Synopsis: Winner of the Special Jury Prize at Cannes, Kwaidan features four nightmarish tales in which terror thrives and demons lurk. Adapted from traditional Japanese ghost stories, this lavish production draws extensively on director Masaki Kobayashi’s own training as a student of painting and fine arts.

Kwaidan 8.0

eyelights: the set designs. the mood.
eyesores: the lack of serious chills.

‘Kwaidan’ is a movie that I picked up solely because I was perusing the Criterion Collection’s titles a decade ago, when I first got into DVD, and was looking for some interesting additions to my library. Since titles were still somewhat scarce, I was happy to go on blind faith with some of them.

Thankfully, it paid off: this picture was one of my favourites that year.

‘Kwaidan’ is a two-and-a-half-hour anthology that consists of four Japanese ghost stories. It’s based on Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things, a book by Lafcadio Hearn, as well as some of his other works. I can’t confirm whether the adaptations are faithful to the original source material or not, having never read his works, but the end results are quite good:

1. The Black Hair: A self-centered samurai leaves his spouse out of professional ambition, but, years later, realizes that he’s made a mistake. However, when he returns to visit his ex-wife, he finds that not all is as he’d hoped them to be.

This one had a slow, eerie tone to it, created with lighting and unconventional sound effects. I loved that it was narrated, because it gave it a slightly storybook feel. 7.5

2. The Woman in the Snow: A ghost allows a man to escape her grasp, so long as he never tells anyone about what he saw that fateful night. With time, now married and raising a family, the man begins to forget the promise that he made so long ago.

This one was more dramatic than suspenseful (after the initial meeting with the ghost, of course), but it is well put together – and the final twist, which is not unexpected, is worth the wait. 7.5

3. Hoichi the Earless: A blind musician has been asked to play for royalty over a number of different nights. Unbeknownst to him, the court he is playing for has long left this mortal plane. When his friends interfere and try to prevent the ghosts from taking his soul, he ends up in the confrontation of his life.

If not for the set designs, which I consider to be a real treat, I would have died watching this one. It felt unending and unmoving, and I was bored stiff. Fitting as that may be, it was by far my least favourite of the lot – especially given its extended runtime. 6.0

4. In a Cup of Tea: A thirsty, impatient samurai swallows the soul of a departed man while drinking a bowl of water. When the man appears to him, he attempts to kill him, not realizing that supernatural forces are at play. That’s when the man sends his servants to warn the samurai that he will exact revenge.

This one was slightly eerier, what with the many apparitions, but it also had a comical tone to it which was discrepant. Still, it’s a memorable short that’s a fitting closer to the picture. 7.5

Each short has a distinct vibe, but they are all deliberately slow-paced, focusing on the drama more so than on any simmering suspense. It’s more about tone, about mood. But what truly distinguishes ‘Kwaidan’ from the rest is its distinctive set design, which makes it look like a high-budgeted stage play. In particular, there are these fantastically colourful backdrops that were used in lieu of real scenery. It may not look real, but it’s breathtaking.

‘Kwaidan’ was nominated for a handful of prestigious awards and won the Special Jury Prize at the 1965 Cannes Film Festival. I am already a sucker for horror film anthologies, but getting my hands on a quality production is something of special treat – they’re usually low-budget cheapies that trade basic things such as acting, script, and production values for cheap thrills and casual chills. Not so here: ‘Kwaidan’ is high quality cinema, not z-movie garbage.

It may seem strange to say this, but I find that ‘Kwaidan’ is greater than the sum of its parts. While each short is good on its own, it’s as a portmanteau that they gain their strength – hence the seemingly incongruous rating. It may be on the lengthy side but it’s worth the investment of time: while ‘Kwaidan’ is not nearly as gruesome or spooky as its peers, it knows how to tell a good ghost story.

Story: 8.0
Acting: 8.0
Production: 8.5

Chills: 4.0
Gore: 6.0
Violence: 3.0

Date of viewing: September 26, 2012

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