Kwaidanrecommended viewing

Explore the roots of J-Horror
★★★★
☆
Released: 
1964
Director: 
Masaki Kobayashi
Starring: 
Rentaro Mikuni, Michiyo Aratama, Keiko Kishi, Katsuo Nakamura
The Setup: 
Can help you appreciate the art of the sets and compositions, as well as the creepiness of the stories.
Discussion: 

A set of four short films based on Japanese folk ghost stories, this film won the Special Jury Prize at Cannes in 1964. I rented it about 10 years ago and watched the first section. I meant to watch the rest, but had to return it. I felt somewhat the same after watching it this time. Each of the sections is individually very interesting and beautifully directed, but the length of the entire thing [2hrs, 44mins], as well as the predictability of the stories [these are classic ghost tales after all, and do not differ so sharply from our own], weigh against making it to the end. But keep in mind, if you have longer than one night to watch it, that these stories do not depend at all on being watched all at once [or in order], so feel free to take your time in order to enjoy them more.

We open with a gorgeous credits sequence featuring drops of ink falling into water. The first story, The Black Hair, concerns a man who, through "the thoughtlessness of youth and the experience of desire," leaves his wife and his life of poverty with her in order to marry someone with money. But as he lives with his new wife, thoughts of the woman he left haunt him, and he begins to realize that he loved her. One of the pleasures of this entire film is the glimpse into high Japanese culture and manners that it offers, and in this one you get a glimpse of a Japanese wedding! Another feature-for me, at least-of the entire film is that all of the pieces are filmed entirely on sets, and I love that level of completely false imagery and air of theatricality.

And one other thing-how did the Japanese know that long, black hair is really creepy? Now that we've had the original and remake Ring movies, as well as the original and remake Grudge, one can see that this J-Horror trope has gone back a long way, and is justifiably effective.

The second story is The Woman In The Snow, in which two woodcutters, a man and his uncle, are trying to get home through a blizzard. This blizzard is wonderfully realized on a marvelously fake set that offers opportunity to create striking shots featuring symmetrical arrangements of the absolutely straight tree trunks, and also featuring these wonderful painted backdrops of the cloudy sky, with a number of angry eyes painted seamlessly into the sky. That really was one of my favorite things about the entire movie. One can also see a LOT of this in the finale of Kill Bill Part One, with his completely fake set and entirely aetheticized snowstorm.

So anyway, the woodcutter and his nephew make it to thus hut, where the older man falls down severely ill. Soon a creepy white woman appears and sucks the life out of the old man. She is going to do the same to the nephew, but is "moved by his beauty," and decides to let him live, but only if he promises never to tell another living soul that he saw her.

SPOILERS>>>
A few years later he meets a young woman. The color scheme has changed from blue to fiery orange with the season-but also with the character of this new woman. Soon he begins to have visions that she IS the snow woman, accomplished in a very simple and very effective fashion by merely changing the lighting. Now, tell me you know what's going to happen, right? If not, I know that I cannot help you. So he tells the woman the story. The only reason I mention this is that this provides the one false note in the film-as if you had JUST had a vision that the woman you're going to marry IS the deadly snow woman-would you haul off and tell her the one thing you're not supposed to tell anyone upon pain of death? He does, and badness follows. But the wonderful sets and overall artfulness of the film make up for this one off note. < < < SPOILERS END 

Truth be told, up to what I've written so far, I have only watched the first two sections. I was feeling fairly tepid about watching the rest, but after writing about the first two sections, and thinking back on the film, now I can't wait to watch the rest! I have found-on a total side note-that writing a review later, one finds one's feelings about a film have somehow crystallized in the meantime. For an example in the opposite direction, I just finished writing about The Exorcism of Emily Rose, and though I walked out of the film feeling that it was fairly lame, by the time I finished my review I had not much but contempt for it. Such is the enigma of movie reviewing.

Okay, so now I'm back and I've finished watching the movie. The next section is Hoichi, the Earless One. This begins with a long and fairly compelling recreation of a large-scale sea battle, created, like every other section of the movie, entirely on really obvious but artful sets. There is a huge massacre, and the film delivers some good classic creeps as the narrator tells us that since that time the beach has been haunted, and covered with these creepy crabs with what looks like human faces on them.

Soon we settle into the story of Hiochi, a young monk, who is blind. He is left to guard the monastery one night, and a spirit appears to him, saying that he and the other spirits who perished in the battle from the opening had heard that his recitation of the story of their famous battle is the best in the area, and they want him to come recite for them. When they say recitation, what they mean is something that sounds like what we would call singing, drawing out syllables to painful length and playing extremely minimal music on a kind of lute. The song of the battle is also performed at the beginning, again giving the viewer that one is being treated to a sample of traditional Japanese art forms.

The other monks are worried about Hoichi, who is growing pale and sickly, and they soon surmise what is happening. The solution they come up with has the resonance of a classic fable, but I have to say that I found it quite surprising. This turned out to be probably my favorite of the four stories, as the story itself had the greatest resonance and historical perspective, in addition to the superb art direction and style that the others also have.

The final installment, In a Cup of Tea, is also, in my opinion, the weakest. There's just very little to it, and what there was didn't have much resonance for me. A writer serves himself a bowl of tea, and sees the reflection of a spirit in it. He is freaked, but eventually just drinks it. From that point on he is haunted by the ghost of the man he saw in the tea, who is pissed that he drank it. Maybe I just don't understand the convention of what's happening in the story, but it seemed as though we were to feel that the writer had committed a moral crime by drinking the tea, but as the spirit was in each one, and seemingly tormenting him, what is he supposed to do? It goes on, it ends rather predictably, but it's also the shortest of all the segments.

In retrospect, I would definitely recommend planning on NOT watching it all at once, as it helps to take it a bit slower, and have a little time between segments to consider what's going on. This is also decidedly NOT an action-packed thrill ride, and moves with considerable slowness, so you have to be really ready to open yourself to its minimalistic charms. I really loved it, but I still feel it was better to HAVE SEEN than to sit through. You should definitely get these images into your brain at some point, though.

Should you watch it: 

Yes. It may not bowl you over at first, but it's good to have in your mind.