Kwaidan (1964) review

Kwaidan (1964)
KWAIDAN was the very first Japanese film that I ever saw, and probably the one responsible for kickstarting my obsession with east Asian horror. This breathtakingly beautiful anthology from director Masaki Kobayashi consists of adaptations of four unrelated traditional Japanese folk tales by Koizumi Yakumo, all involving the supernatural (KWAIDAN effectively translates as “Ghost Stories” or “Strange Tales”). In this his most famous film, Kobayashi creates an eerie, ethereal place situated somewhere between reality and myth, where atmosphere, mood and sound become characters equally as important as his actors. Once seen, this absolutely haunting movie cannot be forgotten.

Black Hair
The first tale is of a poor samurai in Kyoto who covets riches and social status, and so divorces his tolerant, loving first wife in order to marry the daughter of a wealthy feudal lord. Years later he regrets his decision to trade true love for power and wealth, and decides to return to Kyoto. Wandering around the dilapidated remains of his old home at night, he is amazed to find his first wife still there, unchanged and working at her weaving. She joyfully welcomes him back with absolute forgiveness despite his abandoning her for another woman. Delighted, he swears to remain by her side from now on. But when the next day breaks he discovers that his past sins have come back to haunt him.

The Woman in the Snow
A young woodcutter named Minokichi and his master are trapped in the forest by a terrific snowstorm, and after hours of wandering in the freezing cold, must take refuge in an ramshackle, abandoned hut. During that frigid night a beautiful ghost-like woman in white enters the hut and steals the older man’s life while he sleeps. But she refrains from killing Minokichi, saying that she will spare the handsome youth so long as long as he never, ever, tells anyone about seeing her.

Once safely back home, the youth meets a beautiful, gentle stranger named Yuki and they marry. He and his loving wife live a happy and contented life together, and receive much praise from their neighbors who are amazed at how youthful and beautiful the wife remains long after having had three children. But this bliss is cut short when an overly self-confident Minokichi disregards his old promise and mentions the woman in the snow, who returns in a sudden and surprising fashion to exact punishment for his not keeping his word.

Hoichi, the Earless
A blind lute player with amazing musical talent is living humbly among the monks of a Buddhist shrine as a caretaker. One night a mysterious samurai calls upon Hoichi the musician and escorts him to the home of his lord, a powerful nobleman, to play and sing. But the samurai is actually a ghost and the blind musician is soon unwittingly entertaining the spirits of an emperor and his dead warriors who were killed long ago in an ancient historical naval battle. The conflict that cost them their lives is presented as a glorious and colorful pageant filled with heroism, violence and desperation.

When the monks he lives with discover the awful truth – that Hoichi is expected to entertain the ghosts again the following evening and perhaps forever – they attempt to protect him and render him invisible to the spirits by painting his entire body with magical spells. Unfortunately for the musician, the monks neglect to write the spells onto his ears, which remain visible and vulnerable to the samurai ghost who returns in the night looking for him.

In a Cup of Tea
This last tale is a story within a story and the most unusual. An author is wondering aloud why any writer would leave his story unfinished, for he has come across many fragments of stories in his research. He starts reading one such tale. A samurai who, after unexpectedly seeing the mirror reflection of someone other than himself in his own cup of tea, is accosted by that same man in person later while on guard duty. To his dismay he discovers that this adversary who forces him to fight is an intangible and indefatigable ghost, who disappears every time the samurai strikes back. Three more ghosts appear to challenge the samurai the next evening, but in the midst of their battle the story switches back to the author, who has vanished under equally mysterious circumstances and ironically failed to finish his own tale.

Kobayashi’s use of highly stylized sets and backgrounds instead of actual physical locations allows the director to focus the viewer’s attention intensely on the stories. The painterly lighting and variations of rich colors in the scenes and costumes are designed to effectively convey character’s moods and feelings without the need for excess exposition. The film does take its time in telling each tale, and those moviegoers looking for a bloody slasher flick or serial killers hiding behind closet doors will be sadly disappointed. But just like with any good ghost story told quietly and carefully late at night by a sinking fire, the patient viewer is rewarded with a rich and chilling experience they will never forget.

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