When one thinks of Japanese horror in the U.S., there seems to be one stereo type that abound to most recent films. Ever wonder how the older, Japanese horror classics played out? Masaki Kobayashi's KWAIDAN (1965) gets the Criterion treatment and rightfully so; the film is a masterpiece in Japanese film-making. Black and White horror films that preceded it such as "The Innocents" and "The Uninvited" speculates and teases with the premise of the existence of ghosts, "Kwaidan", however, meets the spirit world head-on. It is a very effective rendition of terrifying reality. What would happen if the spirit world collided with the Samurai period?
Kwaidan consists of 4 episodes/vignettes. Loosely based on the writings of Lafcadio Hearn; a folklorist of Greek-Irish ancestry who was naturalized as a Japanese citizen who renamed himself Yakumo Koizumi. Koizumi definitely embraced his adopted culture. If this film is any indication, the source material has no Western influence and definitely feels more geared towards Japanese than anywhere else. Kobayashi's direction takes the definitive style as if the audience is reading a book. The visuals unfurl with a style very similar to Japanese paintings of the historical periods from which the backdrop is set.
A poor ambitious young samurai (Rentaro Mikumi) divorces his beautiful, loving wife (Michiyo Aratama) to marry a wealthy lord's daughter (Michiyo Watanabe) for the promise of social prestige and fortune. Despite his newfound fortune, he discovers that wealth cannot buy you happiness and true love. He happily returns to their dilapidated house after his term had expired to find his ex-wife as beautiful as ever, her black hair as shiny and dark as before. He swears to never leave her side again for all eternity. Unbeknownst to the samurai, the meaning of eternity may prove to be something else...
This first tale of existential horror features gorgeous location shots. The landscape and river banks, even scenes of Mikuni on horseback (while shooting arrows) ease the reversion to the formalism to come in the film. It also makes use of a very creepy soundtrack--twigs snap, there are some crunching sounds and a very subtle echo. This technique awaken the subtle jolt in our psyche as it has nothing to do with what is onscreen; it provokes certain thought-provoking wonderment as we are left to consider if a demon is devouring the tenement or are they bones being sucked upon.
The Woman of the Snow
A young woodcutter (Tatsuya Nakadai) is lost in a blizzard with his friend, Masaku. They take shelter in an old shack and sleep from exhaustion. When the young woodcutter awakens, he finds a mysterious ghost-like woman (Keiko Kishi) draining the life from his friend by blowing her icy breath into his mouth. Spotting him, the whitish phantom takes pity on him and spares his life, on the condition that he never tells a soul of what he had witnessed.
Years passed and the young woodcutter is happily married to a woman named Yuki. Praised by the village folk of her timeless beauty. He loves his wife so much, that he considers revealing his sinister secret to her...
This tale has strong similarities to "Ugetsu" and this tale further cements the Japanese lore that revolves around ghosts. Unlike the ghosts of the western world, Japanese ghosts can sometimes be tangible even though they are ethereal. Japanese legends about specters or séance aren't floating scary entities but possess physical attributes at times. Japanese ghosts can have sex, reproduce, mutilate, interact, even kill you. They are somewhat more dangerous since they take their time in a very freaky manner.
HOICHI, the EARLESS
The tale centers on a blind musician (Katsuo Nakamura) who lives in a monastery. He specializes in the songs and sonnets about the Heike and Genji clans, whose burial grounds are a mere walking distance from the monastery. So well versed is Hoichi to these songs that it causes the spirits of the clan rise up to listen to his music. Hoichi is willing to do so since he is unaware that his regal audiences are the spirits of the dead clan. The head monk (Takashi Shimura) informs Hoichi that the unquiet ghosts will rip him to pieces if he continues to sing for them. The monks take steps to protect Hoichi from the spirits by writing the Holy scriptures all throughout his entire body.
This tale proves to be the film's centerpiece. It begins with a sea battle in 1186 between two clans, where there were no survivors. The cinematography brings the look of mural paintings that come to life accompanied with a ballad that describes the story of the ‘Heike‘. Japanese legends regarding the afterlife are also in full exposition. As with "Woman of the Snow", these phantoms are able to interact and appreciate art. They can admire the living as well as torment them. Human flaws are also developed into the storyline.
IN A CUP OF TEA
This is a tale of "incomplete" storytelling as a writer discloses the saga of a samurai retainer (Kanemon Nakamura) who sees the reflection of another face within his cup of tea. That evening, that samurai is confronted by the phantom in a duel. The warrior soon learns that he is dealing with something not human. How does this encounter play out?
This is the story with no climax and may prove to be the most curious tale of the film. The framework of the story is contained but it provides a shock ending. It's a mind-bending tale that may alienate some but will entice most viewers with its "Twilight Zone"-like style.
The film's strengths lie with his excellent storytelling. All three tales revolve around the samurai-jidai geki tales. While it does revolve around the supernatural, it never loses its very human premise; Love and ambition, Trust and betrayal, commitment to an art, human neglect and laziness. The film is quite frightening, but not in the sense of "in your face horror" and cheap scares. The viewer must immerse himself to the character's point of view to truly appreciate "Kwaidan". I really loved the way it dealt with Japan's cultural, social and even political views at a certain period. The film's proceedings may feel like a "stage performance" at times but it never loses its sheer frightening aspect. Kobayashi has achieved something spectacular; from the film's elaborate costumes and set designs, the director certainly has made one successful (if subtle) blend of realism and stylization. He has definitely cemented the idea that beauty and sheer horror can coexist on one medium, and effectively complement each other with amazing coherency. You will see the Kobayashi style in the way it is paced although its pace and brooding style is very different from his other films.
Masaki Kobayashi made this film in 1964, a couple of years before Harakiri and Samurai Rebellion. "Kwaidan" does manage to stand alone and is a pure exercise of cinematic formalism. It retains the scathing trademark and underlying themes of hypocrisy, cruelty, flaws and arrogance inherent in the samurai social status. It has rightfully won the Special Jury Prize in Cannes.
Highly Recommended! [5 Out of 5 Stars]
Criterion sports a very impressive transfer in a 2.35 ratio Anamorphic Widescreen. Minor print damage is visible on some scenes but the color is radiant and the picture is sharp. Excellent subtitles with the original monaural Japanese track is used.
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