61. KWAIDAN (1964)

AKA Kaidan; Ghost Stories

“A hundred thoughts suggested by the book might be written down, but most of them would begin and end with this fact of strangeness… many of the stories are about women and children,–the lovely materials from which the best fairy tales of the world have been woven. They too are strange, these Japanese maidens and wives and keen-eyed, dark-haired girls and boys; they are like us and yet not like us; and the sky and the hills and the flowers are all different from ours… in these delicate, transparent, ghostly sketches of a world unreal to us, there is a haunting sense of spiritual reality.”–from the original introduction to the folk tale collection “Kwaidan”

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Masaki Kobayashi

FEATURING: Rentarô Mikuni, Michiyo Aratama, Keiko Kishi, , , Kan’emon Nakamura

PLOT: An anthology film telling four Japanese folk tales centered around ghosts or nature spirits.  An ambitious samurai leaves his faithful but poor wife for a rich new one, and finds himself haunted by regret over his desertion.  A winter spirit spares the life of a young woodcutter, on one condition.  A clan of ghosts demand a blind minstrel play the tale of their tragedy for them night after night.  The final story tells of a guard who sees an apparition in a bowl of water.

Still from Kwaidan (1964)

BACKGROUND:

  • The four episodes were adapted from Lafciado Hearn’s collections of Japanese folk tales (the two middle pieces are from his 1903 volume entitled “Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things”).  Hearn was born Greek, educated in Ireland, and spent time as a journalist in the United States (causing a scandal by marrying a black woman in Cincinnati, which was a crime at the time).  He later became a foreign correspondent in Japan and was naturalized as a Japanese citizen, taking the name Koizumi Yakumo.
  • Hearn offered “Weird Tales” as one possible translation of the Japanese word Kwaidan.
  • Kwaidan won the Special Jury Prize at Cannes (at that time, the second most prestigious prize after the Palme D’Or).  It was nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar, but lost to the Czech war drama The Shop on Main Street [Obchod na korze].
  • The episode “The Woman of the Snow” was (unwisely) trimmed from the original American theatrical release in order to cut the runtime from three hours to just over two hours.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Although it’s hard to top the image of the minstrel Hoichi covered (almost) from head to toe in holy Buddhist characters or the ghostly court of samurai, it’s the expressionistic set of “The Woman in the Snow”—with it’s constellations of warped watching eyeballs set in a deep blue sky—that makes the eeriest impression.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Kwaidan illustrates the rule that, the better the movie, the less weird it has to be to make the List. Although on the surface it’s just a collection of bare-bones ghost stories, in telling these tales director Kobayashi wisely jettisons reality in favor of a stylized, expressionistic, visually poetic aesthetic that gently detaches the viewer from everyday life and floats him into an ancient spirit world that seems simultaneously to have never and always existed.


Original Trailer for Kwaidan

COMMENTS: In Kwaidan‘s opening credits black, blue, red and purple inks swirl around in water like dyed jellyfish caught in a lava lamp, forming weird organic shapes.  A single, metallic chord chimes in as the colors switch.  The sequence sets a mesmerizing mood, suggesting that this “horror” film is going to be something different: slow, abstract, and deeply beautiful, more of an uncanny art installation than a narrative cascade towards a spine-tingling “gotcha!” moment.  Although Kwaidan‘s canvas is suffused with the supernatural and ghosts appear in every episode, it’s almost false advertising to label it a “horror movie;” the film is more like watching a 14th century Zen scroll come to life, with the animated figures slowly acting out their story.  The simple plots of these four folktales are almost irrelevant; you should be able to tell early on approximately where each story will end up.  But Masaki Kobayashi honors these persistent eldritch legends not by jazzing them up for modern audiences, but by going deep inside them and patiently teasing out every last bit of poetry.  The stories may be primitive, but the themes are eternal: love, regret, the inscrutability and capriciousness of nature, obsession, the inability to forget past wrongs, karma, and the fear of the unknown.  The director approaches each tale with reverential awe, as if he feels a calling to preserve and restore these ancient stories as cultural, and human, treasures.  The end result is subtly but transcendently strange, a mix of terror and beauty that had not been seen onscreen since the German Expressionists were completely assimilated into Hollywood.

The first story, “The Black Hair,” is the most emotionally involving and moralistic of the tales.  An upwardly mobile samurai living in poverty deserts his devoted seamstress wife for a marriage of convenience with a wealthy but frivolous woman with painted eyebrows.  He leaves his hovel in Kyoto for a new position in a far away land, but he is haunted by visions of the love he abandoned patiently working at her loom.  When his assignment ends he ditches the second wife and travels back to Kyoto. He arrives in the eerily deserted city at midnight, finding that the street in front of his old home has been overgrown with bushes and brambles until it resembles a forest clearing more than an avenue.  The layout of his old home seems to have changed, and he has to journey through “black rooms” and overgrown courtyards until he finds his faithful wife still sitting by her spinning wheel, unchanged since he left.  The couple reconcile quickly and joyously and retire to the conjugal chamber.  The final reveal is not surprising, but the aftermath is handled in an odd, literally quiet way that highlights the horror and will stick with you for quite a while.

We immediately transition into a snowy forest, built entirely on a sound stage, for the poetic “The Snow Woman.”  Caught in a blizzard, a woodcutter and his apprentice wander through a bleak snowscape; mysterious, deformed eyeballs watch them from the painted night sky.  With the surreal set, and the synthesized wailing of the wind and howling of distant predators, the episode is so dreamily beautiful that you almost wish it could go on forever; but eventually the pair find their way to a hut where they take shelter for the night.  The apprentice wakes up in the middle of the night to find a beautiful, blue skinned woman in a glowing white gown standing over the frozen body of his master; she finds him young and handsome and decides to spare his life, on the condition that he never tell a soul what has happened that night.  The boy recovers, and years later he meets woman wandering in the forest and takes her as his wife. They raise several children together, until one night he mentions the incident years ago.  Once again, the conclusion will not startle the alert viewer, but the ending does give a satisfying, melancholy feeling of a circle being closed.

The third story, “Hoichi the Earless,” is the most spectacular.  It begins with a re-enactment of an ancient naval battle between two warring clans, acted out on a sound stage sea.  The melee is meticulously detailed and choreographed, and the fact that it plays out on a stage, in front of an irrationally orange sky and accompanied by droning musical narration, enhances the legendary, balletic feeling.  The Heike clan is defeated, and, followed by her loyal retainers, their princess suicidally plunges into the waters while holding the infant emperor, ending the line forever.  Centuries later, Hoichi, a blind biwa player living at a Buddhist monastery, has mastered singing and playing the tragic story of the defeat of the Heikes so well that one night a samurai comes to him and asks him to play it for his master.  It will come as no surprise to find out that the samurai is a messenger from the dead, and the undead retinue demand that the prodigy appear nightly before them to sing them the tragic tale.  When the priest at the monastery discovers this arrangement, he fears for his charge’s life and concocts a plan to save him by painting scared texts all over Hoichi’s body.  “Earless” is the first of the stories whose ending might come as a small shock, and it is also the only segment with much in the way of effective comic relief, courtesy of a pair of bumbling, easily-spooked servants who are given the job of tracking Hoichi to see where he goes at night.  These advantages, along with the spectacle of the battle scenes and the pageantry of the ghostly court, make “Earless” the most popular and memorable of Kwaidan‘s episodes.

The capper, “In a Cup of Tea,” is the most problematic story, although it has its charms as well.  In a wraparound segment, a narrator explains that the story is unfinished; we then launch into the story of a night watchman who one day picks up a cup of water and finds a face staring back at him from the rippling liquid.  He throws the drink away and scoops up a new one, but the apparition is still looking at him with a mischievous grin.  Frustrated and unsure what to do, he drinks the second cup down, only to finds himself visited in the night by the spirit he drank.  He survives his first encounter, but later three more ghosts appear to him.  With the protagonist constantly jousting with insubstantial ghosts, he tone here is almost, but not quite (or at least, not effectively) comic; our hero is bullheaded, a little stupid, and hard to identify with.  As we were warned in the beginning, the tale ends in the middle of the action, with no resolution.  We must return to the framing sequence for an ironic conclusion, but its one that fails to chill the blood.  Nearly everyone considers “In a Cup of Tea” the weakest episode in the anthology, but it’s not so substandard that it squanders the goodwill that the film has already built up.

The four tales are simple, but Kobayashi’s method of telling them is anything but.  There are few exteriors; almost everything was shot on a soundstage where the director could meticulously control the atmosphere. He fills each frame of the film with visual poetry.  Kwaidan often recalls the Cinemascope epics of Hollywood’s golden age, when certain movies were intended to be events rather than just containers for stories.  The look of the film is luxurious, elegant, classical, sumptuous and lush; sets, costumes, and camerawork are all tasteful, colorful treats for the eyes.  Although there are no huge crowd scenes swelling with extras, the film still conjures up an epic feel.  The sets, especially in “Woman in the Snow” and “Hoichi the Earless,” are spectacular.  I already mentioned the fascinating constellation of eyeballs in “Woman,” but even after the deadly winter storm has passed and a happier summer has arrived, the sky is tinted impossibly bright yellows, pinks and oranges; and there’s an impression of smiling lips, rather than eyes, hanging in the stratosphere.  Kobayashi is also an expert at using light and shadow; carefully positioned, filtered pale blue lights give the Snow Woman her unearthly complexion.  As the priests paint the blind minstrel with holy symbols in “Hoichi,” we are treated to a shot of a golden Buddha statue; suddenly and inexplicably, the angle of the light shifts, highlighting new surfaces and throwing old ones into shadow.  The metamorphosis visually illustrates the magical transformation going on in the room next door.  Kwaidan is filled with such visual metaphors that reward the attentive viewer and engage the mind and eye as the stories slowly and inexorably unfold.

The other sensuous element that catapults Kwaidan into the cinematic stratosphere is the sound design, by avant-garde composer Tōru Takemitsu.  There are only a very few conventional musical themes in the movie’s three hours; mostly, Takemitsu punctuates the action with brief, exotic bursts of sound.  We hear unexplained clicks, scratches and knocks; sudden percussion; short bursts of electric guitar; microdrones; chords so subdued they’re almost subliminal; electronically altered environmental sounds; and rudely plucked strings.  The sounds are frequently just slightly out of sync with the action; they highlight the eeriness of the scenes because they’re uncanny, off the rhythm and disorienting.  This technique is nowhere put to better use than in the climax of “The Black Hair”: to convey the passage to another level of reality, the “diagetic” (or real world) sound drops out totally and is replaced by Tōru Takemitsu’s sound sculptures.  Soft drones and chords fill up the background, but in the foreground, slightly off beat with the action, is a series of clattering noises as if someone is falling or struggling with a door.  (Matthew Desson points out that there is total silence at the moment the samurai falls through the floorboards, but the snapping noises surrounding that event could be the sound effects of him crashing through the rotted wood; it’s as if the sound has been shifted off the beat to unnerve us.  It occurs to me that some of the clattering sounds may have even been recycled from earlier scenes where the samurai falls to the ground as he first enters the altered house).

Although the tales form a strong foundation, Kwaidan isn’t essentially a narrative movie; it’s an experience movie that lifts you out of the everyday world and spirits you away to another reality, an otherworld where resplendent ghosts hold eternal court.  Though these are technically nightmares, their slow, quiet, hypnotic rhythms absorb rather than alarm you.  When you’re wandering with the woodsman through the snowy woods, you can almost hear death in the distance calling you seductively; you almost wish you could lie down in that magical forest underneath its canopy of eyes, until the drifts blow over you and the Winter Woman comes to take your soul away to the other world.  That’s the strange alchemy of Kwaidan: it reonciles fear and beauty, and makes a horrible fate seem almost enviable.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the eye [is] quietly fascinated by a succession of tableau scenes that are exquisite color compositions, and the ear has been haunted by sounds—and by silences, which are as effective—into a mystical, other-worldly mood.”–Bosley Crowther, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

“…Kobayashi explores common ground between traditional Japanese visual arts and drama and cinematic expressionism, in the process finding the universal language of myth and dreams in a one-of-a-kind masterpiece.”–Keith Phipps, The Onion A.V. Club (DVD)

Kwaidan fits squarely into the tradition of Japanese horror: its emphasis on the weird more than the disgusting, the importance of the unseen, and, of course, the idea that the dead rarely rest easy.”–Matthew Dessem, The Criterion Contraption (DVD)

OFFICIAL SITES:

Kwaidan (1965) – The Criterion Collection – the Criterion Collection page for Kwaidan includes the original theatrical trailer and an essay on the film by David Ehrenstein

Kwaidan @ Masters of Cinema – the webpage of the British distributor contains basic information about the film, an alternate trailer, and a copy of Hearn’s story “In a Cup of Tea,” which was made into the fourth segment of the movie

IMDB LINK: Ghost Stories (1964)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Kwaidan – Criterion Collection [Blu-ray] at Amazon – although Criterion had not yet announced a release date for a Blu-ray of Kwaidan at the time of this writing, they have created an Amazon product page and, curiously, have put the trailer and excerpts of an interview with Japanese cinema expert Donald Richie there

Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things – Project Guttenberg – read or download the complete text of the 1903 folk tale collection from which the stories “The Woman in the Snow” and “Hoichi the Earless” were drawn

DVD INFO: Unusually, the Criterion Collection edition (buy) contains no extras beyond the theatrical trailer; a two-disc edition would have done this masterpiece of world cinema justice. On the plus side, the restoration of the film is astounding; the picture is crisp with minimal artifacts, and the colors are as vivid as anyone could hope for.  The three hour movie has been fit onto a dual layered DVD, which may offend digital purists.  Sixth months before this article was published, Kwaidan was a finalist for a Criterion catalog Blu-ray release, and although winners hadn’t been announced at the time of this writing, given the fact that some special features already have been produced, it seems that it’s just a matter of time before the movie gets the deluxe treatment (check to see if Blu-ray is available).

UPDATE 12/30/2015: That long-awaited Criterion Collection re-release of Kwaidan finally happened in October 2015, coming out on Blu-ray (buy) or 2-disc DVD set (buy), and it’s a considerable upgrade from their previous release of the title. The first release had the 162 minute version of the film; this new one is the original 183 minute cut, which was not available in the U.S. previously. It restores trims made to the first three stories. In addition to the restoration, the extras included in the release are an archival interview with director Kobayashi in 1993 with filmmaker Masahiro Shinoda; an interview with assistant director Kiyoshi Ogasawara, who speaks at length about the production and sheds some light on the various cuts of the film and how the original cut was located; and a featurette on Lafcadio Hearn with English literature scholar Christopher Benfey and three trailers.

The most significant special feature is a commentary by film historian Stephen Prince, who provides plenty of valuable background and context on the film. He explains the differences in the cuts of the film, and also points out a possible political commentary which would be consistent with Kobayashi’s work.

The film is presented in a new 2K digital restoration and the picture quality is inpeccable. If you haven’t watched Kwaidan since the first Criterion release, it’s definitely worth the upgrade.–update written by El Rob Hubbard

(This movie was nominated for review by reader “236design.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

5 thoughts on “61. KWAIDAN (1964)”

  1. Every time I think of Kwaidan, the first story that pops up is The Snow Woman, which impressed me the most (and which is, as I recall, the most chilling one). :)

    A mesmerizing movie. More of a poetic dark fantasy-drama, than horror, way ahead of its time. I must agree it’s a must see. :)

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