When I was very young, my grandmother had a picture book of Japanese folklore. I remember reading it alongside Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and together they kindled a small fire of horror fandom that would eventually turn into the deep love I have for the genre today. I was engrossed by the strange Japanese demons and ghosts in the picture book, and I was intrigued by the different art style that was more in line with the flat compositions typical of classical Japanese artwork. The memory of reading this book came flooding back when I sat down to watch Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan, a film comprised of four shorts depicting ghost stories set in Japan’s distant past.
I’ve gotten used to a slower pace when it comes to Japanese cinema from the middle of the last century. So long as the films still contain something brilliant, I can deal with it being a little relaxed in its pacing compared to my ideal film. Kwaidan is no exception. Even though it squeezes four separate stories into its length, it is just over three hours long and the final story takes up only about 20 minutes, leaving 53 minutes each for the other three on average. That’s a long time for stories you might be able to tell in 15 minutes. I’ll admit to tuning out and thinking about other things a few times, but each story was also able to draw me back into it eventually, especially as they all end pretty spectacularly.
The first is called “The Black Hair” and tells of a man who leaves his loving wife to marry a woman of higher class to advance his career as a samurai. Years later, he realizes that he has made a mistake and returns to his first wife in an attempt to recapture the love he once had for her. When he returns home he finds it a ruin but within is his first wife, seemingly unchanged amid to the almost-gothic style decay. They spend a night together but soon finds out that his wife isn’t so forgiving as she would appear. The strength of this segment (and the movie as a whole) lies in Kobayashi’s commitment to making his film feel as uncanny (kwaidan–or kaidan–is a word that means a recited narrative that is about a strange apparition) as the stories being told. The soundtrack is comprised of odd plinks and plonks, the scenes are shot from strange angles, and the sets are a mix of realistic period architecture and amazingly surreal painted backdrops. The lighting is impressionistic as hell, too.
These stylistic elements reach their peak with the next story, “The Woman of the Snow”, which sees a pair of men trapped in the woods during a snowstorm. They take shelter in a boathouse and are visited by the titular spirit, who promises not to kill the younger man so long as he never speaks of his strange night in the snowstorm. He acquiesces, and eventually he marries and has children, but then he realizes that his wife has a shocking resemblance to the woman he had forgotten about from so long ago. The opening scenes in the snowstorm are simply incredible. The sets are so obviously fake (see the eyes in the painted backdrops that also induce a sense of paranoia) but the snow and wind effects are so good that you kind of get wrapped up in everything. The lighting is not only beautiful but also crucial to the plot.
The third story is the longest and the least frightening, but it’s still got some memorable imagery. “Hoichi the Earless” starts with the titular blind monk retelling the story of a great sea battle that took place near his temple. He is recruited by the spirits of the defeated force to tell the story of their bravery and he does so, not realizing that he’s playing for ghosts. In an effort to hide him from the ghosts’ incessant demands, his fellow monks paint him with the words from a holy text that make him invisible to the spirits. Invisible, that is, except for his ears, which were not painted on. The title of the story kind of gives away what happens next. The assembled ghost army is pretty cool looking as is the set they are haunting, and the scene of the ghost coming to collect the painted Hoichi is tense and uses semi-transparency quite effectively.
The last story almost feels out of place. There’s a frame narrative about a writer who is writing down the folktale that takes up the majority of the story. In it, a samurai sees a spirit “In a Cup of Tea” and then drinks it, an act that links him to the vengeful spirit and summons his three ghostly lieutenants. The battle between the samurai and the three ghosts is really nifty, one of the most creative sequences in the film, and the close of the frame narrative is smart in its capacity to terrify as well as its calling attention to the performed nature of each of these stories.
Yes, Kwaidan is a movie about strange apparitions, but it’s also a movie about storytelling. The stories either feature prominent voice-over or storytelling characters, and the stories also follow the logic of oral storytelling, where you buy into the world created by words because of the craft of the creator. The setting of each story is deliberately false and yet I still got sucked into them. Kwaidan might have been better if it was faster paced, but I can’t find fault with the mood it creates and the amazing set and sound design it employs to tell its slow, scary stories.