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
A high-class horror anthology laced with unforgettable imagery..
The words "beautiful", "lyrical" and "evocative" aren't ones that you would normally attribute to a horror movie, but they are precisely the ones that best describe Kwaidan, a quintet of Samurai Gothics based (interestingly enough) on the writings of an American author by the name of Lafcadio Hearn. Shot in gorgeous, sumptuous color way back in 1964 by director Masaki Kobayashi, Kwaidan is an unusual, unique and quite extraordinary entry in the old horror anthology genre best represented by 1945's Dead of Night and Milton Subotsky's Amicus anthology series (i.e. Dr. Terror's House of Horrors, Tales From the Crypt & Asylum).
Kwaidan differentiates itself from the pack in a number of significant ways. To begin with, all of the episodes eschew the usual O. Henry "twist" endings and deliberately telegraph their punches, case in point being "Hoichi the Earless", which gives away its climax with its very title! This film is also missing the compulsory "wrap-around" story normally employed by anthology films to tie all the stories together, and the horror elements are far more low-key than most horror aficianados are used to. Kwaidan is far less concerned with springing shocks and fraying nerves than it is in exploring the whirlwind of conflicting emotions that swirl in the dark night of the human soul.
"The Black Hair" is the tale of an impoverished samurai who abandons his loyal and loving wife to marry the daughter of a wealthy lord in another province, only to discover many years later that he is still in love with his first spouse. He returns to their decaying old house to find her exactly as he left her, affectionate and forgiving as could be. You know something in this household just ain't right. "The Woman in the Snow" concerns an apprentice woodcutter who encounters an eerily beautiful female ice-vampire - called a "Yuki-Onna - who spares his life on the condition that he never tell a soul about their encounter. (If you saw the last episode of the flaccid Tales From the Darkside movie, on which this was based, you have an idea of how this one ends).
"Hoichi the Earless", easily the most powerful of the bunch, regards a blind biwa (a stringed instrument resembling a guitar) player renowned for his moving rendition of the tragic tale of the battle between the Genji and Heiki clans. Each night he is summoned to the nearby graveyard to chant the epic tale for the ghosts of the warriors who fell in that battle, duped by the spirits into believing that he's performing in the home of a wealthy lord. When Hoichi disocvers that he has been decieved by the dead and refuses to perform for them again, the ghosts exact a terrible revenge.
A note of warning to those deterred by long foreign films: this shimmering jewel in Japanese cinema's crown clocks in at nearly three hours of length and is, of course, fully subtitled. Visually bold, rich and color and texture, and atmospherically photographed with a spine-tingling elegance, I can't guarantee that you'll like Kwaidan, but I think that I can safely assure you'll never forget it. Highly recommended, especially for Japanophiles and those with a taste for high class horror.
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