Masaki Kobayashi’s 1965 horror anthology Kwaidan is not the type of movie you watch if you’re looking for hideous monsters or gallons of gore. It’s not even the kind of movie you watch if you want to be scared. It is, however, the kind of movie you watch if you’re looking to immerse yourself in atmosphere and masterful cinematography.
Everything about Kwaidan’s presentation bleeds style and artistry. It was filmed inside of an airplane hangar outside of Kyoto, because the sets were too huge for the Toho Studio lots, and all the backgrounds were hand painted, creating a surreal and dreamlike atmosphere.
The title was taken from a short story collection by famed 19th century Japanese enthusiast Lafcadio Hearn, who we’ve previously written about on Breaker Japan a few times. Picked from a number of different collections that he published in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the stories weren’t selected for their horror but more for their depiction of humanity. The most prominent moods that Kwaidan manages to portray aren’t terror or suspense but loss and emptiness. These themes are found in different forms throughout each of the four tales.
The Black Hair
The woman who was left behind.
“The Black Hair,” adapted from Hearn’s story “The Reconciliaition,” follows a young samurai who leaves his poverty-stricken wife to marry into a more affluent family. His new wife, however, is arrogant and uncaring, and he frequently longs for the woman he left behind. Years pass by, and finally he returns to his former wife.
He finds her in exactly the spot he had imagined she’d be, sitting at her spinning wheel, never having aged a day. The joy of their reunion is replaced the following morning, when he finds that he’s been sleeping next to nothing but her corpse.
One of the only scares in the whole movie.
“The Black Hair” is the most straightforward of the four stories, following the structure of many classical ghost stories: someone is wronged in their life and turns into a spirit to take revenge. The slow tracking shots of the samurai’s house in its dilapidated state are what build the most tension and elevate this horror tale.
The effects in the final sequence of the samurai ageing as he is continually attacked by the mysterious black hair are also interesting, starting off with the hair seemingly growing from his own head until it eventually takes on a life of its own. The very last scenes, where it seems the production crew just threw a wig at the actor, are unintentionally comedic. But hey, this was the 60s. It’s better than everything being rendered in CG.
“The Black Hair” is a great start, setting up the themes and visuals in a simple revenge-style ghost story. Things begin to grow more complicated in the next story.
The Woman of the Snow
The snow woman pays a visit.
Cut from the original Western theatrical release of the film, this segment has been restored in on the Criterion Collection DVDs and Blu-rays, which is lucky, because it is the most emotionally potent and surreally stunning part of the anthology.
“The Woman of the Snow” sets us up for despair from the outset. Beginning with a one-point perspective shot through a snowy forest, a foreboding, all-seeing eye superimposes itself onto the swirling brushstrokes of the hand painted sky.
Two woodcutters wander the forest during a snowstorm and take shelter in a forlorn cabin. During the night, they are visited by a yuki-onna, a snow spirit that takes the form of a woman. After breathing her icy breath onto the older woodcutter, freezing him to death, she decides to spare the younger man on the condition that he never speak of what he has just witnessed.
The all-seeing eye watches from the sky.
The young woodcutter returns home from his ordeal and meets a beautiful young woman, named Yuki, on the roadside. She bears more than a passing resemblance to the snow woman he had met before, but he seems to not remember her. They both fall in love and have three children together. They live happily, with many of the other village women commenting on how Yuki has maintained her beauty even after having three children.
One night, upon seeing his wife’s face at a certain angle in the low light of their cabin, the woodcutter suddenly remembers meeting the snow woman and tells his wife what happened. She transforms into the spirit, enraged that the man has broken his promise. She spares his life because of their children but leaves the house and returns to the snow.
This review has so far focused on the film’s visual style and aesthetics, but it would be a crime not to mention the superb acting of Keiko Kishi who plays Yuki. You can see the sadness well inside her as her husband begins recalling the night he met the snow spirit, and you can hear the reluctance in her voice as she asks him, “That night?” when he begins telling the tale. It’s a heartbreaking moment. So much is communicated by so little.
Keiko Kishi’s acting is phenomenal.
The final image of the husband placing the sandals he has just made for his wife in the front yard, hoping for her return as the falling snow gently covers them is a devastating finish.
Hoichi the Earless
A music concert for the dead.
A blind, young biwa player named Hoichi lives at a shrine and each night practices his biwa on the shrine veranda. One night a samurai arrives and asks Hoichi to play for his lord, which is a great honor for the poor man.
He is led by the samurai every night to play his biwa. Meanwhile, the priests and others at the shrine grow suspicious of where exactly Hoichi, a blind man, is heading in the dead of night. The head priest sends two men to follow Hoichi, and they discover Hoichi is playing The Tale of the Heike to the spirits that died in the battle the song is based on.
To protect Hoichi, two priests paint a protective sutra all over Hoichi’s body, but they forget to paint his ears. When the samurai arrives, he sees only the biwa and a pair of ears, which he takes as proof that he tried to complete his task of finding Hoichi.
Hoichi is covered head-to-toe in sutra.
The young biwa player is found bleeding and minus his ears, but still alive. The account becomes known throughout the land, and Hoichi focuses intensely on his biwa playing, making himself and the shrine very rich in the process.
“Hoichi the Earless” is perhaps the most well-known segment because of its epic battle sequence and the image of Hoichi covered head-to-toe in Japanese writing. The idea of emptiness is depicted in this story in many different ways: the loss of life suffered during the battle in the beginning of the story, Hoichi’s blindness, and his invisibility to the samurai spirit while covered in the sutra, not to mention the physical loss of his ears.
We’re continually moving towards more complex examinations of the central themes of emptiness and loss, and this comes to a post-modern conclusion in the final segment.
In a Cup of Tea
A strange reflection appears in a tea cup.
The last section of the film is the shortest and most bizarre. Beginning in the Meiji era, we see a writer sitting at his desk while the narrator explains that, for any number of reasons, a story may remain unfinished. The film then transitions into the writer’s story where a samurai sees the reflection of a man he does not know in a cup of tea.
At first, he is frustrated and flings the liquid away, but no matter how many cups he breaks or how many times he refills them, the reflection remains. So he does what any sensible person would do in this situation and drinks the liquid anyway.
When he is visited that night by the man he saw in the reflection, he denies knowing him and attacks him. The other man moves like a spirit, but the samurai eventually wounds him. Later, three men who claim to be underlings of the first man visit. The samurai tries to attack them, but they move in the same spirit-like manner. As the fight between the samurai and the three visitors grows more intense, the narrator interjects proclaiming this is where the tale mysteriously ends.
Three ghostly visitors come to the samurai’s home.
At this point, we return to the writer’s room, where the publisher pays a visit. However, a woman in the house says the writer isn’t around. As she goes to gather water from a water pot to make tea, she screams and leaves the house. The publisher investigates the water pot and also flees. In the pot, we see the reflection of the writer. It seems he has disappeared into his own story.
The final section presents a tongue-in-cheek finish to the film and to the exploration of its central themes, by having the writer disappear into his own story, it feels like we have disappeared into the film in this fourth-wall breaking gesture. Many viewers are critical of this final scene, but it ties up the loss and emptiness quite well and is a fitting conclusion as the film moves from emotional to physical to metaphysical in its exploration of its themes.
Don’t you hate it when you get trapped in your own reflection?
Kwaidan is a fantastic film that captures loss and emptiness within the trappings of a horror film. The set designs and art direction are among the best Japanese horror has to offer. It is an interesting and thought-provoking film. Outright scares might not be the name of its game, but it lingers with you long after you’ve finished watching.