One of the most meticulously crafted supernatural fantasy films ever made, Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan (1964) is also one of the most unusual. While such classic black and white chillers as The Uninvited, The Innocents and The Haunting teasingly speculate on the existence of ghosts, this lavish widescreen and color production deals with the spirit world head-on, as something completely and frighteningly real.
Consisting of four episodes, Kwaidan is based on the writings of Lafcadio Hearn, a folklorist of Greek-Irish ancestry who came to the United States in 1869 and later moved to Japan. Hearn became a naturalized Japanese citizen in 1895, and changed his name to Yakumo Koizumi. If total assimilation of his adopted culture was Hearn’s goal, then he clearly achieved it, for it’s impossible to tell that Kwaidan’s source material is in any way Western. As directed by Kobayashi, Hearn’s four tales unfurl across the screen like versions of the classic Japanese paintings of the historical periods in which the film is set.
Winner of the Special Jury Prize at the 1965 Cannes Film Festival, Kwaidan represents a considerable departure from the works of its director, who made his initial fame with such socially conscious dramas as Black River (a study of corruption brought about by U.S. military bases in Japan) and The Human Condition (an exposé of Japanese mistreatment of Chinese in POW camps). Shot almost entirely in enormous studio sets, with a completely post-synched and carefully controlled soundtrack, Kwaidan is about as far from moviemaking “realism” as it’s possible to go. Yet in going to such dramatically ambitious lengths as adapting aspects of Kabuki and Bunaraku puppet theatre to filmmaking techniques, Kobayashi achieves a subtle synthesis of realism and stylization. He makes palpable a vision in which beauty and horror not only coexist but complement one another.
The first episode, The Black Hair, tells of a poor samurai (Rentaro Mikuni) who divorces his patient, loving wife (Michiyo Aratama) when he gets a chance to marry a rich man’s daughter (Misako Watanabe). But the samurai quickly discovers that wealth and security mean nothing next to true love. Longing for his first wife, he returns to her. Happily, while his old house may be a bit dilapidated, his first wife hasn’t changed a bit since he left her. Her beautiful black hair is as lustrous as ever. Thrilled by this curious sight, he vows to stay with her for all eternity.
But what’s really behind her seemingly unaltered state? And what would an “eternity” with her really mean?
Thwarted love appears in a different guise in the film’s second episode, The Woman of the Snow. Set in a forbidding frozen forest, it tells of a poor woodcutter (Tatsuya Nakadai) lost in a snowstorm with a friend (Jun Hamamura). Taking refuge in a shack, the pair collapses from exhaustion. But when the woodcutter awakens, he discovers a mysterious ghost-like woman (Keiko Kishi) blowing her icy breath over his friend’s body and killing him. Spotting the woodcutter, the deadly phantom takes pity on him and spares his life. But in doing so, the woman warns him that he must never repeat, to anyone, what he has seen.
Ten years pass. The woodcutter is a happily married man with three children. His wife, praised by the community as an ideal of patience and beauty, doesn’t (like the heroine of the first episode) appear to age. Yet, so secure is our hero in his family that he’s prepared to tell his wife about the mysterious woman who nearly brought his life to an end.
But is this wife truly who she seems to be? Is she somehow connected with the icy succubus whose path he crossed years before?
In the film’s third (and most grisly) episode, Hoichi, the Earless, the supernatural appears in a strikingly different form. Set in a monastery, the story centers on a blind musician (Katsuo Nakamura) who delights in singing songs of the ancient sea battle between the Heike and Genji clans whose burial grounds are within walking distance of the monastery. In fact, so touching is Hoichi’s singing that the ghosts rise up and demand the blind man give a command performance for them.
Hoichi is willing to do so, but his late night performances before this ghostly audience put a strain on his health that catches the attention of the monastery’s head monk (Takashi Shimura). Telling Hoichi that the ghosts will rip him to pieces if he continues to sing for them, the monk takes precautions by painting the blind singer’s entire body with prayer verses to ward off spirits.
Unfortunately, he fails to paint Hoichi’s ears.
The film’s last episode, In a Cup of Tea, brings the story cycle to a close with a tale about storytelling in which a writer recounts the saga of a warrior (Kanemon Nakamura) who discovers the reflection of someone else while glancing into his cup of tea. Soon the warrior is confronted by this interloper in the flesh. But in challenging him to a duel, our hero learns he’s dealing with a very elusive phantom.
Soon this teasing spirit is joined by a trio of others that the warrior fights off with a with similarly frustrating results. How will it all end?
As the film shows in its chilling, Borges-like finale, this is achieved through the very process of storytelling itself. It makes a fitting, witty conclusion to a film that with beauty, subtlety, and shock draws the viewer further from the real world and closer and closer to the supernatural.