From the description above, you can see that the term Kaidan refers primarily to very old, traditional Japanese ghost tales with specific geographical and political elements. These stories have been told and retold for generations to the point that most contemporary Japanese audiences are thoroughly familiar with them. Unsurprisingly, these classic supernatural stories became a very frequent source for Japanese horror in the modern era.
During the Edo Era a well known collections of Kaidan was written by author Asai Ryoi entitled “Nursery Tales” (Otogi Boko, 1660 A.D.). It contained the story of Botan Doro (“Peony Lantern”), perhaps originally based on a Chinese tale but repeated and refined by subsequent Japanese authors such as Sanyutei Encho (1839 – 1900) and Lafcadio Hearn. Its widespread popularity resulted in its being one of the first ghost tales to be depicted in Japanese cinema with a silent picture version as early as 1910 and several differing versions in the following decades. A translated Western version was released much later with director Masaru Tsushima’s 1998 film “The Haunted Lantern”.
In 1776 author Akinari Ueda wrote a three story collection of Kaidan entitled Ugetsu Monogatari upon which the ground-breaking 1953 film by director Kenji Mizoguchi is based. I’ve personally reviewed Japanese horror films for many years and have yet to find a decent parallel for Mizoguchi’s historical depiction of Edo Era fear and superstition. If you haven’t already, this is a film you should definitely see for yourself.
Perhaps the most beloved Kaidan tale is Yotsuya Kaidan is based on the nationally beloved story of the Chushingura, an actual historical episode constituting one of Japan’s favorite samurai stories. Better known in the West as the story of the “47 Ronin”, it involves an extensive plot of revenge enacted by 47 samurai whose leader was ordered to commit seppuku after attempting to kill an oppressive rival in 1710 AD. On December 14, 1702, the 47 ronin stormed the rival’s palace and exacted their long awaited revenge, knowing full well that each would be punished by death for their participation.
This tale has long been a favorite of Japanese artists, authors and producers. As early as 1748, Takeda Izumo II wrote “Chushingura,” originally a Bunraku play to memorialize the heroic samurai. In 1825 Tsuruya Nanboku wrote Yotsuya Kaidan, a (fictitious) ghost story taking place within the context of the Chushingura tale. (The term “Yotsuya” refers to the geographic region of the historical incident.) Since then, this tale has been adapted to film in over 30 versions making it the most frequently re-told tale in Japanese cinematic history. Several very good subtitled versions of this tale have been available on DVD for quite a while.
In 1964 Masaki Kobayashi directed a film entitled “Kwaidan” based specifically on Lafcadio Hearn’s 1910 collection. The film is an excellent depiction of four traditional tales including the very important and well-known stories of “Hoichi the Earless” and “Snow Woman” (Yuki Onna). This film has been available to Western audiences in a subtitled version for quite a while and is definitely something you should see if you are unfamiliar with these classic Kaidan tales.
One of the lesser known but recently important collectors of Edo Era Kaidan was a simple prison guard. A high ranking samurai named Negishi Shizue began collecting the local ghost stories he encountered amongst prisoners under his guard as he was stationed throughout Japan. Over time, his collection eventually contained more than 1000 ghostly tales from throughout the Japanese Islands which he eventually published in a huge, ten-volume anthology entitled Mimi Bukuro, or “Bag of Ears”.
The title of Negishi’s collection, Mimi Bukuro, recently entered contemporary Japanese mainstream with a long running series entitled Shin Mimi Bukuro Kaidan (“New Ghostly Tales: Bag of Ears”). This popular 4-year series, broadcast on national Japanese television and made into several film releases, focused on local ghost tales from throughout Japan in the same manner Negishi’s original collection had, with the important difference that the tales in the new broadcast were recently collected contemporary ghost tales. Several subtitled versions from this series have already been released in the West under the title “Tales of Terror from Tokyo”.