Well, I had reached the penultimate entry of the J-Horror series with the film "Kaidan" and I will safely say it is one of the best of the series, but THE best still belongs to Kiyoshi Kurosawa's "Sakebi/ Retribution". As of this writing I have not seen "Kyōfu", but from some reviews I read online, I hear it doesn't get better. With this film, "Ringu", and "Dark Water" director Hideo Nakata takes us back in time with a period piece to weave a Kaidan tale. Just what is a Kaidan? Kaidan or Kwaidan is a term that translates as "supernatural tale" that takes place in ancient Edo era of Japan (1603-1868) and has it's origins in party-goers sitting around telling these spooky tales. There have been many films made of this kind since the silent era, most famous the 1964 portmanteau film "Kwaidan" which was honored with a Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language film.
Vengeance from beyond the grave is the bread and butter of most classic ghost stories, even quite possibly enough to garner being in it's own little sub-genre. Being a progenitor to the typical J-Horror tale, "Kaidan" is based on a very old Japanese ghost story called "Kaida-Banashi, Shinkei Kasane-Ga-Fuchi" by author San'yūtei Enchō from the 19th Century.
"Kaidan" begins on a black-and-white tinged opening with a narrator telling the audience a tale of an acupuncturist/ moneylender named Soetsu Minagawa, who was a widower raising two daughters and has lent a fair amount of money to a unscrupulous samurai named Shinzaemon Fukai. When Soetsu demands the Fukai pay him his due, because the amount has gotten too large, the samurai murders him in cold blood. First slashing him over his left eye, and then outright finishing the job. Soetsu's daughters are left fatherless, as Fukai has the body thrown in a deep pool nearby called Kasanega-Fuchi, which is named after a woman named Kasane who was killed there by her husband. They believe their spirits still dwell there and swallows anyone who steps in the pool. Soon, the Fukai family met a series of strange misfortunes, beginning with Fukai himself losing his mind and subsequently murdering his wife and ultimately himself. He left behind, however, a baby son named Shinkichi. Bringing us into the film proper.
25 years later, Shinkichi is now living with his uncle as a seller of tobacco. The daughters of Soetsu Minagawa are still around as well, as the eldest, Oshiga (Hitomi Kuroki of "Dark Water"), is a shamisen teacher (bringing that j-horror trope full circle) for young girls and lives with her sister Osono. One fortuitous day, Shinkichi comes through town selling his tobacco while coming upon Oshiga in the street. They have no idea of their connection, and yet fall in love with each other, going so far as to carry on a relationship. Soon, however, one of Oshiga's students, Ohisa, begins to fall for Shinkichi. Oshiga's jealousy drives a wedge between her and her young students. Shinkichi confronts her on it and suggests that he leave. During the conversation they get in a lover's quarrel which eerily ends with Oshiga accidentally wounding herself with her own bachi (or plectrum) above her left eye, just like her father. Shinkichi feels obligated to stay. However, while the injury of Oshiga grows malignant and has her bedridden, a much deeper relationship between Shinkichi and her former student Ohisa grows. Ohisa confides in Shinkichi that she wishes to leave their village for Hanyu (coincidentally Shinkichi's birth home), because her family is very harsh towards her.
Shinkichi and Ohisa bond while Oshiga is in utter pain from her wound, which ultimately taking her life. The way Shinkichi finds out about her death however, is the beginning of his nightmare spiral into a series of her supernatural hauntings. Just as he looks over her death ceremony, she leaves him a note promising him that if he marries another woman, he'll kill her. When Shinkichi finally does leave town with Ohisa, the run into a torrential storm, and even Ohisa feels threatened by the ghost of Oshiga while the lovers are in the woods. She too sees the ghost of Oshiga and runs from it, causing her to accidentally scrape her leg on a short farmer's scythe; the very weapon Soetsu used to defend himself against Fukai, which places them at the Kasane-Fuchi. When in a burst of hallucinatory conniption, Shinkichi no longer sees Ohisa, but Oshiga and when she begins to strangle him, he grabs the scythe and strikes her. Only realizing too late he has killed Ohisa. Local villagers find him and nurse him back to health, and ironically it's assumed that Ohisa's uncle's family are the ones who find him, as they say they are missing a family member on the way into town.
There, Shinkichi is nursed back to health by the uncle's daughter Orui (in some translations of this very story, this is the name of the character for Oshiga), who has fallen in love with him. Shinkichi decides to leave town, even turning down the family's wish for him to marry Orui, that is until he runs into Osono, Oshiga's sister. Osono finds Shinkichi work on the docks and he eventually agrees to marry Orui, which will ultimately lead to a child and eventually his own destruction, just as Oshiga had promised.
Besides the fact that Nakata continues his theme of death by water in this film (see "Ringu" and "Dark Water") Nakata seems to fill the film with homages to classic Japanese storytelling traditions. The very opening with a lone storyteller weaving this tale, is based on Rakugo, which is a Japanese form of play that is similar to stand up comedy or a one-man play. It doesn't end there, because the very style of the film (at least in the opening) is a tribute to the films of horror director Nakagawa Nobuo and the aforementioned film "Kwaidan" with its stage play-esque set pieces. Interestingly, some of the characters names in the story have significant meaning, such as Soetsu meaning "Restless" and Fukai meaning "Discomfort". Hmmmm. A play on names on behalf of San'yūtei Enchō. "Kaidan" is a slow burner for sure, as the first half of the film is mostly melodramatic at best, and to be honest with you even when the horror does kick in throughout the film, it isn't up to par on what the contemporary-set J-horror pieces have to offer.