Kwaidan: a lesson in four parts about having contact with the spirit world

Masaki Kobayashi, “Kwaidan” (1964)

Often billed as a horror film, “Kwaidan” is in fact a quartet of fantasy stories of which three were based on traditional Japanese folk tales. The narratives are fairly straightforward and may teach moral lessons or lessons about having contact with spirits, even if indirectly through the medium of literature or … film.

In the first story, “The Black Hair”, a poor samurai divorces his faithful wife to marry the daughter of a wealthy lord so that he may gain a position in the feudal administration. Too late he discovers his new wife is a spoilt and empty-headed spendthrift. He resolves to put away the new missus and return to his old life but work duties impel him to stay put. When he has served his time and relieved of his duties, he returns to his old home and first wife but not everything has remained as he thinks it has.

In the second story, “The Woman of the Snow”, two woodcutters Mosaku and Minokichi take refuge in an abandoned shack during a severe snowstorm. There, they encounter a snow-woman demon who drains the life out of Mosaku, who is elderly and on his last legs anyway, but spares the life of Minokichi after extracting a promise from him never to tell anyone of what he has seen. Years later, Minokichi marries a beautiful young woman and they raise a family together. One night, Minokichi sees a light shine on his wife and the shadows it creates across her face remind him of that fateful night when Mosaku died and the husband starts to blab …

In “Hoichi, the Earless”, ¬†young blind servant Hoichi is persuaded by the ghosts of a deceased samurai clan to perform before them songs and poetry of a great sea battle the clan fought and lost against a rival group 700 years previously. The nightly performances take their toll on Hoichi and the priests of the temple where he works discover what he’s been up to. Concerned for his safety and soul, the holy men cover Hoichi’s body with Buddhist sutras to render him invisible but there are a couple of body parts they forget …

The final film “In a Cup of Tea”, the only one of the four stories not based on a folk tale, is a ghost story set within another ghost story: a writer has mysteriously disappeared while scribbling a story about a samurai who sees a reflection while drinking a cup of tea – except that the reflection isn’t his but that of another man. This other fellow visits the samurai to reproach him for swallowing his soul, then his retainers visit the samurai for daring to strike his master … at which point the story ends without resolution … likewise the whereabouts of the author himself remain unknown …

The stories are not horror in the conventional Hollywood sense of the term but rely on a slow pace, an emotional intensity that escalates throughout, visual theatricality, very stark minimalist music and quiet suspense born in part from audience anticipation at what will happen. One can predict how a couple of the stories might end: the faithless samurai in the first story will be punished for his cruelty towards his first wife and Minokichi has to pay a price for breaking his promise. Hoichi is a helpless pawn in a life-and-death struggle and although (spoiler alert) he survives to see another day, the ghosts exact their pound of flesh from him. The lessons to be learned from these tales are universal and one such lesson common to the films is that you don’t mess around with spirits of the dead even if you were minding your own business originally and the spirits came after you. Apart from this banal message and the presence of ghosts, the films don’t have very much in common. They are artfully arranged though so that the simpler, more straightforward morality tales come first and second; then come the more complex pieces with their ambiguous messages about how the innocent and upright can be menaced and threatened by ghosts through no fault of their own and that even when innocence has suffered enough, there will never be respite from the ghosts. The ambiguous conclusion to the fourth film suggests that just as the samurai and the writer have imbibed of the spirit world and therefore are condemned to be haunted by ghosts forever, so too the audience, having drunk more than their fill of these stories, are also to be plagued forever more by the spirits.

Kobayashi opted for a maximalist, expressionist style of filming and went to great lengths to have backgrounds specially prepared for mostly indoor filming. The action in all the stories seem to take place on a stage, particularly the second story in which a large baleful eye occupies the sky in the background and spies on the little bipedal ants scurrying about. The sets are often stunning to look at and become a major character in the stories; “Hoichi …” in this respect features some of the most austerely beautiful sets and highly illustrative paintings, made by Kobayashi himself. Colour is used to good effect in these films to indicate paranoia or the change from reality to the spirit world. The cinematography is precise and the movie’s style of near-kabuki theatre not only presents traditional Japanese culture in a beautifully stark and quite minimal way but helps to generate tension and suspense.

The music by Toru Takemitsu is significant to the narrative and generates a mood of longing and sadness, especially in “Hoichi …” where some of the most interesting sounds occur outside Hoichi’s biwa playing.

There isn’t much that can be called horror; the movie depends far more on slow build-up and keeping its audience guessing as to how the plots will end. Probably the scariest story in the conventional Western sense of the term is “Black Hair” as this is a forerunner of those Japanese films that feature an awkward girl wandering about with black hair covering her red eyes and generally striking fear into people’s hearts. The film seems to suggest that the source of true horror lies in people’s natures and also that being in the wrong spot at the wrong time can expose one to spiritual and psychological danger. In the case of the eponymous Hoichi, his downfall was his naivety and blindness; in the case of the writer perhaps, his downfall may have been curiosity or intellectual arrogance.

The film is beautiful to watch and very serene and graceful in its movements. The grace belies the turmoil and tension within character’s minds. Although the film won’t find a broad Western audience, it is worth watching for its visual style and the way in which the action takes place as if on a stage for a kabuki performance.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.