AMAD-Horror Edition: Kwaidan

10 Oct

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October 10th, 2009–

Would you like to hear a ghost story?

 Look around; the days are soon to shorten, the leaves to color and then fall, and the chill of winter is already intruding. There is really no better time for one. And this one, I promise, you will like. It’s a story you have probably heard before. But not like this. Never quite like this.

cinemagrade A+Masaki Kobayasi’s Kwaidan isn’t just a single tale, it’s an anthology of tales drawn from Lafcadio Hearn’s classic Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things (1903). Directly translated into ‘ghost story’, the literary version of Kwaidan has the odd distinction of being a Japanese folklore collection written by a foreigner. Hearn, born to Greek and Irish parents, had been working in America as a journalist when he moved to Japan and started penning anthologies of the country’s folktales in the native language. Of all of his work, Kwaidan is the most famous; re-telling creepy variations of traditional ghost stories.

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In 1960, Japanese director Masaki Kobayasi created a film that drew from several of Hearn’s collections and told four individual vignettes of the supernatural, taking place within the confines of fuedal Japan. Kobayasi–whose resume also includes the masterpieces Seppuku, Samurai Rebellion, and The Human Condition trilogy–brings a stylistic sensibility to the film that transcends the material and instead of delivering a simple horror movie he crafted a surrealistic tone poem that honors the folklore and heritage of Japan. As a result, Kwaidan is one of the finest cinematic ghost stories ever made.

The Black Hair

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After a visually unnerving credit sequence that features swirling tendrils of black ink–they could even be hair for all that the abstract composition defines them–Kwaidan opens with The Black Hair. Drawing on the same material that inspired Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu in 1953, this story follows a destitute samurai who leaves his faithful, doting wife to travel to a province whose governor has a youthful daughter that he then marries. Working for the governor, and attempting to forget the woman he left behind, the samurai finds himself returning to his abandoned home ten years later. He has been dreaming of the woman he wronged, and sets out to make ammends. What he finds upon his return isn’t exactly what it appears to be. 

This sequence is perhaps the most straightforward of the four and it may be the one I find to be the least powerful in retrospect. The story is told in beautiful visual depictions that contrast the loving wife, the cold, preening governer’s daughter, and the dire scenario that awaits back at home. Sound design is especially haunting here–the climax features the manipulated sounds of breaking wood– and I felt a sense of dread inspired by the score alone. However, the story is slight and after seeing Ugetsu, which expands and improves the source material, I wasn’t as affected by it here. Still, it’s imagery is unsettling and the sense of poetic justice is specifically muted in favor of a very poignant, melancholy atmosphere that masterfully captures the heartache at the story’s core. It’s great work, but it is overshadowed by the following three segments.

The Woman in the Snow

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Continuing with The Black Hair’s themes of truth, fidelity and interpersonal commitment, The Woman in the Snow finds young apprentice Minokichi and his old master, Mosaku, stranded in a cabin in the middle of a snowstorm. After the woodcutters go to sleep, Minokichi is awakened to find a cold, ethereal woman stealing the very lifeforce from Mosaku. The fearsome frost witch spares Minokichi, but warns him that he must tell no one about this night. Years later, happily married to a radiant and unnaturally beautiful woman, he finds he can hold in the truth no longer.
 

Like the first story, this one is deceptively simple in its structure and narrative. It is afterall, a very old folktale, and not one limited to the Japanese culture. However, execution here is everything and Kobayasi, with the help of his cinematographer and art director, transforms Woman in the Snow into a grand piece of surrealist art. The winter landscape here looks like a painting, combining expressionist elements with the make-up and costuming design of kabuki theater. The result is that the entire story takes place in a world that has no bearing on reality–instead the unhinged, lavish abundance of a fever dream soaks every frame. There isn’t a moment here that couldn’t be captured and turned into a lovely wall hanging. Giant staring eyes peer out from a cold, bleak sky and the room transforms into icy blue pools of light whenever the phantom appears.

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Aside from that, the performances are perfect for the material and the story expands–not in content but in mood–to ask questions about the truth and power in storytelling. How necessary is the art of oral tradition in making sense and peace of our lives? Here, the protagonist experiences a life-changing event and an act of mercy he can never share, and although his life feels complete in every other way, he realizes he is holding real ‘truth’–at least in his eyes–from the woman he loves.

Hoichi the Earless

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Storytelling as truth-saying and world-building is at the very heart of this third, and best, segment. The longest story in the anthology, Hoichi has the benefit of possessing the strongest source material. Hoichi, a blind storyteller who plays the biwa, impresses a priest of the Amidaji temple when he sings the story of the battle of Dan-no-ura, where two warring factions fought a naval skirmish to the death. When the priest recruit Hoichi to the temple, he finds himself visited by a samurai at night when he is alone and drawn to the court of a Lord who requests him to tell the story of Dan-no-sura nightly. When the monks realize what is happening, they warn Hoichi and try to prepare him for an attack by vengeful spirits.

Long considered the masterstroke of the anthology, Hoichi is a tour-de-force of imagery, sound, and atmosphere. The vibrant colors, the ornate costuming, and artificial lighting of elaborate sets with painted back-drops makes the segment seem more like an opera than a film. The cast here is large and file onto the screen, crowding the frame. The battle of Dan-no-sura might be a treat as told by Hoichi, but his skills cannot compare to the brilliance with which Kobayasi stages it. We see ships floating through fog, arrows sailing, and entire courts adorned in battle regalia converging on one another. The haunting sequence where the monks paint kanji words onto the surface of Hoichi’s body is the most magical and iconic scene in the film. When a supernatural attack comes, it’s legitimately frightening and riveting to watch.

 A Cup of Tea

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The final and perhaps strangest story in the anthology, A Cup of Tea features an attendant to a lord who wishes to slake his thirst by drinking tea from a water cup. However, he notices in the cup a reflection–not made by anyone standing nearby–of a young samurai. After trying frequently to rid himself of the reappearing spectre, the attendant finally gives in, and drinks the tea anyway. What happens to him and the resulting climax of the story is quite odd. This is the first time where the film tends toward an almost meta-narrative and it’s actually a fitting and compelling close to such an artistic and challenging piece.

A Cup of Tea is one of my favorites because of the eeriness and simplicity of the ghost element itself. In fact, the supernatural bits in each story are like encroachers upon everyday life. In this instance, the phantom face looking up from the tea-cup is just odd enough to unsettle but not far-reaching or eventful enough to offer impact to anyone else.  Kobayasi employs the most realism, structurally speaking, in this final piece and he begins walking out of the wilderness of the surreal just as Kwaidan draws to a close.

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This is no accident, and to be sure, I don’t think there are many missteps or accidents anywhere in the film. Kwaidan is a structurally complex and thematically triumphant picture and it succeeds as an artistic accomplishment, as horror, and as a human drama. The film takes it time to be great and it lures the viewer into a head space that yearns to hear a good story, well told.

And this, my friends, is the perfect film if that’s what you are looking for.

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Oct 10th–AMAD: Prophecy(1979) & Buppah Rahtree: Curse of the Night Flower

Oct 11th- AMAD:  Of Unknown Origin &  The Changeling

Oct 12th-AMAD: Infestation  

Oct 13th: The Stepfather

Oct 14th: Tales of Terror 

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3 Responses to “AMAD-Horror Edition: Kwaidan”

  1. The Great Fatsby October 10, 2009 at 12:08 pm #

    This is definately one of my favorite ghost story movies. The artistic elementes just ooze out of every frame. Hauntingly beautiful.

  2. Cello October 12, 2009 at 10:34 am #

    A+? Wow, I think when I reviewed it a few months ago i gave it a B, but reading your review I realized I didn’t appreciate the film as much as I should have on my initial first screening. The halloween season is the perfect time to revisit this classic. Thanks!

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