This is my review from chud.com in 2007 you can find the original formatting here; www.chud.com/13438/dvd-review-kwaidan-criterion-colection-region-2/
Kwaidan is an anthology based upon four short stories culled from the work of Lafcadio Hearn. The stories are from selected works, but two of the tales and the name come from his book Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things a collection of westernized versions of Japanese folk tales first published in the early 1900s.
The first story Black Hair follows a young Samurai as he deserts his old life and his wife in Kyoto and marries into a powerful family. Plagued by guilt and remorse he finds himself heading back to his old home in an attempt to make amends.
The second story The Woman of the Snow is about a young woodcutter who finds himself having to deal with a frost ghost after he seeks shelter during a particularly violent storm.
The third story Hoichi the Earless is about a blind singer who is coerced into performing to a rapt audience of ghostly warriors.
The final story In A Cup Of Tea concerns a guard who manages to anger a spirit inhabiting his drinking cup.
Expressionistic isn’t really a term that fits well with Japanese cinema, particularly the Japanese cinema of the 1960s. Whilst allegory and metaphor are rife in the chambara of the time, they are largely realist productions. Seething with rage, but maintaining a focused calm. This stoicism would become central to the tools of Japanese cinema itself, with an emphasis on factual constructions, divergence been relegated to anachronistic scores or unusual use of light and shadow. Certainly you wouldn’t’ expect the filmmaker responsible for two of the cornerstones of 60s Samurai Cinema (Samurai Rebellion and Hara-kiri) to evolve in such an unexpected way, especially when dealing with stories which are decidedly traditional.
In fact Masaki Kobayashi directing Kwaidan is almost as odd as his creative choices when making the film. Kobayashi (alongside Okamoto and Shindô) is an incredible director whom never got the western attention he deserved, perhaps due to the incredible output of contemporaries like Kurosawa, Mizoguchi and Ozu. His best work can be held alongside the work of Kurosawa as pieces of truly great Japanese cinema. It could be said that Hara-kiri and Samurai Rebellion are perhaps the greatest Samurai films to have ever been produced. Both are bitter and angry attacks on the establishment Samurai Rebellion and in particular Hara-kiri transposed Kobayashi’s earlier social commentary work onto the bones of a Samurai film. In doing so Kobayashi created two scathing indictments on the politics of both the Meiji era the film represented and the political climate he saw around himself. Taking a man with this much anger and allowing him to direct an anthology of moralistic and traditional Japanese Folk tales was a move that seems exceptionally impractical and yet produced incredible results.
The effect depends on Kobayashi’s technique, which is largely based around very rigid and very composed camera set ups. His languorous shots combined with Tôru Takemitsu’s unique and experimental sound production creating genuinely unsettling results and would lay the foundations for the slew of J-Horror films which emerged in the late nineties and early noughties. In particular the first story Black Hair is a ‘how to’ manual on making creepy Japanese ghost stories, seemingly the only noticeable additions to the formula between it and the likes of Ringu are liberal amounts of water and psychic explanations. Black Hair is interesting in that only the last few minutes could conceivably be called a ghost story. While the other three tales are undercut with the paranormal but Black Hair works like a psychological drama in which the supernatural gives the final twist.
Dispensing with narrative fat and dialogue Black Hair is incredibly lean. There are maybe a dozen lines of dialogue in the film, a narrator providing key information instead. The film concentrates on maintaining visual fidelity. Like everything in Kwaidan it is beautifully staged. Kobayashi’s eye for framing allows the sumptuous design and brilliant pastel colour scheme to engage the viewer so that only the basic narrative is needed. When the film switches to a traditional ghost story he uses sound to create a feeling on innate wrongness, his camera maintaining its usual disciplined style as musical cues are used to put viewers on edge. But ultimately the sparse framework of the film prevents a real connection from being created, it is easy to appreciate Black Hair on an aesthetic level, on an emotional level it is hard to care about the central character or his plight, largely because the production goes a long way to distance the viewer, artifice severing any attempts at humanity which the film makes.
The second film The Woman of the Snow adds more meat to the stylization, although once again it is rather slight. What Woman of the Snow gets right though is the visual style. Whilst Black Hair is beautiful to look at its very factual and formal in its staging, Woman of the Snow creates the expressionistic precedent which runs through the rest of the film. Using a bold and bright palette with lots of painted backdrops in lieu of exterior shots Woman of the Snow feels like a fairytale brought to life, a living breathing fantasy painting. It is chock full of moments of visual loveliness like eyes and lips painted into the backdrop and the use of dark hues to completely change the tone of a scene. It is also bolstered by the ever reliable Tatsuya Nakadai who brings a great deal of warmth to a character whom is essentially a cipher. The entire point of the film rests on his portrayal and despite not having much to work with (dialogue is still minimal in this segment) he manages to generate a great deal of empathy for his character and seems to have genuine charisma with his co-star Keiko Kihsi.
The Woman of the Snow is a kind of odd construction. The plot hinges on a conceit which would be more at home in Aesop’s Fables than anywhere else. Comparing the film to the short story reveals it to be a resoundingly accurate adaptation. Everything which happens in the short story happens in the screen narrative and the only additional scenes are just extrapolations from the main text (it is a testament to the films fidelity to the source that it is exceptionally easy to see where supplemental material has been added, in this case an additional scene with three peasants giving an overview of the film is so glaringly divorced from the rest of the film it is a wonder it got past the editing room). The morality of the film is easy to see, but the underlying message of the film seems peculiar. Without wishing to spoil things to much it is very odd to see a film where the message seems to be if you’ve been abused in the past you best keep quiet or you’ll suffer an even worse fate.
Avoidance or denial of an issue seems to be a central theme in the next film Hoichi the Earless. This sees a blind Biwa player lured away every night to recount the story of the last major confrontation between two samurai clans. Hoichi the Earless is without doubt the most arresting of the films, its running time and staging making it seem almost as if the earlier films are merely preludes. At a little over an hour long Hoichi has the longest run time of all of the films in the anthology and the level of care given to it suggest that is the core element of the film.
Everything about the production is incredibly grand, maintaining the fairytale quality of the earlier entries but expanding upon them to create an epic and fulfilling narrative. The first set piece is almost as thrilling as the two films which came before, a massive sea battle between two samurai clans. Keeping the same artificial style as the rest of the film the battle plays out against backdrops painted with a bloody sky, as dozens of boats drift toward each other, flagships clashing, and samurai jumping from vessel to vessel.
It is a genuinely awe inspiring scene and it perfectly captures the tone of the film, mixing traditionalism (which comes from the content and context of the scene) with the films anachronistic production. It is also the one scene in the film which really shows you where the art design influence has come from. The jump cut from the battle scene to the actual picture commemorating the moment is a visual link between Kwaidan and the Japanese art which inspired it.
Hoichi the Earless is both the most developed and the simplest tale in Kwaidan. The grand scope of the film allows for a far more traditional narrative and the kind of characterization which the earlier segments lacked. In terms of concept there’s nothing particularly new. It is just pure spectacle and style mixed with interpretations of traditional Japanese iconography and it proves to be a deeply satisfying concoction. It however segues into an end story which threatens to unravel the previous good work.
In A Cup Of Tea is introduced as one of many unfinished stories found by the author, and is without a doubt the most purposefully slight of all the tales in Kwaidan. Offering no ending, In A Cup Of Tea offers a beginning and an incomplete middle before it inexplicably cuts to the denouement of Kwaidan itself. The twenty five minute film is more of a showcase of ideas than anything else, chief amongst them being an expertly choreographed fight scene between the main protagonist and the shadows of his assailants. It has an odd ethereal quality to it, that is an obvious highlight in a film that has very little to say for itself.
Kwaidan succeeds as an artistic endeavor more than a movie; there are moments of true theatrical greatness, but as a piece of cinema it is far too reliant on spectacle to be truly affecting. However that spectacle is so beautifully conceived that it almost allows the film to coast on its visual richness alone.