined to find out from whom and why have they been sent. Tsukamoto brings the girls emotional state to the forefront; there’s a terrible sort of jealousy Yuko feels of younger sister having such an admirer, when her fiancé has left for war. Yet this feels rather overplayed and melodramatic, however close it might be to Dazai Osamu’s original story.
More successful comes Lee Sang-il’s (Hula Girls, Villain, Unforgiven/Yurusarezarumono) take on Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s short story The Nose (Hana). (Akutagawa is best known for the story In The Grove that became Akira Kurosawa’s film Rashomon.) Here a monk named Zenchi (Yutaka Matsushige, Ringu, Sukiyaki Western Django, Adrift in Tokyo, K-20: THe Legend Of The Black Mask, Crows Zero II) attempts to save a child from drowning in a river, but when the child sees the enormous nose he’s been concealing the monk impulsively pushes him away. Racked with guilt, he becomes increasingly aware of watching eyes within the village.
Far more cinematic in scope, Lee’s elegant cinematography manages to inject an unsettling atmosphere without overplaying ‘fright’ techniques. Perhaps more than any of the films it’s more evocative of those classic films that influenced the series. A loose interpretation of Akutagawa’s Buddhist themes, it shares several traits with Lee’s Villain, particularly in its anti-hero increasingly consumed by his own guilt.
Equally poignant in Kore-eda Hirokazu’s The Days After (Nochi no hi), based upon stories by Murou Saisei, where a couple (Ryo Kase, Instant Swamp, The Sky Crawlers, Nobody Knows, Hana and Yuri Nakamura, Sakuran, Lala Pipo, Ju-On: Black Ghost) who lost their son at an early age are visited over a few days by a young boy who seems to be their son come back to life. Like Lee Sang-il’s film, this plays to Kore-eda’s strengths thematically as the couple finally come to terms with their loss. It’s thoughtful and beautifully serene in the way you want Kore-eda to be, without making any conclusions on who the boy actually is.
Enjoyed as a trio these films make an impressive set of haunting though definitely not terrifying stories, perhaps only marred their similarity.