Upgraded for Blu-ray by Criterion just in time for Halloween, Masaki Kobayashi’s 1964 anthology film Kwaidan (the title translates simply as Ghost Stories) isn’t the kind of movie you watch when you want to be scared out of your wits. None of its four tales of the supernatural goes for the jugular, and several of them deliberately telegraph their chilling conclusion, undermining any suspense. Kobayashi, who adapted all four from collections of Japanese folk tales assembled by Lafcadio Hearn, expected local audiences to be familiar with the basic narratives, the same way that an American audience would know what’s coming in a filmed version of, say, “The Hook.” What makes Kwaidan singular is the combination of Kobayashi’s almost maddeningly patient, methodical approach to drama (as exemplified by 1962’s Harakiri, also available via Criterion) and his expressionistic experiments with color, sound, and theatrical artifice.
The film’s opening segment, “The Black Hair,” sets the tone, finding numerous grace notes in what was originally a simple moralistic fable. (The first two stories in particular would have fit snugly in the pages of EC’s The Haunt Of Fear.) Having been reduced to poverty, a swordsman (Rentarô Mikuni) leaves his devoted wife (Michiyo Aratama) and marries into a wealthy family, attaining a powerful government position in the bargain. He despises his vain, selfish second wife (Misako Watanabe), however, and after many years returns to his first wife, who welcomes him back with open arms. The dilapidated state of his former home, along with its overgrown grounds, should perhaps be a tipoff that all isn’t quite as it seems; this tale’s climax is as close as Kwaidan gets to genuine horror (albeit with an element of black comedy), but Kobayashi arguably achieves a more potent effect in concert with set decorator Dai Arakawa.
Art director Shigemasa Toda, on the other hand, deserves much of the credit for “The Woman Of The Snow.” This segment was omitted from the 1965 U.S. theatrical release, in order to get the running time down from three hours to two and change; those audiences were cheated out of perhaps the most gorgeous nightmare in cinema history. Starring the great Tatsuya Nakadai (Yojimbo, High And Low) as a woodcutter who encounters a lethal female snow spirit (Keiko Kishi), but is spared on the condition that he never tell a living soul what he’s seen, it transforms its forest setting into a phantasmagorical netherworld, with frost covering every visible surface and huge eyes staring down from strangely colored skies. Kobayashi signals abrupt shifts in mood via sudden, dramatic changes in lighting, a theatrical device that works so beautifully it’s a wonder it hasn’t been more widely emulated. And if you’re curious about the origins of the J-horror creepy woman (as seen in The Ring, The Grudge, etc.), this is one place to look.
If a two-hour version of Kwaidan was what the U.S. distributor wanted, it might more profitably have cut “Hoichi The Earless,” which runs well over an hour all by its lonesome, and involves a real-life historical battle that means a great deal to Japanese viewers but nothing whatsoever to Americans. Trouble is, the conclusion of this third tale is unforgettable—so much so that virtually all of the film’s marketing uses the image of a young man covered from head to toe (well, almost) in kanji, the characters of Japanese script. By contrast, the final segment, “In A Cup Of Tea,” doesn’t even have a conclusion, having been adapted from a tale that was left unfinished, for reasons unknown. Kwaidan’s narrator (Osamu Takizawa) playfully speculates about what might have befallen its author, as well as possible endings; it’s the ideal resolution for a movie that’s concerned much less with the who, what, or when than it is with the how.