• Denholm Hewlett

[Film Classics/Spirituality] KWAIDAN (1964)

Masaki Kobayashi's supernatural horror masterpiece - A four part anthology of legendary Japanese ghost & folklore stories.


Kwaidan, the archaic Japanese word for "Ghost stories", is an unparalleled achievement in supernatural fantasy horror. A truly haunting and astonishing masterclass of early mythology cinema with unforgettable images and sound.


This chilling and indelible horror classic is strikingly pure and simple in it's presentation, it bleeds Japanese culture and identity in every single frame. The film's hallucinogenic visual style, breathtaking photography, enchanting costume design, spellbinding art direction and each of the incredible hand-painted backdrops were all constructed with ravishing, emotive colour schemes and a meticulous attention to detail that transports the viewer to another dimension.



The four ghost stories of Kwaidan all revolve around mortal beings getting caught up in forces beyond their comprehension when the supernatural world interferes with their lives. Kwaidan's powerful and unnerving stories may be low on scares but they are thick with artificial atmosphere and masterful theatrically, each of these creepy folk tales are slow-burners, methodical visual spectacles that are much more lyrical than they are frightening.



The stories build the suspense gracefully until the finales creep up and take you by surprise. This landmark Japanese film is known best for its ambitious production design and innovative cinematography, projecting an abstract plethora of luminescent colours from another world. The mesmerising supernatural imagery paired with the uniquely warped and haunting soundtrack by Toru Takemitsu will burn deep into your memory and stay with you forever, you simply cannot forget Kwaidan once you've seen it.



The most visually striking and memorable segment in Kwaidan is the third tale, Hoichi The Earless, an adaptation of a well-known Japanese folklore legend, translated for English audiences in 1904 with Lafcadio Hearn's book "Kwaidan: Stories and studies of Strange Things", which served as the foundation for the entire KWAIDAN cinematic anthology.



The first story in Kwaidan is "THE BLACK HAIR", often credited as the original Japanese ghost story. It follows the tale of an impoverish samurai, who abandons his true love to marry a wealthier woman, which proves to be a disastrous decision and the promise of a better life leads to great personal tragedy and regret. The samurai returns to his first wife to reconcile their love, but is unaware that his wife had passed in his absence of an illness and had merely returned as a Yurei ghost. After they sleep together, the swordsman realise he's holding his ex- wife's rotting, decaying corpse. He is then cursed by her sinister black hair, rapidly ageing him until he drops stone cold dead.



The second story is "THE WOMAN IN THE SNOW", which follows the tale of a woodcutter who becomes stranded in a violent snowstorm, his life is saved after he encounters Yuki-Onna the snow maiden. This icy ghost decides to spares the man's life on the sole condition that he will never tell anybody about their encounter or her existence. A decade later, the man is happily married with children, he forgets this old promise and pays a terrible price.


The third story in Kwaidan, is "HOICHI THE EARLESS", the longest and most visually memorable episode in the whole anthology. This tale is a true historical epic of immense scale and ambitious scope. The ancient folklore story follows Hoichi, a blind monk musician who lives in a secluded buddhist monastery. He is a revered lute priest who sings and plays the Biwa hōshi with amazing skill, he can also recite the epic 12th century account of The Tale of Heike with masterful virtuosity.



Hoichi is unwittingly confronted by the ghost of a dead samurai warrior who summons him to perform the entire Heike battle ballad for his lord and his family of imperial warrior ghosts, to ultimately resurrect the ancient dead emperor from the story. The Tale of Heike chronicles the court's legendary sea death battle and the struggle between the Taira clan and Minamoto clan for control over Japan at the end of the 12th century in the Genpei War.



Sneaking out every night to perform for this army of ghosts starts to slowly drain away Hoichi's life force, the elder monks discover him playing Biwa in an ancient graveyard and awaken him to the reality of the situation. The elders forbid Hoichi from obeying the ghosts again and set out to protect him from harm by writing a holy buddhist mantra over his entire body to make him invisible to the ghosts, his body is completely covered except for his ears. When the ghost next pays Hoichi a visit, a violence tragedy takes place.



The fourth and final story is "IN A CUP OF TEA", is a sardonic tale told from the perspective of a writer, recalling an odd story of a nobleman that spots the reflection of a strange and menacing man in his cup of tea. Despite being perturbed, he drinks the tea and begins to see the man in the reflection in person. The nobleman is tormented by three spirits and is then begins slipping into madness, eventually becoming trapped inside a jar of water.


Masaki Kobayashi was a genius who poured his entire soul into creating this epic feature (his first film in colour) and it still stands the test of time. Back in the day, this was the most expensive Japanese film ever made and it was all shot in a massive decommissioned aircraft hanger to accompany the huge set designs. Kwaidan is a stirringly passionate and lovingly respectful tribute to Japan's cultural rich heritage. This is mythology horror cinema at it's very best, masterfully capturing the unique folkloric soul of Japan and it's people.



Kwaidan won the special jury prize at the 1965 Canne film Festival and received an Academy Award Nomination for best foreign language film.



~ PSYCHIC GARDEN

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00:00 / 03:51

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