Kaidan Horror Classics -- Film Review

A lame and uninspired omnibus of spiritual or fantasy stories at best vaguely strange.

Leading Japanese filmmakers come up short with their takes on stories from literary giants.


TOKYO -- On paper, the omnibus Kaidan Horror Classics sounds like a festival must-have and a hot DVD item, having arthouse favorites (Hirokazu Koreeda, Lee Sang-il) and genre pros (Shinya Tsuamoto, Masayuki Ochiai) each adapt a short tale of mystery and imagination from writings of Japanese literary giants.

None of the directors sank his teeth into the material, however, resulting in a void of ideas, experimentation, intellectual weight or even their usual aesthetic flair. Produced by NHK, it was aired on TV, and will probably ensnare some foreign distributors greedy for any J-Horror.

The Arm, adapted from Nobel laureate Yasunari Kawabata's work, is incontestably the worst of the four shorts. A man (Mitsuru Hirata) enamored of the arm of a woman (Sei Hoshino) asks her to lend it to him. No more than a turgid conversation between a man and a talking arm in a non-descript room, it squanders any potential to explore fetishism or objectification of women.

Ochiai may have directed three horror-thrillers, including the Hollywood remake of Shutter, but he is out on a limb with this static narrative setup, so he repeats Kawabata's lines verbatim and schleps together a mediocre production package.

The Whistler, written by suicide-addict Osamu Dazai, is predictably about young death. Yu (Aoba Kawai) pries into her dying teenage sister Itsue's (Eri Tokunaga) life by reading letters from her secret lover, while Yu's only romantic hopes are dashed by her father.

Tsukamoto (Tetsuo: Body Hammer, Vital), who brought body mutations to a new aesthetic level, is an odd choice for interpreting this wistful story of wasted youth. The pacing is as sickly as the protagonist, despite efforts at visual variety like fast fade-ins and fade-outs and excessive superimposed shots. Beyond the motif of unfulfilled sexual longing, one wonders what this episode is about.

Lee Sang-il, whose features often depict lonely outsiders persecuted by society (Ao-chong, Borderline, Villain), takes the evocation of tormented psyche to grotesque, physical extreme in The Nose. Kudos for being the only one to compose an entirely original postscript to a story, in this case from a Ryunosuke Akutagawa story.

The protagonist is a Buddhist priest (Yutaka Matsuhige) of the Heian period, who has a monstrously long, bulbous nose. One day, he saves, then causes the death of a boy and suffers heinous punishment for it. The ending indicts mob cruelty and human evil with relentless savagery. The brooding cello score intensifies the dark, oppressive atmosphere reminiscent of The Elephant Man.

Hirokazu Koreeda's adaptation of Saisei Muro's The Days After is graceful evocation of the Taisho period, with an air of lingering mystery. A couple (Ryo Kase and Yuri Nakamura) believe that a boy (Takeru Shibuya) of around 6, who comes to play at their house, is the ghost of their son Hyotaro, who died in infancy. Over seven days, we witness their uncertain hopes, insecure happiness and looming suspicion that the boy might be someone, or somethingelse. Using mostly stationary shots, every scene has a deliberate, classical feel that reinforces a restrained but softly heartbreaking melancholy.

Venue: Tokyo FILMeX International Film Festival
Sales and production: NHK Enterprise
Tokyo Sound Production; Kaiju Theater; Office Shirous; TV Man Union
Chief Producers: Shuuichiro Yamazaki, Takahiro Hamano

The Arm
Cast: Mitsuru Hirata; Sei Hoshino
Director: Masayuki Ochiai
Based on the story by: Yasunari Kawabata
Director of photography: Yuuichiro Kimura

The Whistler
Cast: Aoba Kawai, Eri Tokunaga, Jun Kunimura
Director-director-of-photography: Shinya Tsukamoto
Based on the story by: Osamu Dazai
Director of photography: Takayuki Shida

The Nose
Cast: Yutaka Matsushige, Haruka Igawa
Director: Lee Sang-il
Based on the story by: Ryunozuke Akutagawa
Director of photography: N. Kasamatsu
Music: Yoshihide Ootomo
Art director: Shou Sasaki

The Days After
Cast: Ryo Kase, Yuri Nakamura, Takeru Shibuya
Director: Hirokazu Koreeda
Based on the story by: Saisei Muro
Director of photography: Hiroshi Yamazaki

No rating, 160 minutes