As Foster writes, in part, in the latest issue of Senses of Cinema, “along with Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu Monogatari (1953) and Akira Kurosawa’s adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Throne of Blood (Kumonosu-jō, 1957), Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan (1964) – aka Kaidan, or ‘ghost stories’ – is one of the peaks of the Japanese cinema during its golden era, and one of the most superbly atmospheric supernatural films ever produced in any country. It’s also a terrific example of how a portmanteau film can work successfully, harking back to Ealing Studios’ multi-director Dead of Night (1945), and gesturing towards the multi-story films of Amicus in the 1960s.
Kobayashi’s filmography as a director isn’t extensive, with only 21 feature films to his credit throughout his entire career, yet each of his projects has an individual stamp that makes them deeply personal. His earlier films are both gritty and introspective, and seem nothing at all like Kwaidan: one of Kobayashi’s most compelling early films is the brutal baseball noir drama I Will Buy You (Anata kaimasu, 1956), in which a young player rises to the top of Japanese professional baseball, revealed to be little more than a racket.
Kobayashi’s other major works include the epic trilogy The Human Condition (1959 – 1961), which clocks in at an astonishing 9 hours and 47 minutes in its entirety, and Harakiri (Seppuku, 1962), a suitably violent and nihilistic samurai film. Most of Kobayashi’s work is in black and white, but in Kwaidan he evokes a world of heavily stylized colour, and creates one of the most sensual and strangely evocative supernatural films ever made. It remains one-of-a-kind not only for Kobayashi, but also for what has been loosely called ‘the horror film’: Kwaidan doesn’t deal in shock imagery, but rather in an ever-mounting sense of psychological dread.
Based on Lafcadio Hearn’s anthology of Japanese tales of the supernatural, Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things (1904), the film is structured in four parts. ‘The Black Hair’ follows a warrior who leaves his first wife for a second marriage to gain greater status, only to find the promise of a ‘better life’ is an empty one indeed. ‘The Woman of the Snow’ is a tale of supernatural vengeance in which a woodcutter falls in love with a Yuki-onna, or ’snow woman’ – a spirit who wanders the woods – with unexpected results.
‘Hoichi the Earless’ deals with a blind musician who discovers that he has been unwittingly singing for a family of ghosts, resulting in dire consequences. The last section (which the spectator is invited to complete in their own mind) is ‘In a Cup of Tea,’ the philosophically deepest and most challenging of the tales, in which a writer is continually disturbed by the unexpected sight of a face in – as the title suggests – his cup of tea.
Winner of the Special Jury Prize at the 1965 Cannes Film Festival, and honored with an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film the same year, Kwaidan is one of the most sumptuously mounted horror films ever made, shot in moody, otherworldly colour that would be evoked again in Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977), in true TohoScope ratio 2.35:1 by the gifted cinematographer Yoshio Miyajima, with stunning art direction by Shigemasa Toda.”