Film Review: Kwaidan

Reviewer: Stephen Bates

Writer: Yôko Mizuki

Director: Masaki Kobayashi

At the beginning of 2020, calling off the Olympic Games could have been the scariest thing imaginable to the Japanese, but, back in 1964, The Tokyo Olympics went ahead and the country found its shocks in cinemas. Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan, a four-course feast of ghost tales which went on to win the Special Jury prize at the 1965 Cannes Film Festival, is now being released on blu-ray for the first time in the United Kingdom.

The film, notable for Yoshio Miyajima’s stunning cinematography and Tôro Takemitsu’s discomforting music, shows little signs of age, except for the absence of modern special effects. However, it is doubtful if computer generated images could have been as successful in creating a surreal, unworldly atmosphere as painted sets and simulated action, which are particularly striking in the battle scenes of the third segment. Overall, Kwaidan dispels the notion that Japanese horror movies begin and end with Godzilla and exposes the staleness of many clichés which beset the genre in British and American cinema.

The Black Hair is the story of a Samurai warrior (Rentarô Mikuni) who abandons his wife (Michiyo Aratama) and a life of poverty in Kyoto to find a new wife and material comforts in a far away province. When he realises that he can only be happy with his true love, his abandoned wife, he sets about rectifying his mistake, but he is confronted by unexpected forces. The mix of the romantic and the unworldly proves potent and, seen through eyes that are unfamiliar with Japanese culture and superstitions, the air of mystery is heightened.

Sound effects of harsh percussion are replaced by howling winds and squawking birds at the beginning of The Woman of the Snow, giving an example of stark differences in style between each of the segments. An old woodsman and his young apprentice, Minokichi (Tatsuya Nakadai) get caught in a blizzard and take shelter in an abandoned hut. During the night, a mysterious woman appears and kills the older man, but spares the younger one on condition that he remains silent forever about what he has seen. Some years later, Minokichi meets and marries Yuki (Keiko Kishi); they have three children and establish an idyllic village life, until the past comes calling.

The third segment, Hoichi the Earless is the longest and by far the most chilling of the quartet. Hoichi (Katsuo Nakamura) is a blind novice in a temple situated near to the site of a sea battle which saw the extinction of an ancient clan. Hoichi plays the biwa (a stringed instrument) and tells vivid stories of the battle, which summon up spirits from the clan. Beginning with a stylised depiction of the battle in bright colour and building up to a shocking, shadowy climax, this segment is the highlight of the film and one that could live long in nightmares.

In a Cup of Tea is the shortest segment and the most disappointing. A writer (Osamu Takixawa) in 1900 has created a ghost story for which he in unable to find an ending. It concerns a middle-aged man who sees the face of a younger man reflected in his cup of tea. There are some impressive special effects, but the story falls away abruptly and does not give the film the conclusion that it deserves. However, this should not detract from the merits of what is, as a whole, an unnerving and very different experience.

Available now on blu-ray

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The Reviews Hub London is under the editorship of John Roberts.The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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