I love when something I've never heard of just blows me away with how good it is. It's a rare thing, and I can't really think of the last time it's happened to me. Kwaidan is that good, though, that much better than I expected it to be. It's a movie made in 1964 in Japan that is an adaptation of several Japanese folk tales as written by a Greek named Lafcadio Hearns. It should be a mess. Instead, it's one of the most beautiful horror movies I've ever seen.
The production is heavily stage-bound, with only the occasional location shooting. Fine for interior locations, but for exteriors shot on a sound-stage... well, in general I've found this stultifying in other productions - limiting scope and scale and imposing a "packaged" feeling on a film. Somehow the director of Kwaidan, Masaki Kobayashi, transcends these limitations - even uses them to give us fantastic vistas that would be impossible on a location shoot. The sky - illuminated by the northern lights - becomes a vista of eyes, following the action just as we do. A snow-swept forest feels just as cold and dangerous as the real thing - yet also poetic, controlled - a work of art.
I don't know, there's just something about the production. It's like a living painting - but it also feels real, more real than real, if that makes any sense. A woman and her children run through a field and the breeze that whips the grass doesn't seem fake, though the background of the sky does. It has the effect of making everything seem slightly heightened - like you're on a slight high.
There are four stories in this anthology. No real attempt is made at a frame - though the last story seems to extend beyond the borders of its own section. I'll break them out individually:
"The Black Hair"
This is actually my least favorite of the pieces - though only because of the length. The final story benefits from its brevity. It's about an impoverished samurai who selfishly divorces his wife in order to marry a wealth woman and improve his status. His new wife is cold, selfish and cruel (we're informed of that fact by the narrator - though to me it seems like she's simply young and reacting to the emotional distance of her new husband) and he finds himself longing for the simplicity of his old life and the warm, uncomplicated love of his previous wife.
Years later he returns to his old house, finding it in even worse disrepair than when he left. He does find his wife inside and they reconcile. He spends the night - only to find the morning brings a revelation that drives him mad or worse.
There's a great auditory note that occurs throughout this piece - the sound of a loom clacking. It works extremely well with the minimal music and is sometimes creepy and sometimes comforting. The pace of the piece is a little slow for me in this modern era, but I still enjoyed it. It also contains the only moment of genuine horror - albeit brief - in the entire film.
"The Woman of the Snow"
And this is my favorite segment. The plot is fairly straightforward and vaguely familiar. A young man and his master are out gathering wood when a freak winter storm traps them in an old shelter. A supernatural creature - The Woman of the Snow - kills the old man, but spares the young man's life, but makes him promise to keep her secret. Years later he marries a woman with whom he has several children - but when he tells her the story she reveals herself as the same creature.
The visuals in "The Woman of the Snow" just wowed me. They're not quite as grand as those in "Hoichi the Earless," but are somehow even more effective for all that. From the initial storm - which manages to feel both real and staged - through fall days and even warm scenes within the young man's hut, the lighting, staging and direction is just fantastic. There's a sequence in which the young man turns his head as he realizes who he is speaking to, and the lighting goes from warm oranges and reds to cool blues over the course of the pan - it's a simple effect, but it's so good. I'll end up picking this up on blue ray just to see this segment in high def.
"Hoichi the Earless"
This segment is about a blind musician, Hoichi, whose is especially proficient at performing The Tale of the Heike - a story/poem/song about a final battle between two clans. One night a samurai arrives to take him to a nearby pavilion where he is to perform this tale for an august personage. Every night he leaves the monastery where he lives and his friends and the priest grow concerned. Eventually it becomes clear that he is performing for the ghosts of those who died in that battle. To save his soul the priest and his acolyte write holy words over his entire body and instruct him to ignore the ghosts when they return. However, the two holy men have neglected a certain part of poor Hoichi's body...
This segment has some beautiful scenes, great artwork, and epic battle sequences. It's the most impressive of the film, though I still enjoy the simple emotionality of "The Woman of the Snow" more. The sets alone are worth the viewing, though. And I, for the first time, gained an appreciation for the Japanese lute - the biwa. Something I've always thought as atonal noise before. It also has some striking visuals in the final few minutes - particularly the image of Hoishi covered head to toe in calligraphy.
"In a Cup of Tea"
The weakest of the segments, "In a Cup of Tea" is at least very short. An unfinished story about a samurai who sees a man in a cup of water, the film offers a potential reason for the story's unfinished state. It involves a cup of tea...
The Bottom Line
While short on genuine horror, Kwaidan is an epic in the visual department. The skill and artistry of the people involved cannot be overstated. It's a bit stiff and formal, but that befits both the time period and the culture. I loved it.