A review requested by Yourself, with thanks to supporting Alternate Ending as a donor through Patreon.

Do you have a movie you'd like to see reviewed? This and other perks can be found on our Patreon page!


How to go about discussing the 1964 Kwaidan? It's historically important as the first Japanese horror movie to be widely screened outside of Asia (at least in North America, in a severely cut-down version reducing its length by almost a third), though the cinematic ghost story was already ensconced as a genre in that country (Kwaidan is an archaic transliteration of kaidan, which simply means "ghost story"). It's also significant as one of the very few anthology films in my experience that doesn't fall apart for any of its individual segments, though there's still a pretty clear division between the two "absolutely great" ones and the two "merely good" ones. It represents a startling swerve in the career of director Kobayashi Masaki, who had previously made a number of angrily humanistic, politically-minded dramas, and nothing at all like this heavily-stylised homage to the stately rhythms of traditional Japanese folklore and theatrical traditions. And it has a special place in the annals of filmed folklore, as the first adaptation based on the work of Lafcadio Hearn, a Greek-born world traveler who spent a decade in New Orleans before arriving in Japan near the end of the 19th Century, where he became the first researcher to record many traditional folk tales in print (and the first Westerner to record any of them at all), gaining Japanese citizenry along the way.

Or, we could just pass by all of that, and take Kwaidan simply on it own terms, as a truly remarkable one-off in the annals of screen horror. And I'm sure "one-off" is overselling it, but the peculiarities of the film are not to be denied or belittled. The film consists of four unconnected narratives, vaguely mapping onto the four seasons, each adapted by Mizuki Yoko from a story by Hearn (two from the 1904 collection Kwaidan, two from elsewhere in his extensive body of work analysing the stuff of Japanese culture). They're all loosely treated by Kobayashi and company in a similar style, though the particularities of how that style is applied changes from segment to segment, as does (quite significantly) the pacing and tone.

One thing that remains constant is the wholehearted artifice of the film. To put it as simply as possible, Kwaidan does not take place in the real world, and does not seem very interested in pretending otherwise. It is unabashedly staged, in the most denotative sense: much of the blocking, set design, framing, and use of color feel beholden to stage traditions, though the presence of a camera is always at the front: it is no mere canned theater. Every judiciously-selected cut between shot scales, or simply to re-orient us in space, insists on the essential nature of this as a movie, and a '60s movie especially, which of course means a lot of opulence in the expansive scale of the Tohoscope anamorphic cinematography process, and in the reliance on splashy visual effects, and its unhurried 183-minute running time.

And the color - if Kwaidan offered no other points of interest, aesthetically or historically, and no other justification for its existence, the use of color would be sufficient. Indeed, besides Kobayashi and cinematographer Miyajima Yoshio, art director Toda Shigemasa, and set decorator Arakawa Dai, and let us definitely not forget costume designer Kato Masahiro - beyond all of these names that we must be careful to note as contributing to the splendid, startling look of the film, the film also credits color consultant Midorikawa Michio, and it's certainly the kind of film for which a color consultant would have been a very important role to keep filled. Particularly in the middle two segments - which are the best, and I don't see that as any kind of coincidence - color isn't just a little way to add some personality, or a means of making the thing look pretty, color is a major storytelling element and emotional guide. Maybe the major storytelling element in the second part, where the careful application of a certain family of cool neon blues is one of the primary drivers of the film's dreamil horrific effect.

Anyway, how about those stories being told? I have read none of Hearn and little of Japanese ghost stories otherwise, though my sense is that most of what's to be found in the corpus would meet the Western definition of "scary stories"; rather, they're invested in an uncanny, "weird tales" vibe (the subtitle of Hearn's Kwaidan is Stories and Studies of Strange Things). There is an aura of menace, but like as not, that aura is generated primarily not from malicious ghosts, but from the feeling that non-overlapping worlds have been inappropriately mixed; all four tales boil down to the basic theme, "it's better for the human and spirit worlds to have nothing to do with each other".

The first of the stories goes a bit beyond that. "The Black Hair" is also a little bit of a story of how shabbily women are treated in a world of men: it's the story of a poor ronin (Mikuni Rentaro) who leaves his first wife (Aratama Michiyho), largely so that he can find a richer woman to marry for her fortune. He does so, but his second wife (Watanabe Misako) is a haughty, cruel woman, and their marriage is bitterly unhappy. Despondent, the man returns to his first wife years later, finding her strangely untouched by time, particularly her sleek, shiny black hair. If you can't figure out more or less where it's going, congratulations on never having encountered a ghost story (the same is true of the second segment).

"The Black Hair" is probably the sequence most reminiscent of Kobayashi's previous film, and I think also likely his best-known, 1962's Harakiri. It shares a bit of that film's particular style, especially its use of depth staging on angles, emphasising the geometry of the old-fashioned architecture used throughout, but not in the highly lateral fashion of e.g. Mizoguchi Kenji. Instead, there are diagonals all throughout, creating striking lines for characters to walk across and to interact.

It's beautiful, and the staging elegantly positions characters apart from each other in a ritualistic, dance-like series of movements, but for all that, "The Black Hair" is probably my least favorite part of Kwaidan. It is, forgive my unsophistication, beastly slow; there's a glacially-paced solemnity that suits the material, and makes it clear what kind of film we're going to be dealing with. But this could be a lot less slow, and still read as "not at all fast"; as it stands, the film covers about 8 minutes of plot in about 40 minutes, and all the gorgeous staging in the world can't quite cover that. The effect goes beyond a hypnotic, trancelike abstraction, into being mildly boring.

Ah well. It's an affliction that faces none of the other segments, least of all "The Woman of the Snow", another tale of a jackass man, though perhaps less of a jackass. On brutally cold, snowy night, an old woodcutter and his apprentice take pitiful shelter in a rickety boat house. They are visited by a yuki-onna (Kishi Keiko), a being of malicious ice, who freezes the old man to death, but moved by the beauty of the apprentice Minokichi (Nakadai Tatsuya), allows him to live, if he promises to never tell the story of meeting her. On his way back home, Minokichi meets a young woman without any connections in the world, Yuki, and wouldn't you just know, she looks exactly like the ghost he just met. They marry, have three children, and Yuki becomes beloved by all the women of the neighborhood, a devoted and loving wife, and a sweet mother, and if you can't figure out where this one is going, congratulations on never having encountered the concept of "narrative" prior to reading this review.

Regardless of its predictability... no, make that because of its predictability. "The Woman of the Snow" attains an almost tragic dimension from how clearly it builds up to the moment that Minokichi, absurd twit that he is, finally tells Yuki about his fateful night in the snow; the ending twists just a little bit enough to make it clear that tragedy, not scares, is exactly what the story is all about. And yet, as filmed, it still manages to be scary, which I was thoroughly not expecting: the way that lighting and make-up effects transform Kishi into an inhuman spirit, glowing with chilly blue light, is a little freaky at first, and it gets all the freakier once we've gotten used to her as a normal human.

"The Woman of the Snow" also has simply incredible sets. Wholly eschewing even the most glancing notion of realism, the sequence uses painted backdrops to suggest landscapes and the weather in the most poetically crude way possible. Notably, there are huge eyes painted onto the sky, a menacing consciousness in the winter storm glaring at the human characters with indifferent malice; they're unnerving all the more because the lack of depth or space conferred by the backdrops makes the whole world feel unreal and threatening.

This was the sequence cut for the film's 1965 North American release, and I can only call that a crime; if "The Woman of the Snow" isn't Kwaidan's pinnacle, it's only by the thinnest of margins. It is truly among the most striking sequences in all of 1960s cinema, boldly artificial, hazy and hallucinatory, terrifying and sad.

Next up comes the longest and most iconic story: "Hoichi the Earless". Since the first time we meet Hoichi (Nakamura Katsuo), a blind biwa player, he has both ears, it's an easy guess that what will follow shall find himself being relieved of them, though how this is to happen is a matter of some convolution. First, we start centuries earlier, during the Battle of Dan-no-ura in the 12th Century, itself related as a biwa performance (the droning, chant-singing accompanied by isolated chords strummed on the biwa that you've surely heard if you've ever seen a Japanese period film), with flagrantly artificial, theatrical performances evoking the last of the Taira clan being defeated by the Minamoto clan in big poses and exaggerated facial expressions. Back in the "present" of the 18th century or so, Hoichi is approached by a ghost; blind, he cannot recognise the spirit for what it is, and so travels to the ghostly court of the dead Taira emperor, to perform. This starts to wear on him, and the head priest (Shimura Takashi) of the temple where Hoichi lives and performs grows concerned that he has been possessed. The solution ends up to paint the text of a powerful sutra over Hoichi's body, a stunning image that is maybe the best-known visual from the film. This will render him invisible to the ghosts.

This segment is where the theatrical staging really comes into its own, particularly the bravura sequence in which Hoichi performs the climactic battle of the epic Tale of the Heike in front of an audience of the very spirits who were slaughtered in that battle. It's a sad and strange concept, perfectly executed in the linear, rectangular compositions of the still, attentive ghosts, intercut with Hoichi's poised form as he performs; later, the ghosts are replaced with their own sprawling, dead bodies, interrupting the geometric precision of the scene in a most marvelous way. It's easily my favorite scene in the film, slow and steady, relying on the shape of the film frame to define the action (non-action, really) and to create a rich, living painting out of the characters, the gloomy space they inhabit, and the guttering fog filling it.

The last and in a very literal sense least of the stories is "In a Cup of Tea", which starts with a narrator (Takizawa Osamu) complaining about the frustration of being a folklore researcher. Namely, the annoyance of finding a good story fragment that cuts off without resolving anything. So it's not much of a surprise where this one goes, either, though the snazzy choice of ending the film in such a deeply unsatisfying way is a pretty cool meta-narrative gambit. It's just... well... unsatisfying. It is rather neat that the framing story around the actual ghost story is the only strictly realistic space scene in the whole movie, giving the sequence a certain sense of stability that is ruptured by the ending. Still, this is an odd little lark, tossed-off in a way that might be admirable, but isn't exactly "enjoyable".

Not much of a ding against a great film, though. Kwaidan is a marvel: the problems are big and obvious, but the strengths are much, much bigger. This is, easily, one of the most fascinating ghost stories I've ever seen: more of a floating dreamscape of folklore, bedtime stories and vivid images than any Western horror film could ever be. And compared to the not-very-large number of mid-century Japanese movies about ghosts I've seen (it would be a category error to call them "Japanese horror films"), it's maybe only a little more dreamy, but certain a great deal more committed in its formalism, its attempt to evoke something truly out-of-time and archaic in every detail of its compositions, staging, acting. Basically, it's a film that captures something deep and real about the remoteness of traditional folklore, while also embodying the frisson that a well-told story of the uncanny and otherworldly can evoke down in the gut, no matter how old-fashioned or even ancient. It's an extraordinary multi-media triumph in its own way, and for all my nitpicks, it must be the best filmed version of folklore that I've ever seen.