Before Hideo Nakata changed all the rules for what it means for an Asian Horror movie to court worldwide notoriety, Kwaidan was the Japanese ghost story that put the country on the map. I still think there’s an argument to be made that this is still is the case as Ringu is more concerned with the mystery and curses; two themes that have gone on to define Japanese horror since the turn of the century. With Nakata’s Dark Water and Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse, J-Horror has gone on to engage with social and technological issues than was traditionally the case in the Japanese genre space. Before the staggering success of Ringu, the Japanese genre space was more concerned with the folkloric and mystical and Kwaidan is no different with Kobayashi adapting three tales from Lafcadio Hearn’s Stories and Studies of Strange Things. A man who collected folk tales from across Japan and published them into such books – as discussed in Kim Newman’s excellent deep dive on this new Blu-ray upgrade from Masters of Cinema.
At just over three hours long, Kwaidan is comfortably the longest anthology movie that I have seen. There are three tales and a short fourth that suggests its idea as to why so many ancient folk tales are unfinished. The first is “The Black Hair” and stars Michiyo Aratama and Misako Watanabe as the Wives and Rentaro Mikuni as a poor Samurai. The Second is “The Woman of the Snow” and stars Tatsuya Nakadai as Minokichi and Keiko Kishi as his wife. The third is the most famous and it stars Katsuo Nakamura as Hoichi, Tetsuro Tamba as a ghost warrior and Takashi Shimura as the Head Priest. The last which eschews the previous structure and instead focuses on the fate of a hypothetical writer as played by Osamu Takizawa.
The Black Hair has a feel not too dissimilar from the historical films directed by Mizoguchi, or Kobayashi’s other work in Harakiri (1962). Much of this tale is concerned with people saying very little to one another in expansive abode’s where food and luxury are almost non-existent. The way these tales were told in this specific era of Japanese cinema is a tad on the derivative side, trading in a quiet contemplative introspection that has since gone on to fall under slow cinema. Keeping the plot moving is key, events take a turn when the lead samurai is forced to betray who he loves to escape his dire circumstances for a marriage of convenience. During which we are introduced to some of the central successes of Kwaidan in its use of colour, heightened thanks to events all taking place on hand-painted soundstages – furthering the idea that these are all fairytales. Another theme is also established, in that there are no great character arcs or development, all the characters are basic – the samurai, the poor wife or the daughter of a well-to-do lord. The interest comes from the things that happen to them not who they are.
After returning to his first wife and true love, he spends the night with her. Waking up in the morning, the house he once called home is now in ruin. Shocked, he stumbles trying to assess where he is and what is happening, only as (bad) luck would have it, that isn’t the only punishment fate has for him. He is subsequently attacked by a disembodied head of black hair which causes his visage to become chalky and pallid, ageing from a relatively young man to someone who could die of old age. The production design (costume and location) becomes incredible through simple editing techniques, every time there is a cut, the building has changed to look more decrepit or Mikuni looks that little bit older. The sequence can’t last longer than a few minutes but the amount of action happening on-screen either through the blocking of actors or fantastical manifestations must’ve taken weeks to shoot. Simply put, it’s an incredible sequence that is every bit as memorable as Sadako crawling out the TV or hide-and-seek in Dark Water.
Kwaidan was made in 1964, just a few years later Tokuzō Tanaka would go on to direct the second story – The Woman of the Snow – as an 80-minute feature. Tatsuya Nakadai (Harakiri, Sword of Doom, The Human Condition, etc.) stars in an early role as Minokichi, a woodsman. This story opens in a plot of woodland where Minokichi and a paternal figure are desperately hunting for shelter from a horrible snowstorm; finding a small cabin, the two find some degree of respite. Following soon behind them is a barefoot woman dressed in white who seems to be the source for the horrific storm. Quickly finishing the old man, she turns her attention to the young woodsman promising to let him go as she doesn’t want to do the same to someone so young. So, she makes a promise, if Minokichi ever speaks a word of what happened, she will return to kill him.
In the aforementioned storm, one aspect of this era of Japanese cinema becomes a bedrock for how this tale is told. One of the tools for communicating that the storm isn’t natural is the sky, through the medium of matte paintings – the clouds have more in common with a giant swirling iris watching overhead. As a means to tell a story through world-building and creative decision, there are few modern directors who come close to touching what Japan was doing in the 1960s. On a more basic level, creative decisions like this amplify the idea that Kobayashi was directing this horror epic as a storybook or ornate stageplay.
Hoichi the Earless, which, at over an hour almost functions as a fully-formed movie within Kwaidan. There’s an ancient storytelling tradition in Japan which sees a legendary story from the past recalled by someone who is also playing a Biwa (a stringed lute). Through this, the titular Hoichi (Katsuo Nakamura) front ends one of the most memorable battle scenes in cinema. With this historical storytelling method, intercutting panning movements of ancient tapestries and a painterly approach to aesthetics, this 10-minute stretch is unlike anything I’ve ever seen.
After which, we are introduced to who Hoichi is. He is a young blind man living at a monastery, only these monks would take him in; the most famous monk being Akira Kurosawa regular Takashi Shimura. Life is normal as could be at the monastery until one night when Hoichi is alone, he is greeted by a ghostly warrior in full battle regalia demanding that he takes his Biwa and song to his master to regale him with his now-legendary storytelling prowess. Being blind, both literally and to who this stranger is, Hoichi follows. Shimura’s head monk later explains that if you agree to do what a ghost asks you will be unable to refuse, only being free when the ghost has eaten away all your lifeforce. Their defence sees Hoichi covered from head to toe in Buddist sutra – giving this and Japanese cinema one of its most legendary images.
To head back to the song, when Hoichi is in presence with the ghosts the same idea used in the black hair returns. As the song begins, the platform which the ghosts are stood or resting upon is in perfect order – the further into the recollection the titular character gets, the more dilapidated the area gets burning down bit by bit. Being shot on a soundstage, they couldn’t engage in a level of destruction that cost Buster Keaton his career (The General train crash), instead, we have more gorgeous matte paintings, clever cuts and fire coloured paper blowing in the wind. Kwaidan was constructed as if a lavish, no-expense-spared stageplay. Even with the broad storytelling strokes, the singular images scattered through will stick with you.
A narrator has introduced all the stories up to this point, and as he introduces this final tale he states that many of these stories were originally published unfinished. Quizzical about why this might be, he sets in motion In a Cup of Tea which suggests a reason why this might be. This is quite a fourth-wall-breaking story to include, despite the way it plays out it is still an adaptation from Hearn’s text. Set in the early 1900s, Osamu Takizawa is a guard at a samurai barracks and a writer in his downtime. One day while at work he is haunted by spectres who start to attack him, thinking that his master is under attack he gets other samurai involved. Becoming something a laughing stock, he heads home where things take a dramatic turn for the worse with the author receiving the same brand of ironic punishment that so many of these stories enact upon their heroes and heroines. Before this, Kwaidan was toying with themes of betrayal with life and death ramifications, to end this way is bold. You might even say that Kobayashi is engaging in some light trolling with the audience.
I’ve been talking long enough by this point so I’ll be brief as I wrap up. Kwaidan is one of the best Japanese horror films ever made, which is the opposite of damning with faint praise. Kwaidan is also one of the best movies of the 1960s. And Eureka’s Masters of Cinema have given this blu-ray upgrade the treatment it deserves, from the striking box art (below) and the 100-page collector’s book to a 35-minute visual essay by David Cairns and the aforementioned interview with the crown prince of extra features, Kim Newman. This will take something remarkable to top it when its time to think about favourite releases of 2020.
KWAIDAN IS OUT NOW FROM MASTERS OF CINEMA