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Kwaidan (1964) October 31st, 2020

Imagine, it’s Halloween 2020 the last day of October. My wife’s taken the day off and we’ve planed to spend the whole day watching horror movies. Where do we start?

The only stipulation is it must be a movie one of us hasn’t seen before but the only other restriction is the length of the day. How can we make the best use of all that time? I say we watch a long movie, a movie so long you wouldn’t even consider watching it on a normal weekend or after work. Enter Kwaidan, the 182 minute four-part Japanese ghost-story anthology. Spoilers ahead.

The four shorts comprising Kwaidan are based on the works of Lafcadio Hearn, a Japanese author who in 1904 published a collection of Japanese folklore titled Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things. In the first story titled “The Black Hair”, a man leaves his devoted wife for a short business trip and never returns. He takes a new wife in a new city but after a few years realizes he’s unhappy there too. He travels back to find his first wife hard at work in their provincial home. The evening flies by as they catch up and soon they’re asleep. The next morning he doesn’t recognize his surroundings, the building is dilapidated and empty except for the rotted remains of his wife lying next to him. He tries to escape but he begins aging rapidly and before he can get out her beautifully long hair animates and attacks him.

In the second short “The Woman in the Snow” two men take refuge in a boathouse during a treacherous blizzard. One of them is killed by a ghost who spares the other under the condition he never tell anyone about the incident. He survives the night and makes it home where he eventually meets a young woman and the two fall in love, have children, and make a life together. Years pass and the women doesn’t seem to age. One night the man slips up and tells his ghost story because it occurred to him that his wife resembles the ghost that killed his friend and spared him all those years ago. She reveals herself to be that ghost, surprising no one, and spares his life again but this time for the love of her children. Yet she must leave because he broke his promise and, it seems, the magic that made their love possible.

The third and most epic story titled “Hoichi the Earless” concerns the strange tale of a blind biwa hōshi who’s visited by the spirits of those who died in the great naval battle of Dan-no-ura. The battle site is near the temple where Hoichi works and sometimes, unbeknownst to the musician, the restless dead wander the temple grounds at night. One such evening a samurai visits and requests Hoichi play the song of the battle of Dan-no-ura for his lord and court. Hoichi explains that the song is long and must be told over several evenings but accepts the offer and travels with the samurai, unaware that his guide is a ghost. Hoichi makes the journey to the graveyard where the spirits of the long dead listen as he plays the song chronicling their deaths. One night his performance is interrupted by other temple attendants who’ve become concerned with Hoichi’s absence and drag him home kicking and screaming. After explaining his bizarre experience to a priest (played by Takashi Shimura), Hoichi’s instructed to meditate while temple attendants scribe a protective text over every inch of his exposed skin. The painted wards make Hoichi invisible to spirits. The spectral samurai seeks Hoichi at the temple the following night but cannot find him beneath his mystic shroud… except the priest forgot to protect Hoichi’s ears. The samurai determines it’s better to bring his lord some of Hoichi rather than none and goes about removing the ears from his head. The next day a trail of blood leads the other temple attendants to the spot where Hoichi, the earless fell. He recovers and lives the rest of his life playing the biwa for wealthy lords, both living and dead.

The final story titled “In a Cup of Tea” is an underwhelming followup to Hoichi’s tale in which a writer tells a story-within-the-story of a lord who’s haunted by the reflection of a man who’s appeared in his teacup. After unsuccessful attempts to evict the reflection, the lord drinks the water and proceeds to experience encounters with spectral swordsmen. Supernatural sword fighting ensues. We don’t really know what happens in the end because the ‘writer’ character takes us out of our story-within-a-story to say that he’d like to write an ending but he suspects the reader’s imagination would imagine one better than he could. The author’s publisher arrives for their meeting but guess what? The author’s not around anymore, he’s trapped in a jug of water! What?!

Kwaidan is a masterfully produced film. It looks like an epic stage opera caught on film. The art design is a triumph of practical effects captured in a lens so wide it blurs the edges of the frames. The cinematography is pure magic. Few films of this caliber exist which is why it’s spine #90 in the Criterion Collection. Think about the prestige a film must possess to have cracked the top 100. It’s well earned.

There aren’t many horror films that’re both cinematic achievements and appropriate for children around age 8-12. If you’re looking for that kind of thing this Halloween consider Kwaidan, VIY, and Pan’s Labyrinth. Each of them are about as realistic as a fairytale but don’t let that fool you, they’re still scary. Neither are English language films so that might rule them out as quality children’s horror but hey, maybe your kid likes reading?

Kwaidan is as skillfully produced as any classic novel and watching it feels like reading a great work of fiction. I ranked it as the third best film of October 2020 behind Terror is a Man and The Bird With the Crystal Plumage. I cannot offer enough praise to encourage you to experience it but know that you’ll be hard pressed to find a better return on your entertainment-investment than a museum quality masterpiece like Kwaidan.

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