Films That Haunt Me: KWAIDAN

It’s obvious that J-horror has become one of the most important platforms for the genre in the past decade. That cannot be limited to the 2000s, however – in the 1950s and 60s especially, Japan produced some of the most beautiful and effective horror films of all time. The pinnacle of those, in my opinion, is 1964’s KWAIDAN.


Translating roughly as ‘Ghost Stories,’ the film is made up of four classic Japanese tales involving the supernatural. These stories have the air of ancient fables about them, with easy-to-understand morals built in as well. They are as follows – “Black Hair,” following a self-serving samurai who betrays his wife for success; “The Woman in the Snow,” telling of a creature who spares her victim on the condition that he never speaks about what he saw; “Hoichi the Earless,” named for a blind monk ordered by a long-dead empire to perform the song of their defeat; and “In a Cup of Tea,” a surreal tale of a man haunted by another’s soul which he unknowingly drank in, of course, a cup of tea.

From 'Hoichi the Earless.'

From ‘Hoichi the Earless.’

These plots are more or less familiar and simple. It’s how the stories are told that lend them their beauty and power. Director Masaki Kobayashi evokes an Expressionistic atmosphere full of painterly colors and stunningly arranged images, granting the film the surreal quality of a dream. The music is also gorgeous and subtle, which ends up being quite frightening at times. Kobayashi directs his actors and his camera with a gentle but assured touch that manipulates the audience into believing that the stories are perhaps even true. Through his near-glacial pacing of plot, he makes you sympathize subconsciously, and then unleashes the horror at the precise moment. He is amazingly patient in his storytelling, an art that unfortunately seems to be neglected now.

From 'The Woman in the Snow.'

From ‘The Woman in the Snow.’

For this reason I suspect that “Kwaidan” will bore some audience members – even condensed, it’s nearly 3 hours long, and it places focus on atmosphere and dread rather than outright action. Patient viewers will find themselves doubly rewarded, though.

From 'Hoichi the Earless.'

From ‘Hoichi the Earless.’

Some of these stories (most recognizably “The Woman in the Snow”) have been re-adapted into other, more mainstream films – but the nuance and visual genius of “Kwaidan” are unmatched. While the plays out like an eternal, multi-formed dream, its images are not easily forgotten, due to their pure sublimity. It evokes almost subconsciously the intangible power of our obsession with the supernatural, the power that such things hold over our minds. Whether for the sheer beauty of the photography or for the brilliance of its quiet storytelling, “Kwaidan” is a must-see.

NOTE: I’ve heard rumours that Criterion is releasing a bluray version of this film – based on some negative reviews of the current DVD version, it might be best to seek out the new one. It’s the director’s cut and much better quality. (The DVD version, however, is perfectly watchable.)


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