“Kwaidan” (1964—the “w” is silent) may be the first Japanese film I ever saw (the also popping colors of “Gate of Hell” is the other possibility). There is no possibility that I saw the full 183-minute version. It would have been either the 161-minute cut or one with the second of the four tales excised. Kobayashi Masaki cut 22 minutes hoping that Cannes would stretch its two-hour running-time rule to show it. Perhaps the second rather than the fourth episode was then cut because it is the longer of the two (though, IMHO much better).
Over the course of subsequent decades I have seen fifteen other films made by Kobayashi Masaki (1916-96), who is a member of my pantheon of Japanese film directors. Fourteen of these were black-and-white movies, thirteen made before “Kaidan.” None of them strikes me as being as slow-moving as “Kaidan” is, and none is as beautiful. The movie was entirely shot in a Kyoto airplane-hanger turned into a studio with painted backdrops. “Stylized”? For sure: very, very stylized, especially “Hoichi, the Earless,” the third and longest episode, which includes paintings of the culminating Dan-no-ura 1185 battle of the Genpei War.
To me, the restored images of the first and fourth episodes look a bit overexposed, and the pace in all four is slow even for Japanese historical movies. Or ghost stories. “Kai” means uncanny, a wider term than “ghost” (“dan” is an oral story). I think “The Black Hair” could have been shown in half the time, and don’t see that “Cup of Tea” needed to be included. The first is obvious/predictable. The last has suspense in that even after it one does not know how the story ends.
I liked the middle two better. “Woman of the Snow” (or “Snow Maiden”) looks gorgeous, though the predominant color is the white of snow. In the former, the woodcutters Minokichi and Mosaku are caught in a blizzard. When they come to the river, the ferry boat is on the other side of the river. They take refuge in the ferryman’s hut (which must be as cold as outdoors, though the roof catches the snow). Minokichi (Nakadai Tatsuya, whom Kobayashi had made a star in “The Human Condition” trilogy and “Harakiri”) wakes up to see a woman (Kishi Keiko) petrifying his older companion with killer breath. She then comes over to him and decides to let him live, so long as he promises never to tall anyone what he saw, not even his mother. He keeps his promise past his mother’s death. Somehow he does not recognize that the stranger who becomes his wife and mother to their three children is the same woman (phantom). Eventually he tells her about his experience in the ferryman’s hut. She is furious, but spares him again, to raise their children.
“Hoichi, the Earless” is blind but has ears at the start. Hoishi Nakamura Katsuo) is new to a Buddhist monastery, but is an accomplished biwa player who recites from the Tale of the Heike. He is commandeered by the ghost of a Heike warrior (Tamba Tetsurô) to sing the song of the clan’s destruction for a gathering of the ghosts of the Heike court. Not being able to see, Hoichi does not see anything amiss. Eventually, the abbot of the monastery (Shimura Takashi) realizes Hoichi has been subordinated to a ghost and writes the heart sutra on Hoichi’s face and body, neglecting the ears. They are all the warrior sees and he takes them back to explain his failure to return with the biwa player. Alive, if earless, Hoichi becomes famous and people from all around come to hear him, eventually including the dead Heike (earlier, he went to their graves, where they materialized from the tombstones).
Takemitsu Toru provided some interesting sounds, though there are many scenes in which the lack of any musical backdrop is noticeable.
I’m not into “ghost stories” or “horror movies,” but there are Japanese ones I like better (Onibaba, Ugetsu, Ringu, Kuronekô,Yotsuda the Phantom). Beautiful images are not enough for me. Moreover, I don’t see anything that makes the four stories cohere into anything, that is, why it is an entiry (a movie) rather than 4 stories with very stylized, colorful stories. The aesthetics are the same, the ethics similarly cloudy, but I don’t see a unity (I’ve already complained about the slow flow)… or a point
The Criterion Collection edition includes a somewhat interesting interview by Shinoda Masahiro of Kobayashi (mostly about financing difficulties and finding a place big enough for shooting) a more informative set of recollections by assistant director Ogasawara Kiyoshi, a piece on writer Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904) who married a Japanese woman, lived in Japan is st fourteen years, and published tales that were still being told in Japan during the late 19th century (four of which were reappropriated in this Japanese movie adaptation of Hearn’s collection of the same name). There is also a commentary track by Stephen Prince that I have not heard and a booklet essay by Geoffrey O’Brien that I have not seen.
BTW, the two-hour version won a Special Jury Prize at Cannes (losing the Palme d’or to “The Knack, or How to Get It.” “Kwaidan” was nominated for a best foreign-language film Oscar, losing (much more justifiably) to “The Shop on Main Street”). It was also the biggest box-office grossing Kobayashi movie.
©2016, Stephen O. Murray