Director(s): Shinya Tsukamoto Sang-Il Lee Masayuki Ochiai Hirokaazu Koreeda
Running time(s): various
Reviewed by Chris MaGee
Most often the most frightening things that we have to face in life don't come from outside us. So many horror films focus on some other, sometimes supernatural, most often malevolent, that threatens our person or sanity. It makes sense. Horror writers and directors want to dig back to our deepest fears from childhood (that monster in the dark closet), or poke at our ancient reptilian brain to ignite our hardwired fight or flight responses. There's the other horror though, a fear that grows out of our own emotions - jealousy, lust, shame, anger and grief. These most basic emotions given full reign over our minds can breed monsters just as terrifying as any horror movie slasher or supernatural being. In 2009 Japan's national broadcaster NHK commissioned four world renowned directors to bring classic macabre Japanese short stories to television. The result is "Kaidan Horror Classics", films that may not end up making your hair stand on end, but that haunt us with our own dark feelings and motivations.
Shinya Tsukamoto's "The Whistler" based on a story by Osamu Dazai has all the hallmarks of a Tsukamoto film - littery hand-held camera work, a melodramatic score and a genuinely nightmarish sequence involving the ghost of a fallen soldier, but this is much more of a return to Tsukamoto's sublime 2004 film "Vital" than any of his better known cyberpunk-inspired output. Like "Vital", "The Whistler" (top)concerns itself with very real and very powerful emotions. The story revolves around a woman (Aoba Kawai) who is caring for her ailing younger sister (Eri Tokunaga) while aat the same time dealing with an overbearing father (Jun Kunimura). It seems both girls have never had a romantic relationship in their lives because their father has unrealistic expectations of his daughters and any potential suitors. Kawai's character came close to love, but the young man went off to fight and die in the Sino-Japanese War. When she discovers that her young sister has been receiving love letters from a man known only by the initials M.T. she becomes consumed with envy. Little does she know that these letters aren't coming from who she thinks they are.
Sang-Il Lee takes a darker turn from his career defining "Hula Girls" with his entry into "Kaidan Horror Classics". "The Nose" (above) is an adaptation of a short story by "Rashomon" author Ryunosuke Akutagawa. The story centers around a wandering monk (Yutaka Matsushige) during Japan's medieval Heian period. Once a member of the Kyoto noble court the monk's disfigurement, a 5-inch long nose, has driven him to live a life of poverty in a small village. The locals ignore this strange man with his face covered by a cloth mask, but the village children relish in throwing stones at this stranger. After one of these attacks a small boy accidentally falls into the river and it is up to the monk to save him. The only problem is that his mask his swept off and the boy terrified by what he thinks is a monster ends up drowning. The villagers ask the monk to perform a funeral for the boy, but during the ceremony a miracle occurs - the boy walks into the group of villagers and up to his mother. Is this the real boy though? And how long will the villagers revere the mink as a miracle worker before learning his role in the boy's drowning? You don't get much better portraits of anger and guilt than "The Nose" these days.
Lee isn't the only director to use the human anatomy as a source of horror. His film "The Arm" (above) is a surreal adaptation of a story by Nobel Prize-winner Yasunari Kawabata by J-Horror pioneer Masayuki Ochiai. Don't expect long-haired ghost girls in this film though. "The Arm" is a deliciously straange story of a middle-aged man who is obsessed with a gorgeous young woman. Actually he's obsessed with one part of her anatomy - her right arm. She acknowledges this man's fetiss by kindly offering him her arm for a night. She promptly plucks it from her shoulder and hands it over! No blood and gore involved here at all though. Ochiai takes us on a dream journey into a man's lust by having the protagonist not only replace his own arm with the woman's, but has him haunted by a young lover in a ghost automobile that drives in the night outside his window. Liberal use of the original text from Kawabata's original story might leave some people feeling distanced from the action (or lack thereof as the case may be), but those willing to let their logical minds give way to the trippy storyline will be immensely rewarded.
The most haunting, but probably the least chilling of the four "Kaidan Horror Classics" ends up being Hirokazu Koreeda's "The Days After" (above). Based on a short story by Saisei Muro it is a moving portrait of the love and grief two parents feel for their late child. Ryo Kase and Yuri Nakamura play a father and mother whose infant son died several years before, but he isn't entirely lost to them. Their now 7-year-old son wanders home on a regular basis to spend time with his parents. The two cherish these miraculous visits, but their son seems odd - he has a patchy memory of his existence between these visits. After time spent with his parents he says he must "go back" and wanders away just as he arrived. Kase attempts to grill his son as to were he must "go back" to and even tries to follow him, but to no avail. Soon he wonders whether his son is really his son at all, but this is a reality that he and his wife refuse to accept. There is nothing scary about this "Horror Classic", but it raises so many interesting dilemmas about how grief can blur the judgment of even the most logical individual.
As "Kaidan Horror Classics" is a TV series rights issues with NHK may prevent it from making it to an international DVD release, which would be real shame. Not only are these shorts some of the best films I've seen this year, but after having been subjected to so many sub-par J-Horror DVD releases in the past half decade it would be wonderful to cap off the Asian horror boom/ bust with some truly creative work like this. All I can say is lets hope someone in the UK or North America has a big bank roll to get these films to audiences.