Tag Archives: Takemitsu

The Hearn/Kobayashi/folklore “Kwaidan”/”Kaidan”


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

Woman in the Dunes (1964)


Of the three collaborations between director Teshigahara Hiroshi, novelist/screenwriter Abe Kôbô, cinematographer Segawa Hiroshi (Under the Flag of the Rising Sun), and composer Takemitsu Toru, I least like the most famous, “Woman in the Dunes” (1964; the Japanese title, “Suna no Onna’” means “Sand Woman”). (It was preceded by “Pitfall“,  followed by “The  Face of Another.”)  Not only was it nominated for a best foreign-language film Oscar, but Teshigahara was nominated for the best director Oscar, very, very unusual for a film not in English, especially so experimental a film. And the film won a Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival.

The meaning of the film was much debated at the time (the time of “L’Aventurra,” “L’eclisse,” “L’Année dernière à Marienbad,” and “Persona,” each of which occasioned a dissensus of interpretations). It was attacked for being fascistic and for being communistic, for showing a desire to escape from society and for showing the necessity to submit to a place, however arbitrarily assigned, in society. Though I think it is open to varying interpretation, showing “a desire to escape from society” is one with no basis.

The high school teacher and amateur entomologist Niki Junpei (Okada Eiji) — who, despite the title, seems to me the protagonist of the film. Misses the last bus and is housed below the level of the dunes near the ocean. He has less than no desire to stay on there, but is trapped. The rope ladder on which he descended is pulled up and it slowly becomes clear to him that the locals expect him to be the helpmate (and sexual partner) of the relatively young widow (Kishida Kyôko) who lives there and, each night, fills buckets of sand that are hoisted out. The sand still threatens to bury the house and gets onto or into everything.


It makes no sense to me that sand needs to be quarried from around a sunken house: there is plenty on the surface that could be collected more easily… and is no more infiltrated with sea salt that makes it a hazardous building material (as an ingredient of concrete).

The rural folk who supply the couple in exchange for the sand from the pit don masks, forming a grotesque voyeur audience for a sexual performance (in exchange for which they allow him up to look at the sea for about an hour at a time).

Eventually, the man is distracted from trying to get a message out via a crow with the technology of drawing water up through capillary motion. Unsurprisingly, the woman gets pregnant, and the man becomes accustomed to his life of absurdity and Sisyphean effort to keep digging out sand threatening to bury the house. He seems to have forgotten his life in the city (with a wife and a teaching job) and to have ceased to find his life under the eyes of rural folk demeaning. I couldn’t say whether he feels more sense of belonging in his new life than he did in his old (the old is not showed), though mindful of the high valuation of belonging for Japanese in general.


Because Teshigahara’s aesthetic interests were well-known (he was also a potter and took over the ikebana school of his father when his father died), the ravishing images have been credited to his eye rather than to that of the cinematographer of this and his other two Abe adaptations (plus “Tokyo 1958”), Segawa Hiroshi. There are memorable compositions throughout the movie of sand in closeups and in longshots.

The Criterion edition includes the 147-minute long cut (Teshigahara supervised a shorter cut to 123 minutes for international release), four earlier Teshigahara shorts — Hokusai (1953), Ikebana (1956), Tokyo 1958 (1958), and Ako (1965) — and a documentary that includes American explicators of Japan Donald Richie and John Nathan (the latter wrote the screenplay for the 1972 Teshigahara drams “Summer Soldiers”).

©2016, Stephen O. Murray


Music for the Movies: Takemitsu

The 1994 installment of “Music for the Movies” about Tôru Takemitsu’s film music was made by Charlotte Zwerin (who also made the excellent “Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser” and was a codirector of “Gimme Shelter”).


In addition to some insightful remarks by Donald Richie, directors Imamura Shohei, Kobayashi Masaki, Ôshima Nagisa, Shinoda Masahiro, and Teshigahara Hiroshi each marvels at how Takemitsu’s sound enhanced their films. The film clips made the Japanese (or at least Japanese cinema) look far more morbid (in general and death-obsessed in particular) than Paul Shrader’s selections from Mishima’s life and fiction (scored by Phillip Glass).

Takemitsu (1930[-96]) said onscreen that he would have liked to score comedies, but was recurrently recruited to score movies about murder, suicide, and other dark subjects (Harakiri, Kwaidan, Woman in the Dunes, Empire of Passion, etc.) I learned that the one film in which Takemitsu did not get his own way is in Kurosawa’s last (and, I think, greatest) masterpiece, “Ran” (1986). Takemitsu speaks with some distaste of the “Mahlerian” (more specifically “Titan” symphony) soundscape Kurosawa demanded. In general, Taksmitsu maintained: “I write music by placing objects in my musical garden” and he considered his work on movies as being as much sound design as “composed” music. The documentary shows some of the exotic instruments of his sound engineering.

Takemitsu’s music often enhances errieness. He says it is “all top” (i.e., not built on a bass line, especially not employing timpani, which he despises). Olivier Messiaen has been a longtime influence and personal friend and Takemitsu famously despises music that is “stifled by formulas and calculations” and wants his music to be able to breathe rather than being strictly planned (John Cage was another influence). But for most of the hundred films he scored, he sought to “express what the director feels himself. I try to extend his feelings with my music.


©2016, Stephen O. Murray