As a general rule, anthology films are fast-paced, uneven affairs; cinematic stews featuring hit-and-miss contributions from a host of different chefs. As such, Masaki Kobayashi's Kwaidan – which offers a quartet of ghost stories based on old Japanese folk tales – feels like an exception to the rule in terms of both quality and structure. The four segments aren't simply a random collection of spooky stories, but thematically linked tales that complement each other and feel like pieces of a greater whole (easier to accomplish when a single director is at the helm, but a considerable feat, regardless). Additionally, this is a massive film; a four-part, three-hour epic that turns each of its tales into full-blown cinematic symphonies. It moves slowly, yes, but it feels wrong to call the movie “relaxed” or “leisurely” or anything like that. “Stately.” That's the word. Imagine episodes of The Twilight Zone re-interpreted as majestic full-color paintings, and you have an idea of what to expect from this film.
All four stories have a number of common elements: they're all set in Japan, and they all center on male characters encountering ghosts. After an ethereal, blood-soaked title sequence, the film opens with “The Black Hair,” an intimate drama about a young samurai (Rentaro Mikuni, Harakiri) who marries a humble young weaver (Michiyo Aratama, Sword of Doom) and quickly begins to yearn for a bigger and better life. The samurai divorces his wife and marries a much wealthier woman (Misako Watanabe, Bushido), thus attaining considerably greater social status. Ah, but there's a problem – now the samurai realizes that he's still in love with his first wife, and that he has no genuine feeling for his second.“The Black Hair” kicks the movie off on a deceptively plain-looking note, as most of the imagery has a simple, “realistic” look that defined a good deal of Kobayashi's earlier work. However, once the supernatural elements make their entrance towards the end of the tale, the director's whole style changes – the shots become stylish and dramatic, with frantic close-ups, canted angles and hallucinatory imagery sweeping in and feverishly overtaking the whole piece.
That intensely stylish look effectively queues up “The Woman of the Snow,” which opens with a ferocious snowstorm. It's immediately obvious that the sequence isn't being shot on location, but in a studio against an ornate painted backdrop. Indeed, most of the large-scale sequences in the film appear to be shot this way, which makes the film look deliberately artificial but also deepens the sense that we've been dropped into some sort of handcrafted illustrated storybook and are living it page by page. There's also something deliberately theatrical about it, though to say the film looks like a “filmed play” (even though it does, from time to time) doesn't begin to express how strikingly beautiful it is. Additionally, the artificial nature of the film gives you the feeling that the story you're watching is being recreated rather that captured; that Kobayashi is using every practical tool at his disposal to spin a yarn for you.
The story told by “The Woman of the Snow” is one that was borrowed decades later by Tales from the Darkside: The Movie. It seems almost sacrilegious to mention this film and that one in the same sentence, but a comparison of the two effectively illustrates Kwaidan's mysterious power. In this film, a beautiful ghost (Keiko Kishi, Early Spring) kills one man and agrees to spare another (Tatsuya Nakadai, The Face of Another) under one condition: that the man never tell anyone what he's seen. The man agrees, of course, and proceeds to live a normal life: he marries, he has children and he slowly begins to forget about this strange occurrence. Naturally, he will eventually crack and there will be consequences. The Tales from the Darkside version of this story changed the ghost to a gargoyle, but otherwise kept the same basic plot. Kwaidan's version of the tale runs twice as long, but feels vastly richer due to sharp contrast between the supernatural horror of the opening sequence and the idyllic beauty that follows. The additional time spent focusing on the man's happy domestic existence helps you forget about the ghost's warning, too, which is why it seems less ridiculous when the man inevitably breaks his promise and reveals his secret to the one person he trusts. It's a beautifully tragic installment about the horror of broken promises – a theme also examined by the segments that bookend “The Woman of the Snow.”
Following a brief intermission, we head into the third and lengthiest segment of the film: the 75-minute “Hoichi the Earless.” This segment has its own self-contained prologue, as we witness a musical interpretation of a famous sea battle, the details of which will play a role in the tale to follow. From there, we follow Hoichi (Katsuo Nakamura, Steamboy), a blind musician who specializes in singing about the event. Eventually, a royal ambassador travels to Hoichi's village and asks Hoichi to accompany him to the palace to sing for the royal family. Only one condition: Hoichi must not tell anyone where he is going or who he is singing for. Hoichi agrees, but the other villagers begin to grow suspicious about where Hoichi is running off to every night. Here, the film's measured pace slows down even further, giving the whole affair the feeling of a royal procession. We make room for those long, quiet spaces between musical notes, for the slow march from one end of the room to another and for images of characters quietly deliberating important decisions. Again, you could speed things up without losing any of the plot details, but when every shot is so elegantly composed, why would you want to? Meanwhile, there's surprising amount of tension in the air: Hoichi has both of his ears (and the use of them) when the story begins, so we keep wondering whether or not the tale's title is a metaphorical one.
The final segment is the film's shortest, and there's a good reason for that: it's (intentionally) incomplete. It's also the most overtly comic piece of the bunch, telling the story of a man (Ganjiro Nakamura, The Lower Depths) who keeps seeing a mysterious face in his tea. After he drinks the tea, he realizes that he has consumed someone else's spirit, and now must deal with the unusual consequences. The sequence stops abruptly before reaching a climax, but never fear: Kobayashi has something fun up his sleeve. It's a gleefully silly finish to the whole affair, serving as a self-deprecating reminder that despite all the wondrous sights and the bold strokes of artistry, this is still just a collection of good old-fashioned campfire stories.
Is Kwaidan a horror anthology? Yes... and no. It has ghosts in it, certainly, and quite a few unsettling moments. Even so, it's the sort of film that seems to find space for almost every genre over the course of its long running time, which is surprising when you consider how focused and narratively lean the film is. The film's entrancing power is difficult to explain, because there's nothing else quite like it. It seems to wander freely between reality and daydreams and nightmares, offering a series of cautionary tales that double as stern lessons and unshakable premonitions: “Don't break your promises, but life will definitely find a way to make you break your promises.” I advise following the lead of the characters at the beginning of “Hoichi the Earless,” voluntarily drowning yourself in this vast sea of supernatural wonder.
Rating: ★★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 183 minutes
Release Year: 1964