An elder ronin samurai arrives at a feudal lord's home and requests an honorable place to commit suicide. But when the ronin inquires about a younger samurai who arrived before him things take an unexpected turn.
The mother of a feudal lord's only heir is kidnapped away from her husband by the lord. The husband and his samurai father must decide whether to accept the unjust decision, or risk death to get her back.
This film contains four distinct, separate stories. "Black Hair": A poor samurai who divorces his true love to marry for money, but finds the marriage disastrous and returns to his old wife, only to discover something eerie about her. "The Woman in the Snow": Stranded in a snowstorm, a woodcutter meets an icy spirit in the form of a woman spares his life on the condition that he never tell anyone about her. A decade later he forgets his promise. "Hoichi the Earless": Hoichi is a blind musician, living in a monastery who sings so well that a ghostly imperial court commands him to perform the epic ballad of their death battle for them. But the ghosts are draining away his life, and the monks set out to protect him by writing a holy mantra over his body to make him invisible to the ghosts. But they've forgotten something. "In a Cup of Tea": a writer tells the story of a man who keep seeing a mysterious face reflected in his cup of tea. Written by
Style IS substance. Another masterpiece by Masaki Kobayashi.
Kwaidan is a four-segment horror anthology but you'd be hard pressed to find one more removed from the typical plastic bats and cobwebs Gothic anthologies of Amicus or Hammer. While it can be billed as a "horror" movie and it deals with the supernatural, it's not really frightening. All four segments are more like traditional Japanese folk legends about ghosts, the kind of spooky stories you could hear an elder narrating to kids around a bonfire in a village near Kyoto or the outskirts of Okinawa. However if "work of art" was a genre, Kwaidan would be among the best it had to offer.
Just two years after the seminal Seppuku which was done in stark black and white with a geometric, well disciplined style, Kobayashi returns with another tour-de-force, this time in extravagant, expressionistic colour. A visual feast proving that in the right hands style can be substance. His camera with its slow tracking shots is like a brush, painting a celluloid canvas with vivid, lush compositions and it comes as no surprise to find out that he had a background in painting. The combination of eerie, supernatural material, the dreamlike atmosphere and the use of colour in lighting and sets reminded me of the great Italian maestro, Mario Bava; although Kwaidan by no means fits in the Gothic horror mold.
Conscious of the folk legend material he's working on, Kobaysi wisely shot the movie in studio sets using large painted backgrounds that look deliberately artificial as much as they look gorgeous. In many ways, it feels like a big stageplay or an elaborate dramatic poem. In that aspect, Kwaidan takes place somewhere between the real and the mythic. A land of some other order.
The stories all revolve around ghosts and are as simple and predictable as any spooky story that you might hear as an adult. But they do a great job of providing an eerie skeleton for Kobayashi to hang on his beautiful style. Style over substance one could argue. Isn't that an erroneous statement though? By making the distinction one implies that style is somehow insubstantial to a film, something that couldn't be further from the truth. The use of colour is incredible, the lighting, at times subtle and evocative or wild and expressionistic, the slow tracking shots, long stretches of silence, a body painted with holy text, Tatsuya Nakadai looking calm and happy for a change, Tetsuro Tamba in full plate samurai armor, white ghastly faces, bodies falling in blood-red waters, a painted sunset backdrop, an intelligent play on vague endings, the minimal score, chords echoing from somewhere. Kwaidan proves that style IS substance. A visual feast by all means.
It's really a shame that Kobayashi is not as widely celebrated as Akira Kurosawa. Kwaidan is just another in a series of absolutely brilliant films he did in the 60's. Beautiful, creepy, poetic, atmospheric as hell; it is the work of a master cinematician and one of the best Japanese movies you're likely to see.
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