Kwaidan (1964)
Director: Masaki Kobayashi
Cast: Rentarō Mikuni, Keiko Kishi, Kazuo Nakamura
Run time: 183 mins
Format: Blu-ray
Language: Japanese (with optional English subtitles)
Release Date: 27 April 2020

Jamie Havlin takes a look at Masaki Kobayashi’s striking collection of Japanese ghost tales, available on Blu-ray for the first time in the UK.

Ghost stories and horror have played a big part in Japanese cinema from the silent era through to the highpoint of J-Horror and beyond. Few of these films, though, have ever matched the critical success of Kwaidan. Unusually for a film categorised as horror, it received a Special Jury Prize at Cannes and an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film.

An anthology film like Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath (1963) and Roger Corman’s Tales of Terror (1962), Kwaidan consists of a quartet of unrelated and uncanny tales, each based on traditional Japanese folklore.

In The Black Hair, a poverty-stricken samurai leaves his devoted wife to marry into a wealthier family. The move is equally selfish and foolish. His new marriage brings no happiness and he yearns for his first wife. Finally, he resolves to get back together with her. But will his attempt at a reconciliation go as smoothly as a comb through her long black hair?

The Woman of the Snow begins with a young woodcutter named Minokichi and his older colleague Mosaku caught in a severe snowstorm. They take refuge in an abandoned ferryman’s hut.

There they sleep. Minokichi awakes just in time to witness a woman dressed in white with very pale skin and blue lips bent over Mosaku and blowing icy breath on his face. She is a snow demon (or in Japanese, a Yuki-Onna or yōkai), and her breath freezes the older man to death. Fortunately for Minokichi, she spares him because of his youth and good looks with one proviso: ‘If you ever tell anybody – even your own mother – about what you have seen this night. I shall know it, and then I will kill you.’

This episode is my favourite and surprisingly, it was the one chosen to be chopped out of the original American release to cut down on the film’s length. It’s beautifully shot with a peculiar painted backdrop of a jade-green sky scattered with eyes and other odd touches. Kwaidan was filmed almost entirely on massive sets constructed in a converted airplane hangar – as no Japanese studio was big enough to satisfy Kobayashi’s vision for his work.

The longest of the four stories is Hoichi the Earless – and Earless isn’t a typo with a missing F. Hoichi is a gifted young biwa player who specialises in singing songs of ancient battles. He is visited by a spectral warrior who invites him to play in front of a grand gathering of royals, noblemen and ladies. Hoichi accepts the offer. Being blind, he is oblivious to the fact that he is actually playing in a graveyard to a possibly malevolent audience from the spirit world.

Regrettably, the title of this episode does give away its gruesome twist ending. Making no attempt at naturalism, the highly stylized sea battle looks stunning, and there’s much to enjoy here but this segment should surely have been tightened and renamed.

Finally, In a Cup of Tea is a supernatural chiller where a samurai repeatedly sees a smirking face reflected from a cup of tea whenever he lifts the cup to his lips. This has a post-modern feel, and it is truly a tale of the unexpected.

Kwaidan is far from the scariest horror film I’ve ever seen but from the opening credit sequence of various colours of ink swirling and dissolving into water onwards, it is one of the most eerily beautiful.

Special features include Kim Newman on Kwaidan – a new interview with the film critic and writer; Shadowings [35 mins] – a video essay by David Cairns and Fiona Watson and a 100 page illustrated collector’s book.

For more on the film click here.

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All words by Jamie Havlin. More writing by Jamie can be found at his Louder Than War author’s archive.

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