It’s long been my opinion that every great filmmaker should try their hand at horror at least once over the course of their career. Horror directors sometimes repeat some of the same themes, the same scares, the same monsters, and it takes an outsider to bring something fresh to the genre every once in a while. Examples: Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark, Richard Donner’s The Omen, Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs, and so on and so forth. Taking a break from his politically charged sagas that addressed some of Japan’s sins, director Masaki Kobayashi decided to adapt a collection of ghost stories for the anthology film Kwaidan, and in the process ended up making one of the most artistic and beautiful films of all time.
Adapted from stories written by Greek expat Lafcadio Hearn, Kwaidan is four different, totally unconnected ghost stories set in Japan’s past. Though none of them are scary in the typical sense, they’re all spooky stories about the spirit world coming into contact with the world of man. “Kwaidan” means “ghost story,” and not necessarily “horror story.” I think this might make it a difficult film to pin down for some Western viewers who may feel that it is not frightening or violent enough for the horror shelf.
The first story, The Black Hair, stars Rentaro Mikuni (The Burmese Harp) as a samurai who can no longer stand his fall into poverty, and abandons his loving wife (Michiyo Aratama) in favor of a life of status and wealth. Once he secures a life of nobility, the samurai finds himself thinking constantly of the wife he left behind. He is haunted by her. And when he finally works up the nerve to visit her, he finds things forever changed. The Black Hair has various similarities to a subplot in Kenji Mizoguchi’s masterpiece Ugetsu, which was also a supernatural tale about the penalties for the ambitions of heartless men. The Black Hair is not my favorite of the Kwaidan anthology – the best are the two stories in the middle – but it does a good job of setting the tone about what to expect for the rest of the film.
The second story, and the most visually vibrant, is The Woman of the Snow. Tatsuya Nakadai (Ran) is a woodcutter caught in a blizzard. He and his master hole up in a hut for the night, where they are visited by a snow spirit played by Keiko Kishi (The Yakuza). The woman kills the woodcutter’s master with her cold breath, and is about to freeze the young man, too, when she begins to pity him. She makes him a deal: she will let him live as long as he never speaks a word of their encounter. The Woman of the Snow is the emotional heart of the movie (and interestingly the one section totally cut from the film for its showing at Cannes). Though the visuals are bitter cold, the story is sad and human.
The third and longest story, Hoichi the Earless, could’ve easily been a standalone release. Katsuo Nakamura (20th Century Boys) is the blind monk Hoichi, who lives at a temple that was built to appease the long-dead samurai who perished in a naval battle offshore. Being blind, Hoichi is unaware that the man who comes to visit him in the night is a samurai ghost, and that he’s been playing his biwa to an audience of the dead. When the temple’s priest (Takashi Shimura) learns of this, he does what he can to save Hoichi. This is my favorite of the four shorts in the anthology and is (coincidentally?) the most traditional in a cinematic sense. It’s a ghost story through-and-through, but one that’s told in a way completely unlike those you’ll see on American screens.
The final and shortest story is also the lightest. In a Cup of Tea is the story of a samurai who sees a ghost’s reflection in his cup of tea. The more he tries to understand, the more madness beckons to him. It’s a fine coda to the anthology, and also pays tribute to the storytellers who kept ghost stories alive all these years.
Kwaidan makes no attempt at realism. It’s ultra-cinematic, super artsy, with set walls painted as the sky within reach, and sets that never try to hide their artificiality. I thought it an interesting approach to making the film. The sets are beautiful, sometimes frightening, and go a long way to describe why I appreciate the movie so. Colors are vibrant, even in the chilly white Woman of the Snow section of the film, and the movie looks wonderful on the 2016 Criterion Blu-ray.
In addition to the amazing visual aspects of the film, Kwaidan features unorthodox sound design and an experimental score by Toru Takemitsu. Many scenes are almost muted, with no sound to the win, or bustle in the streets, or clash of swords. And then, seemingly out of nowhere, there will be cracks of wood or ice. The effect is eerie and wholly original.
Kwaidan may not appeal to horror hounds who demand a fast-pace, gore, or bunches of scares, but as an arthouse anthology it’s tough to beat. Beautiful to look at and with lots to think about, I consider Kwaidan one of the best examples of classic Japanese cinema, and highly recommend it to those in the mood for something stylish and creepy. Though not belonging to Masaki Kobayashi’s typical genre, Kwaidan deserves to be mentioned in conversation with the director’s best, right alongside The Human Condition, Harakiri, and Samurai Rebellion.
(The new Criterion DVD & Blu-ray includes the director’s 183 minute director’s cut for the first time in the US. The previous Criterion DVD featured a cut of the film that ran 20 minutes shorter. Most of the changes are small and are unlikely to be noticed by those who’ve only seen the film once or twice, but considering the improved picture quality and the nice assortment of extras (Stephen Prince commentary is the highlight of the special features) it’s easy for me to recommend the upgrade for fans of the film.)
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Writer of horror, science fiction, and dark fantasy. Lover of fiction and film. Lifelong Godzilla fan. Reluctant blogger.
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