Saturday, May 10, 2014

Off Script: Kwaidan

Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin flatscreen.

The pedigree of the film Kwaidan (also called Kaidan and roughly translated as Ghost Stories) is unique to say the least. The four tales in this anthology come from collections of Japanese folk tales compiled by a man with the awesome name of Lafcadio Hearn. Hearn was originally from the Ionian Islands, married a black woman (illegal in the 1870s), worked in New Orleans, and eventually emigrated Japan. Hearn is a big part of the reason Japan and the East were romanticized and made exotic at the time.

Anyway, Kwaidan is a collection of four stories. The film is a good 160 minutes long, though, so rather than feeling like a typical anthology, it feels much more like four short films, each roughly 40 minutes long (although the third story is longer and the last story is quite short). I’d love to say that the stories get better as they go along, but they’re uneven in that respect. In a lot of ways, the fourth story is the worst, and for me at least, the third was the most interesting.

We start with “The Black Hair” (Kurokami), a story about a samurai who leaves his wife because she cannot help him advance socially. He soon comes to regret his new marriage; his new wife is unpleasant, and it isn’t long before he wants to return to his first wife. He does, and since this is a collection of ghost stories, what happens next isn’t terribly difficult to guess. Of the four stories, this one has the largest boo-factor, but it’s pretty predictable.

The second story is “The Woman of the Snow” (Yuki-Onna). On a winter night, two men are forced to take refuge in a hut. They are visited by a snow demon in the guise of a beautiful woman. She kills one of the men but allows the other one to live because he is still young. Not long after this, the young man meets a woman from a different part of the country and marries her, not noticing until years later that she bears a remarkable resemblance to the woman from that terrible night. While the ending is surprising, this one is still pretty obvious about where it’s going. It is, though, the most visually arresting of the four stories.

The third story is “Hoichi the Earless” (Miminashi Hoichi no Hanashi), which has an unfortunate name, since it pretty much gives away the ending. A blind biwa player is known for playing and singing the story of a particular naval battle. He is approached one evening and asked to perform the song, and then is contacted on subsequent nights for the same performance. It soon becomes evident that the people contacting the singer are the spirits of the dead from that battle. The priests of the temple where the singer lives believe his soul is in danger, so they cover him with prayers written on his body to make him invisible to the spirits.

The final story is called “In a Cup of Tea” (Chawan no Naka). This story starts with the admission that it was unfinished in the original manuscript. There is an attempt to manufacture an ending for this, actually an ending for the framing story, that kind of works and kind of doesn’t. The basics of the story is that a samurai keeps seeing the reflection of another man in every cup of water or tea he tries to drink. It’s a cool idea and it starts going to interesting places, but it ends too quickly and honestly doesn’t really end at all.

The biggest issue that Kwaidan has is that it just isn’t that scary. The first story approaches it, but it’s far too predictable. The second isn’t really scary at all. The third gets there in places, but is far more creepy and disturbing than it is truly scary. The fourth has all the indications of being really interesting, but then it dies.

I mentioned above that the second story is the most visually interesting. Masaki Kobayashi shot all of Kwaidan on sound stages. That doesn’t sound that impressive until you realize that for the third story, he shot part of a naval battle on a sound stage. The film looks very much like it was done on sets, and that’s part of the visual appeal. In the second story, the backgrounds are impressionistic, giving a sense of sky, but are also filled with images. The winter sky, for instance, is filled with stylized eyes. The most arresting image in the film, however, is shown above from the third story, the body of the singer covered in kanji.

Kobayashi was masterful with his use of camera and light in this. Ghosts are lit in ways that give them an unearthly quality and filmed in ways that allow the actors to move normally but give the impression of a more ghostly gliding than walking. It’s evident that great care was taken to produce exactly the visual effects desired at all times here, and on that level, Kwaidan succeeds.

I enjoyed watching Kwaidan but I can’t say for a moment that I was scared by it. I like that the stories are given enough length to breathe and each of the four short stories is visually appealing. I was hoping for scares that never came, though, and that’s a bit disappointing.

Why to watch Kwaidan: An anthology film with enough space to actually tell the stories.
Why not to watch: It’s really not that scary.


  1. Ir's easy to go in with the wrong expectations, I saw it during a horror marathon and agree it wasn't scary. I thought the stories had a timeless quality, and a slow building tension. They do at times resemble background set pieces(the sunsets for example), which took some of the magic away for me, but mostly the film is gorgeous to look at. I too admired the visuals in the 2nd story in the snow.

    1. Those visuals add to the fantasy element here. While it pulled me out of the horror potential since it was so obviously unreal, it's hard not to appreciate that it's art directed to hell and back.