‘Kwaidan’ or — The Most Beautiful Ghost Movie Ever Made?

No spoilers.

‘Kwaidan’ (Japanese for Ghost Story) is an anthology film consisting of four (well, technically three and a half and a coda) of Lafcadio Hearn’s Japanese supernatural folk tales: The Black Hair; The Woman of The Snow; Hoichi The Earless; In a Cup of Tea. So, on the surface, we’re in similar territory to Roger Corman’s Poe anthologies or the Italian portmanteau film. Like a lot of Japanese horror there is a strong psychological element so although we are in the realms of ghosts and demons the real dangers here are readily identifiable human failings — greed, deceit, selfishness and sometimes simply plain old bad luck. There is a sense of inescapable inevitability for the characters in these stories, although not all the endings are necessarily negative. Oh, and the film might also be a masterpiece.

To create these otherworldly atmospheres director Masaki Kobayashi shoots many, although not all, scenes against some insanely beautifully hand-painted studio sets, reminiscent of Japanese Noh theatre. It’s a device which recalls the fiction sequences in Paul Schrader’s ‘Mishima’ except Kobayashi’s stroke of genius (and it is a stroke of genius) is to then utterly destroy any sense of theatricality but pulling the viewer completely back into pure cinematic space (theatrical devices are being used but things are happening only cinema can do). An artifice is created by backdrops on stages but the way Kobayashi moves the camera pulls us into impossible areas which scream unreality and it is utterly remarkable. This allows the film to deftly escort us into a limitless variety of different realms, all of which possessing the power of a tangible dream. These are confined sets being utilised but the sensation is of the infinite. Plus Kobayashi often switches to shooting outdoors against sweeping vistas, suddenly busting open that feeling of possible expansion even further.

Another factor in all this is Kobayashi’s precision and fluidity with the camera which can be so smooth at times it makes Ron Fricke’s shooting style look clunky and hasty in comparison. The approach is of restraint which lends ‘Kwaidan’ a leisurely pace with the first story in particular being something of a slow burn, but this also allows Kobayashi to tell these tales with total clarity. And Kobayashi is a clear storyteller with a definite intention in mind with his films and these straight forward tales unfold with an uneasy grace before these worlds are obliterated (along with our minds) with a plunge into total devastation. The climax to The Black Hair is one of the best examples of psychological, and physical, collapse into the abyss I’ve seen as “reality” is tore down. Even the soundtrack is violently ripped out of sync.

‘Kwaidan’s soundtrack is another vital component of its success, with both the score and sound design by renowned composer Toru Takemitsu. In typical Takemitsu style the music fluctuates from the sparse to the ethereal, staccato cracks or snaps of strings giving way to washes of overtone harmonics suggesting realms of the transcendent. The best example of the sheer skill and rigour Takemitsu brings to ‘Kwaidan’ is best illustrated during the opening of The Snow Woman, when two woodcutters are making their way through a massive snow storm. The churning dark sky is studded with watching eyes, clouds and snow are torn and shredded by the wind into the shapes of nightmares but it is the sound design which really conveys and captures the howling of both the storm but also of intense spiritual pain. I was left sitting with my jaw slack after watching this sequence. It was all so incredibly intoxicating.

And ‘intoxicating’ is the word I’d use to describe ‘Kwaidan’. It’s not just that we are dealing with interesting and powerful stories here but it’s the visual power with which those tales are told that yank our imaginations into the inconceivable: a Sun is fractured by Cubist blocks; disembodied spirits of fire float against impossible skies; Lords hold court in the domain of an endless blue void. The film has the feeling of a dream but one we didn’t even know we were capable of conjuring.

‘Kwaidan’ is easily one of the most visually and sonically remarkable films I’ve seen so far this year, and in 2020 that’s also included ‘The Colour of Pomegranates’ (1969) and ‘Valerie and Her Week of Wonders’ (1970) so it’s got high level competition in the aesthetic department. Yet it’s also incredibly entertaining with all four stories having the flavour of a fairy-tale with a delicious horror element providing the moral kick at the end. Plus, although it functions as anthology film ‘Kwaidan’ feels totally contained as a whole, all four chapters resonating with each other and culminating in a most satisfying way so I’d suggest watching it in one sitting, although you’ll more than likely find yourself unable to tear yourself any from the film anyway.

Fans of ghost films will find a lot to enjoy here and you can really see the influence ‘Kwaidan’ must have had on future J-Horror, specifically the dark haired, ghostly female from ‘Ringu’. But if you’re a fan of cinema which revels in its sound and vision then ‘Kwaidan’ will blow your mind. If this isn’t one of the most beautiful, awe-inspiring films ever made it’s certainly the most beautiful ghost story I’ve ever witnessed in my entire life. I loved it.

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Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.

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Colin Edwards

Colin Edwards

Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.

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