Screens at CIFF: 10/9
World Premiere: 23-26 August, 2010, Japanese TV

The feature being marketed on the festival circuit as Kaidan - Horror Classics began life as a television sereis that aired in Japan in August, 2010. The premise is straightforward enough: four works of paranormal fiction by the masters of the genre, each adapted into a roughly 40-minute short by a contemporary leading light of Japanese cinema. Even by the standards of the kaidan genre, which are frequently closer to what is sometimes called in English "weird fiction", rather than conventional horror, the four episodes aren't really scary in any meaningful sense.

As with all anthologies, the quality drifts this way and that, though in a somewhat unique way: rather than some sequences being considerably better or worse than the others, the overall level of quality is rather consistent between projects; it's the films themselves that are sometimes inspired, sometimes forced and unconvincing, and the overall sense is that the four directors involved never quite understood why they should bother. Still, there's enough in each of the sequences that's good that one wouldn't throw out the whole package, even if it is somewhat disappointing overall.

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"The Arm" (directed by Ochiai Masayuki, from a story by Kawabata Yasunari)

The daffiest of the four by far, though it's magnetic despite that, or because of it. A man (Hirata Mitsuru) with a singularly unusual fetish meets up with a woman (Ashina Sei), who proceeds to loan him her right arm, snapping it off without a hint of blood or violence. He takes it home and proceeds to plunge into the deepest sort of ecstasy, until the arm starts speaking back to him and things get weird. Weirder, anyway.

Everything about "The Arm" is off-kilter: not just its warped premise, but the use of remarkably unconvincing CGI exteriors to set a dreamy mood, on top of visuals that are already on the grotty, shadowy and Hirata's twisted performance that gives everything a paranoiac edge. Of course, the star of the show is that disembodied arm, which through the simplest of editing tricks goes from being a detailed, but obviously fake model to a living, moving detached limb in a manner most disconcerting. The strangeness and the creepiness never quite balance out, and other than "some men think of women as body parts & not as people", there's nothing resembling psychological insight; but sometimes, being knocked for a loop is its own reward, and if it's far from the best thing in Kaidan, "The Arm" is certainly memorable.

* * * * *

"The Whistler" (directed by Tsukamoto Shinya, from a story by Dazai Osamu)

The creator of the legendary body-horror masterpiece Tetsuo contributes a film that is about as far from that movie's outrageous excess as you could possibly get. A woman (Kawai Aoba) lives in a secluded cottage with her ailing sister (Tokunaga Eri) and their stern father; while waiting for her sick sibling to die, the woman chafes under her father's rules and seethes with jealousy when she observes that her sister has a collection of love letters from a mysterious admirer, "M.T." There is a light touch of the paranormal about this one, and a ghost puts in a very brief appearance, but for the most part this one is all about human conflict and personalities, and Aoba's strong performance does wonders in that regard.

Tsukamoto's aesthetic for this intimate little story is quite striking, though I don't know if it's equally successful: the emotional intensity of any given moment is translated into visual terms by means of a shaky, disorienting camera: an neat idea that doesn't cut into the small scale of the story as something more outlandish might have, but it leaves the movie somewhat difficult to watch. That is not, however, nearly enough to derail what is otherwise a sensitive and haunting (hah!) piece, though even at 35 minutes it suffers from a touch of redunancy.

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"The Nose" (directed by Lee Sang-Il, from a story by Ryûnosuke Akutagawa)

The most typical kaidan story of the batch: in the Heian Era, a monk (Matsushige Yukata) with a hideously large & deformed nose is persecuted and hated by all the local villagers. One day, as he tries to save a young boy from drowning, the boy shouts "monster!" at him, and in a flash of anger, the monk pushes the boy into the river and watches him die. Later, as he officiates the boy's funeral, the victim returns from the dead: the villagers call it a miracle, but the monk sees instead a ghost come to punish him for his wickedness.

Even here, the focus isn't on the paranormal revenge so much as on the monk's guilt and shame, but it's probably the clearest-cut example of horror in the package. It's also, sadly, the least interesting: though the closing seven or eight minutes ground the piece in a compelling way, Lee (the only one of the four filmmakers whose work is completely unknown to me) has no apparent interest in doing anything with this story other than tell it. "The Nose" lacks personality, although it is handsomely shot (particularly the first few moments) and production-designed, and that counts for something.

* * * * *

"The Days After" (directed by Kore-eda Hirokazu, from a story by Murô Saisei)

By far the best of the four sequences; and I'm not at all sure that isn't because the director used his greater prominence and international critical acclaim to get his own way: allegedly, he wouldn't sign on for Kaidan until receiving the guarantee that he could focus on the characters at the expense of the paranormal. And so he did, in the story of a couple (Kase Ryo and Nakamura Yuri) early in the 20th Century, who are convinced that the young boy that starts hanging around their home one day is the spirit of their dead child, though as the days go by the holes in this theory start to nag in a most unwelcome way.

There is nothing flashy or big about "The Days After": it's a hushed film full of mildly underlit scenes and pensive acting involving a lot of murmuring and looking off into the distance. It's a neat way to evoke the emotional ache of the main characters without having to rely on any tormented breast-beating, and while I suppose a whole feature of it would be tedious, even as the longest of the four episodes this is fine, heartbreaking stuff. A strange adjective to use of a nominal ghost story; but are not ghost stories a way of dealing with our feelings about death? thus, the jump from scares to lucid and poignant study of grief isn't so unreasonable. Kore-eda didn't sit well with me at the time of our only previous meeting (the pointless and cutesy Air Doll), but this one pays it back with interest.