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Masaki Kobayashi's 'Kwaidan' Horror Films Are Horrifically Beautiful

"The Black Hair" (IMDB)

The four haunting tales of Masaki Kobayashi's Kwaidan are human and relatable, as well as impressive at a formal and a technical level.

Masaki Kobayashi

Eureka Entertainment

27 April 2020


The anthology or portmanteau horror film has been a popular variant within the horror genre for many years. Britain's Ealing Studios introduced the format with their multi-director effort Dead of Night (1945) and the British production company Amicus made the format their own during the 1960s and 1970s, producing titles such as The House That Dripped Blood (Peter Duffell, 1971) and Asylum (Roy Ward Baker, 1972).

Perhaps less well known to Western portmanteau horror film fans is an impressive Japanese take on the format, Masaki Kobayashi's Kwaidan (1964). Unlike the portmanteau horror films produced by the likes of Amicus, Kwaidan does not feature a wraparound framing device that connects each story in some way: each story is presented as being distinct from the others. Two formal commonalities that the stories do share are the onscreen title text that appears just as they are beginning and the presence of an unseen narrator who informs viewers of each tale's basic premise.

While there are no major spoilers revealed below, it is, of course, necessary to discuss some aspects of each episode's storyline in order to offer some indication of what they're about. However, I appreciate that these kinds of twist in the tale-style stories are best enjoyed without any prior knowledge of their content. The next two paragraphs will therefore give a quick critical overview of the film for those who might not want to read the more detailed assessment that follows.

Kwaidan features four haunting tales that are set mostly in ancient Japan. It's an expensive looking production that features brilliant art direction: sumptuous period costumes, exquisite lighting strategies, and a number of highly stylized studio sets that stand in for both interior and exterior diegetic locations. The film's convincingly acted stories unfold in a mannered and unrushed way, which results in a lengthy running time of 183 minutes. However, Kwaidan's content is so engrossing and mesmerizing that clock watching will be the last thing on your mind when viewing this film.

Kwaidan should appeal to a wide variety of film fans, including fans of supernatural horror films who enjoy international filmmakers' – and, more specifically, Japanese filmmakers' – engagements with the genre. Similarly, there's enough of a focus on period details, societal mores, and sword-wielding samurais for fans of Japanese historical-combat films. The stories are all quite different but they remain chilling in their own ways. Minimalist musical noises provided by Toru Takemitsu and a variety of intense and unsettling soundscapes all play a part in granting some of the stories a dreamlike quality. It would be fair to classify Kwaidan as a high-end art house horror film.

Hand in Water by TheDigital Artist (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

The Black Hair

A poverty-stricken but proud and ambitious samurai (Rentaro Mikuni) leaves his lowly wife (Michiyo Aratama) in order to take up a prestigious post in a distant province. We soon discover that he has married an unpopular noblewoman (Misako Watanabe) in order to secure this career advancement. His new wife is selfish and cold and the samurai is haunted by visions of his ex-wife, whom he now realizes was the love of his life. His world soon becomes invaded by intrusive fantasies in which he returns to his old home for a joyous reunion. However, when that fantasy becomes a reality a horrifying supernatural intervention occurs.

The story's unseen narrator, who talks over some unrushed but beautifully shot scenes of travel, period court life, and simple domesticity, communicates much of this tale to the viewer. The lack of expository dialogue between characters during the story's middle section both symbolically and literally telegraphs the breakdown in communications that takes place almost as soon as the samurai has married his second wife.

Some minimalist and ethereal but wholly effective musical sounds enhance this story's visual aspects initially. However, as the story winds its way towards its supernatural climax, these delicate musical sounds are replaced by some equally minimalist but loud and unsettling sound effects. These abrasive sound effects appear to be linked to onscreen actions (e.g., the samurai knocking on a door) but they are aurally abstract and strangely disconnected from the story's visuals. At other points, noisy action can be seen taking place onscreen but the soundtrack is silent. All of which results in a nightmarish and disconcerting ambience.

This is an episode that most viewers will find relatively easy to relate to, given the samurai's regrettable "the grass might be greener on the other side" approach to life and relationships. As if to underscore this tale's grounding in a reality that all can appreciate, The Black Hair features some impressive outdoor scenes that are shot in real woodland locations.

The Woman of the Snow

"The Woman of the Snow" (IMDB)

When Kobayashi cuts to the stylized opening shot of his second tale it's quite obvious that he has elected to pursue a decidedly more surreal – and an even more oneiric – approach to filmmaking. A picture-perfect studio set forest is being battered by a blizzard while swirly clouds and the setting sun form an ominous Salvador Dali-inspired eye in the distant sky. (In a later scene, a pair of pink lips can be seen in the sky.) Discordant and unsettling musical sounds stand in for the noise of the evidently powerful wind.

Two woodcutters, the elderly Mosaku and the youthful Minokichi (Tatsuya Nakadai), are trapped in the snowstorm and take refuge in a boatman's shack. In the middle of the night an ethereal woman in white (Keiko Kishi) appears and uses her supernaturally icy breath to freeze Mosaku to death. She spares the terrified Minokichi but warns that if he ever tells anybody what he has witnessed she will know and will find and kill him. Years later Minokichi takes a wife and as they grow closer together we feel sure that the woodcutter will tell her about his unnerving encounter with the Woman of the Snow.

This is another very human and eminently relatable story. We're glad when the traumatized Minokichi finally gets his life back on track, finds a wife, has children, and looks forward to a happy future. But we know that lovers almost always tell their partners about their past lives. The sense of suspense generated by the suspicion that Minokichi is going to let his fateful secret be known is both palpable and agonizing.

This tale is also impressive at a formal and a technical level. The different painted night skies that appear during the snowstorm add an extra level of nightmarish strangeness to the woodland scenes. Elsewhere, extreme and anti-realist but beautifully rendered lighting strategies enhance and symbolically inform the story's mise-en-scene. Equally, much work went into the story's intense and unsettling soundscape, which at times packs a layered and concentrated punch that almost equals the unnerving soundscape in David Lynch's Eraserhead (1977).

Hoichi the Earless

"Hoichi the Earless" (IMDB)

This story, which is something of an intricately assembled multi-media affair, opens with a shot in a real world location. The young man that we will come to know as Hoichi (Katsuo Nakamura), the blind biwa (a stringed instrument) player, is stood atop a cliff with a vast expanse of sea stretching beyond. As the sound of Hoichi playing the biwa and reciting the epic poem-cum-ballad of the Genji and the Heike clans' final battle at sea is heard, Kobayashi presents a series of ancient paintings depicting the battle.

These painted images are soon crosscut with a lengthy live action and quite epic depiction of the battle that will please fans of martial samurai movies. The battle's action is presented in a stylized and almost theatrical way but it remains exciting, involving, and moving. Incredibly, this sea battle was clearly shot in a huge studio and it unfolds under an abstract blood red sky that turns to grey when the heads of the Heike clan – and their infant emperor – realize that they face certain destruction. The boats, battle costumes, and weapons are impressive, as is the fight choreography.

With the tragic story of the battle told, the action cuts to the temple where Hoichi assists the head priest (Takashi Shimura). Left alone one night, he is visited by a spectral representative of the long dead Heike clan, who commissions him to travel to a nearby palace to give one of his expert recitals of the story of the Genji and the Heike clans' final battle. Hoichi doesn't know that he is performing for ghosts and his nightly visits to the palace soon threaten his health. Ultimately, it's up to the head priest to try and devise a way to save Hoichi from the demands of his spectral audience.

This story is distinguished by its comparatively epic nature. Clocking in at around 75 minutes, Hoichi the Earless is almost a feature length film in its own right. It also has the biggest cast of any of the stories and everything is mounted on a grand scale. The open plan palace that the ghosts occupy is huge and expertly rendered while the large phantom audience that occupies it is repeatedly presented in exquisitely framed and perfectly balanced long shots that are also quite theatrical in their styling.

The story is sold by Katsuo Nakamura's superb performance as Hoichi, who is a sympathetic and gracious character. Just the right amount of mild comic relief is intermittently supplied by two of Hoichi's co-workers, who are superstitious and easily scared. Here again impressive lighting, abstract painted skies, and subtly ambient but still noticeably disquieting soundscapes complete this thoroughly intriguing tale.

In a Cup of Tea


This story is constructed in a fairly complex way too. The narrator notes that many old tales of Japan exist in an unfinished form and In a Cup of Tea's story offers an explanation as to why one particular ghost story came to have no ending. We're introduced to a 19th century writer (Osamu Takizawa) and the story that he is working on is duly presented onscreen.

A samurai guard (Kan'emon Nakamura) seeks a cup of tea at a temple but he is disturbed to find the reflection of an unknown but evil-looking man in every cup that he pours for himself. Undeterred, he foolishly drinks from one of the cups. Later that night the samurai is on guard duty at his lord's manor when the reflected man, who introduces himself as Heinai Shikibu (Noboru Nakaya), appears in spectral form. He's the first of a number of ghosts that come to torment the samurai and test his sword fighting skills.

We never discover the true nature or the actual intentions of these spirits or even the samurai's fate, because the action cuts back to the 19th century where the writer's publisher (Ganjiro Nakamura) is looking for him as he has failed to meet a deadline. The act of finding the writer allows Kobayashi to present onscreen one of the most chilling and disturbing images ever to appear in a horror film. I'd wager that the artists who were responsible for some of the Japanese Manga comic books' more twisted imagery were traumatized and haunted by this scene as youngsters.

* * *

Eureka Entertainment's Region B Blu-ray presentation of Kwaidan is a beauty. Picture quality is excellent and the film's impressive colouring and lighting schemes are rendered perfectly. The presentation's sound quality is equally excellent: the subtle musical noises provided by Toru Takemitsu and the film's more abrasive and abstract soundscapes come through clearly.

The release's extra features include an interview with Kim Newman and a video essay by David Cairns and Fiona Watson entitled 'Shadowings'. Newman presents an informative account of the Japanese horror films that came before and after Kwaidan while helpfully situating the film within both Japan's horror film cycle and Masaki Kobayashi's filmography. Cairns and Watson's video essay offers background on Kobayashi, the author Lafcadio Hearn and Kwaidan's production before offering some interesting analyses of key sections from the film. A selection of trailers rounds out the extra features.

Kwaidan has been released initially in a limited edition set of 3,000 copies. The limited edition comes in a hard card slipcase that also contains a 100 page booklet that features Lafcadio Hearn's original ghost stories that the film is based on, a survey of the life and career of Kobayashi by Linda Hoaglund, and a wide-ranging interview with the filmmaker. A standard release will follow in due course.


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