Review by Ian Johnston
Posted on 21 October 2006
Source Masters of Cinema / Eureka! DVD
Features: 31 Days of Horror
The iconic figure is familiar — the long, sleek, black hair, the deathly-pale white face — but with Kwaidan, Masaki Kobayashi’s compilation of four Japanese ghost stories, we are worlds away from the modern Japanese horror movie. In the calm, steady development of each story, there is little that is horrifying or shocking (the one exception being the way in the third story that Hoichi becomes “The Earless” of the title) or even surprising (the ending of the fourth story again offering the single exception). Instead, the tone of Kwaidan, especially in the first two perfectly-realised stories, is one of aestheticised distance and quiet contemplation.
Kobayashi shot the film on huge sound sets, where the gliding camera, long takes, and frequent high-angle shots of a world of heightened artifice, garish sunsets, golden fields, huge drifts of glaring white snow, and giant eyes painted on a sky backdrop assert over and over again that world’s artificiality—as do the film’s other stylistic devices, such as the sudden expressionistic changes in lighting, from warm flesh colours to cold ghostly blue, and Toru Takemitsu’s brilliant, determinedly non-naturalistic sound design. In fact, the world of these stories becomes so much that of these artificial sound sets, these aestheticised projections of sun, snow, and rain, of land, forest, and water, that the inclusion of real shots of sea and coastline at the start of “Hoichi the Earless” becomes something of a distracting, diminishing addition.
Kwaidan’s paramount aestheticism is established at the start with the opening shot of black ink whirling and twirling in water, separating and reforming in ever-changing, amorphous, abstract patterns—patterns which are first mirrored in the black kanji calligraphy of the film’s title and then repeated in other colours, red, blue, purple, sometimes singly, sometimes combined. The individual shot of twirling red ink is specifically echoed later in “Hoichi the Earless” when the Heike clan make their suicide into the (artificial, studio-set) sea and more and more red billows up as the bodies go down.
For Japanese there may be an added distancing in operation here in the source of these stories. Rather than direct adaptations of traditional folk tales, they have been refracted through a Western consciousness, translated back into Japanese, and then re-translated so to speak as a cinematic adaptation. All four stories come from works by Lafcadio Hearn, a writer who must count as the ultimate nineteenth-century cosmopolitan: birth in Greece, schooling in Ireland, adulthood as a journalist in the U.S., and the final fifteen years of his life as a teacher and writer in Japan. There, he wrote a series of collections of miscellanea on Japanese life and culture aimed at a Western audience and published in the States; the four stories in Kwaidan are taken from three different books. (This excellent DVD from Masters of Cinema reprints the stories in an accompanying booklet.)
And the stories themselves? “The Black Hair”: a samurai abandons his first wife in order to escape poverty and marry into a wealthy family, then years later returns remorsefully to be with her again. “The Woman of the Snow”: a female snow spirits spares the life of a young woodcutter who has been stranded in a snow storm on the condition that he never reveal the truth of their encounter. “Hoichi the Earless”: a temple elder tries to save a blind monk who every night is forced to sing of the defeat in battle of the Heike clan to the ghosts of the defeated. “In A Cup of Tea”: a samurai drinks down a cup of tea in which appears the image of a smiling face; he is then repeatedly visited by the ghost of the soul he has swallowed.
As I’ve said, these first two stories are perfectly realised. The sense of the otherworldly is constantly present through the heightened artificiality of the studio sets and the non-naturalistic lighting and sound effects, and the simplicity of the tale, the limited number of characters, and the steady, inevitable development of the narrative all work to great advantage. Both these stories share a psychological theme too, that of trust and loyalty. In “The Black Hair” the samurai, through his arrogance and ambition, fails to recognise the value of his wife’s love and devotion or return it until it is too late, and the crux of “The Woman of the Snow” rests on the woodcutter Minokichi’s failure to keep his word, even if it was the word given to an evil spirit.
“Hoichi the Earless” opens with a stunning recreation of the famous battle in the Straits of Shimonoseki which in 1185 decided the conflict between the Heike (Tara) and Genji (Minamoto) clans. Kobayashi uses traditional song and painting and his own stylised sets — brilliant reds and oranges over a patently artifical “sea” — in an aesthetic tour-de-force, whose intensity the rest of the story never quite attains again. Personally, I miss the narrower focus of “The Black Hair” and “The Woman of the Snow.” Here, the effect is more diffuse, with even some comic characters (a couple of temple servants that seem to have wandered in from a Kurosawa film) thrown into the mix, and a narrative that seems stretched stretched out a little too far. But “Hoichi the Earless” does contain Kwaidan’s most seat-squirming moment—or perhaps I’m just sensitive about the idea of having my ears ripped off…
The final story “In A Cup of Tea” is Kwaidan’s mise en abyme, where the central story of the samurai who knowingly (the theme of arrogance from “Black Hair” coming through again) gulps down a soul glimpsed in a cup of tea is not really the issue. In any case, the samurai’s tale in the end doesn’t have much to it, which Kobayashi perhaps acknowledges with his overuse of shots of the samurai shuffling back and forth in panic through the palace.
What’s at issue is the frame story, where the voice-over narrator muses on the fascination of unfinished tales. In a film that consists of four separate tales, this brings in a note of self-reflection, a consideration of the power of narrative irrespective of what ending may be offered. Here, we’re given the mystery of a vanished writer, and the story of the samurai Kannai’s encounter with a soul in a cup of tea is the fragment of narrative he leaves behind. Hearn’s original story offers no solution to the mystery, no explanation for the disappearance of the writer. It’s a provocative retreat on Hearn’s part from the control and authority that an author accrues to himself; ownership of the tale shifts to the reader, who is now to free to devise the ending she likes, who is now responsible for the ultimate meaning of the tale. But Kobayashi is not a director of such radical temperament. Even with those films of his that evince a liberal-leftist-oppositional strain, his cinematic strategies are solid but aesthetically conservative. It’s no surprise but something of a pity that Kobayashi offers a small, little frisson of horror and a simultaneous solution to this mystery, but in the process he rather misses the point of this final tale.