Some Clouds

52 Movies: Week 33 - Kwaidan

Kwaidan is a 1964 Japanese anthology film by director Masaki Kobayashi, based on four Japanese folk tales as transcribed by late 19th century American writer Lafcadio Hearn. Hearn stayed in Japan after a visit there in 1890, taking a Japanese bride and assuming the name Koizumi Yakumo, the name by which he is still primarily known in Japan. The title, pronounced Ki-dan, (with the ‘w’ silent) comes from a Japanese word meaning “strange stories” or “weird tales.” Although only two of the four are technically “ghost stories,” the film has the reputation of being one of the best ghost films ever made. It won the Special Jury Prize at Cannes in 1965 and was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar that same year.

When it was filmed it was at that time the most expensive Japanese movie ever. Almost the whole thing was shot in a Nissan automobile warehouse, a former airplane hangar, because the studio buildings were not big enough to hold the huge, hand-made and hand-painted sets. The film thus seldom looks “real,” but this is intentional. According to those who have commented on the film, Kobayashi was trying for a semi-artificial, stylized look that has roots in Japanese art and theatre, creating a world that walks the line between realistic and fantastic.

What is almost immediately striking about the film is the use of colors. They are not only phenomenally rich and deep, but they are used in such a way as to give the whole endeavor an otherworldly quality. This, and the highly stylized sets and backdrops strongly communicate the idea that you’re watching the playing out of myths and legends, not stories of the “real world.” This was Kobayashi’s first color film, and one gets the sense that he really wanted to go for broke and make the colors a major aspect of the film. I believe it was only his second period film as well, as his previous work had been mainly contemporary dramas.

To go along with the stylized visuals Kobayashi chose as his musical composer the great Japanese modernist Toru Takemitsu. What’s fascinating about this collaboration is that Takemitsu’s score, albeit “modern” in many ways, fits perfectly with the ancient subject matter. The music includes a large number of sound effects, some strictly musical, some not, like the breaking of sticks and the creaking of floors. It adds immeasurably to the atmosphere, but is in no way distracting or obstreperous, so that after a time it becomes so much a part of the filmic experience that you almost forget it’s there.

Kwaidan runs a bit over three hours, and includes an intermission. As it’s an anthology film, one with no framing device, it can easily be watched in sections. The first two stories run approximately 50 minutes each, the third lasts about an hour, and the final one about 20 minutes.

The opening tale, “The Black Hair,” is the probably the creepiest of the four, and comes closest to what Westerners would consider a traditional ghost story. The second one, “The Woman of the Snow,” with its marvelous snowstorm sequence and highly stylized sky full of eyes, stars and comets, is more like a dark fairy tale than a ghost story. It features Yuki-onna, a well-known figure in Japanese folklore. It’s astounding to consider the effort it must have taken both to create the sets for this sequence and to film it.

The third story, “Hoichi the Earless,” is the longest and cinematically most ambitious. It includes a full sea-battle, and two large “outdoor” sets – a monastery and a ruined palace or temple, all, it seems, filmed indoors. Its story about a renowned minstrel called upon to play and sing for a supernatural retinue has its roots in Japanese medieval history. The final short segment, “In a Cup of Tea,” concerns a man who keeps seeing another man’s face in his cup of water, and becoming increasingly unnerved in the process. It’s a somewhat comic story, with a pointedly ambiguous ending, which serves as a fine way to close the film.

As these stories are based on folktales, they do not necessarily have any sort of direct lesson or moral to impart, although two of the four involve consequences of the breaking of vows (a theme of course prominent in folktales the world over). These aren’t parables, however – there’s more Grimm here than Aesop.

The best way to enjoy Kwaidan is to let yourself be carried along by the sounds and the visuals in an impressionistic, as opposed to an analytic, way. In some ways the stories do not “make sense” in a Western manner, as we’re dealing here with the folklore of a very different culture. Above all it’s a work of true beauty, such that some critics consider it one of the most beautiful films of all time. I’m inclined to agree, as some of the imagery will stay with you long after the film is over.


—Rob Grano has a degree in religious studies which he's put to good use working on the insurance side of the healthcare industry for the past 20 years.  He's published a number of book and music reviews, mostly in the small press, and sometimes has even gotten paid for it. He lives outside of Pittsburgh, Pa.


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I thought the title sounded familiar and find that I had recorded this off TCM who knows how long ago, and it's been sitting there unwatched. Time to take a look.

Make sure you've got the full version. There is a shortened "Western" cut that leaves out the entire snow-woman sequence!

I noticed the length as reported on the DVR is 2:48, which is a bit less than the total you mention, but not by enough to allow for omitting a complete piece. So maybe that just doesn't include the intermission.

Okay, so that's at the top of my queue.


From what I understand, the 2:48 version is a trimmed version of the full film, the trim primarily coming from the "Hoichi the Earless" segment. You might be better served getting the new 2015 Criterion release "full" version from the library or something. The earlier Criterion release used the trimmed version.

The one that is streaming on Amazon is 3:03, so I'm thinking the one Maclin has is the short one.


Yes -- the one with the deleted segment only runs about 2 hrs, so the 2:48 sounds right for the shorter "full" one.

So, to clarify -- there are three versions out there:

A 2:00 cut with the snow-woman segment deleted entirely.

A 2:48 cut which contains all four segments, but has a shortened version of "Hoichi the Earless."

A 3:03 cut which is the full film.

It's like going to the grocery store and there are 15 different kinds of Triscuits.


This is a great post, Rob.


My favourite kind of Triscuit is the one flavoured with olive oil and cracked black pepper. Once I open a box I cannot stop eating them!

Kwaidan has been on my 'to watch' list for a while now, based solely on its reputation. Now that I know more about it, I'm even more eager to see it.

Last year I watched Kobayashi's trilogy The Human Condition, set during WWII. It was excellent; a very personal look at the effects of war on the life and the soul of a good man.

Yes! I love those. I have become a black pepper fiend.

I don't think I've ever seen anything by Kobayashi, but I will have to rectify that. Unfortunately, that name only reminds me of Star Trek.


My computer is usually logged in to my TypePad account whether or not I'm at my desk. If comments arrive, it updates the screen with "n new comments" and when I click on that it shows the first line or two of each comment. I was amused to come back to my desk after being away from it for a couple of hours to see that in the space of 8 comments the topic went from the movie (my last comment about the length) to "My favorite kind of Triscuit is..."

Personally I much prefer the plain ones.

That reminds me that nobody gave me my bag of Cheetos for Father's Day this year. I need to go buy one.

Thanks, Janet!

Craig, watching this and then reading up on Kobayashi a bit has gotten me interested in his other films, including The Human Condition trilogy. I've added them to my list.

My local grocery store has Triscuits on sale this week -- I'll have to try those. I think I bought the sun-dried tomato ones last time.

My small local library doesn't have Kwaidan. I'll make do with the 2:48 version.

The library does, however, have Sweet Evil and Sweet Peril, two books of the Sweet trilogy, by Wendy Higgins. Presumably it appeared in the search for "Kwaidan" because of "Kaidan" in this blurb:

"Sweet southern girl Anna discovers at age sixteen that she is the daughter of a guardian angel and a demon, the only one of her kind. As Anna struggles to fight the dark legacy of her father, she falls for the mysterious Kaidan Row, the ultimate bad boy. Forced to face her destiny, she must decide whether to embrace her halo or her horns"

This is a "young adult" novel. Seems like the YA field was pretty much swamped by feminist-y types a generation or so ago and I wonder how much damage they've done.

Oh, on my movie posts it only takes about one comment to go astray.


10 Asian movies, and then one American movie about Japan.

12 or 13 from the US. I lost count, but most of the movies are foreign.

I almost counted Shogun Stories as Asian, but then I noticed the t.


So that's almost a third Asian, and two thirds foreign. A little surprising I guess but not too much.

And I think almost all of the US films are pretty old. The exceptions would be Magnolia, Shotgun Stories and Tree of Wonder, but maybe I forgot something.


I've seen one other of Kobayashi's films: Harakiri. The story is very good, and even inspired a re-make a few years ago. I enjoyed Kobayashi's film, but, to my surprise, I liked the re-make even more.

Its going right into my cart!

I watched the first two parts and they were really good.


And Vera. Vera is good.


Glad you liked it. I'm a bit tired of her at the moment, having watched half a dozen or so of them in pretty quick succession. Ready to watch Kwaidan instead this weekend.

I've just watched one, so haven't had time to get tired.

I'm tired of The Last Detective.

Pretty sure you will like Kaiwan. I plan to finish it tomorrow.


And I don't mean to imply that I lowered my opinion of Vera. It's just that any series of detective stories that follow the basic pattern is going to get a bit stale if you watch too many at a time. At least that's my experience.

I just watched something call Stranger Things. I has 8 episodes and I watched the first 5 in one sitting. Well, I had to get up occasionally, but not for long. Then I watched the next 3 the next day.

It is not technically perfect and looks and feels very 80s, and kind of hokey in parts, but it was gripping.


Stranger Things is all the rage right now. Two of my friends have watched it and have both really liked it -- the 80's hokeyness is intentional, apparently.

One of the guys who's watched it says this is a good look at the series (and has no spoilers):

And we watched the first episode last night, one of our children having recommended it. It is good. Very X-Files-ish.

Just realized, Janet, you're saying you binged on the whole thing. Wow...

I noticed that the main production credit goes to The Duffer Brothers. Thought that was probably just some cutesy name for a little company but it is literally two twin brothers named Duffer.

Yes, I noticed that name.

I think if I had just watched one and stopped, I wouldn't have gone through so many in one day, but I was tired and didn't want to get up, and after a couple, I got sucked in.


That scene of the boys playing D&D is very reminiscent of ET.


Yeah, I think the most I ever binge watched anything was three episodes. Five's pretty out there, Janet! :-)

It was the first day of a 4-day weekend after a week of doing the work of two people--one of the jobs in Spanish, which I barely speak. I just wanted to chill-out.


I could have done 5 episodes in a row of The Wire or Breaking Bad at certain points. Not sure I didn't in fact. And if "done" sounds like taking drugs or drinking, it's apropos.

I watched only some of the first two seasons of Vera. I wasn't crazy about it, largely because I just didn't warm to the Vera character. And having her call everyone "luv" or "pet" almost made it worse for me.

I like her a lot, but I admit that I got tired of "pet."

Catherine in Happy Valley calls people "petal."

There was a woman from Australia at the very small rural parish we used to go to who used to call everybody "luv." And she was a very controlling person, who was very sweet to you if you agreed to live under her thumb, but was out to get you if you didn't. She didn't like me much, but she still called me "luv." Then one day I heard myself say that word. I wanted to slit my throat.


I hope you were addressing her.

No. It was my neighbor who went to the same church. We looked at each other aghast.


Luv is used sarcastically in England, more often than not, perhaps

I think Vera uses it both ways. Catherine (Happy Valley) definitely uses "petal" sarcastically.

I just finished watching Kwaidan and I think it might be the best find of this series. The ending-well, it was some ending. ;-)

Even without the stories or any sound, it would be great just to look at this movie.


Not sure I'm going to get to it this weekend. Other stuff going on, and moreover we've gotten hooked on Stranger Things.


I see why you couldn't stop watching Stranger Things.

For some reason, when I opened my keyboard on the KF, the word Moo appeared in the textbox.

I'm glad you understand. ;-)

My youngest recommended it,but I think she was surprised at how fast I watched it.


For those who liked Kwaidan I'd recommend another Japanese ghostly film, Ugetsu Monogatari, often known simply as Ugetsu. This one's from 1953 and is in black-and-white, but is beautifully shot and has some of the same otherwordly quality as Kwaidan. It too has a literary source, a book of stories from the 18th century (also based on folk tales).

And another one worth a look is Kuroneko, from 1968. It's got some great elements, and is very atmospheric, although I didn't find it as compelling overall as Kwaidan or Ugetsu.

I've seen Ugetsu and it is good. At least I think that's what it was. Definitely fits the description and I think that was the name.

"Last year I watched Kobayashi's trilogy The Human Condition, set during WWII. It was excellent; a very personal look at the effects of war on the life and the soul of a good man."

I watched the first part of the trilogy over the past two evenings -- very good indeed!

I did not realize until afterwards that the lead actor is the same fellow who played Hidetora, the King Lear character, in Ran. He also played Unosuke, the main baddie in Yojimbo.

Maclin, Did you finish Stranger Things?


Yes. It was very good, though maybe not something that will stick with me. I was a bit disappointed to see them setting things up for a second series. Seemed like it should really stop there. It sure is popular, though. That seems to be in part some kind of '80s nostalgia.

I agree. I didn't want to mention that until you had finished.


I watched Kwaidan one segment at a time over the past several days. It is extremely good. Presumably it was the version in which the Hoichi story is shortened. I'd like to see the full one sometime because that story and the snow woman one were my favorites. By a good margin, really. Also, Takemitsu's music/sound effects were excellent. By the end of the Hoichi story I was really beginning to like that chanting.

Finally got around to Stranger Things; I'm halfway through season 1 and finding it great fun!

I certainly did, and touching at times. I have to repudiate my comment above about not wanting a second season. I think I enjoyed it more or less as much as the first. I was also wrong about it not sticking with me--the story as such hasn't, really, but the characters have.

I was really surprised how much I liked the second season.


Good -- glad to hear there wasn't a drop-off. I like the characters a lot too.

Somewhat ironic then, as I just finished the first season of Boardwalk Empire and didn't like any of the characters. I don't plan to continue with it, the sex and violence quotient also being ridiculously high. Seems to me that it's basically Game of Thrones in Atlantic City.

There have been several series like that, House of Cards being the worst instance, where I disliked every single character. It becomes very unpleasant after a while.

I read yesterday that there's going to be a third series of Stranger Things. Seems like it would have to be significantly different. When child actors are involved, you can't keep running changes on the same basic thing.

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