Sunday, October 26, 2008

KWAIDAN (1965)

On the twenty-sixth day of Halloween, my boo love gave to me ... twenty-six anti-ghost Buddhist prayer tattoos!


Spooky Asian ghosts that don't come out of a TV set, smug phantoms in drinking mugs, a reason to cover your ears when you come across a samurai specter, gorgeous cinematography, sumptuous set design, wonderfully horrific color, impeccable acting and pacing, and eyeballs, hair, suicide and other stuff that scares the shit out of the Japanese (and, uh, me too).

More details here.


The film is comprised of four chilling tales set in feudal Japan:

An impoverished samurai leaves his poor wife for better opportunities in the big city. There, he hooks up with a wealthy woman and enjoys social mobility, respect, and cleaner kimonos. Time passes and the samurai finds himself missing his ex-wife and loathing his current spouse, who looks like she does her eyebrows with a magic marker. Consumed with a debilitating sense of guilt, he is haunted by visions of his ex everywhere. One night, he rejects the new wife, leaves his new life, and searches for his lost love. He finds her back at their old home and she is ecstatic to see him again, well about as ecstatic as a jilted ex with nary a pot to piss in can be, and they spend the night together. In the morning, the woman is gone and the samurai is forced to question his own sanity and confront a terrifying realization.

Next, two men are caught in a fierce blizzard and are separated. One of the men, Minokichi, finds the other frozen to death while a strange woman in white hovers about him. The deathly pale woman approaches Minokichi and threatens his life but spares him. He barely makes it home alive and faces a long period of recuperation. A year passes and things are back to normal for Minokichi. One day, he meets a lost, bewildered, but beautiful woman in the woods. He invites her back to his home, feeds her, and falls in love. They marry and have children. One night as the wind howls outside, Minokichi tells his wife Yuki about his encounter in the woods those many years ago and it eerily dawns on him that his nearly frozen fate brought them together and endangers them both.

Next, Hoichi is a blind musician and gifted storyteller whose specialty is singing songs about an ancient tragic war at sea between two clans. The battle resulted in many deaths and the spirits of the combatants still haunt the coast and forest where Hoichi lives in a monastery. One night, the ghost of a samurai appears before Hoichi and takes him to his master to sing the songs. Innocent Hoichi believes that he is singing to living people and visits them regularly. The monastery priest and Hoichi’s co-workers are concerned about his nightly disappearances and when they discover that he’s being spirited away, they tattoo prayers all over his body to ward off the potentially deadly phantoms. But these dead are restless, yearn to hear their tragic story told repeatedly, and won’t take no for an answer.

Lastly, a writer on New Year’s Eve is putting the finishing touches on his latest scary story. We see the story unfold and set in feudal Japan. A nobleman comes back home after a long campaign. He and his entourage stop to drink water at the side of the road. When the nobleman brings the cup to his lips, he sees the shocking vision of a man looking back at him. He sees the man’s face in another cup, and yet another. When he sees the man again in his fourth cup, he indignantly drinks it down. Later, the man appears in his home and swears vengeance for consuming his soul. The angry ghost torments the man while his servants start to believe that their master is going insane. One night, three men show up at his door and inform him that they represent the man in the cup and warn the nobleman that he will soon visit him for revenge. The nobleman does battle with the men and wins, but the story ends there. The writer’s publisher shows up at his home to wish him New Year’s greetings and pick up his latest story. But instead he finds a horrific scene strewn about his house and realizes that some stories are better left unfinished.


The word kwaidan roughly translates to “ghost story” and is an old cultural term now supplanted by kowai hanashi (scary story) in the wake of J-horror movies such the The Ring franchise. The film Kwaidan is a masterfully woven anthology of ghost stories that is a gorgeous visual feast of nightmares and maybe of the best movies in cinema history. So there’s not much I can say about it that hasn’t already been said. What I’ll do is try to recommend this movie to those who think Japanese horror and story traditions end with Ju-on, (The Grudge), Chakushin Ari (One Missed Call) or Kairo (Pulse). Kwaidan is not a pulse-pounding gorefest; it is genuinely suspenseful, powerfully expressionistic, and unrelentingly eerie film. Director Masaki Kobayashi utilizes vibrant cinematography and stunning set design to present traditional tales told in Japanese theatricality, yet retains a surreal, mind-bending atmosphere. The running time is a little long, but those used to Japanese cinema knows that this is par for the course. Even when the movie is slow, there is always something wonderful to look at and get creeped out by from the lavish visuals to the impressive camerawork. Kobayashi applies a poetic treatment to these traditional morality tales, mixing realistic reactions with a fever-dream eccentricity resulting in a cinematic delight. So for those Ring-lovers and Grudge-ites, I say don’t lose patience with Kwaidan’s customary pacing and culturally unique storytelling. Do so and you will miss the roots of J-horror you so cherish and the perfect film for a chilly Halloween night or steamy O-bon's eve.

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