Masaki Kobayashi’s 1964 film Kwaidan is a masterpiece, and as is often the case with masterpieces, has endured trials that lesser films frequently manage to avoid. The first barrier to appreciation of Kwaidan is its length. The original director’s cut runs over three hours, but the film was shown at Cannes in a severely cut version, and the first US release cut one of the four episodes entirely.
The second barrier was the director’s approach to his material. At a time when Western audiences were primed to expect rubber monsters in Japanese horror films, many found the slow burn of Kwaidan‘s tales of the uncanny disappointing, in part because they were unfamiliar with the artistic traditions upon which it draws.
A lot has changed in 50 years. Kwaidan remains the masterpiece it always was, but Western audiences are now familiar with many of the conventions it employs, thanks to the popularity of J-Horror films like Ringu. More importantly, what may have seemed like an excruciatingly deliberate pace in 1964, especially given contemporary expectations regarding horror films, today can be experienced as an invitation to enter the world of a film that exists on the boundary between the living and spirit worlds, between the everyday and the uncanny.
Kwaidan is made up of four self-contained stories representing the four seasons. The stories are unified by Kobayashi’s directorial choices, which continuously remind viewers that they are watching a constructed object, the soundtrack by Toru Takemitsu, and film’s source material in the stories of Lafcadio Hearn, an expatriate of Greek and Irish descent who settled in Japan and published several volumes of Japanese tales.
Kobayashi sets the tone for Kwaidan with an inspired credit sequence contrasting the clear shapes of Japanese characters with the formlessness of ink. The first story, “Black Hair”, tells of an ambitious samurai (Rentaro Mikuni) who abandons his wife (Michiyo Aratama) in favor of a marriage that can help his career, but finds that his material success is a poor substitute for the love of the first wife.
When he returns home, he finds his first wife seemingly unchanged despite the passage of many years, but a horror awaits. In this story, Kobayashi frequently places the camera in a high angle, creating a view of events similar to that presented in Japanese picture scrolls of the 12th century, and signaling his rejection of realism as an approach to storytelling.
The second story, “The Woman of the Snow”, is to my mind the best of the four (ironically, it was omitted entirely from the original American release of Kwaidan). The “woman” in question is a Yuki-Onna, a type of spirit or ghost well-known in Japanese folklore. Often portrayed as a beautiful woman dressed entirely in white, the Yuki-Onna kills travelers caught outdoors in the winter by blowing her icy breath on them.
In this version of the story, a young woodcutter, Minokichi (Tatsuya Nakadai), awakens to see a Yuki-Onna (Keiko Kishi) killing his older companion Mosaku (Jun Hamamura) in just such a manner. The Yuki-Onna spares Minokichi because of his youth, but warns him that if he ever tells anyone what he has seen, she will return for him. Kobayashi emphasizes the artificiality of the setting through the use of painted backdrops that include all-seeing eyes, odd camera angles, and sharp color contrasts.
“Hoichi the Earless” is the longest of the four stories, and at over an hour could stand as an independent feature film. It features the most striking image in a film filled with striking images, a man’s body covered almost entirely with the text of the Heart sutra (that “entirely” will come to play a key role in the story). The story involves a blind musician, Hoichi (Katsuo Nakamura) noted for his renditions of the “Battle of Dan-no-ura”, a famous episode in the 12th-century battle between the Heike and Genji clans. One day a samurai summons Hoichi to perform this story, and, being blind, he is not aware that the samurai is a ghost and that he is being taken to a graveyard to perform for the ghosts of the Heike killed in the battle.
“In a Cup of Tea” is the least successful of the four stories, and doesn’t really fit well with the other three. It begins with a framing story in which a young man wonders why stories in Japanese literature are often left incomplete. He begins reading just such a story, and the film shifts backwards 200 years to the time when the story he is reading takes place.
A samurai (Kaanemon Nakamura) keeps seeing a strange face reflected in his cup of tea—the rather seductive face of a young man, in fact. That night the young man in question pays the samurai a call, and they get into a fight, then the young man seems to disappear into thin air. When “In a Cup of Tea” returns to the time of the framing story, the membrane between past and present proves less than solid.
Criterion’s restored version of Kwaidan, produced at 2K resolution from a variety of archival sources, allows viewers to experience the visual splendor of this film.
This release also comes with a number of extras that nicely complement the film. The most important is a feature commentary by film historian Stephen Prince, who provides useful background about Kobayashi’s career and the conditions of production for this film (it was shot entirely on huge sets constructed in an airplane hangar, and the cost bankrupted Kobayashi’s production company) as well as scene-specific commentary on each story.
Also included is a 1993 interview with Kobayashi (conducted by filmmaker Masahiro Shinoda), a short film about Lafcadio Hearn, an interview with assistant director Kiyoshi Ogasawara, and liner notes including an essay by film critic Geoffrey O’Brien.