Kwaidan (1964)

D: Masaki Kobayashi
S: Katsuo Nakamura, Rentaro Mikuni

Stately rendition of four separate Japanese ghost stories (as collected by Irish orientalist Lafcadio Hearn) filmed entirely in a studio (actually a disused aircraft hangar) by director Masaki Kobayashi, a writer and painter who also created the backdrops himself. The tales themselves are unremarkable. Each is a standard moral fable with a twist from beyond the grave little different from those collected in horror comics or even filmed in the likes of Dead of Night. There are interesting thematic wrinkles because of the cultural specifics, but remember that the stories had been assembled by a westerner with an eye for correlations between what he had found and had read before (Hearn was a fan of H.P. Lovecraft, among others). The first concerns the fate of a man who divorces a loving wife in favour of an aloof bride of higher social standing only to find himself drawn back to his former love in his dreams. When he later leaves his new wife to go in search of his first, he finds her in their old home seemingly unchanged and unaged... The second story (deleted from the original print for U.S. release following the film's premiere at the Cannes Film Festival) details how a woodcutter's apprentice survives an encounter with a snow demon with the promise never to tell anyone about her. He then meets a beautiful young woman who never seems to age but bears him beautiful children and keeps his home... until the night he tells her a story... The third and most striking segment concerns a blind biwa player who communes with the noble dead. He sings the story of their deaths to them on a nightly basis without knowing the potential cost to his own life. When the local Buddhist monks learn of what has been going on, they hatch a plan to protect him which goes horribly wrong... The film actually concludes with a fragmented tale set in two time periods which attempts to explain why so many Japanese horror stories are unfinished or incomplete, but this too is unremarkable from a purely narrative point of view.

Kwaidan is not about narrative however. Kobayashi's storytelling skills are adequate to the task of relating the events to an audience, but he is cineaste enough to realise that it is never so much the tale as it is the telling that chills those gathered around the fire. Though never particularly frightening, the film is certainly eerie. A sense of the supernatural permeates every moment of screen time. It often seems informed by the aesthetic of Charles Laughton's Night of the Hunter, whose combination of traditional storytelling, theatrical mise-en-scene and dreamlike fable simply confused western audiences some ten years before but now haunts the imagination more than a dozen Psycho-type shockers. Kwaidan uses the painstakingly posed tableaus seen in so many Japanese films in combination with some dramatic staging against beautiful and often surreal hand-painted backdrops to transport the viewer to a realm of delusion and unreality. It is one of the most visually arresting films ever to come out of Japan. A world away from the rapid-fire pace of Akira Kurosawa (Rashomon, The Bad Sleep Well): previously the country's best known cinematic export), yet not quite as close to traditional Japanese styles as it seems on the surface (Mizoguchi, Ozu), the film's use of the (un)natural environment both draws and enlarges upon previous representational forms (painting, Noh theatre) while remaining a distinctly cinematic work. Crisply photographed widescreen images (shot by Yoshio Miyajima) are framed with an eye for movement within the frame and between scenes entirely consistent with an informed cinematic aesthetic. It has a steady internal visual rhythm which reminds the viewer of the later Eisenstein, though its editing (by Hisashi Sagara) is less intellectually rigorous.

The overall effect of the synthesis of staging, framing, set decoration, costume, ritualised performance and a nerve-jangling use of sound is to transport the viewer to a spiritual plane where the ghost story seems not so much about the eruption of the supernatural into the everyday (as in most conventional western horror films) as a sense of increased awareness that it constantly surrounds us. This makes for a creepy two and a half hours of cinematic entertainment which leaves a lasting impression even if it never jolts or raises the hackles at the back of the neck. The film never becomes particularly intense, but it never gets boring either. Kobayashi holds his audience from the hypnotic opening credits (depicting coloured inks or paints spreading in water against a white backdrop), and though the film ranges from the highly theatrical (the Noh-style re-creation of the battle which destroys the imperial family in the third tale) to the purely visual (using filters to change the tone of a scene by literally draining it of colour), it never seems to waver from a strong central core.

Kwaidan is perhaps not the greatest film to come from Japan in its era, but it is a memorable and satisfying piece of work. It can't quite overcome the fact that the stories are painfully generic, but its aesthetic beauty is quite some compensation and lends them a visual richness which makes the tales more than the sum of their narrative elements. Casual viewers may enjoy it less than those predisposed to its pace and style but, as noted, Kobayashi does tell the stories well enough on a purely superficial level to provide entertainment for those with enough patience to give it a try. A must for film buffs, though it may seem a little less exciting than the roughly contemporaneous work of Kaneto Shindo (Onibaba, Kuroneko) in the same genre.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2001.