Horror cinema is not a genre one generally associates with high art. It’s not often that one comes across a horror movie that is both frightening and beautiful at the same time, but there are exceptions to this rule. One such film is 1965’s Kwaidan, a hauntingly beautiful piece of Japanese horror cinema.
Kwaidan is an anthology film based on the works of Lafcadio Hearn, a Greek-born writer who lived and worked in Japan. It consists of four unrelated stories, each of which has its roots in traditional Japanese folklore. In the first, “The Black Hair,” a repentant samurai returns to the wife he abandoned years before and finds she’s not quite the woman she used to be. The second segment, “The Woman of the Snow,” tells of a lonely woodcutter’s fateful encounter with a snow spirit during a blizzard. The third, “Hoichi the Earless,” concerns a blind musician whose songs have the power to enchant even the dead. The final tale, “In a Cup of Tea,” details the difficulties faced by a samurai after he glimpses a mysterious face in his teacup.
Kwaidan is something of an anomaly; it has the unique distinction of being both a traditional piece of Japanese cinema as well as an effective horror film. Masaki Kobayashi’s direction carries with it the deliberate sense of pacing so commonly associated with Japanese cinema of the day, while at the same time subtly cultivating an increasing sense of tension and unease that continues to build until each segment’s climax. Kobayashi previously used this technique to great effect in 1963’s Harakiri, but he perfects it here.
The effect is enhanced even more so by the production’s unique approach to set design, wherein nearly every scene- even those that are supposed to take place out of doors- was shot on elaborate sets specially constructed on soundstages. The liberal application of vivid colors to these already highly stylized sets lends the production an ethereal quality that is reminiscent of what Italian horror auteur Dario Argento would go on to do in his masterpiece Suspiria, and one can’t help but wonder if he wasn’t inspired by Kwaidan. These factors, in conjunction with Toru Takemitsu’s minimalistic score, foster a haunting, dreamlike atmosphere that pervades the entire film.
The end result is a fascinating movie that offers something for both lovers of Japanese cinema and horror aficionados alike. It’s one of those rare films about the supernatural that actually succeeds in creating a convincing sense of the otherworldly. One needs look no further than Kwaidan for proof that horror movies can also be art films.
1) The word 'kwaidan' means 'ghost story' in Japanese.
2) The film was nominated for an Academy Award in 1966. It lost, unfortunately.
Link(s) of interest:
1) Download Lafcadio Hearn's original short stories in ebook form at Project Gutenberg
2) Buy Kwaidan on DVD