Kwaidan (translated simply to Ghost Stories) consists of four adaptations of Japanese folk tales. Masaki Kobayashi artfully ties the separate stories together into a darkly beautiful ensemble of psychological symbolism. The opening credits’ floating swirls of wispy ink, reminiscent of a Rorschach test, perfectly set the scene for what is a surreal and immersive viewing experience.
The hand-painted sets construct stunning scenes that lure you into an otherworldly landscape, one that would almost seamlessly reflect our own were it not for some distinct disturbances of reality. The expertly crafted composition of colours and form make for a visually arresting masterpiece in which almost every shot is worthy of a photography prize. The captivating visuals are accompanied (or maybe better put as narrated) by an eerie yet dramatic soundtrack that utilises traditional Japanese folk instruments, which whisper as much as they scream.
The first story, The Black Hair, follows a poor samurai who leaves his devoted, weeping wife to attend to a faraway post in the hope of glory and wealth. The subtitles provide an elegant translation of his brazen decision: “it was the rashness of a young man suffocating from poverty”. During his post the samurai marries another woman from a wealthy family but she, in stark contrast to his first wife, is inherently selfish. He is haunted by the memory of his first wife and longs to return to her. Many years later he returns to his former home and is greeted by the awaiting adoration of the woman he left. After a night of reconciliation the samurai receives a very rude awakening in what is a startling but darkly comical scene.
The ever-present eyes that stare down from the skies of The Woman of the Snow seeminglygo unnoticed, or at least unacknowledged, by the characters of this story. But perhaps they serve as dramatic irony for the secret that an unfortunate woodcutter has to keep about his encounter with a deadly female snow spirit. However, it is Hoichi the Earless that boasts the most striking visuals and the most screen time – running for over an hour all by itseld. A young man covered (almost) head-to-toe in kanji, the characters of Japanese script, is perhaps the most famous image of this film, and one that has been burned into my memory.
The four-fold film concludes with In a Cup of Tea, or rather doesn’t… the original tale was left without a complete ending and so the viewer is left to speculate the fate of the characters. Kwaidan is not a fingernail-biting, jump-out-of-your-seat kind of horror film but more of a psychological thriller that invites the viewer to enter, cautiously, into a quest for meaning and morality. There are certainly characteristic images that resonate with the genre but the emphasis is on the cerebral journeys of its characters, not the shock tactics of jumpy segues.
Dir: Masaki Kobayashi
Scr: Yoko Mizuki
Cast: Rentaro Mikuni, Tatsuya Nakadi, Katsuo Nakamura
Prd: Shigeru Wakatsuki
DoP: Yoshio Miyajima
Music: Toru Takemitsu
Run time: 183 mins
Kwaidan is available on Blu-ray now,