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February 29, 2008

A Classic half a century too late - Review of Nakata's Kaidan

It takes a lot of nerve to make a film with the same title as Kobayashi Masaki's Kaidan, for you will unconsciously be measured against that impressive predecessor. It would be unfair to do so in the case of Nakata Hideo's Kaidan, for this is not one of the many "remakes" we are being flooded with, but a very different film in almost every aspect. The only thing both films have in common is that they are horror stories combined with jidaigeki, historical drama. Nakata's flick is not based on the grissly ghost stories of Lafcadio Hearn, but on the work of 19th c. writer and rakugo performer Sanyutei Encho (Kaidan Kasane-ga-fuchi, "A Ghost Story of Kasane Swamp"). And let it be said, Nakata's Kaidan is a very entertaining production in its own right.

What is it about?
First we get a flashback - told in rakugo style - in which we see that a samurai, the father of the main protagonist, kills a money lender, the father of the "heroine" in the film, thereby setting in motion the trappings of Buddhist karma - a retribution that will play out its inevitable game in a most scientific way.

Kaidan next tells the story of the handsome Shinkichi (Kabuki actor Onoe Kikunosuke), a poor tobacco seller, the son of the above samurai who in the meantime has killed his wife and committed suicide as an indication that the karma-machine has been cranked up. By chance, Shinkichi meets the elegant Toyoshika (former Takarazuka star Kuroki Hitomi - she also played in Nakata's Dark Water), who is running a singing school for young women. She is much older than Shinkichi, but he is irresistably drawn to her - and she to him. In fact, she develops a jealous, all-possessing love for the handsome young man.

Of course things go wrong with all that delicious young flesh surrounding one weak but attractive man: after Shinkichi moves in with Toyoshika and comes to do small chores in the school, his flirting with the female students leads to conjugal quarrels and finally a fight where Toyoshika is hurt on her eyelid with the plectrum of her shamisen (the same spot where her father was hurt by the father of Shinkichi).

Toyoshika dies of her wound and Shinkichi elopes with one of her students, the cute Ohisa (Mao Inoue). But no rosy dawn will smile on them: Toyoshika's jealous love is so strong that she starts haunting Shinkichi from beyond the grave, and his affair with Ohisa ends miserably, as do all the relations he has with other women afterwards... for he belongs to Toyoshika and Toyoshika alone!

What I like about it
This film is soft on the eyes. I am not only talking about the five beautiful actresses who play the women around Shinkichi (with Kuroki Hitomi proving that a woman in her late forties can still be very sexy), but about the whole production: the cinematography is gorgeous, with beautiful, atmospheric colors, the kimono are colorful and period-production design is most faithful. In fact, the film looks as classically Japanese as possible.

Kabuki star Onoe Kikunosuke also plays an interesting role. Soft and effiminate, he looks like a nimaime actor from the distant past, the time that gentle and weak men always played the romantic lead. In fact, in the beginning of the film Onoe may seem too passive to modern audiences, but as misfortune after misfortune is heaped on his head, his character developes a desperate and mean streak.

What is wrong with it?
Still, although it is certainly worth seeing, I do not think Nakata's Kaidan is a great film. The probem I have with it, is that this classical period drama could have been made 50 years ago as well. I see no innovation in this film, even Yamada Yoji - although he filmed his stories straight like Nakata does - introduced something new in his recent three samurai flicks by showing how destitute samurai in the mid-19th c. could be, how caught in the Catch-22 of a feudal code that was rotten to the core and could be exploited against them.

Kobayashi Masaki and Nakagawa Nobuo (who also filmed this Encho story in 1957) made films that even when viewed today look more modern than Nakata's work. By presenting a traditional story in a very traditional way, Nakata Hideo has created a small classic that comes half a century too late. The word "old-fashioned" kept coming into my head while watching it...