Masaki Kobayashi’s 1964 film Kwaidan is a series of 4 different vignettes centered around a running theme. Like the title of the film implies (kwaidan loosely means “ghost story” in antiquated Japanese), all of the stories explore the horrific and the supernatural. Kobayashi was one of the select filmmakers whose work helped define the 1960’s Japanese movie renaissance.
The effects of the war played heavily in the older generation's work, while the younger generation of up and coming artists started their careers producing frivolous b-movies within the studio system before creating more esoteric art pieces. Films were being made and consumed at an all time high, most movies played double billed, requiring a main feature capable of carrying it’s own and a b-movie made cheaply to accompany it. Tokyo was being internationally recognized after hosting the summer Olympics and many Japanese films were being nominated at the Academy Awards and the Cannes Festival.
Among the multi-generational and quintessential filmmakers of the era were Akira Kurosawa (Yojimbo), Nagisa Oshima (Death by Hanging), Toshio Matsumoto (Funeral Parade of Rose), Kaneto Shindô (Onibaba), and Masaki Kobayashi (Kwaidan). The collision of older documentarian war survivors and younger experimental video artists culminated in a film scene that illustrated the sadness and morbidity of traditional Japanese folklore and modern social movements. In this regard, Kwaidan was very much a child of the movement.
Kwaidan features four separate stories centered around death, love, and betrayal. “The Black Hair” tells the story of a man who leaves his loving wife for a wealthy woman in a bid for her money and power. When the second marriage proves too miserable to bear, he attempts to return to his old life with his devoted first wife. The reconciliation appears seamless at first, but the twist ending shows that some lost loves can never be regained.
“The Woman of the Snow” brings the Yukionna (a malicious snow spirit) to the screen when a woodcutter witnesses her murderous presence. She spares him on condition that he never reveal to any others what he has seen. Will the woodcutter forget his promise while sharing stories with his new wife, a mysterious woman with snow white skin and ice blue lips?
“Hoichi the Earless” is based on the classic Japanese folktale of a blind musician who sings of the Genpei War so beautifully, that the slain clans rise up from their graves to command his performance. A priest attempts to save Hoichi from the warring spirits by scrawling Buddhist scripture on his body, but he has overlooked a vital part of Hoichi and left him vulnerable to the dead.
In the final tale, “In a Cup of Tea” a writer tells the tale of a Samurai who is slowly becoming unhinged as the reflection of another warrior mysteriously appears in his tea. Is the traumatized fighter witnessing divination or madness? With recurring themes of heartbreak, loss, insanity, and dissidence packaged with leftist new wave appeal; Kwaidan has a story that will likely satiate any palate.
Initially, moviegoers were taken aback as Kobayashi had become known for gritty, hyperrealistic films. Kwaidan was his first color film and a serious departure from his typical modus operandi, though it is now widely considered by critics to be one of the most beautifully
shot vignette style movies. Despite the early skepticism, Kwaidan went on to be Kobayashi's most commercially successful film before the exploitation boom of the 1970’s left him and many other Japanese new wave directors out of work. Modern viewers will see Kwaidan's influences present in Francis Ford Coppola and Stanley Kubrick’s work, particularly with their use of reticent cameras and the painstakingly staged composition of their sets.
Kwaidan earned a nomination for best Foreign Language Film at the 1965 Academy Awards and took home the Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Currently, The original cut of the film (re: uncut) has a run time of 184 minutes and is available on The Criterion Collection and blu-ray, however alternative shorter cuts are available online.