For a film so widely and indelibly remembered, Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan has confounded a surprising number of critics over the years. Ever since its release in 1965, there have been those who have found it too long, too artificial, too self-consciously exotic, not socially minded enough for the director of The Human Condition (1959–61) and Harakiri (1962), not scary or gory enough to qualify as a horror film. To be sure, this four-part adaptation of four renowned ghost stories by Lafcadio Hearn—not quite comparable to any other film, regardless of genre or country of origin, and unique in Kobayashi’s oeuvre—defies easy categorization. That is perhaps why it has remained for countless viewers such a singular experience, clinging to memory like an unshakable dream, a glimpse into some alternate zone where light falls differently on faces, time moves by a different measure, and terror blends disturbingly with beauty.
In its day, it was the most expensive Japanese film to date, shot almost entirely on hand-painted sets built in an airplane hangar, the only space big enough to accommodate them. The meticulousness of the production is evident in every frame: there is not a leaf or a piece of fabric or a dust trace on a worn floorboard that is not visibly the result of intensive consideration and labor. The whole film feels made by hand, a quality not ordinarily associated with a production epic both in length (restored for this release to its full 183-minute running time) and in the spatial dimensions of the TohoScope screen. 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.
Such openly acknowledged artificiality has deep roots in Japanese art, and most prominently in Japanese theatrical traditions. It was the eighteenth-century Bunraku playwright Monzaemon Chikamatsu, in discussing the aesthetics of the puppet theater, who described art as “something that lies in the slender margin between the real and the unreal.” Kwaidan was following closely on such notable cinematic experiments as Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (1957), with its grafting of Noh performance style to the period action film, Keisuke Kinoshita’s The Ballad of Narayama (1958), with its painted landscapes, and Kon Ichikawa’s An Actor’s Revenge (1963), with its jarringly garish color effects. Kobayashi had trained as a painter before beginning his career as a filmmaker, and in the progression from earlier, more naturalistic work like Black River (1957) through the monumental compositions of The Human Condition and the more extreme stylization of his first period film, Harakiri, he seems to have moved quite deliberately toward the almost hermetically controlled visual and aural world of Kwaidan.
The aural dimension was entrusted to the great composer Toru Takemitsu, whose hundred or so film scores include—aside from his other collaborations with Kobayashi—ones for major works by Kurosawa, Nagisa Oshima, Hiroshi Teshigahara, Masahiro Shinoda, Ichikawa, and Shohei Imamura. Takemitsu’s contribution to Kwaidan can hardly be overestimated. He once stated that “timing is the most crucial element in film music: where to place the music, where to end it, how long or how short it should be,” and from the opening moments of Kwaidan’s first episode—as the camera moves through and then soars above the dilapidated gate of a ruined dwelling, proceeding to glide through the house’s uninhabited interiors in a series of voluptuous forward movements, as if it were calmly swallowing great gulps of empty space—our perception is already being shaped by the creaks and cracks and muffled slams and whooshes of wind on Takemitsu’s soundtrack. Kwaidan’s atmosphere is fully established before a single character has appeared on-screen. His musique concrète, compounded of jangling plucks and tweets and a hundred other not-quite-identifiable sounds, is defined as much by its silences as by its never predictable accents. Of the making of the soundtrack, Takemitsu remarked: “I wanted to create an atmosphere of terror. But if the music is constantly saying, ‘Watch out! Be scared!’ then all the tension is lost. It’s like sneaking up behind someone to scare them. First, you have to be silent. Even a single sound can be film music . . . We used real wood for effects. I’d ask for a cra-a-a-ck sound, and they’d split a plank of wood, or rip it apart, or rend it with a knife. Using all these wood sounds, I assembled the track.” What we get is the sound of a constant, tormented undermining of the world Kobayashi’s characters think they inhabit.
That world is an exotic one. It could hardly be otherwise given the nature of the source material. The life and work of Lafcadio Hearn (1850–1904) are something of a case study in exoticism, with Hearn the quintessential man without a country: born to a Greek mother and an Irish father, set adrift at an early age among unsympathetic relatives, absorbing the aesthetic directives of French romanticism while enduring the dreary rigors of a Catholic boarding school in Normandy, shipped off to the United States, where he remade himself as a chronicler of black culture in the American South and in the Caribbean—and finally reinventing himself once more in Japan, marrying a woman from a samurai family (while concealing the traces of an earlier biracial marriage in America), converting to Buddhism, and establishing himself as a world-famous interpreter of Japanese culture and folklore, while remaining only modestly capable of reading Japanese.
By a circuitous process, his literary versions of Japanese folktales, some of which had not previously been written down, and to which he added his own European literary flourishes, became part of Japanese literature under his adopted name, Yakumo Koizumi. Hearn’s books—of which Kobayashi’s film draws on Shadowings (1900), Kotto (1902), and Kwaidan (1904)—were calculated to appeal to a Western appetite for the mysteries of “ghostly Japan”; but they were also, it might be supposed, to some degree exotic to a Japanese readership then in the midst of the modernizing Meiji period. That era too, in light of all the cataclysms that followed, had by 1965 acquired its own patina of nostalgic myth. Myth within myth, then, exoticism within exoticism: for Kwaidan, the whole of the past is itself something of a supernatural phenomenon, an unreality to which we yet remain inescapably tied, a ghost story from which no one can entirely awake.
The first three stories Kobayashi chose to include all involve broken vows, broken not through conscious malevolence but through what seem like unavoidable circumstances: in “The Black Hair,” a promise made to a wife; in “The Woman of the Snow,” to a spirit; and in the film’s dazzling centerpiece, “Hoichi the Earless,” to a whole phantom army. The brief final episode, “In a Cup of Tea,” ends the film on a note of bizarre comedy. These are not tales that point to any obvious moral other than the danger of venturing, deliberately or by accident, beyond the invisible barriers that mark the limits of the human world. What lies beyond those barriers is the domain of supernatural terror, but it is also the domain of art. In Kwaidan, beauty is not decoration but a direct link to unknown and perilous realms.
Hearn’s four original stories run to a total of thirty-seven pages in their first, large-type printings. These skeletal anecdotes expand under Kobayashi’s treatment into dense and multileveled experiences, in which great stretches of time are compressed. In “The Black Hair,” an impoverished samurai leaves his wife, remarries into a more socially elevated family, and moves to a distant province in the service of a feudal lord. The years of his absence are marked by discontent in his new marriage and deepening regret for the woman he abandoned. In his imagination, he returns again and again to their former home, the camera repeating the same probing movement, as if nudging in frustration against temporal limits, pushing forward and then forced to pull back. When he does finally get back to where he started out, we are once again enmeshed in the movement with which the episode began, moving toward the light in the far room where the first wife sits at her loom. Here time slows down, every second of the longed-for reunion seeming stretched out, until the inevitable revelation that turns it all to horror and decay.
The straight-out horror ending of “The Black Hair” gives way in “The Woman of the Snow” to a fairy-tale atmosphere whose entirely fabricated loveliness, all painted moon and artificial snow, in no way impedes a deepening mood of menacing uncanniness. A young woodcutter’s encounter with a snow spirit culminates in her threatening him with doom should he ever speak of their meeting. Once again years go by, a whole rural lifetime of courtship and parenthood and contented domestic life passing before us, until he is put to the test. At Kwaidan’s Cannes premiere, this episode was omitted, depriving the film of a crucial emotional register: the suggestion of a forbidden love uniting the natural and supernatural worlds. The woodcutter’s failure to adhere to his vow is a mark of his human weakness, and the departure of the loved being—radiant in blue light for a suspended moment before she vanishes forever—is as heartbreaking as it is chilling. The emotionally warmest chapter is suffused with images of snow.
These two seem but preludes to the film’s most overpowering segment. In “Hoichi the Earless”—the famous story of a blind biwa-playing monk unwittingly summoned to perform for the dead—the collapsing of time takes on extravagant proportions. An opening shot shows us the waters where the decisive battle of Dan-no-ura was fought between the Heike and Genji clans in the late twelfth century, as recounted in the epic Heike monogatari (The Tale of the Heike). That shot, dissonant because it gives us an abrupt glimpse of a real world outside the film studio (as if we might have forgotten), fades in to a scroll painting of the battle, in which the Heike were destroyed along with the infant emperor and his mother. Smoke swirls in front of the painted images, which are now intercut with enacted scenes of the battle, filmed in such lurid light as to seem more animation than live action, especially since the actors move with the ritual slowness of Bunraku puppets in full military regalia. Here the classical recitation and biwa playing adds a new dimension to the soundtrack. The chanting of the traditional chronicle becomes the central pulse for the duration of the chapter.
An episode that begins on such a visually gaudy note only becomes stormier and more menacing as it goes on. The young musician Hoichi sits playing his biwa in the courtyard of the monastery when the voice of a dead warrior calls out to him. This summoning of the blind mortal by the invisible dead signals the point of entry into a forbidden place. The music is the link between them, and it sustains a sense of continuity even while the images crosscut wildly between worlds—the painted battle, the filmed battle, the unreal pavilion in which the ghosts sit listening to the recitation, the cemetery in which the action is actually taking place—as the mist swirls, the rain pours in torrents, the ghosts suffer their dying once again, and hellish flames burn on all sides. It is all quite exhilarating and at the same time insidiously disturbing. The terrors evoked are of the oldest kind; the fear is that the horrors and unassuageable sorrows of those ancient massacres might once more come fully to life. Here Kobayashi goes far beyond the quaint antiquarian tone of Hearn’s story; the ordeal of the blind musician has laid bare an age-old cauldron of sorrows. The realm of the supernatural becomes an extension of those inescapable hierarchies and historic injustices that Kobayashi had charted in his earlier films, and to which he would return. (One of his last works, 1983’s Tokyo Trial, was a lengthy documentary on the Tokyo war crimes trials.)
Kwaidan remains distinct among Kobayashi’s films in its exploration of parallel realities. No one who has contemplated his nightmarish distillation of wartime experience in The Human Condition or the grueling rigor with which he exposed feudal codes in Harakiri and Samurai Rebellion (1967) would think of him as an artist inclined toward escapist fantasy. And indeed the three main stories of Kwaidan offer no escape. The gorgeousness of their painted skies and otherworldly color schemes, the transparent unreality of everything we see, all the bravura touches of stylization, only emphasize that one may travel to the farthest reaches of the imagination only to find at last a great and terrifying void. (Kwaidan’s fusion of transcendent beauty and icy cosmic emptiness—its creation of spaces both vast and hermetic—sometimes calls to mind 2001: A Space Odyssey or The Shining. One can well imagine Stanley Kubrick paying close attention to what Kobayashi achieved here.)
The whimsically unsettling “In a Cup of Tea,” Kwaidan’s deliberately unfinished coda, sets up a paradoxical game involving a disembodied yet apparently life-threatening reflection in the tea that a samurai is about to drink. Finally, the storyteller disappears into his own story, becoming himself another reflection, as if the only way to escape from this counterworld is by way of a tale that omits any final explanation by simply flinging itself down like an empty cup.