Kwaidan (1964)

Kwaidan, 1964; directed by Masaki Kobayashi; starring  Rentarô Mikuni, Michiyo Aratama, Misako Watanabe 

And now for something completely different.  Here at Pop Teez we find Japanese cinema, like much of Japanese culture, to be endlessly fascinating.   Japanese games shows are all zany noises, crazy colors and quick! quick! quick! cuts.  And yet this is the culture of the banzai tree and zen gardens and quiet contemplation.    The Japanese love of American pop culture is well known to us westerners, while there is so much of Japanese culture that seems so exotic to us.

What might be most fascinating is how the Japanese combine their traditional culture and preoccupations with whatever they love about American pop culture – the latter often taken completely out of context which makes it seem more random.

In Japan, the yakuza film is a common cousin with our gangster films.  And of course the Samurai film – well, it is at this point I believe fairly common knowledge that the western The Magnificent Seven is a remake of the famous Akira Kurosawa masterpiece The Seven Samurai.   And the spaghetti western that launched Clint Eastwood as a movie star, A Fistful of Dollars, is a remake of Kurosawa’s samurai classic Yojimbo.  And Yojimbo itself is based on american pulp novelist Dashiell Hammett’s own Red Harvest, which is based on his experience in the Pinkertons – the famous detective agency from the old west.   

You see how meta this can all get.  But what the hell does this have to do with horror films?? Well thanks for asking, and allow me to tell you, Plenty, my friend, plenty.

The early 2000s craze for Japanese horror in RinguJu-On and Pulse, just to name three, was not at all Japanese cinema’s first forays into horror films.  In fact one may even remember their most famous export, Godzilla, came from the 1950s (which incidentally came out the same year as Seven Samurai – 1954).

So we can surmise from all this that the Japanese love their horror.  Well today, after that very long intro, we bring you something completely different out of the Japanese horror tradition:  Kwaidan.  At three hours it is a rather long film, but it is also an anthology film.  There are 4 separate ghost stories contained in those three hours.  But unlike a typical horror movie, these are more folk tales with horrible or supernatural turns.  Haunting tales that may read more like beautiful technicolor episodes of The Twilight Zone, the feudal Japan edition, rather than a flick serving up scares or shocks.

We deal with Samurais and ghosts of all types – Samurais who leave devoted wives to marry up and further their careers, entire clans eliminated in dramatic sea battles; we even get the strange tales of monks and peasants.  All of this is clearly on a soundstage, with no attempt made to make it look real. But this very artifice amplifies the beautiful and tranquil simplicity that is a part of what makes this such a unique viewing experience.

Like most anthology movies, some stories are stronger than others here.  If you find yourself fading, then the last tale, In A Cup Of Tea, is the weakest one here and the one you should skip if you must. Though it is darkly humorous in it’s telling of a Samurai who’s pride is so easily wounded he starts a war with ghosts over an apparition that appears…. in a cup of tea.

Both The Black Hair and The Woman In The Snow – the first two tales – are excellent as introductions into the style of the film and of Japanese folklore.  But it’s the third, and longest story, Hoichi the Earless, that is the must see masterpiece here.  Hoichi is a blind musician who shows up to a monastery and is called to perform for what turns out to be a rather ghostly royal clan.

Dazzling technicolor and gloriously surreal sets (check out the clearly painted on the horizon watchful eye in The Woman in the Snow) add to an off-kilter set of tales.  No huge explosions or crazy CGI here.  Just a gorgeously serene bleakness to help us reset for what’s in store the rest of the week.

Dr. Vorhees