Written by Kristoffer Tronerud
Before the late Nineties J-Horror onslaught, before there was The Grudge, The Ring and The Eye, before the urban horrors of Takashi Miike and Evil Dead Trap, the Cyberpunk techno grunge horror of Tetsuo, before even the Kaiju Eiga cycle had become a commonplace feature of American Drive-ins and TV, before everything we take for granted in Japanese/Asian Horror, there was Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan (Ghost Story). Filmed in glorious Fujicolor and Tohoscope, at a time when Western Audiences were accustomed to the dazzling black and whites of Kurosawa and Ozu, Kwaidan was an art house hit in its US release, but has not been widely seen since, as its 160 minute length precluded its inclusion in the Creature Double feature boom of the Seventies, where Japanese horrors such as The Mushroom People and The H-Man became Saturday afternoon staples. Now in re-release as part of the Janus 50th anniversary Film Festival, and having predictably received the usual loving care from Criterion in its restored DVD incarnation, Kwaidan is ready for discovery by foreign film enthusiasts who dimly recall long ago college screenings, and horror fans who know it only by reputation and the occasional still in Famous Monsters Magazine. Both groups will be surprised by what they find.
Based, (as so many Nipponese horror classics have been since) on classic Japanese folk tales, the four segments in this supernatural anthology are taken from stories collected in Japan by expatriate Irish writer Lafcadio Hearn in the late nineteenth century. The Black Hair is the tale of a newly unemployed samurai who, desperate to improve his social position, abandons his first, poor wife to marry a richer replacement, but finds himself unhappy and unsatisfied. When he returns, chagrined and repentant, to his first wife, he is overjoyed by her unexpected and apparently heartfelt forgiveness of his terrible treatment of her, and pleasantly surprised that she is as lovely as the day he left. Looking forward to their miraculous second chance at happiness, he makes a vow of constancy he will soon come to regret. The Woman in the Snow, which surely must have influenced the Snow segment of Kurosawa’s Dreams, concerns a humble woodcutter (played by the great Tatsuya Nakadai) and his elderly colleague, who are beset by a female snow demon while taking shelter from a terrible blizzard. Devouring his companion, the apparition spares him, after extracting from him a lifetime vow of secrecy. Returning home to marry a young orphaned woman, he soon makes a prosperous, happy life for himself, but learns years later that there is a terrible connection between the horrific snowstorm encounter, and his life at home. In Hoichi the Earless, a blind musician is repeatedly kidnapped by the ghosts of the dead warriors and royal personages whose epic deeds have provided him with the material on which he has based his songs, who are comforted by his retelling of their tragic saga. Flattered by their approval, but spiritually and physically exhausted by their visitations, he covers himself in sacred inscriptions to protect himself from their fierce messenger, but soon learns that no plan is perfect. And in the fourth-wall-breaking The Cup of Tea, the story-within-a-story-within-a-story tale of a samurai who sees the reflection of a dead man in his cup of tea, and soon finds himself battling the reincarnated warrior and his posse, is as concerned with the very nature of the creative act as with the story itself.
United by themes of retribution and consequence, redemption and responsibility, Kwaidan is as much a morality play as it is a horror film, and transcends its well deserved reputation as a classic genre piece to become a rich and thought provoking meditation on the uncertainties of life, and, in its last two segments, on the perils, sacrifices and rewards of being an artist. Kobayashi, best known to Western audiences for the harrowing Hara-Kiri and the great Toshiro Mifune vehicle Samurai Rebellion, distinguishes himself here with his sparsely eloquent storytelling, carefully building the stately, perfectly paced sequences that make Kwaidan‘s suddenly horrific climaxes all the more powerful for the subtlety of their build-up. These measured, almost leisurely passages are enriched by the canny, wisely telling touches with which Kobayashi colours his tales: The samurai’s realization, at an archery competition, that he truly loves his first wife as he hits the bullseye every time he thinks of her, or the way he stumbles, as if blind, through their now-decaying old home searching for her; the sandals that the woodcutter makes for his family that become a wrenching symbol of loss and regret, the haunting apparition of the young boy-emperor and his nurse as they listen to Hoichi’s songs about them; all simple and gripping visual metaphors for the very serious concerns that underlie Kobayashi’s not-so-simple ghost stories. Rewarding also, are several segments’ unpredictable resolutions, which, in a very un-horror-film-like manner, see their protagonists survive their horrific denouements to reach surprisingly positive outcomes. And too, Kobayashi sets Kwaidan apart from run-of-the-mill anthology films by weaving a thread of connection between his seemingly disparate stories: the theme of blindness, (the figurative blindness of the Samurai who cannot see his love for his first wife, the woodcutter’s blindness to what ought to be obvious to him about his too-good-to-be-true wife, and Hoichi’s literal blindness), the sandals which figure so strongly in Snow and re-appear as Hoichi leaves identical sandals at the entrance of the graveyard to entertain his audience of wraiths, the dangerous, unnaturally youthful beauty of the wives in Hair and Snow, and the terrible price which Hoichi and the nameless writer of A Cup of Tea must pay for their creative visions, all lend Kwaidan a unity of theme and tone that give it the feel of four chapters of a single work.
While largely free of today’s graphic violence, Kwaidan conjures a chilly and fascinating atmosphere of dread and surprise with the most minimal of minimalist shocks. The current crop of great J-horror directors certainly grew up with Kwaidan, and it is easy to see a direct line of connection between the unsettling and inexplicable “reflection from nowhere” in the samurai’s cup of tea, and the shivery corner-of-your-eye glimpses of things which should not be there that populate the brilliant, original Grudge. Indeed, Takashi Shimizu, Hideo Nakata and Kiyoshi Kurosawa all seem to have been inspired by Kwaidan in their eschewing of gory excess and use of character development and emotional involvement to lend power and substance to their horrors. Equally fascinating is the early Sixties cross-cultural influence and parallel inspiration on display in Kwaidan: The inky swirls that accompany the credits recall the gorgeous crimson spirals that open Roger Corman’s seminal Fall of the House of Usher, and the deliberately unrealistic backgrounds, primal use of colour to telegraph emotional states, and ingenious employment of lighting changes to engineer in-camera trick effects, all recall the contemporaneous work of the great Mario Bava, and the Fellini/Malle/Vadim Euro-Poe anthology Sprits of the Dead. All this work was being created near-simultaneously, making speculation on who inspired/copied whom beside the point, but the continent-spanning mutual admiration society clearly at work here is great fun to dissect, and still greater fun to watch.
Kwaidan‘s cast and crew distinguishes itself in all departments: In addition to Nakadai, watch for Kurosawa repertory player Takashi Shimura, (the fatherly scientist in the original Godzilla and its many progeny), as Hoichi‘s High Priest, Yakuza star and current J-Horror fave Testuro Tamba as the implacable messenger of the dead in Hoichi, and particularly Michiyo Aratama’s heartbreaking turn as the neglected wife of Black Hair. Yosio Miyajima’s vivid, saturated cinematography perfectly captures the fanciful and stunning art direction of Shigemasa Toda, (the quiet, unnaturally calm blue-lit snowfall, omniscient eye-filled skies and golden wheat fields of Woman of the Snow, and the fiery clouds and roiling waves of Hoichi’s bard-imagined sea battle, are images which last a lifetime, all perfectly complemented by Toru Takemitsu’s ahead-of-its-time soundscape of scraping strings, rattling percussion and possessed voices. The musician Hoichi’s songs bring to his tormented, ghostly audience a feeling of meaning and resolution they desperately need, speaking volumes about the role of art and artist, and this film as a whole does no less for its audience. Kwaidan is a gripping masterpiece of human frailty and cosmic comeuppance which has not aged or dated one whit in forty years, speaking pithily to the human condition, while delivering some of the most shudder-inducing moments in film history.