Eureka Review


Experimental and traditional forms meet in this uncanny anthology of Japanese ghost tales

Ruairí McCann on Masaki Kobayashi’s ‘Kwaidan’ (1964)

Kwaidan (1964) is an anthology of relatively straightforward period ghost stories transformed by meticulous and experimental design. Drawing from multiple collections of old Japanese folk yarns, all compiled and reworked by the Irish-Greek writer Lafcadio Hearn, it tells its tales sequentially.

In “The Black Hair”, a caddish swordsman (Mikuni Rentarō) ditches his loving but impoverished wife (Aratama Michiyo) for a wealthier one of higher social standing (Watanabe Misako). Overcome with remorse he eventually winds his way back to find that things have changed in his absence. While “The Woman of the Snow” features a woodcutter (Tatsuya Nakadai) who, stranded in a blizzard, finds himself in the clutches of a predatory spirit (Kishi Keiko). Unexpectedly, she takes pity and spares his life, on the condition that for the remainder of his days he keeps schtum about what happened. 

Both tales come in around forty minutes and are tied by the mistreatment of women and so the presence of yūrei — vengeful spirits who appear as pale, young women with jet black hair and have been the key signifiers of the paranormal in Japanese art, from kabuki theatre’s golden age in the 17th century to the turn of millennium wave of J-horror. 

Following an intermission, the last two tales are explicitly concerned or play around with the art of storytelling. The first up, “Hoichi The Earless” focuses on a young blind monk (Nakamura Katsuo) gifted in the art of biwa hoshi — a form of traditional folk music performed on the biwa, a four-stringed lute-like instrument. His rendition of a song that narrates an ancient battle fought between two clans is so exceptional that it makes him the obsession of the losing side’s ghostly court and retinue. This is the longest story, at over an hour, and is followed by the shortest, at thirty minutes. A coda of sorts, as well as a tale within a tale, “In a Cup of Tea” combines an unfinished fragment about an attendant plagued by a ghost sprung from a teacup with the imagined reason why the author (Takizawa Osamu) never got around to completing it.  

Almost entirely studio-bound and shot in colour in the ultra-wide Tohoscope, Kwaidan draws its uncanny quality through its overtly artificial conditions and style. Director Kobayashi Masaki opts for spare and symmetrical staging, coupled with non-realistic acting styles, where expressions and diction are exaggeratedly pointed or slowed down for emphasis. The inspiration is clearly the sparse décor and stillness of Noh theatre, whose artistry is not measured in how closely it resembles real life. Instead, it’s an art of masks and symbols whose power is derived from the expert execution of specific gestures and movements.

Working with favoured DP Miyajima Yoshio, Kobayashi engineers cinematography that suits this blending of prescribed antique form with a modern medium. A panoply of slow tracking shots and pans, along with high angle shots which instead of placing an audience on a square footing with the dead and damned, distances them. The sound design serves the same purpose, with little natural ambience and the few, select sounds drenched in reverb as if recorded in an empty cavern. Composer Takemitsu Toru then accentuates this overtly determined soundscape by adapting the atonal textures and minimalism of biwa hoshi to even sparser compositions.

These formal elements, and how they are rigorously applied, conjure and sustain an almost relentlessly tense and heavy air. Which Kobayashi knows when to disrupt, most effectively during the final kicker of this first story — which is the strongest segment, though the film is compelling from end to end — when the ex-wife’s fate is revealed. With the swordsman’s mind snapped by the shock, the previously steady and measured camera movements become unleveled and roam. The sound design too becomes even more distorted and detached from the action on screen and Aratama’s pleading moon face is reduced to a skull, bare and expressionless.  

Kwaidan’s high level of formal control has as its backdrop a lush and lurid sense of spectacle. Including the second segment’s transition from blue pocked winter wonderland to a series of red and orange Dali and Yves Tanguy inspired painted backgrounds. Later, there is the layered depiction of the third segment’s immortalised battle. An interpolation of stylized live-action staged with actors who motion like clockwork, positioned on boats which slice through fog and water, and an ornately decorated painted panel of the same scene. It is a rare instance of a clash and confluence of surrealist and traditional aesthetics being executed on a grand scale.

This mixture of ostentatious form and high production values is the film’s crowning achievement and is best appreciated by looking at its place in Japanese film history. It’s an uncompromised, independent production released during the flagging years of the film industry’s configuration as a studio system, which meant the vast majority of the national film production was consolidated under the aegis of a handful of major studios. Operating with a rigidity that was a double-edged sword, on the one hand this system offered a near-bottomless well of resources and facilities, allowing a great many filmmakers to work consistently at a high level of technical discipline. But its nature as a commercial enterprise with a strict hierarchy meant that, like the studio system across the water, it was largely intolerant of independents. 

Kobayashi Masaki was one of the few who bristled and then broke from these conditions. Emerging as a director in 1952, he made accessible melodramas alongside a series of works that were increasingly both stylistically and politically daring, all the while under the contract at Shochiku, perhaps Japan’s most conservative studio during this period. His contracted employment there culminated with The Human Condition (1959-1961), a three-part realist epic set during the Second World War. Though commercially successful, Shochiku parted ways with Kobayashi, judging his mounting rebelliousness to be unworthy of the risk. 

With his days as a studio player over, Kobayashi went freelance. Often partnering with one of the major studios, like he did on this film with Toho, yet always with a large degree of control as either co-producer or solo. Kwaidan is perhaps the perfect example of this new and rarely found free rein. As a film that was considerably self-financed and where Kobayashi doggedly pursued an unconventional form, it stands out as a striking example of artistic independence and experimentation, endowed with resources that usually come at the cost of a filmmaker’s autonomy.

Kwaidan will be released on Blu-ray in the UK and Ireland April 27 by Eureka Entertainment.

Ruairí McCann

By Ruairí McCann

Ruairí McCann is a critic based in Belfast. He runs a monthly film column for Film Hub NI and has appeared in Photogénie, Ultra Dogme, Little White Lies, and The Thin Air.