The exact translation of Kwaidan is "ghost story," and Kwaidan is nothing more — and nothing less — than four elegantly chilling ghost stories. What it lacks in ultimate significance it more than makes up for in style and sensibility, and maybe that is part of the point of the movie. The ghost story we were told when we were young, the one that seemed so paralyzingly frightening then — it runs the risk of becoming simply silly when placed on a big screen, unless the dramatization contains its own bite and brilliance. Here, it does.
Kwaidan features four classic stories from Japanese mythology via Lafcadio Hearn, a Westerner who lived and taught in Japan for most of his life and became a sort of cultural ambassador for that country to the West. Hearn's retellings have not only become staples towards understanding Japanese myth in this country, but in Japan as well: there are few anthologies of such work that do not feature at least one of his stories. Masaki Kobayashi, director of the lurid but powerful Harakiri and the outstanding thee-part epic The Human Condition, collected three of the most popular and commonly retold of Hearn's stories (as well as a fourth fragmentary story) and filmed them with great care and wild visual imagination. The result is moody, lovely, and broad, if not always deep, but no less fascinating to watch. It calls to mind Kurosawa's Dreams, but without that movie's didactic self-importance. It's literally like watching a painting come to life, and that in itself is reason enough to see it. Kobayashi shot it almost entirely on sound stages built in a giant aircraft hangar, and it took four years to complete.
"The Black Hair", the first story, sets both the mood and the approach. During Japan's genteel Middle Ages, a poverty-stricken young samurai (Rentaro Mikuni of Gate of Hell) abandons his wife (Michiyo Aratama, also in Human Condition) to seek better fortunes elsewhere. He finds them, all right, in the form of a courtly woman (Misako Watanabe) who is as pompous and insufferable as his former wife was devoted and patient. Guilt overwhelms him, and he eventually returns home to make amends, where he finds his wife still as beautiful and loyal as ever ... for a while.
The opening segment is striking, not only for its looks, although they are magnificent: the camera glides through decaying rooms and past crumbling edifices like a guided tour of hell. It's Toru Takemitsu's sound design, though, that stands out the most. Instead of music, the composer of everything from Ran to Woman in the Dunes gives us a series of musique concrete-type sounds: rumblings, crackings, scrapings, shrill screeches — sounds, we would well imagine, issuing from the throats of the dead.
"Woman of the Snow", the second segment, is coincidentally my personal favorite of the Hearn stories, and seeing it brought to life on-screen was a pleasure. A young woodcutter (Tatsuya Nakadai, again with his haunted eyes dominating the frame) and his father seek refuge from a blizzard, only to have the older man fall victim to a yuki-onna — a peculiar type of Japanese apparition that appears in the snow and kills men by draining their life force. She spares the younger man, precisely because he is young and handsome, but on the condition that he never speak a word of the other man's death. Years later, the woodcutter meets and marries a woman of nearly perfect demeanor, but there's more to her than would first appear.
Kobayashi directs this second segment by staging it on some of the most amazing sets ever built for a film. The dark sky over the snow-blanketed forest features a golden moon like a giant, peering eye, and sure enough the sky flickers with dozens of other peering eyes as the man and boy go stumbling through it to safety. Later, we see riverbanks and grassy fields and country roads, all also rendered on sets — not that we'd mistake them for the real thing, but we're not supposed to; the surreal, hyperreal feeling is what Kobayashi's after, and he achieves it wonderfully. I was startled to discover that this segment was deleted from the movie for its American theatrical release; it contains the most striking and well-conceived images in the whole movie.
"Hoichi the Earless", the longest of the segments, opens with a mesmerizing and stylized recreation of another oft-retold bit of Japanese history: the clash between the Taira and Heike clans at Dan-no-ura. Whole movies have been made out of this subject, and Kobayashi devotes several minutes to depicting the battle and the subsequent tragedy in lurid, dreamy colors, playing the plaintive song that tells the story over it in lieu of sound effects.
The blind monk Hoichi, living in a temple not far from the fabled battlefield, has the song of the Heike as a regular item in his repertoire. Night after night he vanishes mysteriously, much to the consternation of the other monks. It turns out the ghosts of the Heike still dwell nearby, and have come to him to have their souls soothed by his singing (and being blind, he poses no threat, evidently). The other monks attempt to protect him by painting his body with sutras — one of the most astounding scenes in the whole movie — but it doesn't quite work.
"In A Bowl of Tea," the final segment, addresses the idea of storytelling directly. Of these stories we have heard, there are many more which are only fragments, abandoned or never finished for whatever reason; we see one writer hard at work on one such story. In it, a samurai discovers a spirit living in a bowl of water, only to find himself haunted not only by him but by his retainers. The story breaks off, of course, but Kobayashi uses the framing device of the author at work to give us a clever ending.
What is most interesting to me about Kwaidan is that the stories themselves are not immediately frightening in the way that conventional horror movies are frightening — they don't feature gore or cheap shocks, although that's a welcome relief all by itself. They are haunting, rather than openly scary. They occupy you, both as you watch them and later when they are over and you are left to ruminate on their significance. The images remain in the mind even if the story itself is no longer remembered in detail. And again, perhaps that is the idea: to build a space in the mind with images, just as these stories themselves have so many times before.