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The 1904 book Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things was a collection of Japanese ghost stories, mythology, folklore, and even insect studies. It was written by the Greek immigrant Lafcadio Hearn who became fascinated with Japan after moving to the country. Though he died the same year the book was published, his tales of terror lived on in the country.
Producer Shigeru Wakatsuki took note of the book and thought adapting a handful of its stories would make for a great movie. Director Masaki Kobayashi was tapped to develop the film as part of the tail-end picture for his three-picture deal with Toho. Though Kobayashi went way over budget and turned in a lengthy adaptation of four stories, his anthology horror is regarded as one of the best Japanese horror films ever made.
Each entry touches on some form of dread for the unknown. There’s a lingering threat of being terrified about mortality and what may linger when the corporeal form is dead. The four stories highlight an aspect of how spirits from another realm warn us ourselves.
The Black Hair: Running From Decay
Nothing lasts forever. This is a lesson that a swordsman learns when he leaves his weaver of a wife. He leaves her to marry a woman of much higher status. He believes this will elevate his social rank but it’s a marriage that is loveless. His new wife despises him and he soon comes to realize this was a big mistake.
Noting the error of his ways, he returns to his ex-wife hoping to make amends. To his surprise, she appears exactly the way he left her many years ago. Her hair remains as pristine and glossy as he remembered, making him feel as though this was a life he could return to with ease.
He spends the night and awakens to his ex-wife’s corpse and decaying household. He, too, also starts decaying, rapidly aging as he struggles to find his way out of the house. Death of both his ex-wife and her home was inevitable and it will come for him, too. No matter how high he builds himself up, he is bound for the grave as all humans.
The Woman of the Snow: Caution of Youth
The second story concerns the legacy of the woodcutter Minokichi. During a snowstorm, he and his co-worker take refuge in a hut. They are then visited by the ghost figure of a yuki-onna. The yuki-onna kills the co-worker but spares the life of Minokichi through a combination of attraction and pity. She threatens his life, however, saying she’ll kill him if she mentions her name.
Later in his life, Minokichi falls in love with a woman called Yuki. This is obviously the yuki-onna but Minokichi doesn’t address this, heading the works of the ghost. They have a life together and children as well. It’s only once Minokichi mentions that fateful night at Yuki that she transforms into the evil spirit. She leaves Minokichi but with a new threat: treat the children well or die.
Minokichi’s life is spared in both instances because of a prospect the yuki-onna finds within him. She finds an attraction towards him that can’t bring her to take his life. She still threatens her life but doesn’t take it. The first encounter resulted in the sparing of his life for love and there seems to still be some love in the second encounter when realizing he’d make a great father. Yet Minokichi is constantly being warned to take value in his life and not address the supernatural. When he doesn’t, his life turns out to be one of joy and pleasure. It’s only once he confronts the spiritual or questions it that his world starts becoming darker.
Hoichi the Earless: Paying the Dead
The character of Hoichi appears as a blind musician, singing about battles from the past. One of his most iconic performances is for The Tale of the Heike about the Battle of Dan-no-ura. While serving at a temple, a samurai spirit forces him to perform for his master. His performance, however, is cut off by the temple priest who wants Hoichi to be in great danger for such an encounter.
The only way to fight off the spirits is to paint the text of the Heart Sutra all over Hoichi’s body. Doing so will make him invisible to the ghosts. However, his ears are not covered and he loses that part of his body. Despite being earless, the spirits now leave him alone, his ears have been paid for by the undead that haunts the temple.
Hoichi’s life that follows is a rich one as the wealthy bring him gifts as the musician continues to play to the dead. This is one of the uniquely darker tales of the film that centers around how the dead can sometimes not be so easily quelled. The faith and prayer placed towards the dead may not always be returned, as those who cannot rest demand more. The story is somewhat cautious of how we perceive the past, warning us to take heed but not be bound by it for the rest of our lives.
In a Cup of Tea: Thirsty for Answers
The fourth and final story centers around trying to comprehend the supernatural. Sekinai is the guard to Lord Nakagawa Sadono finds himself haunted by a mysterious face that appears in a cup of tea. He’s frightened at first but still drinks the cup anyway. It will not be the last encounter.
Sekinai soon learns that the mysterious man is Heinai Shikibu. After nobody believing what he has witnessed, Sekinai soon fights a series of ghosts serving under Heinai. How does it end? Well, it kinda doesn’t.
The whole story is posed as one being written by a writer expecting a publisher. However, before the story ends, the publisher arrives to find this unfinished manuscript. It brings the film to an end when the publisher discovers the author trapped in a jar of water.
How did the author get there? Why did Sekinai choose a cup of tea to occupy? We may never know. And it’s that uncertainty of the unknown that makes us curious to learn more but frightened of what we may discover.
Horror in Color
One of the most remarkable aspects of Kwaidan is its use of color and lighting. From the first few shots, the audience is treated to mesmerizing and transient colors swirling in liquid. It’s beautiful and strange, setting the stage for a horror anthology that wants to lure you into its eerie nature with wonder.
Notice how the film features a number of scenes that are not as concealed in the darkness. Even scenes that do take place in the dark, as it does with the decaying house of The Black Hair, still have ample lighting that does not fully conceal the living or the dead.
There’s an evening scene in The Woman of the Snow that is bathed in red and orange. There’s an otherworldly quality to these moments, feeling almost dreamlike in settings that feel more like a stage. Even when the spirit makes herself known, her dark presence is slathered in bold blues, creating a chill over the viewer that is as attractive as it is chilling.
Take note of how the scenes depicting the Battle of Dan-no-ura cut between the detailed illustrations and a staged battle at sea. There’s a fantastical quality to this intercutting, where the stylized depiction of the sea matches the warm colors of the drawings. Notice also how the soundtrack cuts most of the audio and lets the song from Hoichi do the talking, marked with twangs of his biwa.
The Creeping Camera
Perhaps the most compelling aspect of the terror is how the camera moves. When scenes are meant to be frightening and supernatural, the camera will often tilt and zoom in on the subject, be it a victim or a ghost. It gives the audience an impression that something is not right and that the world is disorienting.
This is best showcased in The Black Hair. When the swordsman recalls the wife he left, the camera tilts and zooms in on her weaving, making his memories throw him off. Later, when he discovers everything decaying in the house, the camera tilts even further, making it seem as though he’s stumbling through a world where gravity shifts.
Horror films that followed in the coming decades relied more on this titling of the camera to create anxiety and dread. What makes Kwaidan so notable is that it has a sense of invitation, drawing the viewer into its dark world. When the camera follows the swordsman of The Black Hair down a hallway as the perspective rotates, we also feel like we’re stumbling with our protagonist in a situation we don’t fully understand.
The American Cut
Kwaidan has a running time of 182 minutes which was quite the length for the 1964 film. Since this seemed rather lengthy, the American distributor of Continental Distributing made some cuts. Well, more specifically, they cut one entire story from the film, choosing to remove The Woman of the Snow. The removal brought the running time down to a passable 125 minutes.
Despite the trimming, Kwaidan did receive some strong praise abroad. It won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and won the Special Jury Prize at the 1965 Cannes Film Festival. The film would eventually see a quality home video release in the United States by Criterion which included the cut The Woman of the Snow sequence.
A Vibrant Legacy
Kwaidan was such an expensive film to produce that Kobayashi at one point had to sell his house to cover the exhausted budget. Though the box office gross didn’t cover the budget, the legacy of the film lives on. Even without the foreknowledge of Japanese ghost stories, the very look of the film is enough to draw in the eyes with its luscious pop and eerie staging of the supernatural.
A lot of modern horror that relies more on scary ideas than dark staging owes a lot to Kwaidan. Sometimes you don’t need the blackest of shadows or the goriest of kills to send chills through the audience. Sometimes a good story with vibrant colors can get the job done just as much as any spooky haunted house tale or grizzly slasher fest. During a time when horror films were trying to find the best way to film red blood, Kwaidan was exploring so much more.