Not to be confused with its 1964 predecessor, Kaidan is a drama first and foremost. Its horror elements play sporadically throughout the film, and it's not about multiple ghost stories. Subsequently, it doesn't sit quietly next to the rest of director Hideo Nakata's body of work. If he tried to make it a morality play, I failed to see the practical application of its moral core (life is unfair; deal with it?). That being said, I was engrossed in the characters and setting, and the trademark Nakata eeriness reared its ugly (pretty) head less frequently as one would assume, but to similar great effect. In fact, I would argue that it does a much better job of creeping the fuck out of viewers since it takes the time to build around its central characters. I don't know about you, but I cared just enough about the main characters in Ringu and Dark Water to get the job done. But with Kaidan, I think the characters and their world took center stage. The horror elements came in due time, but only after sufficient time was spent setting up the why. The why is very important when trying to manipulate emotions. Kaidan succeeded mightily in manipulating mine.
A nameless narrator begins the film by telling of a sad and gruesome tale of murder. Soetsu Minagawa was an acupuncturist. He had two daughters which he rasied alone after his wife's passing. I guess times were hard for acupuncturists back then, because Minagawa decided to lend money with ridiculous interest rates as a side business. When I say ridiculous interest rates, I'm talking literally over 200%. I'd be pissed if I borrowed from that guy. But if I agreed to his terms, oh well, it sucks to be me. But Shinzaemon Fukai didn't see things as I would have. Fukai was a samurai who borrowed 30 yen from Minagawa at some point. Years later, Minagawa came calling to collect the debt. According to his utterly stupid interest rates, Fukai owed him 65 yen. Yes, the interest rate was that high. If Minagawa was a credit card company, he'd be above the pack. Regardless, the debt was there, plain and simple. What would any ordinary, honor-bound samurai do in that situation? Pay his debt? Hah, I say to you. Why, no, in that situation, Fukai did what any other self-respecting asshole would have done. He killed Minagawa and dumped his body in a lake. Right on: no more debt. Maybe Fukai's subsequent maddness and suicide had nothing to do with this ordeal, or maybe fate grabbed him by the balls and squeezed. Either way, the last laugh was with Minagawa (who did say he would come back and kill him).
So that whole schpeil is the backdrop for the rest of the film. Both families had children, and their fates will forever be intertwined. By intertwined, I mean horribly mangled together in a clusterfuck of sadness with spikes of joy. I'm talking face-disfiguring and murderous. Good times. Honestly, I wouldn't have it any other way. The film really plays out like a fantastic version of a low-rent melodrama. Its like all the peliculas and soap operas were somehow serviced with a complete and utter makeover; the cast replaced with believable actors; the plot toned down in every respectable way; yet the defiant fuck-you spirit to logic remains intact. Realistic in its intentions it's not; realistic in emotional appeal, it might very well be.
The film centrally deals with the rightful immaturity of one character (the younger male), and the incredulous immaturity of another (the older female). Both characters are linked by their familial pastimes, but neither one knows it. I tend to side with one in particular, but that might just be my overriding logical nature taking hold. Still, the chick is a bitch, and I wouldn't have put up with it. Basically, the daughter of the slain loansman becomes romantically envolved with the son of the asshole samurai. As fate would have it, the daughter of the loansmen has major issues and is obsessed with the samurai's son. He loves her as well, but not to the same extent that she does. She ends up dying, and the samurai's son can't live up to his promise he made to her before she passed. Honestly, it was a shit promise from the get-go, and I wouldn't hold him to it if it were up to me. But I'm not a psycho hose beast, so what do I know?
A walk in the pouring rain out in the middle of nowhere is a great romantic getaway.
The film has its fair share of Days of our Lives moments - double-crossings from characters who aren't even in the film save for this particular plot point - but it doesn't get bogged down in the minutia of randomness that daytime television succumbs to. Its characters, while not necessarily likeable, make the story worthwhile. I really don't think the main dude deserved any of what was coming to him, but that didn't hinder my engagement with what was going on. I think that's a testament to Hideo Nakata, who manages to keep a lot of his subtle horror intact while creating a much better overall dramatic experience. The one thing I'll knock the film for is the narrator. He's only used twice in the film - once in the beginning, and once about 3/4ths of the way through. The beginning was very much suited for narration. The second time it happens, not so much. It almost takes away from what the film tried to accomplish with the narration. Almost. It didn't distract me too much from what was going on, but instead just enough to notice. Oh well; no one is perfect, unless your name is Ridley Scott.
If you're looking for a straight-up J-horror movie, then most definitely look elsewhere. But if you want to experience a lot of what the best of J-horror has to offer, while at the same time getting a great dramatic, character-driven film, then Kaidan is your ticket. Just don't fall in love with it only to move on to other projects. If you end up without a head, at the very least don't blame me.