Thanks to films like Nakata’s Ringu and Shimizu’s Ju-On (The Grudge), Japanese horror is part of the popular pantheon of horrific cinema. Many ghost films of the West borrow heavily from these two films but because of their enormous success, it seems that Kaiden (Japanese ghost stories) of the past are often overlooked for their more thrillingly modern counterparts.
Looking past this injustice, it can be stated that Masaki Kobayashi’s 1964 film, Kwaidan,is quite possibly the best Japanese horror film to date. Mixing its rural phantoms with a visual style not repeated in horror until Stanley Kubrick’s release of The Shining, Kobayashi’s film is an experience of exotically epic proportions.
The film is split into four separate ghost stories, all adaptations of shorts by the acclaimed writer, Lafcadio Hearn. Though there is little in the way of linking ideas, the four stories on show fit together perfectly though their high quality chills mean they can also act as individual short films. Due to the film’s three-hour length, a break down of each stories plot is a task unsuited to this review. However there are visual highlights that stand out as being particularly special.
A man being haunted by a possessed length of hair belonging to his dead wife is a chilling highlight in “Black Hair”. The beautiful visual scenery of “The Woman in the Snow” shows icy Japanese straits as well as a possessed Moon with an eye that stares out at passers by. This story in particular stands out as not only having some of the most spectacular visuals of any horror film but provides a wonderful, colourful contrast to the stories that book end it.
“Hoichi the Earless” is perhaps the most famous story contained in the film as it provides the most recognised visuals of the blind musician covered completely in Japanese Holy mantra to protect him from the ghosts of past battles who want him to play music. When it comes to setting the scene, some films feel rather blasé about their story. Here we have a poetic opening battle scene that makes others seem facile in their attempt at grace. Again the colours in “Hoichi the Earless” are a stark contrast to the previous story, going for fiery reds and warmth of war as opposed to the cool blues of the icy north.
The last story is the shortest and feels rather quaint. “In a Cup of Tea” has a resolve of a rather disturbing nature but the story boasts some brilliant paranoid acting and a fight scene between a samurai and three ghosts that verges on ballet in its majestic execution. Hitting past the three-hour mark may seem excessive for a horror film but the time glides by like a phantom in the breeze, for this film’s visuals alone should keep the viewer transfixed to the screen along with the detailed stories that still pack a punch even today.
In this Masters of Cinema release, Kwaidan looks absolutely divine. The restoration has meant that the print is easily of the most visually gorgeous of films and the contrasts between the stories are accentuated to the extreme. The reds of the battle scene of “Hoichi the Earless” in particular seem like a piece of art in flux. Along with a selection of trailers, Masters of Cinema have also included a huge booklet containing all four of the short stories in their original prose as well as the last ever interview conducted with Kobayashi. This sort of extravagant extra is most welcome in a release such as this. The magnitude of the film demands extras of a high standard and this standard has been met and perhaps even surpassed.
Kwaidan has not aged a single day since it was made. Very few films from the 1960′s can claim this, especially horror films and it’s a testament to Kobayashi that his film has not only survived the ragged test of time but has also been chosen to have such a loving restoration which truly lets its array of spectres shine.