Along with Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu Monogatari (1953) and Akira Kurosawa’s adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Throne of Blood (Kumonosu-jō, 1957), Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan (1964) – aka Kaidan, or ‘ghost stories’ – is one of the peaks of the Japanese cinema during its golden era, and one of the most superbly atmospheric supernatural films ever produced in any country. It’s also a terrific example of how a portmanteau film can work successfully, harking back to Ealing Studios’ multi-director Dead of Night (1945), and gesturing towards the multi-story films of Amicus in the 1960s.
Kobayashi’s filmography as a director isn’t extensive, with only 21 feature films to his credit throughout his entire career, yet each of his projects has an individual stamp that makes them deeply personal. His earlier films are both gritty and introspective, and seem nothing at all like Kwaidan: one of Kobayashi’s most compelling early films is the brutal baseball noir drama I Will Buy You (Anata kaimasu, 1956), in which a young player rises to the top of Japanese professional baseball, revealed to be little more than a racket.
Kobayashi’s other major works include the epic trilogy The Human Condition (1959- 1961), which clocks in at an astonishing 9 hours and 47 minutes in its entirety, and Harakiri (Seppuku, 1962), a suitably violent and nihilistic samurai film. Most of Kobayashi’s work is in black and white, but in Kwaidan he evokes a world of heavily stylized colour, and creates one of the most sensual and strangely evocative supernatural films ever made. It remains one-of-a-kind not only for Kobayashi, but also for what has been loosely called ‘the horror film’: Kwaidan doesn’t deal in shock imagery, but rather in an ever-mounting sense of psychological dread.
Based on Lafcadio Hearn’s anthology of Japanese tales of the supernatural, Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things (1904), the film is structured in four parts. “The Black Hair” follows a warrior who leaves his first wife for a second marriage to gain greater status, only to find the promise of a “better life” is an empty one indeed. “The Woman of the Snow” is a tale of supernatural vengeance in which a woodcutter falls in love with a Yuki-onna, or “snow woman” – a spirit who wanders the woods – with unexpected results. “Hoichi the Earless” deals with a blind musician who discovers that he has been unwittingly singing for a family of ghosts, resulting in dire consequences. The last section (which the spectator is invited to complete in their own mind) is “In a Cup of Tea,” the philosophically deepest and most challenging of the tales, in which a writer is continually disturbed by the unexpected sight of a face in – as the title suggests – his cup of tea.
Winner of the Special Jury Prize at the 1965 Cannes Film Festival, and honored with an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film the same year, Kwaidan is one of the most sumptuously mounted horror films ever made, shot in moody, otherworldly colour that would be evoked again in Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977), in true TohoScope ratio 2.35:1 by the gifted cinematographer Yoshio Miyajima, with stunning art direction by Shigemasa Toda.
Working from Yôko Mizuki’s screenplay, director Kobayashi unfolds these tales in a leisurely, assured fashion. The final film practically envelops the viewer in the world of the unknown. The correct running time of the film is 183 minutes, but in some of its first screenings, Kwaidan was cut to 161 minutes, and even to 125 minutes, by cutting some of the stories down, or eliminating one of the segments entirely. Only the complete version really conveys the mystery and sense of dread so essential to the success of the film.
Those expecting a more brutal or violent horror film will be disappointed as Kwaidan is a film of nuance and restraint, despite the excesses of sound design and wildly stylized visuals. Kobayashi’s mise en scene is deliberate and proceeds with the assurance of dream-like logic, or the lack thereof; the world of Kwaidan is one in which the supernatural atmosphere is very real, often intertwined with scenes that conjure everyday life, a fact that several of the film’s protagonists ignore at their peril.
Kwaidan is a psychological horror film for those who are seeking an utterly immersive experience, in which the viewer is gradually seduced by the deeply saturated colour, the expressiveness of the seemingly vast hand built studio sets, and the sheer time factor. This is a film that takes the viewer out of the real world into another realm altogether. In its visual and thematic structure, Kwaidan is ultimately an expressionist fairy tale for adults, in which all is artifice, and yet at the same time mesmerizingly real.
As Geoffrey O’Brien noted, Kobayashi “had trained as a painter before beginning his career as a filmmaker,” and the meticulous attention to visual detail throughout the film, not only in the sets, but in the costumes, the lighting, and the colour effects, which are simultaneously subtle, and yet layered in textures that seem to continue without end, reflects this early apprenticeship. As O’Brien writes,
The elaborateness of Kwaidan’s artifice is not concealed. On the contrary, right from the first liquid swirls of primary-colored ink that wash across the screen, we are invited to savor the sensory delights of every hue, every movement, every unfolding pattern. On repeated viewings, the spectator becomes aware of further layers of mirroring and repetition and counterpoint, of seasonal shifts and contrasting colors, of insistent images, whether of an opening gate or an abandoned pair of sandals, recurring in different contexts.1
Complementing these dazzling, almost hallucinatory visuals is Toru Takemitsu’s bold and modern soundtrack, which deftly avoids the clichés of conventional film music, especially in the case of a horror film, in which the score usually underscores the images with conventionally melodramatic music. Takemitsu’s score – one of the many he composed for most of the major directors working in Japan during the era – uses expressionist sounds, and bizarre instrumentation interspersed with sections of uneasy quiet and deliberately disarms the spectator, while simultaneously weaving a spell that draws the viewer further into Kobayashi’s colourful and highly stylized realm.
Kwaidan is a film unlike any other, not only in its visual structure, but also in its insistence on the viewer’s patience – which is rewarded – in each of the four stories by a suitably macabre conclusion. Nothing is straightforward in Kwaidan; it’s a world where anything is possible, where spirits interact with the living on an everyday basis, and those who trifle with the spirits of the departed pay dearly for their hubris.
Above all, Kwaidan is a stunning visual experience, best seen in a theater for full impact, as Kobayashi’s TohoScope images unfold on the screen as if in a dream – a dream in which the dead are alive, the living may be dead, and illusion and reality merge into a world which is at once alluring and yet menacing. Kwaidan is one of the treasures of supernatural cinema, existing in a world all its own, which beckons to us, even as we sit in the theater, transfixed by the images we see on the screen.
Kwaidan (1964 Japan 183 min)
Prod Co: Toho Prod: Shigeru Wakatsuki Dir: Masaki Kobayashi Scr: Yôko Mizuki, from the anthology Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things by Lafcadio Hearn Phot: Yoshio Miyajima Ed: Hisashi Sagara Prod Des: Shigemasa Toda Mus: Tôru Takemitsu
Cast: Rentarô Mikuni, Michiyo Aratama, Misako Watanabe, Kenjirô Ishiyama, Tatsuya Nakadai, Keiko Kishi, Katsuo Nakamura, Takashi Shimura, Haruko Sugimura, Junkichi Orinmoto.