>Criterion Collection: Kwaidan (1964)

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#090 – Kwaidan
Masaki Kobiyashi, 1964 – Japan

Four eerie ghost stories from Japan, based on a collection by expatriat folklorist Lafcadio Hearn.

Like Antonio Gaudi, I saw this film at Film Forum as part of their Toro Takemitsu retrospective. Let’s just take a moment and appreciate how fun it is to say “Toro Takemitsu.” It’s almost as fun to say as Masaki Kobiyashi, the director of Kwaidan, which will appeal to anyone who’s ever loved The Twilight Zone or Tales from the Crypt. (Please note that I spent far too much time trying to come up with a decent Kobiyashi Maru joke before giving up.) The film, which is shot in that gorgeous 60s color and a very wide aspect ratio (Toho Scope for the win!), does feel at times like four episodes of a tv show back-to-back-to-back-to-back. Despite having the same narrator, the film doesn’t really use a framing device or attempt to link the stories together — which is one of the things I loved about it.

Kwaidan excells in atmosphere and tension without using gore or jump-scares. Takemitsu’s score, as well as the sound effects, draws the audience in from the credits onward, setting the audience on edge, leaving you waiting, waiting, waiting for the release of a jump-scare or a sting. But that release never comes, and although the waiting is the hardest part, it makes Kwaidan one of the scarier, unnerving movies I’ve seen in quite some time.

Of the four stories in Kwaidan, the first, “The Black Hair” is probably the scariest and most “straight-up” horror stories in the movie. It’s very much in the Tales from the Crypt mode, where a person makes the wrong choice, and, even though they come to regret it, it’s too late and they must pay a terrible price. It’s also the most atmospheric of the four, and Takemitsu uses the sound effects of a loom to great effect.

The second, “The Woman of the Snow” is both the most predictible and also the most tragic of these stories, but Kwaidan really shines in the third story, “Hoichi The Earless.” “Hoichi” is the longest story in the film, and co-stars Seven Samurai‘s Takashi Shimura. Shimura’s appearance as the lead temple priest not only put a smile on my face, but also caused murmurs in the theater in some artsy-fartsy version of “Hey! It’s that guy!” What I admire most about “Hoichi” is the twists and turns it takes, and although the film has used impressonistic, theatrical techniques in the two stories previous, Kobiyashi goes all-out here, including an epic sea battle and some of the aformentioned gore. I don’t want to spoil the twists in any of these stories, but I will say the conclusion to “Hoichi” is both unexpected and absolutely perfect.

The final story, “In A Cup of Tea,” is preceded by a sequence where we see the narrator writing these stories from folklore down. The narrator presents “In A Cup of Tea” as a fragment of a story, one that has no ending. It really doesn’t, making both “Cup of Tea” and the final sequence in the movie, where the narrator’s publisher comes looking for the missing author, some of the more bizarre elements in Kwaidan. I’m still trying to figure that out.

From classic horror revenge stories to tender ghost stories to “what-the-fuck” head scratchers, Kwaidan has something for pretty much any short story/anthology film/horror/suspense fan. I adored Kwaidan enough to add it to my small library of Criterions and I loved the experience of seeing it in the theater in that marvelous Toho Scope. I can’t recommend more, and I’m sure I’ll be watching it again around this time every year, curled up under a blanket, listening to Kobiyashi tell me a story. Or four.

The Rankings So Far:

1. #90 – Kwaidan
2. #425 – Antonio Gaudi

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