Set in the days of Edo old, Kaidan centers on the relationship between young tobacconist Shinkichi (Kikunosuke Onoe) and singing instructor Toyoshiga (Hitomi Kuroki). When the two meet, their attraction is undeniable, though both are unaware of the sordid ties that bind them. As children, their fathers were involved in a spat that left Toyoshiga's pop slain and Shinkichi's damned to a life of misery. Sure enough, the curse works its magic on the two lovers, fanned by Shinkichi's penchant for young women and Toyoshiga's searing jealousy. Ultimately, the latter passes on, but not before declaring a curse of her own, swearing to wreak havoc not only on Shinkichi's life but also that of whoever dares bat eyes at him next.
Consider Kaidan a glimpse at J-horror's very roots, courtesy of Hideo Nakata's Wayback Machine. Although known best for the modern chillers Ringu and Dark Water, Nakata's picture harkens back to when Japan's ghost stories were treated as sagas and art forms unto themselves, rather than a means to put little Toshiro to bed. This respect is evident throughout Kaidan, from the stylized pre-credits sequence to the bittersweet finale. Shinkichi is no schmoe haunted by a cursed Cuisinart but the hapless victim of his father's sins, gradually driven mad by his inability to find peace in this world and seeing only torment to come in the next one. If horrible things occur, they truly are out of his control, and for as much as she spends the film in Sadako mode, Toyoshiga's own issues allow her more dimension beyond the usual vengeful ghost stereotype. Knowing the shared history they remain oblivious to paves the way for a good deal of characterization and dramatic weight that horror flicks generally shirk in favor of getting to the gore as soon as possible.
Nakata has the right tone in mind for Kaidan, but nailing it is one tale that doesn't have a happy ending. For one, in terms of the leads being dragged to hell and back, Nakata doesn't seem to know when enough is enough; Shinkichi is mostly innocent, but all the hardships he endures makes you wonder if the story really does regard him as an outright villain. Similarly, Toyoshiga is so vicious and relentless, it becomes hard to view her just as a wronged woman seeing that her memory is served justice. The ambiguity needed to pull it all off just ain't here, and while Nakata set out to pay homage to the past, he can't help but fall back on tired tricks from the derivative thrillers he helped inspire. He remains honorable and never outright cheap, but with random love scenes and babies farting out dozens of snakes, one gets the feeling much of the film was spiced up to appeal to Western perceptions of Asia Extreme. Plus, the flick looks pretty damn flat overall, a shame considering how nifty and alluring its intro scene turned out to be.
If there's an audience for Kaidan, it's more for the Snake Woman's Curse crowd than for Grudge groupies. Its reverence to the past and commitment to building up characters are what get us to care about the proceedings beyond who'll be dispatched next and how. You don't have to be Nobuo Nakagawa to tell that Kaidan isn't a total artistic success, but I'll take something that makes it halfway there over something that accepts mediocrity with open arms.