Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Kwaidan

Lafcadio Hearn was a Greek-Irish American journalist who, in 1890, travelled to Japan as a correspondent. A country and a culture still veiled in mystery, its traditions more or less unknown to westerners, Japan became Hearn's home for the remaining fourteen years of his life. He married a Japanese woman, took citizenship and adopted the name Koizumi Yakumo. He published over a dozen books on various aspects of Japan, although his literary fame prinicipally rests on his collections of folk tales and ghost stories.

Masaki Kobayashi was an acclaimed Japanese director who, as a pacifist, endured being drafted into the Imperial Army during World War II. His second film, 'The Thick-Walled Room', dealt with war crimes. The experience of his military service also informed his nine hour trilogy 'The Human Condition'. Another key theme in his filmography is Japan's feudal history: samurai are protagonists in 'Harakiri' and 'Samurai Rebellion' (the latter starring Kurosawa regular Toshiro Mifune). His best known work - certainly his most widely distributed in the west - is 'Kwaidan'. Winner of the Special Jury Prize at Cannes in 1965', 'Kwaidan' is a portmanteau film crafted from four of Hearn's ghost stories.



Thematically linking to his other work, a masterless samurai is the protagonist of the first story, 'The Black Hair'. This gentleman, frustrated and embarrassed by the poverty he has fallen into following his master's demise, regretfully divorces his devoted wife and sets out to find a new employer. No sooner does he get work than he finds himself in the socially advantageous position of entering into marriage with the boss's daughter. His guilt at his thankless treatment of the woman who truly loved him is exacerbated by the realisation that his new wife is a spoiled little madame who doesn't. He resolves, once his contract has ended, to return to his home town and make amends. Many years lapse, though, before he is free of his obligations. Nonetheless, he undertakes the journey back. Not only is his first wife waiting for him, but she doesn't seem to have aged a day ...


In 'The Woman of the Snow', two woodcutters - an older man and his 18-year-old apprentice - are caught in a snowstorm and seek shelter in a boatman's hut. (The boatman's on the other side of the river, cut off by the storm. Just in case you were wondering.) The lad awakes to see a deathly pale woman with long black hair (yup, we're in Japanese ghost story territory all right) sucking the life out of the old man. Re-reading that last sentence, I feel I should add: through his mouth. While he's asleep. In a totally non-sexual way. The lad's scared witless (and probably something else that sounds similar), but the snow woman finds his youthful looks appealing and lets him live. But she cautions him never to speak a word of what has happened, otherwise she will take his life. Years later, married with a family, the young man is given cause to think back to that fateful night ...


The longest segment, 'Hoichi the Earless', concerns a blind musician who lives at a temple. A simple man who performs basic tasks for the monks, his talent as a balladeer earns him some degree of renown. So when a samurai arrives at the temple one night and demands that Hoichi accompany him and perform for his master, no is not an answer. It is specifically required of him that he perform an epic cycle of songs which recount a terrible sea battle between warring clans and its equally devastating aftermath. Quizzed later by the monks as to where he went, Hoichi cagily replies that he had some business to attend to. The samurai collects him again the next night. And the next. Fearful for his safety, the monks have him followed. What they discover drives them to desparate measures, with unexpected consequences ...


The final (and shortest) tale is 'In a Cup of Tea', an unfinished story which suggests its author might have got a little too close to the subject matter ...

Apologies for the profusion of ellipses, but this really is 'Tales of the Unexpected' kind of stuff. All of the stories dwell on the set-up with the slavish attention to detail of a campfire storyteller making sure all the narrative ducks are in a row ready for a meant-to-be-surprising payoff which you can actually see coming like an aircraft carrier on a duckpond. All the stories play out as even the most fairweather of second-guessers would expect, even if the mechanics of their plotting pull off the occasional subversive coup. The resulting deflation of narrative tension, coupled with a three-hour running time appropriate to the film's stately pace, might not bode well, but the saving grace of 'Kwaidan' is its awe-inspiring visual beauty.

Did I say saving grace? Let me rephrase that: the raison freakin' d'etre of 'Kwaidan' is its awe-inspiring visual beauty. Filmed - with very few exceptions (an exterior where the samurai of 'The Black Hair' demonstrates his horsemanship; a rocky coastline against which Hoichi first performs his haunting ballad) - on sets so expansive they were built in an aircraft hangar, Kobayashi's tableaux are staged against a series of darkly imaginative, beautifully rendered and sometimes fleetingly creepy painted backgrounds. His compositions are elegantly constructed. The overall effect is one of artifice. 'Kwaidan' has as much to do with theatre as it does with cinema.

This would normally send me running from a film, pleading for sanctuary in something, anything, that has a car chase or a shoot-out. I've always been beholden to the doctrine that cinema = moving image. For me, movies that are little more than filmed plays are anathema. And yet 'Kwaidan' makes poetry of what in most directors' hands would be inertia. It's an overused bit of encomium (and one I've stooped to out of laziness before), but where 'Kwaidan' is concerned it attains truism: you could snip out any frame of the film at random, print it as a still image, frame it and hang it on your wall as a piece of art. It's been hard as hell trying to settle on just a handful of stills to illustrate this piece.

Which is why I'm blogging about 'Kwaidan' all over again tomorrow - only minus 1,000 words of my waffle and with a shedload more images ...

4 comments:

Knarf Black XIV said...

Great writeup. It is indeed a gorgeous film with story machinations that will seem a bit stale to anyone with even a passing familiarity with ghost stories, EC Comics, or Bava's Black Sabbath.

Samuel Wilson said...

It is a beautiful piece of work. I was bowled over by the naval battle at the start of the Hoichi episode and its fearless theatricality. Hoichi's music in the same episode struck me as rather horrific, too -- though Kobayashi may not have meant it that way. Japanese epic poetry is an acquired taste, I guess.

Neil Fulwood said...

Knarf - agreed, I think it's difficult for modern audiences to retain the context that Hearn's ghost stories were retellings of ancient folktales. That the source material is so old means that it has filtered through into popular consciousness via appropriation/retelling by comics, other movies, etc. Some elements were probably bordering on cliche back when 'Kwaidan' was first released 40 years ago.

Sam - the discordant music, which Hoichi almost seems to chop out of his instrument (what is he using: a plectrum or a trowel?), gives the sea battle sequence a raw power that both emphasises and transcends its theatricality.

Francisco Gonzalez said...

I had no idea this film was a compilation of ghost stories, all the more reason for me to watch it now! Thanks for reviewing this film with so much detail!

One of the stories reminds me of a horror movie called Tales from the Darkside: The Movie, in which a man sees a demon, and the demon makes him promise not to ever mention to anyone about him, or he will kill him. So the demon spares the mans life...until the fateful day when he spills the beans to someone.

Anyhows, going to be watching Kwaidan soon, thanks again!