(1964)

In Japanese, with English subtitles.

No, Kwaidan isn’t the latest giant monster to rise from the sea and demolish Tokyo (although that would’ve made a cool film, too). Instead, “Kwaidan” translates as “Ghost Story.” Four of them, to be exact, based upon Japanese folk tales compiled into book form by Lafcadio Hearn in 1904. Here, in order, is a brief description of each: The Black Hair

Set in Kyoto, a samurai warrior divorces the wife he loves to seek a better position in life. Although his original wife begs him to stay, he leaves and marries into a wealthy family. As the narrator recounts, he soon regrets his foolishness: “It was the thoughtlessness of youth, and the experience of want. His second marriage did not prove a happy one. His new wife was selfish and callous.”

Untold years pass, and the samurai’s misery only deepens. Finally, he decides to abandon his wealthy but empty life, and returns to his old home to beg his original wife’s forgiveness. He finds the yard overgrown, and the house badly in disrepair. Venturing inside, he cautiously makes his way to the main room. Curiously, everything in the room is as he left it, and there in the corner sits his beautiful wife at her spinning wheel. She’s as overjoyed to see him as he is to see her. The two reconcile, and it’s implied they make love.

In the morning, the man awakes to sunlight pouring in from the window. Slowly shaking off the sleep, he suddenly realizes the perfectly-kept room of the previous night is now in the same decrepit state as the rest of the house. Hurriedly, he embraces his wife. But to his shock, he finds that beneath her long, black hair now lies a skeleton! As he jumps to his feet in terror, we now see he is no longer the young, handsome warrior we’ve been watching, but a very old man. He staggers through the house, trying to escape as the heretofore static camera executes wild tilts and canted angles. He collapses to the floor and crawls over to a cistern. As he views his reflection in the water, the frame freezes on his horrified grimace seen from beneath the water’s surface.

Of the four tales, “The Black Hair” possesses the greatest thematic depth. Unfortunately, director Masaki Kobayashi missteps when he shows the skeleton’s black hair actually moving, as if it was chasing after the samurai. Although this could be interpreted as only a manifestation of the man’s mental state (the view I prefer), the shot encourages the shallow, literal interpretation of the story which I’ve seen espoused elsewhere – that it all comes down to his being chased through the house by his abandoned wife’s hair. To me, the true horror of the story lies in the deep feelings of regret the man comes to experience. The shock of being chased by an inanimate object is superficial compared to the realization that he must live his remaining days knowing he squandered his life and let his one chance at happiness foolishly slip away. The final shot emphasizes this interpretation, since when the man sees his own reflection he realizes for the first time the majority of his life has passed him by.

The Woman of the Snow

An elderly woodcutter and his youthful apprentice become hopelessly lost in the forest during a raging nighttime blizzard. Finding shelter in an abandoned hut, they’re visited by a female demon. As she lingers over the older man, one blast of her icy breath drains all the blood from his body (it’s implied she’s a “snow vampire”). But when she turns her attention to his apprentice, she takes a liking to him. In exchange for his promise never to tell anyone what he witnessed, she spares his life, and disappears back into the howling snowstorm.

Years pass, and the young man all but forgets the events of that horrible snowy night. He meets a charming young woman, they fall in love, and they marry and have three children. Their domestic bliss becomes the talk of the village.

Then one evening, while he’s making sandals for all the members of the family, she sits nearby sewing a new kimono. She does something which reminds him of the snow demon. He then relates the entire story to her, adding that he’s not sure now if it really happened or if it was all a dream. Suddenly, the entire mood changes (accompanied by a dramatic change in lighting), and her face adopts an icy scowl. She growls that she is the demon he encountered, and he has now broken his promise and betrayed her.

The story ends as she decides to spare his life again, this time for the sake of their children. She storms out of their home, warning him if he ever hurts the kids she’ll be back to make amends. After she leaves (she literally floats through the air and passes through the closed door), he walks out into the snow and leaves the sandals he made for her as a peace offering. The sandals then slowly disappear.

After I watched this segment, I was unnerved by the feeling the plot was strangely familiar. So I banged my head against the wall repeatedly, trying to remember where I’d seen it before (I suppose you know a better method?) Finally, I realized an updated version of this story was used in the 1990 flick Tales From the Darkside: The Movie, where the she-demon was played by Rae Dawn Chong. But before we scream “Plagiarism!” too loudly, recall that this story was originally a Japanese fairy tale, so it’s possible the writers of TFTDS derived it from the original source, not from Kwaidan.

When Kwaidan was first released in the United States, its 2-hour-and-42-minute running time was deemed too lengthy. So “The Woman of the Snow” was deleted. Since this segment is arguably the most visually impressive of the four (if not the outright best), such an action is about as hare-brained as cutting the songs from The Sound of Music. Which, I suppose, explains why it was done.

Hoichi-The-Earless

If you’ve previously heard of the film Kwaidan, chances are it was in relation to this story, and the accompanying image of a man with his face covered in Japanese writing.

The tale begins with the ancient Genji and Heike clans locked in a mortal battle at sea. After heavy fighting, the Heike army succumbs to the swords and arrows of the Genji, and the mother of the infant Heike emperor jumps to her death with her son in her arms. “And that sea and shore,” intones the narrator, “have [since] been haunted for 700 years.”

Flash forward several centuries. We meet Hoichi, a young man who is blind and who lives in a monastery with a Buddhist priest and his servants. Hoichi plays a stringed instrument called a biwa, which is similar in appearance to a lute, and similar in sound to a rake being dragged across a chalkboard. Even worse, Hoichi accompanies his biwa playing with vocals as melodious as an air raid siren. Say what you will about the Ramones and the Sex Pistols; punk rock’s true origins lie with Hoichi and his biwa.

One night when he’s alone at the temple, the ghost of a Heike samurai appears before him, and requests that Hoichi musically recite the legend of the Genji/Heike battle for the samurai’s masters. Hoichi agrees, and the ghost leads him to a temple hidden in the darkest reaches of the forest. There, Hoichi proceeds to caterwaul a narrative of the battle before a legion of brightly dressed Heike ghosts, all the while strumming his biwa with what looks to be an ice scraper. It’s enough to wake the dead, but the ghosts apparently like it.

Now, I have two questions regarding this entire scenario. If everybody died in the battle, how does Hoichi know what happened? And since the Heike lost, why are they interested in hearing someone basically singing, “You guys got your asses kicked.” Other than this, the scene makes perfect sense.

Anyway, Hoichi gives such a stunning performance that the ghosts demand he return for an encore on several following nights. But one evening his absence at the monastery is noticed, and two servants go out looking for him during a torrential downpour. As they close in on his location, their shouts can be heard in the distance. At this, the Heike ghosts slowly transform into tombstones – Hoichi hasn’t been performing in a temple after all, but in a graveyard! Against Hoichi’s protests, the servants drag him back home, where he relates the whole story to the priest. The priest is mortified, and warns him, “By once obeying them, you have put yourself in their power. If you obey them again, they’ll tear you to pieces. But in any event they’d have destroyed you sooner or later.”

The priest hatches a plan to get Hoichi out of this whole mess. During a religious ceremony, he and his assistant cover every inch of Hoichi’s body with Japanese writing culled from their holy text. The priest then instructs Hoichi not to answer the next time the ghost comes calling. Unfortunately, they forget to paint characters on Hoichi’s ears.

When the ghost appears that night, Hoichi remains completely silent. All the parts of his body are rendered invisible to the spirit except his ears, which stick out like a sore thumb. The ghost is perplexed, but decides to bring the ears back to his superiors, and in a rather unpleasant and bloody scene, tears them off.

As the story ends, Hoichi’s encounter with the spirit world has won him wide acclaim. Rich noblemen from throughout the land come to hear him play, and “Hoichi the Earless” becomes a wealthy man.

In A Cup Of Tea

As the tale opens, we’re introduced to a writer of folk stories. What does it mean, asks the narrator, when a story is written down but has no ending? Then the story in question begins to unfold onscreen.

A feudal lord traveling with his entourage of samurai stops at a holy temple. As the lord enters the building, the samurai remain outside sitting at attention. To the visible disapproval of his comrades, one of the warriors yields to his thirst and rises to draw a bowl of tea from a nearby kettle. He becomes perplexed, however, when a man’s smiling reflection gazes back at him from the bowl. Emptying the tea, changing bowls, and smashing the bowl into pieces all fail to solve the problem – each new bowl of tea has the reflection of that obnoxious grinning man in it. Finally, the samurai gulps the tea in disgust.

That night, the ghost of Shikibu Henai (a.k.a., the grinning man) appears to the samurai at his lord’s manor. “This morning you dared to wound me,” intones Shikibu menacingly, apparently forgetting that he was the one who refused to get the hell out of the other guy’s tea bowl. The samurai draws his sword and thrusts at him, and Shikibu clutches his shoulder and fades away into the wall. A heckuva lot that accomplished.

So the following night, Shikibu sends three of his henchmen to the house. (Oddly enough, the samurai’s servant can also see them, implying the ghosts aren’t just in the samurai’s mind.) The head henchman warns, “When our master visited you last night, you struck him with a sword. He was badly hurt… But on the 16th day of the next month he will return. And he will repay you for the injury done to him.” Surprisingly, the samurai isn’t happy to hear this, and reacts once again with violence. After much thrusting and dodging, he manages to skewer all three in turn with a spear. But then they reappear again unharmed, and the samurai begins to laugh the laugh of a man who has lost his marbles. No doubt he’s thinking to himself, “All I wanted was one single cup of tea, dammit!”

We then return to the writer’s reality, with the writer nowhere to be seen in the room. His publisher and female servant enter, and the publisher picks up the unfinished story and begins to read: “I can imagine several possible endings… but leave it up to the reader to decide the possible consequences of swallowing a soul.” The servant shrieks and flees from the room. The publisher walks over to the large kettle from which she just fled, and observes to his horror that the writer’s reflection is now visible in the water within.

Hmmm. Clearly, this story is the weakest of the four. If any of them had to be deleted for the U.S. release, it should’ve been this one. Not only does the inner story lack logic (Why does the man appear in the bowl of tea? If he’s a ghost, why can he be wounded by a sword? If he can be wounded, why can’t his henchmen? etc. etc.), but the ending makes no sense either. The whole story reeks of having been scripted and filmed in a hurry, which, given that Kobayashi had a selection of folk tales to choose from, wouldn’t seem to be the case. As it stands, its presence results in Kwaidan ending with a fizzle rather than a bang.

Throughout the film, Kobayashi uses color and impressionistic sets to convey moods within his stories. During the opening credits, dyes of different hues swirl around in a tank of clear water, hinting at the intermingling of the supernatural with reality which is to come. Many of the outdoor scenes were filmed on indoor sets, allowing Kobayashi considerable freedom to add surrealistic touches to the sky backdrop. In “The Woman of the Snow,” when the men first become lost in the forest, the vague image of a giant eye looking down on them can be seen in the sky. After the young woodcutter passes out in the blizzard, he regains consciousness to find the forest has transformed into a surreal snowscape. Where once had been a suggestion of an eye in the sky, now there are several eyes plainly visible. Later in the segment, when the woodcutter and his wife frolic through the fields, the sky is rendered in shades of pink and orange, imparting a blissful warmth to the proceedings. In “Hoichi-The-Earless,” the sky is a serene blue until the battle between the clans begins. Then it turns an inflamed orange for the remainder of the fight.

In contrast to the elaborate artistic flourishes with the exteriors, other aspects of the film are downright spartan. The soundtrack is pared down to the absolute minimum of narration, dialogue, and an occasional sound effect. Interior sets are generally devoid of extraneous props and dressing which might distract from the story. The camerawork is often composed of static longshots, until a character begins a descent into madness. Then, the camera begins tilting to and fro to emphasize the loss of equilibrium in the situation.