60s Horror: Kwaidan

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Director: Masaki Kobayashi

Kwaidan is, if I understand thing correctly, considered to be something of a masterpiece of world cinema. It’s out on a really nice (but aren’t they all?) Criterion Collection DVD, it won tons of awards at the Cannes Film Festival in 1965, and it seems to have been hugely influential.

But film scholars probably get more out of it than I did, because it seemed to me about twice too long.

The movie is a behemoth weighing in it 164 minutes – 2 and three-quarters hours! The film is composed of four ghost stories – two of which are great, two of which sucked the energy out of me.

Each story is filmed with terrific detail, amazingly vibrant color choices and terrific set design with each of story set in, and designed to reflect, a season. Each story also features some deeply creepy acting and tight stories. Unfortunately, the execution of the final two stories was too slow to be enjoyable.

The first story, “The Black Hair? follows a samurai who abandons his first wife in search of a better job and higher station through marriage to a minor noblewoman. He soon finds his new wife unpleasant and longs to return to his first. After his term of service ends, he goes home and spends a night of reconciliation with his spurned spouse – most of a night, at least. Before the night is over, the consequences of his actions come back to haunt him.

“The Black Hair,? and every story in Kwaidan is filmed with a terrific slowness. Each story unfolds at a leisurely, almost glacial pace. In the first two stories, this pace allows them to build tension, atmosphere and dread.

“The Woman of the Snow,? the second story, is an airy story about a young man caught in a blizzard and sure to die from exposure until he is spared by a starkly beautiful snow demon on the condition that he never tells anyone that he was spared. The story succeeds based on an otherworldly performance by Keiko Kishi as the Woman of the Snow. Kishi appears to have no arms in her costume, certainly has no eyebrows, and moves in a combination of floating and absurdly fast, short steps, contributing just the appropriate air of the uncanny about her.

When the young man cannot keep his tongue, a fate worse than was threatened befalls him.

(This story seems like the direct template for a New Twilight Zone episode from the 1980s about a man who, after being spared death by a demon on the condition of his silence, marries a beautiful woman and then blows it all by breaking his most important vow. That story however had disturbing racist overtones – in it, his wife, who is black [the man is white] is revealed to be a demon, and their mixed race children are revealed to be demons as well. Not exactly, “We Shall Overcome.?

I can’t seem to track down any information on the episode, though I remember seeing it when I was younger. Can anyone help?)

“The Woman of the Snow? is a particularly interesting piece because of the apparent influence it had on later films. Both it and “The Long Black Hair? feature numerous shots of women from behind, their long hair flowing down their backs, adding to the mystery and tension of the scenes. Takashi Miike used the same technique in Audition to build suspense, making Kwaidan perhaps an influence on him and giving some spark for a reconsideration of his film (is Audition’s Asami, then, a ghost or spirit and not a true woman at all?).

The make-up effects for the ghosts in all four films also call to mind the appearance of the Mystery Man in David Lynch’s Lost Highway. The Mystery Man, who could certainly be interpreted as a ghost and makes a passing reference to “the eastern lands? in the film, is perhaps a tip of the hat by Lynch to Kwaidan.

The film’s last two acts, “Hoichi, the Earless? and “In a Cup of Tea,? are less engaging. Combined, they make up well more than half the film, clocking in at probably 100 minutes or so.

“Hoichi,? the story of a blind apprentice monk tricked into giving recitations of poetry to a legion of ghosts is just far too slow to be interesting and is, surprisingly, hurt by being filmed. The story hinges in Hoichi not realizing that the ghosts he’s performing for are ghosts. This works fine for him since he’s blind, and would be great in fiction, but any tension in that area is immediately lost for the audience which can easily see the ghosts for what they are.

The final story, “In a Cup of Tea,? is better in concept than execution. The story, about a brash, foolish samurai who swallows another man’s soul in a cup of tea, is a good idea and ends with a nice bang, but just isn’t well-developed enough.

On the whole, Kwaidan is an interesting film, with some insights into modern directors and a pair of really excellent segments. Its detriments, however, make it perhaps less than the masterpiece it’s often acclaimed to be.

Buy Kwaidan at Amazon.

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