Masaki Kobayashi’s next film after the 1962 samurai drama ‘Seppuku’ (aka ‘Harakiri’) uses the narrative of a horror anthology to tell four separate ghost stories (Kaidan) of haunted people and disturbed spirits. In contrast with ‘Seppuku’ and his epic war trilogy ‘The Human Condition’ Kobayashi’s horror is a colourful, theatrical example of Japanese surrealist expressionism. MIGHT CONTAIN SPOILERS
‘Kwaidan”s four segments, adapted from Lafcadio Hearn’s collections of Japanese folk tales, offer the same narrative as later Hollywood horror anthologies ‘Creepshow’, or ‘Tales from the Crypt’, bookended by the voice-over of a narrator who only makes an appearance in the fourth tale. The protagonist of the first and porbably scariest story, ‘The Black Hair’, an impoverished Kyoto samurai leaves his wife and home behind in search of a career, wealth and social status. After marrying a wealthy woman he regrets his decision of leaving his kind and obedient first wife and decides to return home to ask for her forgiveness. Although she seems to be the same woman he left alone years ago and is willing to reconcile even after what he has done to her, after they spend the night together, the man is shocked to find out that the woman he talked to and touched the night before has been in fact dead for a long time. ‘The Black Hair’ can be interpreted as an anti-samurai story – such as the samurai in Kaneto Shindô’s ‘Onibaba’ or ‘Kuroneko’, its protagonist has to pay for the selfishness and cruelty of his chosen lifestyle.
‘The Woman of the Snow’ (later remade in ‘Tales from the Darkside: The Movie’) introduces a young woodcutter, Minokichi, who witnesses the death of his older companion Mosaku after they take in a hut during a snowstorm and snow spirit Yuki-onna appears to take their lives. She spares Minokichi but warns him never to tell anyone about what he has seen. Years later, after marrying a woman, he breaks his promise and tells his wife about the night of the snowstorm – only to find out that his wife actually is Yuki-onna. Yuki-onna is the first precursor of the popular (and now overused) horror character, the long black-haired Japanese woman later seen in several J-horrors such as 1998 ‘Ringu’ or 2002 ‘Ju-on’.
‘Hoichi the Earless’, a young blind musician living in a monastery is visited by ghosts of the Tiara clan asking him to, playing his biwa, sing them the tale of the clan’s death at the end of the Battle of Dan-no-ura of the Genpei clan war. The priests at the temple soon realise that the spirits might endanger the boy and could possibly kill him – this showing the complexity of the ghosts of Asian cinema. While these spirits are usually described as tortured souls longing for closure and redemption, the ghosts of the imperial court of the Tiara clan, the same way as ‘Ringu”s Sadako, are actually evil demons, violent and irreconcilable. To protect him, the priests cover Hoichi’s body with holy manuscript but forget his ears – which are torn off by the ghosts.
Most unconventional of the four, ‘In A Cup of Tea’ is the unfinished tale of a samurai who keeps seeing the face of an unknown man in his tea. Later, he encounters and wounds the man who disappears – the samurai then has to fight his similarly mysterious servants. The narrator of the tale stops telling the story in the middle, as it is unfinished by its original author. Our narrator, possibly the editor of the seen ghost stories, is visited by his publisher, who notices the writer’s disappearance – in the very end of the film the publisher notices the writer’s trapped soul inside a caldron.
Similarly to Akira Kurosawa’s ‘Dreams’, the mise-en-scéne of ‘Kwaidan’ is just as (if not more) important as the message and morality behind its segments. Unlike modern conventional jump-scare horror flicks, Kobayashi approaches its subject with patience and tenderness. His carefully composed, symmetrical shots, painted backgrounds, theatrically parcelled depth of field and surrealist usage of lighting and colouring makes ‘Kwaidan’ more of a dreamlike journey into Japanese folklore than a collection of creepy, meaningless campfire stories.