Japan (1964) Dir. Masaki Kobayashi
The J-Horror boom of the late 90’s, spearheaded by the classic Ringu introduced modern cinema fans here in the west to the long black-haired vengeful spirit and the nightmares they engendered among the Japanese populace. While this was a fairly new sensation for us in Asia this has long been part of their supernatural folklore although not one that was often captured on film for our entertainment.
In 1964 director Masaki Kobayashi, noted for the nine-hour trilogy The Human Condition and the original version of Hara-kiri, decided to bring these traditional tales to the big screen, adapting four such legendary fables from the collection Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things by Lafcadio Hearn. The film earned Kobayashi the Special Jury Prize at Cannes in 1965.
It is worth pointing out that this is not a horror film but a collection of ghost stories, and yes, there is a huge difference between the two, notwithstanding the fact that each tale comes from a Japanese perspective. Thus their idea of ghosts and the spiritual and philosophical foundations for these beliefs is a world away from our interpretation but should nonetheless prove insightful.
The first tale is Black Hair and will no doubt feel the most familiar to modern audiences due to the likes of Ringu et al. It tells of an impoverished samurai (Rentaro Mikuni) who decides to leave his wife (Michiyo Aratama) a humble weaver, a marry someone with money. He leaves Kyoto and soon marries a wealthy woman (Misako Watanabe) and earns the position of District Governor, but the marriage is an unhappy one and the samurai regrets his decision to leave his loyal first wife.
In terms of being close to “horror” this one certainly attains that with its suitably creepy symbolic ending. Up until this point there is no real inkling that anything spooky or supernatural is likely to occur, but with the nature of this compendium already established in our minds, we are already anticipating something. Being over 50 years old the effects here aren’t hi tech but they suffice within the context of what they aim to achieve.
Story number two is Woman Of Snow, in which a young woodcutter Minokichi (Tatsuya Nakadai) and his elderly master Mosaku seek shelter during a fierce snowstorm. That night Minokichi witness a Yuki Onna (Keiko Kishi) – Snow Woman – kill Mosaku. She chooses to spare Minokichi on the proviso that he doesn’t tell anyone what he saw, otherwise she will come back and kill him too! A decade later Minokichi meets a lone woman named Yuki (Kishi) who he marries and has children with – but there is something oddly familiar about her.
The production values for this segment were substantially greater than for the first part yet the aesthetic is still one of simplicity – stage sets with panted backgrounds. The atmosphere remains silently eerie and it is a marvel how the addendum of white make-up can make Kishi such a terrifying presence when her natural self is so serene and graceful. Much like many Japanese tales this one is built around a moral premise which o doubt scared a few children into keeping their promises.
Up next is the longest story of the lot, running well over an hour in length. Hoichi The Earless features the blind musician Hoichi (Katsuo Nakamura), known as a biwa hoshi, someone who specialises in singing The Tale of the Heike, about the legendary Battle of Dan-no-ura. Hoichi is taken in by a kind priest (Takashi Shimura) who becomes concerned when Hoichi disappears on a regular basis to sing for ghosts. To make Hoichi invisible to the ghosts, the priest paints The Heart Sutra text all over Hoichi’s body, but as the old joke goes, he missed a bit…
It is no surprise that Hoichi The Earless is the most elaborate presentation in this collection. It begins with The Tale of the Heike being acted out for our benefit, with Hoichi’s musical accompaniment. The big battle may still take place on a made up on sound stage but it is still impressively done and its epic feel belies its meagre cost. However it is overshadowed by the vast splendour of the imperial palace later on as Hoichi gives a concert to his deceased audience. A bit long and leaden in parts but a visual treat overall.
Finally this set closes with In A Cup Of Tea. This is essentially a story within a story as a narrator informs us that in the history of literature, many works have remained unfinished but no-one knows why. Idleness and lack of inspiration are two suggested reasons but there may be more serious ones we never know about. A samurai Kannai (Osamu Takizawa) breaks from the ranks to take a drink of water in which he sees the face of another samurai Heinai Shikibu (Kei Satō) but drinks it anyway. Later that night, while on duty, Kannai is visited by the spirit of Shikibu and attacks him.
The conceit here is the fact the tale of Kannai being haunted has no ending as this is being told from the perspective of the writer of the tale. So does this mean this tale has no end either? Well I’m not going to tell you. In keeping with the tone of its three predecessors, this is another quiet but atmospheric presentation in which the period of the story setting has been recreated with the same care and attention as in the other segments
At 183 minutes this can be a bit of a slog due to its languid pace, therefore Kwaidan works best when appreciated as a piece of cinema, and not the place to look for scares or gore. As a study into the supernatural it offers a unique look into the fascinating traditional Japanese take on this phenomenon, opening our eyes to other interpretations of universal themes.