"After more than a decade of sober political dramas and socially minded period pieces, the great Japanese director Masaki Kobayashi shifted gears dramatically for this rapturously stylized quartet of ghost stories. Featuring colorfully surreal sets and luminous cinematography, these haunting tales of demonic comeuppance and spiritual trials, adapted from writer Lafcadio Hearn’s collections of Japanese folklore, are existentially frightening and meticulously crafted. This version of Kwaidan is the original three-hour cut, never before released in the United States." - Criterion Collection description for Kwaidan
Toru Takemitsu adds an ambience of sullen e
xpectation. Director Kobayashi paces the pieces with at a confident walk idling every now and again so not to get winded; Modern audience may find it a bit too slow but for this viewer it felt like a lovely stroll.
Divided into four stories each featuring ghost, The Black Hair, Woman of the Snow, Hoichi the Earless, and In a Cup of Tea, and as the description says the sets are beautiful and the print just looks wonderful. I am a fan of older horror and this collection does not disappoint. Besides the look and feel the minimalist score by
The Black Hair - A story about bad life decisions and the consequences and regrets that come with them. Rentarô Mikuni is a husband who has a wife (Michiyo Aratama) who truly loves him. We join the story as the husband is leaving the wife because they are in such poverty that he feels he must leave and change his luck. His wife of course begs him to stay but his mind is made up. He leaves and takes a posting as a samurai marrying a lords daughter (Misako Watanabe). Ten years pass and over that time he realizes just how shallow and uncaring his second wife is. He is haunted by memories of the woman who really loved him. Finally not being able to deal with the memories he goes back to find his first wife. When he returns to his former house she is there waiting. She is so happy he has returned and he speaks of his regret and that he has learned that she is the one he wants to be with. The embrace and sleep together, as he wakes the next morning he learns that things the night before are not what he though they were. Although he reconciled it is not payment enough. This supernatural ending is satisfying since there really must be some consequence for his action. You can never really sympathize with the samurai since it is a foul thing that he did. So when he is with his second wife you may feel he got what he deserves but really it is not until he returns home that the viewer get the true satisfaction of his first wife's revenge.
The Woman of the Snow - This is really the only vampire story, but with a twist. Two men collecting wood in the forest are caught in a blizzard and struggle to find shelter. Finally finding a shambled hut near a river the two men fall into it. Still not completely safe they fall into a cold sleep, the younger man wakes to see a woman standing over his older companion. She seems to be sucking the life out of him and then notices the younger man. Instead of also killing the young man she looks at him as a handsome man and says she will let him live but with one condition; he is never to tell anyone what happened in that shack. He promises and is left alive.We fallow ____ when he meets a woman he falls in love with her. They are seen to have a great life loving each other and she bearing his three children. We get hints as we see his wife pass by some locals and the conversation about how she never seems to age.
On the New Year he has made new sandals for the family and something about the way his wife looks reminds of the Woman of the Snow. He starts without thinking about it to tell her of his experience in the shack. There are consequences for breaking the promise he made so many years ago and the story explains all this but his life will never be the same.
Hoichi The Earless is the longest of the stories and has the iconic image of the man covered in Sutras that we see in many images for this film. It starts with the explanation of an ancient battle between the Genji and Heike clans some 700 years before the telling. This great naval battle we learn is being told by Hoichi and we learn more of the battle each time Hoichi speaks of it playing his traditional Japanese instrument the biwa. The present day story features Hoichi as a blind apprentice at a monastery who has become more known for his ability to bring historical stories to life. One night when he is sitting on his porch he hears a voice calling him. He is requested to follow the warrior behind the voice and tell his tale to royalty. Being young and blind he does not know that the person requesting his services is a ghost. The Japanese lore behind this is not that anything good can happen to a person who follows the instruction of a ghost. Instead is madness and possession so the dangers for the young man are great. The story follows the Master trying to figure out where the young man is going and then when he learns protecting him from the dangers of the ghosts.
While he is under the influence of the spirits Hoichi tells the tale of the Battle of Dan-no-ura one of the greatest sea battles in Japanese history. Hoichi in order to avoid being taken over completely by the ghost is covered with Sutras by the monks of the temple and set to meditate instructed not to speak to the ghosts, not to make any noise at all. Its really a cool take on how spirits interact with the humans in this culture. We have again consequences for interacting with them. It seems in this culture there is always some unwanted side effect when dealing with ghosts. Good story and well played out.
In A Cup Of Tea - The final story is about the consequences of finishing an unfinished tale. We are set up with a man reading such tales and explaining that many Japanese stories stop without an ending. He tells the tale of one such tale it is about a samurai soldier who sees the image of another man as a reflection in the water he is trying to drink. Confused at first he tries several times to get new water but each time he sees the image of the man. The soldier frustrated drinks the water anyway and thinks nothing else of it. Later while on patrol at night the soldier is visited by the ghost from the cup. The ghost is upset that the soldier drank some of his soul in the water and wants some kind of retribution for this act. Instead the soldier draws his sword and engages the ghost who has a knack for disappearing and reappearing. The soldier though frustrated manages to wound the ghost with his sword causing it to vanish. That could have been the end of this unfinished tale but the next night the soldier is visited by three other ghosts who represent the first.
Again they want some sort of apology but the soldier is a fighter and would rather settle things with his sword. The fight scenes in this section is really cool but it really is a fight to a draw. We leave this story and and go back to the teller's house where his publisher is visiting and the teller is no where to be found. The ending not spoiled here is yet another instance of consequences around now even the telling of a ghost story.
This was a very wonderful collection of stories based off Japanese ghost lore that is well done and probably worth every penny it would cost to buy the Criterian collection.