Kwaidan (1965) – A Movie Review

Kwaidan means ghost story and was directed by Masaki Kobayashi.  This movie is a collection of four stories that I guess could be called supernatural tales.  They are based on stories written by Patrick Lefcadio Hearn, an ex-patriot of Irish/Greek extraction who settled in Japan in 1890.  Each of the stories deals in an unrelated supernatural event.  The stories are based on old Japanese folktales.

(Spoiler Alert – Skip down to last paragraph to avoid spoilers and read recommendation)

In the first story (The Black Hair) a samurai decides to divorce his wife who is a weaver of cloth.  He is tired of poverty and has orchestrated a marriage to the daughter of a nobleman.  But when he goes through with his plan his new marriage is a disaster.  His new wife is selfish and spoiled.  He misses the good-hearted weaver and after a few years he leaves his new wife and heads home to Kyoto for his old life.

When he gets there his old house is strangely changed but the samurai finds his wife overjoyed to see him.  She looks completely unaged and comforts her ex-husband not to blame himself for his actions.  She mysteriously mentions that they have only a short time together.  When he wakes up the next morning his wife is a shriveled corpse on the bed next to him. He tries to flee but her hair pursues him and while we watch he grows visibly much older as it attacks him.

In the second story (The Woman of the Snow) a young woodcutter and his older partner become trapped in a heavy snowstorm and seek shelter in a hut.  During the night a Yuki-onna, a female snow vampire freezes the older woodcutter and steals his life-force.  She tells the younger woodcutter that she had planned to kill both of them but because he was young and attractive, she decided to spare his life but on condition that he never tell anyone what happened that night.  If he does tell anyone she will know and then come to him and kill him.

Out of fear he tells no one including his mother with whom he lives.  Shortly after, a young and beautiful woman travels through their town and the young man invites her to stay at his house.  Both the young man and his mother are impressed with her qualities.  Eventually they marry and she bears him three children.  But one day as she is talking to him, he notices that she bears a resemblance to the snow vampire and he tells her the story.  His wife then reveals to him that she is the snow vampire.  Because they have children that she loves she will not kill her husband but instead will leave him forever.  But she warns him that if he is ever a bad father she will return and kill him.  After she leaves, he puts a present outside his house for her.  Later she takes the gift thereby signifying an abatement of her anger.

In the third story (Hoichi the Earless) Hoichi, a blind singer of heroic songs who lives at a monastery is visited by a samurai at night who brings him to a noble house lost in the fogs of the night.  There he sings The Tale of the Heike about the Battle of Dan-no-ura, a sea battle fought between the Taira and Minamoto clans during the last phase of the Genpei War.

Eventually his brother monks go looking for him and find him in a cemetery.  It seems that the ghosts of the defeated Taira leaders want to hear the story of their heroic defeat sung by a great artist.  The monks tell Hoichi that the ghosts will come back to claim his soul permanently so to protect him they cover his whole body including his face with the text of the “Heart Sutra.”  But they forgot to write it on his ears.  When the ghost of the samurai reappears, he can only see Hoichi’s ears.  To obey his master’s order to retrieve Hoichi he rips off the ears and takes them away.  Hoichi survives this injury and recovers.  When the rumor of this ghostly action spreads, rich patrons of music pays great sums to have Hoichi sing the tale of the battle.  And Hoichi becomes famous and very rich.

In the fourth story (In a Cup of Tea) a writer of old tales (sort of like Patrick Lefcadio Hearn) relates a folk story to his wife that he is planning to sell to a publisher.  The story is about a samurai who is part of the escort for a great lord who is travelling home.  The samurai goes to drink a cup of tea and sees the face of a man staring up at him from the tea.  He is shocked and angered by the occurrence but drinks the tea anyway.  When he arrives back home a man appears in the great house with the same face as the man in the tea.  The samurai attacks him with his sword but the man disappears.  Later that night the samurai is accosted by three men who say they work for the man from the tea cup whom he has injured.  The samurai battles all three men.  Now the writer tells his wife that this is where the story ends uncompleted.

That night the publisher arrives to see the writer but when the wife and publisher look for him, they see his image in a large pail of water just as in the story and they run away screaming.

As you can tell these are very unusual stories.  They don’t fit the category of western horror stories.  They’re reminiscent of European fairy tales or folk tales.  I wouldn’t describe them as frightening but instead odd.  I can’t say that I highly recommend them to a general audience.  They’ve been praised for the artistry that they display as visual cinema.  But I think that for a Western audience they might lack immediacy.  So, let’s call these a curiosity that probably only would interest connoisseurs of Japanese folklore or Japanese cinema.  I thought they were interesting and some scenes, specifically the sea battle portions were well crafted.  Your milage may vary.

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TomD77
3 months ago

I have an affinity for Japanese history, art, etc. This is probably right down my alley.