(1964) Directed by Masaki Kobayashi; Written by Yôko Mizuki; Based on the collection, Kwaidan, by Lafcaido Hearn; Starring: Rentarô Mikuni, Michiyo Aratama and Misako Watanabe; Available on DVD
Note: This review refers to the 163-minute Criterion Collection version, not the 183-minute original cut.
Kwaidan might possibly be the most beautiful horror film ever made. Director Masaki Kobayashi imbues each scene with an artist’s eye, creating the illusion that the frames were painted rather than filmed. Its signature style exemplifies one of the principal differences between Japanese and American cinema. Instead of attempting to create realistic set pieces and special effects, Kwaidan maintains the conceit of an illusory world that could only exist in the realm of cinema.
The film, which consists of four supernatural tales set in feudal Japan, was based on a collection of stories published around the turn of the 20th century by the American journalist Lafcaido Hearn. Although Hearn was an outsider in a closed society, he eventually became a naturalized citizen of Japan, bringing traditional Eastern tales of the supernatural to the Western world. The stories stemmed from a myriad of sources, including original Japanese texts, Chinese folklore, and tales that had only previously circulated orally. Most of the stories concern ghosts, or yurei (with one notable exception – more on that in a moment). The overarching theme in each segment is that one of the primary characters has made a fatal error, and as a consequence must pay a terrible price.
The first story, “The Black Hair,” is about selfishness and regret. A young samurai (Rentarô Mikuni) leaves his wife (Michiyo Aratama) to find success under the tutelage of a wealthy and powerful warlord. He eventually marries his mentor’s spoiled daughter (Misako Watanabe), and gets everything he wanted, only to realize that his life is hollow. The story’s true horror lies within the fact that insight often works in reverse, after it’s too late to undue the rash decisions made during youth.
In “The Woman of the Snow,” a woodcutter and his young apprentice trudge through a desolate, frozen landscape in search of respite from the cold. The sky is filled with a menagerie of eyes, suggesting that they are not alone, but under the gaze of forces beyond their control or understanding. They encounter a strange woman (Keiko Kishi) with an abnormally pale complexion, and icy breath. She’s as scary as she is alluring to lonesome travelers with a stare that means certain death. She’s not a ghost, as her appearance would suggest, but a being known collectively as a yokai, or specifically a Yuki-Onna (Hearn’s original story was aptly titled “Yuki-Onna.”). This stands out as my favorite segment, due to its elegant simplicity, inventive use of art direction (thanks to Shigemasa Toda) and lighting effects.
The third tale, “Hoichi, the Earless,” concerns a blind musician, Hoichi (Katsuo Nakamura), who lives in a monastery built to commemorate a great sea battle between two families. Hoichi, with his gift for telling stories through song, is called upon by the dead warriors to sing about their legacy. They return on a nightly basis to demand Hoichi’s ballads, but it begins to exact a toll on his health. When he discovers the origin of Hoichi’s nocturnal disappearances, the head monk (Takashi Shimura) devises a plan to rid Hoichi of the ghosts and their draining influence. But there’s just one flaw, which I won’t reveal here. One of the highlights of this segment is the stylized, theatrical sea battle, accompanied by Hoichi’s mournful song. Another memorable image is his body covered in kanji script to ward off the ghosts.
The final story, “In a Cup of Tea” is about a guard (Kan'emon Nakamura), haunted by the image of a rival samurai (Noboru Nakaya). In one memorable scene, he fights against opponents that may only be a figment of his imagination.
Kobayashi dispenses with notions of realism, choosing a more impressionistic approach.
Color is employed to great effect, with a palate ranging from vivid to subdued. Red lips in a sky, along with a character clad in a rose-colored kimono, signifies lust and fertility. A purple kimono symbolizes an aristocratic air, and a cold distance between a lady and her house servants. In “The Woman of the Snow,” simple lighting effects make a huge difference, as the Yuki-Onna’s warm tones immediately transform to something cooler, and her visage changes from benign to menacing.
Kwaidan takes its time allowing each story to unfold. Its deliberate, contemplative pace might seem slow and uneventful to viewers accustomed to quick cuts, jarring action sequences and thunderous explosions, but each segment is meant to be studied and admired, like portraits in an art gallery. Kwaidan is a film to be treasured, filled with stunning visuals from start to finish. It’s a true masterpiece that requires the viewer to be an active observer rather than a passive viewer.