Pros: Stunning visual images unlike any other film; magnificent sea-battle sequence, strong performances; thematic depth
Cons: Narratives not especially engaging; slow at times
Masaki Kobayashis Kwaidan (1964) pretty much stands alone as a unique accomplishment. It is perhaps closest in spirit to the television series The Twilight Zone. Though sometimes called a horror film, it is not particularly frightening. Theres relatively little gore and the action sequences are interspersed among long, quietly reflective segments. Kwaidan is an anthology of four short stories that are really closer to tales of the supernatural than ghost stories.
Historical Background: Ghost stories and supernatural elements in stories have a long tradition in Japan. One such collection was published in book form under the title of Kwaidan by a man named Yakumo Koizumi. What makes this especially intriguing is that Yakumo Koizumi was born Lafcadio Hearn on an island off the coast of Greece in 1850. His father was Irish and his mother Greek. Hearn was reared in Ireland before moving to America, where he worked as a reporter in the Cincinnati area as well as New Orleans. He then moved to Japan in 1869 and became a folklorist, compiling his influential anthology Kwaidan, published in 1904. He became a naturalized citizen of Japan in 1895 and changed his name to fit his culture of choice. That he succeeded in acclimating is attested to by the quintessentially Japanese quality of his work.
The director of this film, Masaki Kobayashi was born in 1916, making him a near contemporary of Akira Kurosawa. He was trained in both art and filmmaking and gained prominence in the 1960s with such movies as A Soldiers Prayer (1961), Kwaidan (1964) and Samurai Rebellion (1967). He died in 1996. Kobayashis style for most of his films was strict realism, but the fantastical Kwaidan stands out as an exception.
The Story: The first of the four stories is called The Black Hair. A samurai (Rentaro Mikuni) lives in poverty with a loving wife (Michiyo Aratama) who has long, streaming black hair. His lord has fallen on hard times and the samurai sees no future in his present position. He divorces his wife and leaves her, despite her utter devotion to him. Traveling to a new province, he takes work as a samurai for a successful nobleman and has the good fortune to marry the daughter (Misako Watanabe) of a prominent and wealthy family. Though now wealthy and secure, the samurai finds that he does not love his second wife, who is self-indulgent and priggish, but longs instead for his old true love. When he has fulfilled his contract with his new lord, he returns to his old home, seeking his first wife. Though their old dwelling is in ruins, he finds her sitting at the same loom where she had always worked when they were together. He vows to live with her for eternity and the two lie down together in their former bridal chamber. He awakens in the morning to discover that he is lying next to a skeleton with long black hair. As he struggles vainly to escape, with the black hair swirling around and entangling him, he discovers that he will indeed be spending eternity with his old love, though not in the manner in which he had hoped. (This same story provided the basis for a major element of the film Ugetsu (1953).)
The second episode is called The Woman of the Snow. Two woodcutters, the elderly Musaku (Ju Hanamura) and the eighteen year-old Minokichi (Tatsuya Nakadai), find themselves caught in a fierce snowstorm in a forbidding forest, at risk of freezing to death. They are forced to take shelter in a rustic shack by the river to wait out the storm. They collapse in exhaustion but the younger man awakens and spies a mysterious, pale woman (Keiko Kishi) hovering over his friend. She blows gently across the old mans face, freezing him with her breath. Turning to the younger man, the woman of the snow approaches, apparently intending to freeze him to death as well, but she is moved by his youth and beauty and takes pity on him. She spares him but on condition that he never tell anyone, not even his mother, what he has seen. Minokichi returns home though he requires several months, under the care of his loving mother (Yûko Mochizuki), to recover his strength. When he is back to work cutting wood in the forest, he encounters a woman, Yuki (also Keiko Kishi), who has lost her parents and is on her way to Odo. He offers her shelter in his home with his mother and soon the two are married. Yuki bears Minokichi three children. Yuki is adored by all in the village, including Minokichis mother, but, strangely, she looks as young after three children as when she first appeared in the village. One evening, the light falls on Yukis face in such a way as to remind Minokichi of his experience ten years earlier in the snowstorm, which he had put out of his mind. He relates the story to Yuki, only to discover that she is the woman of the snow, who now declares that he has betrayed her by revealing the secret he swore to keep. She spares him once again for the sake of their children but abandons the world of the living to return to her supernatural domain.
The third segment is the centerpiece of the entire anthology. Entitled Hoichi the Earless, it deals with a blind monk named Hoichi (Katsuo Nakamura) who plays a lyre-like string instrument called a biwa while chanting stories and songs relating to a great sea battle that took place near the temple long ago. In the last great battle, the battle of Dan-no-ura, the Genji clan defeated the Heike clan and all of the Heike were either killed or committed suicide rather than submit to the enemy. The visual rendition of this battle is the highlight of the entire film. The fighting is highly stylized, but the seascapes and skies, costumes and choreography are a sight to behold. The battle culminates in a touching suicidal plunge of a nanny with the infant Heike emperor into a sea turned red by blood. Hoichis musical rendition of this battle is so effective that his singing has attracted the attention of the ghosts of the dead, who send the ghost of a samurai (Tetsuro Tanba) to demand a command performance for their benefit. Night after night, Hoichi is summoned to perform in the graveyard, but the exertion of it all causes him to grow weak. His fellow monks become alarmed and concerned and, spying on Hoichi, determine the cause of his ailment. The lead priest (Takashi Shimura) warns Hoichi that he will be torn apart if he continues to perform for the dead. The priests cover Hoichis body with calligraphy of Buddhist scriptures that will render him invisible to the ghosts and instruct him to remain silent when the samurai ghost appears for him that evening. Unfortunately, they forget to put calligraphy on his ears, which therefore remain visible to the ghost. The samurai ghost tears Hoichis ears from his head and takes them with him back to the cemetery. The earless Hoichi becomes famous and wealthy, singing the history of the great sea battle to the wealthy nobility.
The last story is called In a Cup of Tea. The story is incomplete, since its author (Osamu Takizawa) disappeared while writing it. The story concerns a warrior named Kannai (Kanemon Nakamura) who, one day, notices the image of a mans face in his cup of tea. He finds this disconcerting and discards the tea, pouring himself some more in a fresh cup. Unfortunately, the mans face is there again. Finally, he drinks the tea anyway. Later, the man appears whole to Kannai and identifies himself as Shikibu Heinai (Noboru Nakaya). Kannai attempts to drive the stranger from his house, but discovers that he is dealing with a phantom. Later, Kannai is confronted by three of Heinais retainers who intend to repay the injury done to Heinai. It is at this point that the story ends because the author disappeared before its completion. His final notes state:
I can imagine several possible endings but none of them would satisfy your imagination. I prefer to let you attempt to decide for yourself the probable consequence of swallowing a soul.
The authors wife (Haruko Sugimura), at this point, glances at the cup of tea still resting on the authors desk and screams, having seen her husband in the tea. The publisher (Ganjiro Nakamura), who is there to pick up the work, also see the authors image in the cup of tea. Both mortals run off in terror.
Themes: Dont you just hate it when you awaken and discover that your bed partner is just a skeleton? Takes some of the luster off the remembrance of the preceding nights passion, doesnt it?
Dont you also just hate it when your wife of ten years and mother of your three children turns out to be a ghost and walks out, leaving you with the kids to raise, just because you slipped up and told her a secret you were supposed to keep? Talk about irascibility!
Dont you just hate it when a ghost comes by and rips the ears off your head? Man, that smarts! Better hope you werent wearing expensive earrings.
Dont you just hate it when theres a human in your drink? Heck, a fly is bad enough, but a human soul? I drank a ladybug once and I can vouch for the fact that they taste awful. What does a human soul taste like?
But seriously, what makes these stories interesting thematically is that all of them relate in one way or another to the nature of stories and storytelling itself. Kobayashi effectively underscores this element by rendering the stories in a self-conscious manner by which the storytelling becomes entangled with the story itself. The images are so highly stylized that viewers are as aware of the storytelling as they are of the story maybe more so. Kobayashis tactic here is equivalent to what in European filmmaking became known as distanciation. Stories and storytelling are an important part of human culture. It is part of how we educate our children, especially in relationship to intangibles like values and traditions. We also create stories from our own personal lives that become part of our individual identity and psychology. In the story of The Black Hair, the samurai, after his second unhappy marriage, dwelled in his past through the nostalgic and idealized stories he carried in his mind about his former life with his first wife, only to discover, in the end, that his stories no longer comported with reality. In the story of The Woman of the Snow, we discover the terrible price of reciting a story that should not be told.
Hoichi, the Earless explores the relationship between the truth behind a story and the story itself. The true events that provide the origin of a story are dead and immutable. The events happened as they happened, but, in recounting the story over many generations, it becomes embellished and altered in ways that violate, in a sense, the participants in the actual events. Sometimes heroes are even made into villains and vice versa. Hoichi, we are told, recites the story of the great sea-battle even better than his master, but any improvement on a story over the years has to be embellishment at the price of accuracy. A story cannot become more accurate as the years go by unless new source material is uncovered. Stories simply grow more consistent with what we want to hear. Hoichis ears are ripped off by the dead because it is they who are violated by the alterations in the story. By contrast, Hoichi becomes renowned and wealthy by pleasing his living patrons with his powers as a raconteur.
The issue of storytelling is most overt in the final segment of the film, In a Cup of Tea. The story opens with the question: Now in old Japanese books, there have been curiously preserved certain fragments of fiction. Why are they left unfinished? Though some stories or other works of art are specifically identified as unfinished, all stories are unfinished in a sense. The are passed from ear to ear, from generation to generation, or are ruminated over in an individuals mind. All of these active processes involving stories keep them alive and dynamic. The listener or readers own experience becomes part of the story. The experiences of the authors wife and the publisher, who see the authors image in his teacup, lie outside the authors story but are then added to the story as it was told by Kobayashi to all of us. Stories are organic and grow over time.
Production Values: The foremost value of Kwaidan lies in the gorgeous sets and images. The narratives are not especially engaging and the thematic content will be a bit too obscure for many viewers, but the visual luster cannot be missed. Most of the film was shot in a sound studio in front of hand-painted backdrops that are beautifully surreal. There are a lot of bright splashes of color. The entire film, in fact, has the feel of Japanese paintings having come to life. The film conveys a thoroughly eerie atmosphere through its fantastic imagery. Kobayashis training as an artist is clearly in evidence throughout this film. The quality of the 2.35:1 anamorphic video transfer is superlative, providing us with the full shimmering beauty of Kobayashis work. Kobayashis use of changing light in several scenes is extraordinary. In one scene, he turns Yuki back into the Woman of the Snow with just a change in lighting. Theres a lot of Japanese ritual incorporated into this film, providing viewers with a real opportunity to get a sense of the flavor of Japanese culture. Even the opening credits are highly stylized.
The soundtrack, however, is very poor quality. The voices are raspy and tinny sounding. Since Im totally dependent of the subtitles for comprehension of Japanese films anyway, it didnt matter all that much, but it could be a significant drawback for Japanese-speaking viewers.
The performances are superlative throughout this film. Kobayashi was able to draw on some of the best talent in Japan at the time. Tatsuya Nakadai, who played Minokichi in The Woman of the Snow, has credits in such films as Yojimbo (1961), High and Low (1963), Kagemusha (1980), and Ran (1985). Takashi Shimura, who played the priest in Hoichi, the Earless was easily recognizable to me from his roles in Rashômon (1950), Ikiru (1952), The Seven Samurai (1954), The Hidden Fortress (1958), and Yojimbo (1961).
Bottom-Line: The chief reason to see this film and you really should see it is because its visual stylization is unlike anything youve ever seen in any other film. Dont go into this viewing experience expecting to be horrified. Dont expect engrossing stories either. The stories are more on the level of myths or fairytales, but the brilliant images through which the stories are told are well worth the time investment. To see this film is to take a trip through an exhibit of Japanese art that makes an indelible impression. Kwaidan received nomination for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, though it lost out to Shop on Main Street. It also received a special Grand Jury Award at the Cannes Film Festival.
The extras on this Criterion DVD are very limited. The theatrical trailer is included on the DVD and there is a companion booklet which contains little more than plot synopsis, cast, and a chapter list. The subtitles have supposedly been improved. Previous American releases of Kwaidan omitted The Woman of the Snow, which is a pity, since it was, in my opinion, the second best segment. Kwaidan is in Japanese with English subtitles and has a running time of 161 minutes. The viewing experience can be conveniently segmented because the four short stories are largely independent.
You might want to check out these other excellent films from Japan:
The Ballad of Narayama
The Burmese Harp
Gate of Hell
The Hidden Fortress
High and Low
Samurai 1: Musashi Miyamoto
Sansho, the Baliff
The Seven Samurai
Shall We Dance?
The Woman in the Dunes