Monday, January 4, 2010

A Review of Kwaidan (1964)

The word kwaidan denotes ghost stories, particularly those from Japan’s Edo Period. The film is based on stories collected by Lafcadio Hearn (his Kwaidan: Stories And Studies Of Strange Things was published in 1904, the year of his death; some of the film’s stories are from earlier collections). Hearn, a journalist, traveled to Japan on assignment in 1890. The country enthralled him and he never left, working as a teacher and writer, marrying a local and becoming a naturalized citizen, even taking a Japanese name.
Kwaidan the film consists of four of Hearn’s stories:

In “The Black Hair”, a faithless samurai (Rentaro Mikuni) leaves his wife (Michiyo Aratama) to marry a wealthier woman (Misako Watanabe). Unhappy with the exchange of love for gold, tormented by guilt, by visions of his wife, and by the sounds of her loom, he eventually returns to the dusty desolate house where they lived, hoping against hope to be taken back.

“The Woman of the Snow” is the best of the stories, a classic fairy tale filmed in an inventive fashion. Two woodcutters (Tatsuya Nakadai and Jun Hamamura) are caught out in the forest in the midst of a terrible blizzard. Stumbling through the darkened, silent woods, with eerie auroras like staring eyes on the horizon, they take shelter in an empty hut, only to be set upon by a spirit of the snow (Keiko Kishi). She agrees to spare the life of the younger woodcutter if he never tells anyone about her. As the years pass and he settles down with a wife and children, the woodcutter grows complacent…

“Hoichi the Earless” tells of a blind novice monk, Hoichi (Katsuo Nakamura) so musically talented that the ancient ghosts of warriors killed in a sea battle rise up and command him to sing the tale of their battle, night after night. It is an offer he can’t refuse. Can the head monk (Takashi Shimura) save him before the ghosts claim him for their own?

“In a Cup of Tea” finishes off the quartet with a writer telling the tale of a samurai (Kanemon Nakamura) who sees an odd reflection in his teacup. Soon the intruder appears in person, followed by other slippery spirits who are difficult to get rid of. How will the story end?

Kwaidan, directed by Masaki Kobayashi, was an expensive, ambitious production in its time. The cinematography is expressionistic, the performances are highly stylized. The film was shot primarily on huge indoor stages, and there is an air of the theater to the stories, with obviously artificial sets, backdrops, and lighting effects. Kwaidan won the Special Jury Prize at the 1965 Cannes Film Festival, and received an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film in 1966.

The main flaw in Kwaidan is the slow pace of the stories; they are all simple tales, reliant on sumptuous settings and imagery rather than action or dialogue. Sometime the images sabotage the stories: “Hoichi the Earless” spends far too much time setting up the history of the ghosts by panning over paintings of the ancient sea battle, the snow spirit has a stiff-armed way of walking that looks silly rather than supernatural, and the supernatural effects in “The Black Hair” are hardly apparent at all. Kwaidan is an interesting piece of exotica, but in the end it may be more satisfying to simply read Hearn’s stories and let one’s own imagination provide the imagery.

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