Our review of Kwaidan (1964) (Blu-ray) Criterion Collection, published November 9th, 2015, is also available.
"A drama of deep rooted delusion. A song ripe with illusion."—Trailer for Kwaidan
Lafcadio Hearn was a storyteller who bridged worlds. He was born off the coast of Greece in 1850 to an Irish father and Greek mother. Raised in Ireland, he moved to America, where he studied the local culture as a newspaper reporter. Moving to Japan, he spent the last dozen or so years of his life gathering descriptions of nature, tales of daily life, folklore—the stories that surround a culture. Best of all, he gathered together local ghost stories, studies of the supernatural both famous and obscure. Kwaidan (sometimes transliterated "Kaidan" as well) was published in 1904 and is his best-known collection of these stories.
Masaki Kobayashi was born in 1916, trained in art and film production, and came to prominence in the 1950s as an uncompromising realist with a penchant for exposing uncomfortable historical truths. But in 1965, he turned from realism and tried to bridge another world, to see what tales ghosts might tell.
Facts of the Case
The opening credits appear scripted in precise hand on textured paper, intercut with swirls of floating ink, like smoky ghosts, reminding us that we are about to see stories about stories. Four tales unfold, with intercession from an unseen narrator.
"The Black Hair:" embraced by shadows, a samurai (Rentaro Mikuni), sick of poverty and boredom, leaves his wife to take up a new post and marry into a wealthy family. As the years pass, he finds that his memories of his patient first wife (Michiyo Aratama) haunt him. He withdraws emotionally from his new wife and his job, and when he finally retires, he returns to Kyoto in the hope he can "make amends for [his] sinful act." Finding his beautiful young wife unchanged, still spinning thread, he strokes her silken black hair and promises that they will always remain together. And indeed, they shortly will…
"The Woman of the Snow:" Minokichi (Tatsuya Nakadai) is a wayward woodcutter lost in the snow with his friend. When they spend the night in an abandoned shack, Minokichi awakens to find a strikingly lovely specter (Keiko Kishi) draining his friend's life. She spares the handsome woodcutter, but warns him to never to reveal the secret of their encounter, on pain of death. A short time later, he meets and marries a beautiful stranger who comes to the village. They live a long and happy life, until one night, he relaxes his guard and (with a little prompting from her) tells her the story…
"Hoichi, the Earless:" we begin with a story within a story, as paintings and powerfully staged dramatics retell the tragic fall of the Heike clan in battle. Years later, at a monastery built to honor those royal ghosts, a blind monk (Katsuo Nakamura) has gained local fame for singing the tale. Such fame in fact, that the ghosts of the Heike themselves come (without revealing themselves as ghosts to Hoichi) to hear him sing. They promise a reward if he keeps their secret. But when the head monk discovers that Hoichi has been consorting with ghosts, he decides to intervene, painting holy sutras on Hoichi's body—turning the blind monk into a text in an effort to end the storytelling. But he forgets to write the story on Hoichi's ears…
"In a Cup of Tea:" the narrator of the film steps to the fore here, telling us that it is the year 1900. He talks to us about stories: why are some left unfinished? Flashing back 220 years, he tells of a feudal lord's visit to the temple in Hongo. Kannai (Kanemon Nakamura), a samurai guard, sees a cryptically smiling face (Naboru Nakaya) in a filled cup. He drinks it down anyway. That night, the ghost-samurai visits, upset at being "wounded" by Kannai. Kannai tries to attack the ghost, then later the ghost's retainers. But unable to strike at them, he drives himself insane. "And here the narrator breaks off," we are told. But why is the story unfinished? And where is our narrator now?
Kwaidan is a study in the masterful control of film technique. Kobayashi builds slowly, shooting the first story, "The Black Hair," in shadows and exterior locations, grounding the film in what seems to be conventional realism. But when he hits the frightening climax, the camera swerves at dizzying angles, the sound desynchs, and the makeup and sets become highly expressionistic. With the second and third stories, Kobayashi shoots on enormous soundstages. "The Woman in the Snow" eschews realism entirely: Minokichi wanders a bleak snowscape with howling, distorted sound and menacing eyes filling the sky overhead. "Hoichi" features a haunting, mist-filled, graveside royal court and the indelible image of Hoichi's body covered in sharply focuses writing. Finally, the last story draws us back at least partway to reality, returning to a more realistic setting, but always with the lingering sense that, as they say on Disney's Haunted Mansion, "a ghost will follow you home."
Kobayashi combines his strategic use of sets and pacing with a close eye on sound. The film uses very little dialogue, and the music has an eerie ambiance that creeps into your skin no matter how far down you turn the volume. I have often suspected that Stanley Kubrick studied this film carefully before embarking on his inspired deconstruction of horror films, The Shining: his use of the imposing Overlook Hotel set and carefully synched sound bears comparison to Kobayashi's masterpiece.
Criterion's transfer of the film is superb, capturing Kobayashi's rich use of color (especially reds and blues) for symbolic effect. Such a bold color palette might easily bleed, but it holds up well here for a film of this age. There is no evident grain, indicating a superior remastering job. The sound is clear and penetrating, and the long silences are chilling and stark. The wide scope of the film (2.35:1 aspect ratio, enhanced by Criterion for 16x9) is used by Kobayashi to devastating effect: he moves closely in toward the faces of his actors, capturing their emotional reactions as they contend with the horrors that lurk along the edges of the frame.
Kwaidan is a film of extremes: long pauses, terrifying bursts of violence, bleak silences, frightening howls. Each side balances the other, as writing must have spaces in between the words to carry the full weight of the message.
And Kwaidan is about writing. Storytelling. Although shot on an "epic scale" (as the ad-men might say), this is an epic in a different sense of the word: stories of the eternal conflict between language (film, storytelling) and the world, drawn in bold strokes in the lives of the characters. You may recall that I broached this subject some time ago in a Deep Focus column on Kobayashi's career, so I will try not to repeat myself too much here. But from its first moments during the opening credits, this film is about narrative itself. "The Black Hair" tells of memory and self-deception, the stories we tell ourselves to justify our choices in life. "The Woman in the Snow" and "Hoichi, the Earless" draw boundaries around what stories we can tell others. "In a Cup of Tea" examines the structure of narrative, the closure we expect stories to have, and how stories always spill out from beyond the page and into the world.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I am pleased that Criterion has put so much effort into remastering and enhancing the film, and while the "new and improved English translation" does not appear much different from my trusty old VHS copy (also from Janus films, who own Criterion), I will give them points for trying. Unfortunately, apart from the stunning production quality of the film, Criterion has done little else here. The theatrical trailer appears scratchy and a bit washed out. And the essay included on the insert is a bit short and contains more plot summary than analysis. I would have loved to see them include some of Hearn's original stories on the disc (I teach "The Woman in the Snow" and "Hoichi" from time to time, since I have a copy of the book Kwaidan). But I am not really complaining: the film stands on its own.
Kwaidan is one of my favorite films, so perhaps I am a little biased in its favor. However, that having been said, I recommend this disc to each and every fan of classic horror films. Even without supplements, the film stands head and shoulders above nearly every cinema ghost story made since. Perhaps only Kubrick's The Shining comes close. Jan DeBont's wretched remake of The Haunting (in spite of being based on the best haunted house novel ever written) is not even fit to lick Kwaidan's shoes.
Criterion is acquitted of all charges. Nonetheless, the court suspects that Kobayashi's work will continue to haunt us. After all, there are still plenty of ghost stories left to tell.
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