Masaki Kobayashi (director)
183 min (length)
27 April 2020 (released)
01 May 2020
Bold, innovative, ambitious and one of the most expensive movies to have emerged from the land of the rising sun: Masaki Kobayashi’s KWAIDAN is a supernatural and multi-award winning anthology film based on Lafcadio Hearn’s collection of Japanese ghost stories and folk tales.
This visual cinematic feast contains four unrelated stories though one thing they do have in common: each and every story is told with a slow-burning, Zen Buddhist-like approach and traditional music by Toru Takemitsu.
The Black Hair was adapted from Hearn’s story ‘The Reconciliation’ (1900) and concerns an ambitious swordsman (Rentaro Mikuni) who has enough of his impoverished life and decides to leave his devoted and loyal wife, a weaver (Michiyo Aratama), to marry into a wealthy family in order to gain great social status. However, despite his newly found wealth and everything that comes with it the swordsman begins to miss his first wife – realising that his current wife (Misako Watanabe) is cold and selfish. Then again, that’s what she thinks of him. In short, the marriage remains joyless and the situation worsens when she comes to realise that her husband longs for his first wife and old life back in Kyoto. Despite him imagining his return and ultimate reconciliation, it takes almost ten years before he actually does return to Kyoto, sending his second wife packing. Arriving in the old and decrepit hut he is happy to find his first wife still slaving at her weaving loom. After a polite exchange of words and gestures during which the swordsman reveals his shame and regret of having left her in the first place and the weaver woman humbly and obediently exclaiming that she understood why he left, the pair spend the night together, promising never to leave each other. The following morning the swordsman wakes up to the grim discovery that his wife must have died a long time ago because he finds her decomposed corpse sleeping next to him. Now only her long black hair keeps attacking him while he himself keeps ageing at rapid speed…
This slow-burning tale of false ambition, love and regret is emphasized by only the sparsest of Japanese tunes.
The Woman of the Snow was adapted from Hearn’s ‘Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things’ (1903). Visually bold and highly innovative, the snowy landscape was in fact re-created in a large film studio, with painted skies from which gigantic eyes seem to watch over the unfolding action. When two woodcutters get caught up in a fierce snowstorm they take shelter in a nearby fisherman’s hut. Suddenly out of nowhere, a female spirit called Yuki-onna – the Snow Woman – appears and kills the older woodcutter with her icy breath. But realising that the younger woodcutter named Minokichi (Tatsuya Nakadai) is rather on the handsome side she decides to spare his life. In exchange, he must promise her to never mention the event to anyone or she will return to kill him. Time passes and one day, while cutting wood, Minokichi comes across a young woman called Yuki (Keiko Kishi). Wondering as to why she seems to travel on her own, she tells him that she no longer has any parents and is now on her way to Edo where relatives can offer her a job as a lady-in-waiting. Taking pity on her, Minokichi invites Yuki back to his mother’s hut for a hot meal. His mother (Yuko Mochizuki) takes a great liking to the guest and so it happens that instead of continuing her journey to Edo, Yuki and Minokichi fall in love… Years have passed and the happy couple now have three children. The villagers begin to wonder as to why everyone else seems to age but Yuki does not. One evening, Minokichi presents his wife with a pair of sandals he has made for her while she is altering a kimono. In the candlelight, Minokichi looks at his wife and can’t help the feeling that her face somehow resembles the strange snow spirit from years ago. Despite his promise to Yuki-onna he decides to share his experience with Yuki. Suddenly his wife turns angry and reveals herself as the very snow spirit who spared his life years ago.... but will she spare his life a second time?
Hoichi the Earless was adapted from Hearn’s ‘Kwaidan’, incorporating aspects of the never translated ‘The Tale of the Heike’ (1903).
This is the most ambitious and complex of the four stories. It is also the longest. The plot concerns a blind biwa hoshi (lute player) musician called Hoichi (Katsuo Nakamura) who specialises in singing the chant of the Battle of Dan-no-ura, a fight between the Taira and the Minamoto clans in the 12th century. While the opening scene depicts a real ocean and a man standing on a cliff, the actual battle is depicted (via flashback) in a highly artistic and impressive manner, filmed in a gigantic water tank. Many, many years later we meet blind Hoichi, who is an attendant at a Buddhist temple where he is taken care of by other monks. One night he follows a strange sound which makes him decide to play his biwa in the courtyard. There he is met by a ghostly samurai who reveals that his lord wishes Hoichi to perform privately at his house. Hoichi obliges, but because he cannot see he is oblivious to the fact that both samurai and the Lord’s ‘household’ are in fact the ghosts of the Battle of Dan-no-ura. Hoichi is singing the chant of the battle to great praise of the assembled ghosts. Hoichi is allowed to return to the temple but must promise not to tell anyone about his nightly excursions. This he promises but because some of the temple attendants have noticed that Hoichi sneaks out of the temple at night – seeing how he never seems to touch his dinner – the priest orders two of the attendants to follow Hoichi. They can see him but not the spectral warriors – only dancing flames in the air which represent the souls of the dead. The ghostly court is in fact a graveyard, but Hoichi cannot see the tombstones (which represent the ghostly warriors and their family members). When the two attendants try to pull Hoichi back to the temple he initially refuses. Alarmed by what the two attendants report back, the priest senses that Hoichi is in grave danger from the ghostly warriors and orders one of his acolytes to write the text of the Heart Sutra on Hoichi’s entire body, including his face, in order to protect him from the spectral visitors. Unfortunately the acolyte forgets to write the protective text on Hoichi’s ears and it’s not before long when the ghostly samurai returns… While Hoichi’s strange chanting and biwa play will no doubt prove a challenge to Western ears the unsettling atmosphere is masterfully captured once again using vivid colours and innovative sets. The ghostly scenes at the ancient and spectral court are particularly creepy.
In a Cup of Tea was adapted from Hearn’s ‘Kotto: Being Japanese Curious, with Sundry Cobwebs’ (1902).
The story is quite simple but powerful nonetheless, concerning a writer (Osamu Takizawa) who expects a visit from his publisher. While waiting, the writer relates an old tale about a Lord who has a supernatural experience while taking refreshments in a teahouse. The tea appears to be haunted as every time the Lord attempts to take a sip, the grinning face of a stranger greats him from the tea cup. After another attempt and several smashed cups later, the Lord finally drinks the tea – only to be confronted by three ghostly attendants later that night, culminating in him going mad with fear. The story then ends without being quite finished. Meanwhile, the publisher (Ganjiro Nakamura) has arrived at the author’s residence and asks for him. When the attending lady shows him into the room, there is no author to be found. At least not at first…
KWAIDAN is available on Blu-ray for the first time in a 2K digital restoration, and with a Limited Edition Set (3000 copies only) featuring a Hardbound Case and a 100-page Collector’s Book. The disc falso contains some insightful Bonus Material including ‘Shadows’ (a new video essay by David Cairns and Fiona Watson) plus trailers.