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.