Criterion Corner: Four Spine-Tingling Tales: Kwaidan (1964)

Kwaidan (1964) is one of the most beautiful and haunting pieces of art I have ever seen. The word kwaidan in Japanese is literally translated as "ghost stories" and under Masaki Kobayashi’s deft hands, these tales become transcendent. This film is an anthology consisting of four short stories: The Black Hair, The Woman of the Snow, Hoichi the Earless, and In a Cup of Tea.

The Black Hair

This tale concerns a swordsman who divorces his wife due to their extreme poverty. He remarries into a rich family and though he has access to much wealth, he eventually feels regret for leaving his first wife who was a kind and giving soul. The mournful swordsman returns home, but discovers that sometimes you cannot make amends for mistakes made in the past. This first tale is the most ambiguous of the four and the pacing is incredibly slow. What I find fascinating is its use of silence as a mood enhancement--oftentimes there will be entire sequences that have virtually no sound or music. It is this emptiness that draws the focus more to the visuals. In the final act, the swordsman is trapped in the agony of his own remorse, emoting his anguish in his every flailing movement, a one-man Butoh performance, consumed by the choking black hair of his former lover.

The Woman of the Snow

A woodcutter and his mentor are trapped in a whirling snowstorm. They take refuge in a small house and fall into a cold and uncomfortable sleep. Upon waking the woodcutter discovers that his mentor has been killed by a Yuki-onna, a female snow spirit who can freeze men with a puff of her breath. The spirit spares the woodcutter in exchange for him to never tell anyone of her existence. After this fateful encounter he meets a beautiful woman named Yuki that bears a striking resemblance to the malevolent spirit. In this tale, the visuals are much more surreal, especially in the beginning. The sky during the snowstorm is filled with swirling eyeballs staring at the proceedings and the plot slowly unfurls with a foreboding pace. The woodcutter forges an idyllic life with his beautiful (and seemingly eternally youthful) wife Yuki and all he has to do is keep a secret. Unfortunately, secrets burn the soul unbearably and once they are let out they can never be taken back.

Hoichi the Earless

The most gruesome of the stories, this fable revolves around Hoichi, a blind biwa hoshi or lute priest, who unknowingly finds himself playing for an audience of ghosts every evening. He is highly adept at playing The Tale of the Heike, which is a song about a battle fought between two warring clans. The ghosts of the people who perished in the battle enjoy listing to Hoichi's music, but their very presence slowly saps away his precious life force. It's up to the priests at the monastery Hoichi resides in to use their spiritual wards to protect him from the needful spirits. The aesthetic of this short feels much more like a stage play than the others, but this artificiality adds to the story book atmosphere. In the latter half, the visuals become incredibly fantastical and gorgeous albeit with a darker tone. Ironically, although Hoichi the Earless has the goriest ending, it is the only story that ends on a comparatively good note.

In a Cup of Tea

While this is the shortest of the tales, In a Cup of Tea is the perfect way to end the film. It is based on an unfinished story and thus ends on a mysterious note. In a meta nod, it is about an author who is writing a supernatural tale about a samurai who sees the face of a strange man in the reflection of his daily cup of tea. Who is this man and what does he want? We watch as the samurai slowly descends into madness trying to discover the reflected man's identity. It is common for someone to look into the mirror and marvel (or perhaps recoil in horror) at the person staring back at them.

These four tales have almost no jump scares in them, just a pervasive unsettling aura that slowly works its way underneath the viewer's skin. Those looking for understated horror would do well to draw the blinds, heat up a cup of tea, and immerse themselves into this phantasmagorical world for three hours.

--Michelle Kisner