Following his smash success with “Ring” (1998) and “Ring 2” (1999) — films that launched the worldwide J-horror boom — Hideo Nakata went to Hollywood, where he was hyped as the next Asian directing phenomenon — a Japanese version of John Woo and Ang Lee. But instead of churning out blockbusters, Nakata has spent the past five years making the Hollywood version of “The Ring 2,” a cake that failed to rise at the U.S. box office, and developing other projects, including “The Ring 3.”

For his first Japanese film since 2002, Nakata has made “Kaidan,” a period shocker based on the work of Encho Sanyutei, a 19th-century writer and rakugo (comic monologue) performer. In other words, Nakata is returning to his native roots, which makes creative sense since some of the scariest elements in his J-horror hits were deeply Japanese, beginning with vengeful female ghosts, elements that Hollywood remakes often diluted or abandoned. Nakata must have had many a frustrating script meeting.

But J-horror also departs from Japanese ghost-story traditions with its use of contemporary technology, mundane modern settings and everyday phenomenon to generate scares. In the “Ring” films, the carrier of the deadly curse is a videotape. In Nakata’s 2002 “Hongurai no Mizu no Soko kara (Dark Water),” the house of horrors is the sort of moldy, run-down apartment building found throughout Tokyo; the harbinger of evil is water dripping from a ceiling.

Director Hideo Nakata
Run Time 119 minutes
Language Japanese
Opens Opens Aug. 4, 2007

I once found these elements intriguing — and frightening. In the past decade, though, they have been copied ad nauseum, until my usual reaction to any of them is a groan rather than a shiver. So I was looking forward to something refreshingly different from “Kaidan.”

Instead, Nakata has made what would be hailed as a classic, if it had been made in 1957. Which is not a slam — quite.

The leading horrormeister of that era, Nobuo Nakagawa, also used ancient stories and legends as material for his films, including “Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan (The Ghost of Yotsuya” (1959) and “Jigoku (Hell)” (1960), with a familiarity and affinity that gave them extra frisson. Nakagawa not only knew this stuff but gave the impression that, at some level, he believed in it.

Still, after half a century, old films that retell the creep-out stories of Edo, no matter how well made, no longer produce as many chills down the spine as when they were first released, and I include my own spine in that number. The folk superstitions that gave them such power with contemporary audiences have faded. Also, the evermore realistic effects of newer horror pics, Nakata’s included, have made us dissolute moderns harder to scare — though I am still a sucker for the old ghost-hand grab.

Well aware of these problems, Nakata revs up the pace and amps up the shocks in “Kaidan” to keep the audiences of 2007 clutching their popcorn, while engaging their eyes with gorgeous cinematography by Junichiro Hayashi and period-production design by Yohei Taneda. At the same time, he respects his source material, so much so that “Kaidan” plays like a remake of a Nakagawa film. (Nakagawa also filmed an Encho story — the 1957 “Kaidan Kasane-ga-fuchi (The Ghost of Kasane).”) That said, Nakata knows how to deliver jolts, even if you can see them coming a mile away.

“Kaidan” begins with a storyteller reciting a tale about a samurai who cuts down a debt collector. The dying man curses the samurai and his family, and the samurai ends up killing his wife and himself. Their baby son is raised by a loyal servant, while the slaughtered man’s daughters wait in vain for his return.

A quarter of a century later, the baby has grown to become a handsome-but- poor tobacco seller, Shinkichi (Kikunosuke Onoe). By a twist of fate, he meets the elegant Toyoshiga (Hitomi Kuroki), the daughter of the debt collector, who runs a singing school in Edo (premodern Tokyo). Shinkichi is irresistibly attracted to her, despite their considerable age difference (with the ageless Hitomi Kuroki playing Toyoshiga, the attraction is easy enough to understand).

Soon, Shinkichi and Toyoshiga become lovers, and Shinkichi takes a position as an assistant at the school, whose students are overwhelmingly young and female. It’s not hard to see what comes next: Toyoshiga becomes madly jealous, until she begins driving her students away, despite Shinkichi’s efforts to reason with her.

Finally, Shinkichi decides to leave her — and Toyoshiga throws a fit. In the ensuing struggle with Shinkichi, her eyelid is accidentally slashed by a shamisen plectrum — an injury that eerily reflects the one the samurai inflicted on her father. In other words, the curse is at work.

Toyoshiga soon dies in agony, while Shinkichi runs off with one of her students, the peachy-sweet Ohisa (Mao Inoue). But now Toyoshiga’s ghost is on the loose. This starts a pattern: Shinkichi, poor fellow, can escape neither the jealous ghost nor the attentions of the various women he meets in his wanderings; a bad, potentially fatal combination.

While understanding the distinguished pedigree of the plot’s main spring — the bad karma of one generation strikes down members of the next, with romantic love serving as the blade — I squirmed at the monstrous unfairness of it all. Yes, kabuki and other traditional performing arts have used it, going back centuries, but I couldn’t helping feeling that Shinkichi was less living out a tragedy of starred-crossed love than getting a raw deal — as if Hamlet, instead of being called to duty by the Ghost, were haunted by it for having the wrong DNA.

As Shinkichi, kabuki star Kikunosuke Onoe underscores the film’s back-to-the-1950s’ feel. With his smooth, round features and gentle, bordering-on-effeminate manner, he looks and, as the film begins, acts like a nimaime (player of romantic leads) from another era. But as the story develops — and his character becomes more desperate — his performance intensifies until whatever was nimaime-esque disappears. What is left is a man in extremity, stripped of everything but his raw drive to survive.

The finale, when the swords come out, is not horrific but rather stirring in the best chambara eiga (sword-fight movie) style. Maybe it’s time Nakata switched from ghosts to samurai.

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