Kobayashi’s dazzling masterpiece is back with a stunning 2K restoration…
Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan is a film likely to leave an unforgettable impression on anyone who sees it. Whether you like it or not, you will not be forgetting it in a hurry. It can comfortably be called a masterpiece of Japanese cinema, as well as a gem amongst portmanteau films. As a horror film, it’s also something unique, as it follows no traditional horror conventions. There are no great jump scares or slowly intensifying tension to make you want to hide behind your covers. Instead, in true kaidan storytelling fashion, the stories it entails err on the side of the bizarre than the horrific, creating a gentle eeriness that softly draws you in with its sublimely built atmosphere and visual brilliance.
Based on Lafcadio Hearn’s anthology of Japanese tales of the supernatural, Kwaidan consists of four segments. To get things started a story called The Black Hair (Kurokami) brings us a story of a selfish samurai, whose decision to leave his wife and go after better fortunes on his own, ends up haunting him in more ways than one. The second segment Woman of the Snow (Yuki Onna) is a tale of an otherworldly encounter between a young woodcutter and an ancient snow spirit and the unexpected consequences this brief confrontation will have. In the third instalment, Hoichi the Earless (Miminashi Hōichi no Hanash), we follow a blind monk called Hoichi, as he gets conned by a family of ghosts to perform for them night after night, all the while becoming trapped in their deadly spell. Lastly, we have In a Cup of Tea (Chawan no Naka); a bizarre tale of a man finding a ghostly reflection in his cup of water, and the hauntings that subsequently follow.
To call Kwaidan purely horror is a slight understatement and does not quite do the film justice. Art-house horror would possibly be more accurate, but even that might give the viewer somewhat the wrong idea. Those familiar with the traditional kaidan (or sometimes, as is the case with this film, transliterated kwaidan) stories, undoubtedly know that these tales, while often weird, are not exclusively scary. In the Western world, the word is often confused to be a synonym for a ghost story, when in fact the tradition offers much more than mere tales of ghostly encounters, and the stories told vary from frightening, to the bizarre and just plain comical. To find an English equivalent to the word is near impossible, but the closest translation would perhaps be “passing down of tales of the weird, strange or mysterious” and this too perfectly describes Kobayashi’s cinematic masterpiece. While every story has its unique ambience, they all share the same feel of a story told word of mouth. Perhaps this is aided by the fact that three of the four tales include a story within a story, or by the folklorish nature of the tales and the artful, at parts almost theatrical way they have been executed. Whichever the case, Kobayashi has indeed succeeded in this task magnificently.
What really makes Kwaidan the tour de force that it is, is the exquisitely executed imagery. Even 56 years after its release, you’d be hard pushed to find anything that comes even close its colourful splendour. Sure, the special effects have moved on, as have filming techniques and set design, but if one of the litmus tests of a bona fide classic is how well its visuals stand the test of time, it’s more than safe to say that Kwaidan passes that test with flying colours (bad pun intended). The hand-painted backgrounds are not only a true thing of beauty, but work as a fantastic tool in bringing these ghostly tales to life. The otherworldly atmosphere that they create is perfectly suited for the tone of the film, giving each story its special feel and enhancing the ambience way above your bog-standard horror experience.
Best examples of these are found in Woman of the Snow, where wildly illustrated skies, together with skilfully assembled sets, dominate the whole story. From the very beginning, you get the sense of being drawn into a world beyond ours. The watchful eyes hovering across the stormy sky reinforce the feeling of something not of this world being present. In a particularly gorgeous scene, the young woodcutter makes his escape from the hut where he has been hiding. The snowy surroundings are strikingly contrasted by the bright red sky, creating the illusion of the rest of the set being in black and white. The same reds are soon continued in a scene that follows, where our protagonist meets his future wife for the first time. Lighting up the sky once more, only this time in softer tones, changing the ambience from acute dread to serene harmony, making it one of the most beautiful transitions in film history.
Hoichi the Earless also deserves a mention in this context, as it also has some of the best set pieces in the whole film. The segment begins with an epic sea battle between two warring clans and while it certainly is a piece of set design sure to stick in your mind, amazingly it’s not the most striking scene in the whole story. Later, as Hoichi, unaware of the danger surrounding him, arrives to perform to his new ghostly audience, we see truly magnificent examples of the artistry this film has to offer. Deep, mournful blues collate with brilliant reds, resembling the blood-soaked battle and the poor souls lost in the deep embrace of the sea. The ghosts, stuck in their eternal loop of sorrow and longing, appear at the shire in a superb scene where monuments dedicated to their memory transform into the people they represent. It’s simply magical.
Kwaidan is not completely without problems. If you ask me, the above mentioned Hoichi the Earless could use some slight editing, as it’s running time of 60-odd minutes, unfortunately, gives the whole anthology a slightly unbalanced feel. The story itself lags somewhat and some tighter editing, especially at the beginning of the story, would certainly work to its benefit. However, in the grand scheme of things, this is a tiny niggle and as stated above, overly long running time to one side, there’s a lot to love about this segment too.
I would say Kwaidan is a must-see for any horror fans, but as I’ve already stated, is not your garden variety horror and as such many fans of more traditional kind of terrors might find it a somewhat disappointing experience. In any case, it’s so much more than just a scary movie. It’s a ghost story – a fairy tale for adults, something that is designed to seduce you with its impeccable beauty and lure you into the ominous strangeness of it all. If you’re looking for horror packed with atmosphere or just something with an emphasis on stunning visuals, you cannot go wrong with Kwaidan. It’s a true classic and a haunting treasure of the supernatural cinema.