Kwaidan is a study in the masterful control of film technique. Kobayashi builds slowly, shooting the first story, “The Black Hair,” in shadows and exterior locations, grounding the film in what seems to be conventional realism. But when he hits the frightening climax, the camera swerves at dizzying angles, the sound desynchs, and the makeup and sets become highly expressionistic. With the second and third stories, Kobayashi shoots on enormous soundstages. “The Woman in the Snow” eschews realism entirely: Minokichi wanders a bleak snowscape with howling, distorted sound and menacing eyes filling the sky overhead. “Hoichi” features a haunting, mist-filled, graveside royal court and the indelible image of Hoichi’s body covered in sharply focuses writing. Finally, the last story draws us back at least partway to reality, returning to a more realistic setting, but always with the lingering sense that, as they say on Disney’s Haunted Mansion, “a ghost will follow you home.”
And Kwaidan is about writing. Storytelling. Although shot on an “epic scale” (as the ad-men might say), this is an epic in a different sense of the word: stories of the eternal conflict between language (film, storytelling) and the world, drawn in bold strokes in the lives of the characters. You may recall that I broached this subject some time ago in a Deep Focus column on Kobayashi’s career, so I will try not to repeat myself too much here. But from its first moments during the opening credits, this film is about narrative itself. “The Black Hair” tells of memory and self-deception, the stories we tell ourselves to justify our choices in life. “The Woman in the Snow” and “Hoichi, the Earless” draw boundaries around what stories we can tell others. “In a Cup of Tea” examines the structure of narrative, the closure we expect stories to have, and how stories always spill out from beyond the page and into the world.