Director: Masaki Kobayashi
By Roderick Heath
Japanese horror cinema has been bludgeoned in the past decade by a glut of cliché and repetition and cash-in Hollywood remakes. But it’s a genre with a long tradition, and arguably the most famous exemplar is still Masaki Kobayashi’s Kaidan. His film, consisting of four traditional ghost stories, was based in their collected retelling by Lafcadio Hearn, whose book Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things, first appeared in 1904. Kaidan was obviously an attempt to make a capital-A Art Horror film, with its showy artificiality and hyper-stylisation, quotations of traditional Asian artistic styles, and a famously spare score by the master composer Toru Takemitsu.
A more Japanese film is hard to imagine, but Kobayashi, director of The Human Condition (1959-61) and Seppuku (1962), admitted his desire was to communicate a sense of the Japanese tradition to the rest of the world. Japanese audiences rejected Kaidan, probably for being too slow, pretentious, and not sensational enough. I’m inclined to agree with them on a certain level. Kobayashi’s excellent visual storytelling renders unnecessary refrains in the narrative line that continually tell us the same thing twice. And the film’s episodes take their sweet time about getting to the point. But Kobayashi’s technique imbues his tales with a rhythmic, slowly uncoiling sense of dread: in each section, the domineering quiet and pregnant atmosphere holds the threat of grim portent before and after the moment of revelation, and never entirely disperses.
The first two stories explore the contracts by which men and women live together. Kurokami (“Black Hair”) is based on the same folk myth that Mizoguchi adapted in his Ugetsu Monogatari (1953) and tells of a married samurai (Rentaro Mikuni) who leaves his first wife (Michiyo Aratama) behind in poverty after his lord dies, ignoring her desperate pledge to ply her trade as a weaver even harder than she is now. He travels to take a position in the service of another lord. He prospers and marries the lord’s spoilt daughter (Misako Watanabe), and, soon disillusioned, begins to pine for his first wife. He finally packs in his post and returns to his old home, where he finds his wife seemingly unchanged, still labouring on her loom. They spend the night together. When he awakens in the morning, he finds he’s slept with a corpse; a spectral mane of black hair, like hers used to be, enfolds him and reduces him to an age-shattered husk before he can escape. It’s a moody opening, hurt by the cheesy effects of Mikuni trying to escape the wrath of a wig. But Kobayashi stares at his characters with implacable coldness, discerning in Aratama’s intense performance a palpable desperation, and discovering in Watanabe’s simpering, smug smile an obnoxiousness that is slowly confirmed.
Like so many ghost tales, it is about the immutable nature of loss and memory, here making biting commentary on the inability to regain what is thrown away in terms of a foolish man’s violence towards a generous wife, exchanging her for a woman who has a half-dozen people labour to bring her a bucket of water to cool her face. The finale is vicious in the reversal it represents: the first wife’s submissive self-sacrifice contains a contract of responsibility that transcends death. The gender roles cut both ways.
Yukionna (“The Woman of the Snow”), the second tale, was originally cut out of Western prints and sometimes shown as a short, but it’s the tightest, finest segment. It tells the story of a young woodcutter, Mi Nokichi (Tatsuya Nakadai), who, with an older lumberjack, is caught in a blizzard. Unable to cross the river to get back to their village, they shelter in a ferryman’s boathouse. During the night, Nakadai awakens to see the elder having the life sucked out of him by a pale, stunningly beautiful spirit (Keiko Kishi), who moves to do the same to him. Impressed by his youth, however, she instead makes him promise never to speak of her, and departs. Nokichi is discovered near death the next day, and his mother (Yûko Mochizuki) nurses him back to health. Having recovered by summer, Nokichi encounters a young woman, Yuki (Kishi again), on the road; she claims to be an orphan travelling to Edo. She seems to fall swiftly for Nokichi, and marries him, eventually bearing him two children. One night, shaken in recognising the similarity of Yuki to the spirit, Nokichi dismisses it with a laugh and tells her about that encounter. But of course, Yuki is the spirit, and, outraged at his having broken his promise, which was a contract for life for “both of us,” only spares his life for the sake of their children. She returns into the snowy night leaving him with the threat to return and kill him if their children should ever have cause to complain about him. Now there’s a way to keep deadbeat dads in line.
Yukionna trembles with longing and regret, and Kobayashi’s stylisation is dazzling, but also subtle and intense. Under the motif of a painted sun that constantly evokes a relentless, watching eye, the forest world of the tale suffers under raw, lashing gales and a dreamy summer sun in which Nokichi and Yuki recline and make love, drawing out the sense of natural rhythms inherent in such folk myths. In one peerless shot, the woods about Nokichi’s hut quiver ever so slightly with a suggestion of a haunting presence, as the snowy cladding on the fir trees crumbles in misty veils. This second episode deepens the first’s anxiety over the complexities of male-female relations. Yuki’s state becomes a powerfully ominous avatar for the mystery any couple will find in each other, and the potential of denial and silence to destroy intimacy. The final image, of a pair of sandals Nokichi made for Yuki disappearing and leaving their imprint in the snow, is yearningly tragic.
Miminashi Hoichi no Hanashi (“Hoichi the Earless”) is the blockbuster episode. Its hero, Hoichi (Katsuo Nakamura), is a blind biwa player and reciter of historical songs about the Heike clan, which was wiped out in a civil war in the 1100s. The tale begins with a Kabuki-on-the-backlot vision of the Heike’s defeat at sea, followed by the mass suicide of the clan’s women: it’s a perfervid riot of colour and action, glazed with the sorrowful mystery of history. Hoichi is so gifted a reciter that shortly after moving into a monastery close to where the Heikes’ ruined castle lies, the ghost of one of their generals (Tetsuro Tamba) comes to ask Hoichi to recite for his lord. Being blind, Hoichi doesn’t know that his audience are ghosts. Meanwhile, mysterious will o’ the wisps accompany sightings of the Heikes’ ghostly ships and the wrecking of fishing boats: the Heike are still vengeful in their haunting.
Once the abbot of the monastery (Takashi Shimura) learns this, he and another monk work to save Hoichi from being torn apart by the ghosts. They paint his body with holy texts to make him invisible to the spirits. They forget to cover his ears, however, which the general can still see when he comes to collect, and he tears them off Hoichi’s head. Hoichi survives and becomes famous and rich thanks to his story.
“Hoichi” is the most visually dramatic tale, from its placidly threatening, shimmering seascapes to the full-bore genre chic of the Heike castle, where the ghosts casually morph from courtly hosts into their bloody post-battle states, and then into fog-wreathed grave markers. Although the episode is cumbersome and distended in points—having given us the tale of the battle in the beginning, Kobayashi labours the point in the middle—the screen positively bleeds colour and atmosphere in evoking Japanese Gothic. If the first two episodes meditate on the way past corrodes present interactions of men and women, “Hoichi” takes the same idea on in a broader, more political and artistic fashion. The victims of someone else’s triumph, having staked their claim to immortality in honour by fearlessly meeting death, refuse to be forgotten, consuming the living when they stray into the ghostly realm. Hoichi himself is a strong metaphor for the dangers of the accomplished artist. His gift stirs up the dangers inherent in analysing the past, exhuming the suppressed memory. Hoichi’s sense of the past is far greater than his awareness of the present, hence his blindness; to become a truly great artist, he has to sacrifice more than he would want to.
The final chapter, “A Cup of Tea,” depicts a writer in 1900 (Osamu Takizawa, also the film’s narrator) composing the title story, about a samurai retainer named Kannai (Kanemon Nakamura) who sees a demonically mocking face in his cup of tea. Soon, the owner of the face, Shikibu Heinai (Noboru Nakaya), who seems to be a ghost, appears to Kannai, claiming to have some sort of unfinished business with him. Kannai doesn’t know him and strike down the shade, but the ghost disappears. Three agents of Shikibu come to present his challenge to Kannai, and Kannai lashes out at them. He seems to kill them, but they reappear. Kannai’s situation evokes a proto-Kafka sense of the mysteries of social hierarchies and roles. The vengeful spirit is, in essence, the ethic of honour and feudal responsibility affixing itself to Kannai just for the hell of it; the ethic demands victims, and no warrior’s skill can overcome it. As Kobayashi put it in 1968, regarding Séquences: “Men, in their actual civilisation, let their human aspects dim. They have lost their faculty of wondering and their ability to recognise the soul.” The tale breaks off here, as the writer’s publisher and sister come to visit and find him gone, only his ghostly form beckoning from within a vat as Shikibu did from the tea cup. It’s a blackly humorous punchline, spun from the fact the story was never completed. It doesn’t really promote the story from being a concluding scrap, but it does bring the motif of telling stories to a terminus, as tale consumes teller. It also halts the film’s cultural memory at the edge of the modern world in which the folk-myth is fading yet still asserting a binding spell.
Although the film is largely specific in its cultural resonance, it fits into the genre of its period as well. The paint-in-water imagery of the title sequences present an interesting accord with the similar effects used in Roger Corman’s pop-arty Poe adaptations, and the generic reflexes in “Black Hair” resemble Corman’s explication of similarly morbid tales like “Morella” (in Tales of Terror, 1963) and the pseudo-Poe of The Terror (1963). The lustrous colour compositions place it in the company of Bava and others in the new vitality their embrace of colour gave to the gothic genre, pushing on to almost experimental extremes. The large budget and high grade of technical proficiency gives it a unique edge where it lacks concision in form. That Kobayashi stresses such a restrained, attentive style both sustains tension and draws out the latent themes with care: Kaidan seizes on the both the analytical relevance and the irreducible poetry of the tradition it invokes. Despite the longeurs, it provides one of the richest, most entrancing cinema experiences around.