‘Kwaidan’ (1964) Review

I love when something I’ve never heard of just blows me away with how good it is. It’s a rare thing, as I get older. Kwaidan was one of those movies for me. I’d only heard of it as a collection of Japanese ghost stories, and when the movie was recommended to me I actually put it off for a long time. That was at least partly due to the length – at 183 minutes, Kwaidan is a “plan your time around watching it” film, not a “pop it in at the last minute” one. When I finally did get around to watching it I wasn’t really anticipating much, but it was so much better than I expected it to be. It’s a movie made in 1964 in Japan that is an adaptation of several Japanese folk tales as written by a Greek named Lafcadio Hearns. It should be a mess. Instead, it’s one of the most beautiful horror movies I’ve ever seen.

It’s since become one of my favorite Japanese films, and some segments are among my favorite cinematic experiences of all time. It was also my introduction to the work of Masaki Kobayashi. I wish I could have seen this in the theater, as it’s epic and haunting imagery must be incredible on a big screen.

The production is heavily stage-bound, with only the occasional location shooting. Fine for interior location, but for exteriors shot on a soundstage… well, in general I’ve found this stultifying in other productions – limiting scope and scale and imposing a “packaged” feeling on a film. Somehow the director of Kwaidan, Masaki Kobayashi, transcends these limitations – even uses them to give us fantastic vistas that would be impossible on a location shoot. The sky – illuminated by the northern lights – becomes a vista of eyes, following the action just as we do. A snow-swept forest feels just as cold and dangerous as the real thing – yet also poetic, controlled – a work of art.

I don’t know, there’s just something about the production. It’s like a living painting – but it also feels real, more real than real, if that makes any sense. A woman and her children run through a field and the breeze that whips the grass doesn’t seem fake, though the background of the sky does. It has the effect of making everything seem slightly heightened, intensified, as if you were on a mind-altering drug. It’s a movie that rewards multiple viewings, with details and moments that reveal themselves only over time (like the way Kobayashi uses sound to unsettle and disorient).

The Medium
I have the Criterion collection Blu-ray of Kwaidan, a gift from my wife – as so many of my Criterion discs are. It includes all four of the ghost stories in the original release. (“The Woman of the Snow,” my favorite of the four, was actually not included in the 161 minute version that was submitted at Cannes in 1965 and then widely distributed.) The quality of the picture is fantastic, and I’ve only dipped into the extras. Well worth the purchase.

Kwaidan is available on streaming for subs on HBO Max and The Criterion Channel and can be rented or purchased from the major online outlets.

The Movie
There are four stories in this anthology. No real attempt is made at a frame – though the last story seems to extend beyond the borders of its own section. I’ll break them out individually:

“The Black Hair”

This is actually my least favorite of the pieces – though only because of the length. The final story benefits from its brevity. It’s about an impoverished samurai who selfishly divorces his wife in order to marry a wealth woman and improve his status. His new wife is cold, selfish and cruel (we’re informed of that fact by the narrator – though to me it seems like she’s simply young and reacting to the emotional distance of her new husband) and he finds himself longing for the simplicity of his old life and the warm, uncomplicated love of his previous wife.

Years later he returns to his old house, finding it in even worse disrepair than when he left. He does find his wife inside and they reconcile. He spends the night – only to find the morning brings a revelation that drives him mad or worse.

There’s a great auditory note that occurs throughout this piece – the sound of a loom clacking. It works extremely well with the minimal music and is sometimes creepy and sometimes comforting. There’s actually quite a bit of audio trickery going on, with sounds displaced from their visual source or completely unidentifiable. There’s also a lovely sense of recreating Japanese scroll art, with their flat representations of three dimensionl space, in some scenes. The pace of the piece is a little slow for me in this modern era, but I still enjoyed it. It also contains the only moment of genuine horror – albeit brief – in the entire film.

“The Woman of the Snow”

This is my favorite segment, and I’m still astonished that it was removed from previous releases. The plot is fairly straightforward and vaguely familiar. A young man and his master are out gathering wood when a freak winter storm traps them in an old shelter. A supernatural creature – The Woman of the Snow – kills the old man and spares the young man’s life, but makes him promise to keep her secret. Years later he marries a woman with whom he has several children – but when he tells her the story she reveals herself as the same creature.

The visuals in “The Woman of the Snow” just wow me. They’re not quite as grand as those in “Hoichi the Earless,” but are somehow even more effective for all that. From the initial storm – which manages to feel both real and staged – through fall days and even warm scenes within the young man’s hut, the lighting, staging and direction is just fantastic. There’s a sequence in which the young man turns his head as he realizes who he is speaking to, and the lighting goes from warm oranges and reds to cool blues over the course of the pan – it’s a simple effect, but it’s so good. This segment is the reason I ended up asking for the Blu-ray, it’s too beautiful not to be seen in high-def.

“Hoichi the Earless”

This segment is about a blind musician, Hoichi, whose is especially proficient at performing The Tale of the Heike – a story/poem/song about a final battle between two clans. One night a samurai arrives to take him to a nearby pavilion where he is to perform this tale for an august personage. Every night after that he leaves the monastery where he lives, and his friends and the priest grow concerned. Eventually it becomes clear that he is performing for the ghosts of those who died in that battle. To save his soul the priest and his acolyte write holy words over his entire body to protect him from the spirits and instruct him to ignore the ghosts when they return. However, the two holy men have neglected a certain part of poor Hoichi’s body…

This segment has some beautiful scenes, great artwork, and epic battle sequences. It’s the most impressive of the film, though I still enjoy the simple emotionality of “The Woman of the Snow” more. The sets alone are worth the viewing, though. And I, for the first time, gained an appreciation for the Japanese lute – the biwa. Something I’ve always thought as atonal noise before. It also has some striking visuals in the final few minutes – particularly the image of Hoishi covered head to toe in calligraphy.

“In a Cup of Tea”

The weakest of the segments, “In a Cup of Tea” is at least very short. An unfinished story about a samurai who sees a man in a cup of water, the film offers a potential reason for the story’s unfinished state. It involves a cup of tea…

The Bottom Line
While short on genuine horror, Kwaidan is an epic in the visual department. The skill and artistry of the people involved cannot be overstated. It’s a bit stiff and formal, but that befits both the time period and the culture it draws from. I love it, and cannot recommend it highly enough.

Author: Bob Cram

Would like to be mysterious but is instead, at best, slightly ambiguous.