It’s a widely held notion that midcentury Japanese cinema was a breeding ground for visual artists capable of excelling with the large-scale resources of a studio system. Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, and Ozu, the big three directors by any estimation, all cemented their legacies in their own distinct ways through the ’50s. Less commonly remarked upon, however, is Japan’s truly avant-garde work in the domain of sound, particularly as the ’50s classicists gave way to ’60s trailblazers like Hiroshi Teshigahara, Nagisa Oshima, and Masahiro Shinoda.
At the heart of many of these directors’ films is the great composer and sound designer Tôru Takemitsu, who brought a modernist flair to match his collaborators’ subversive tweaks on their nation’s tradition of quality. However, it’s actually with 1964’s Kwaidan, an anomalous effort by a director—Masaki Kobayashi—who otherwise belonged in spirit more to an earlier era, that Takemitsu brewed up one of his most cutting-edge soundtracks.
In the climactic scene of the first chapter in this three-hour quartet of ghost stories, the protagonist (Rentarô Mikuni), a samurai who’s committed the treasonous act of leaving his family for another clan, returns home after a long period away to find the wife he abandoned a mere skeletal shell. As he shudders uncontrollably in horror, slamming into walls and cracking the remaining wood of his rotting old home, no synchronized diegetic sound can be heard. Instead, Takemitsu sets the scene to a quiet high-pitched buzz, atop which he interjects blunt impact sounds (wood being struck, metal resonating for a split second) at intervals unrelated to the physical action.
The overall effect of this minimal accompaniment is akin to being trapped in a tiny, sound-dampened room, outside of which an aggressive force is trying to break in—not at all an inapt analogy for the experience of being haunted, meanwhile bereft of sympathy from perplexed peers. And this is but one isolated example of Kwaidan’s sonic inventiveness, as Takemitsu executes similar techniques—the muffling or extreme selectiveness of atmosphere noise, the dialing up of psychologically motivated sound effects—to mesmeric results in scene after scene of Kobayashi’s chilling anthology film.
To dwell first on the sonic ambiance of Kwaidan might strike some as perverse, as it’s also, and more famously, one of the boldest-looking films ever made, its lavish, punctiliously arranged images continually reflecting the tormented headspaces of commoners driven mad by the machinations of an inflexible world. Working from source material by Lafcadio Hearn, Kobayashi treats his four adaptations to mighty doses of studio artifice to achieve a painterly hyper-reality.
“Black Hair” is composed largely of ethereal dolly movements around its antihero’s family home, an emptied-out woodland palace overrun by the elements; “The Woman in the Snow” utilizes expressionistic painted backdrops and radical mid-shot shifts in lighting to conjure its surreal and seasonally varied countryside; “Hoichi the Earless” inflects its aristocratic milieu with tricky superimpositions and optical masking effects, extended scans of woodblock prints, and billowing clouds of artificial fog that might have made Mario Bava blush; and the final tale, “In a Cup of Tea,” brings halting, formalized swordplay into a rigorously ordered Meiji-era township.
Kobayashi’s directorial control of these milieus is total, which is apropos given the fact that Hearn’s stories feature characters in thrall to the whims of outside forces. For what ultimately amounts to slim (in incident, if not necessarily in length) and predictable tales of ghostly infringement on quotidian life whereby the arcs and the outcomes are more or less the same, it’s the complete harmoniousness of the mise-en-scène that keeps them engrossing on a moment-to-moment level, unfolding less like crescendos to narrative surprises than wades through persistent and inexorable hauntedness.
In each story, a male character is visited, either by karma or mere happenstance, by a spirit, which goes on to preoccupy his thoughts until ultimately affecting his exterior well being. The relative points of introduction of these ghosts, however, are negligible, as the entire world as orchestrated by Kobayashi appears under the sway of an otherworldly spell. Characters, if not frozen entirely in their socially demarcated positions, move in slow and deliberate fashion, and the camera’s analogous movement often suggests that of an invisible onlooker, creeping up toward the characters unbeknownst to them or descending from celestial perches. In a recurring physical gesture, Kobayashi’s actors rise ominously into empty compositions like undead souls—a maneuver acted out by both the literal apparitions and those blessed with corporeality yet no further from death.
Hauntedness as a state of Japanese existence is an old idea. The film’s title translates loosely as “ghost stories,” a form of Japanese folk tale that flowered in literature, Kabuki theater, and woodblock printmaking in the Edo period of the 17th century. Kobayashi’s gambit is to contextualize these hauntings in political terms, as reflections of deep-seated anxieties within Japan as a result of its strict moral codes. The betrayal of filial and matrimonial piety, the crossing of class boundaries, and disloyalty in the face of implicit pacts—in Kwaidan, all these transgressions are met with swift intervention from menacing specters of the past.
“Once you do what a spirit tells you to do, you’ll be possessed, perhaps even killed,” the young Hoichi is warned in his eponymous tale after agreeing to play his biwa before a gallery of dead courtesans and samurai, but the statement seems as much a cautionary message to Japanese audiences on the danger of following the mistakes of history. In this context, red—seen as the color of the ocean, of ribbons wafting through a courtyard, of a flag planted into a snowy landscape, and of the flowing dresses of jilted lovers—is easily decipherable as the figurative blood of Japan’s feudal and restrictive past, a past, according to Kwaidan, that’s both dead and frighteningly alive.
The fact that Criterion’s Blu-ray transfer of Kwaidan is so pristine that one can even distinguish the individual specks of artificial snow within the wintry mounds of "The Woman in the Snow" isn’t a problem; if anything, further clarifying the film’s meticulous fakery sheds new light on its self-conscious construction of Japanese society. We’re also invited to appreciate a heightened understanding of Masaki Kobayashi’s schematic but assertive use of chromatic symbolism. When the setting turns from muted grays to an icy blue in the same tale, for instance, the effect is overwhelming. Meanwhile, it’s hard to imagine a more reverent mastering job of Tôru Takemitsu’s work. His soundtrack relies on subtle distinctions in sonic frequency, as well as arresting quiet/loud dynamics, all of which are served perfectly here.
"Filming is going smoothly!" exclaims a title on one of the three vintage trailers included in Criterion’s extra features, while another boastfully broadcasts the film’s budget of 350,000,000 yen. Such curiosities give a charming sense of the cultural cachet Kwaidan held in its time, a history further elucidated in the two interviews included in the set: one with assistant director and restoration supervisor Kiyoshi Ogasawara, and one with literary scholar Christopher Benfey. Ogasawara discusses the circuitous task of resurrecting the 161-minute Cannes cut and the original 183-minute cut (the one spotlighted by Criterion) from Toho studios, as well as his liberating working relationship with Kobayashi. Benfey profiles Lafcadio Hearn, details his sensitive Americanization of Japanese folk tales, and finally looks at how Kobayashi reintegrates local oral traditions into the film version. A delightfully casual conversation between Kobayashi and Masahiro Shinoda about the film’s troubled production and an essay by critic Geoffrey O’Brien complete the set.
Criterion accounts for the 22 minutes missing from their original DVD release of Kwaidan, lavishes it all with their customarily meticulous restoration work, and comes away with one of the essential releases of the year.
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.
Working from Yôko Mizuki’s screenplay, director Kobayashi unfolds these tales in a leisurely, assured fashion. The final film practically envelops the viewer in the world of the unknown. The correct running time of the film is 183 minutes, but in some of its first screenings, Kwaidan was cut to 161 minutes, and even to 125 minutes, by cutting some of the stories down, or eliminating one of the segments entirely. Only the complete version really conveys the mystery and sense of dread so essential to the success of the film.
Those expecting a more brutal or violent horror film will be disappointed as Kwaidan is a film of nuance and restraint, despite the excesses of sound design and wildly stylized visuals. Kobayashi’s mise en scene is deliberate and proceeds with the assurance of dream-like logic, or the lack thereof; the world of Kwaidan is one in which the supernatural atmosphere is very real, often intertwined with scenes that conjure everyday life, a fact that several of the film’s protagonists ignore at their peril.
Kwaidan is a psychological horror film for those who are seeking an utterly immersive experience, in which the viewer is gradually seduced by the deeply saturated colour, the expressiveness of the seemingly vast hand built studio sets, and the sheer time factor. This is a film that takes the viewer out of the real world into another realm altogether. In its visual and thematic structure, Kwaidan is ultimately an expressionist fairy tale for adults, in which all is artifice, and yet at the same time mesmerizingly real.
As Geoffrey O’Brien noted, Kobayashi “had trained as a painter before beginning his career as a filmmaker,” and the meticulous attention to visual detail throughout the film, not only in the sets, but in the costumes, the lighting, and the colour effects, which are simultaneously subtle, and yet layered in textures that seem to continue without end, reflects this early apprenticeship. As O’Brien writes,
The elaborateness of Kwaidan’s artifice is not concealed. On the contrary, right from the first liquid swirls of primary-colored ink that wash across the screen, we are invited to savor the sensory delights of every hue, every movement, every unfolding pattern. On repeated viewings, the spectator becomes aware of further layers of mirroring and repetition and counterpoint, of seasonal shifts and contrasting colors, of insistent images, whether of an opening gate or an abandoned pair of sandals, recurring in different contexts.
Complementing these dazzling, almost hallucinatory visuals is Toru Takemitsu’s bold and modern soundtrack, which deftly avoids the clichés of conventional film music, especially in the case of a horror film, in which the score usually underscores the images with conventionally melodramatic music. Takemitsu’s score – one of the many he composed for most of the major directors working in Japan during the era – uses expressionist sounds, and bizarre instrumentation interspersed with sections of uneasy quiet and deliberately disarms the spectator, while simultaneously weaving a spell that draws the viewer further into Kobayashi’s colourful and highly stylized realm.
Kwaidan is a film unlike any other, not only in its visual structure, but also in its insistence on the viewer’s patience – which is rewarded – in each of the four stories by a suitably macabre conclusion. Nothing is straightforward in Kwaidan; it’s a world where anything is possible, where spirits interact with the living on an everyday basis, and those who trifle with the spirits of the departed pay dearly for their hubris.
Above all, Kwaidan is a stunning visual experience, best seen in a theater for full impact, as Kobayashi’s TohoScope images unfold on the screen as if in a dream – a dream in which the dead are alive, the living may be dead, and illusion and reality merge into a world which is at once alluring and yet menacing. Kwaidan is one of the treasures of supernatural cinema, existing in a world all its own, which beckons to us, even as we sit in the theater, transfixed by the images we see on the screen.
Kwaidan (1964 Japan 183 min)
Prod Co: Toho Prod: Shigeru Wakatsuki Dir: Masaki Kobayashi Scr: Yôko Mizuki, from the anthology Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things by Lafcadio Hearn Phot: Yoshio Miyajima Ed: Hisashi Sagara Prod Des: Shigemasa Toda Mus: Tôru Takemitsu
Cast: Rentarô Mikuni, Michiyo Aratama, Misako Watanabe, Kenjirô Ishiyama, Tatsuya Nakadai, Keiko Kishi, Katsuo Nakamura, Takashi Shimura, Haruko Sugimura, Junkichi Orinmoto.