Kwaidan (Ghost Story)

THERE was a young Samurai of Kyōto who had been reduced to poverty by the ruin of his lord, and found himself obliged to leave his home, and to take service with the Governor of a distant province. Before quitting the capital, this Samurai divorced his wife,—a good and beautiful woman,—under the belief that he could better obtain promotion by another alliance. He then married the daughter of a family of some distinction, and took her with him to the district whither he had been called.

— “The Reconciliation” from Shadowings, by Lafcadio Hearn

Kwaidan (1965), directed by Masaki Kobayashi, won the Special Jury Prize at the 1965 Cannes Film Festival. The film consists of four short stories, taken from the writings of Lafcadio Hearn.


At first, it seemed odd to me that a Japanese film, about Japanese folklore, should be based explicitly on versions of this folklore as rendered by a westerner — even a westerner as fully assimilated into Japanese culture as Hearn apparently was. Lafcadio Hearn was born in Greece, raised in Ireland, lived much of his adult life as an American, and finally moved to Japan, becoming a Japanese citizen in 1895. He taught English literature at the Imperial University in Tokyo, changed his name to Yakumo Koizumi, and married a Japanese woman. His previous wife, in Cincinnati, was African-American — this, at a time when miscegenation was illegal in the United States. Although he is best known for his writings on Japan, he also wrote extensively on New Orleans, where he lived for about ten years. In a sort of foreshadowing of his future Asia-based writings, he wrote the first known article (for Harper’s Bazaar) about Filipinos in America: the “Manilamen” of Saint Malo, Louisiana.

On the face of it — especially when reading his lovely prose — one might accuse him of Orientalism — that is, of promoting an overly romantic view of the far East, especially Japan. On the other hand, much of what I’ve read while researching him for this post suggests that Hearn was a champion of “cultural miscegenation”. His goal was not to appropriate the cultures of The Other — the Creoles of Louisiana, the Japanese — but to try to understand them (and encourage understanding of them), to find the commonalities in all human experience, and to create literature, colored by his own multicultural, “perpetual outsider” experiences.

And as far as I can tell, his writings on Japan are looked on favorably by Japanese readers and folklorists, even now. So it’s not so surprising, after all, that Kobayashi would base his film on Hearn’s stories.

So. Back to the movie.

First off: it’s just beautiful. It’s quite stylized: almost the entire movie is filmed on a soundstage, rather than on location. This could give the whole thing a fakey feeling, like the green skies and styrofoam rocks of the original Star Trek series, or some other low-budget endeavor. Here, though, the artificiality suggests theater, especially the elaborate and dramatic sets that I associate with opera. Watching the movie brought to mind certain parts of Mishima, where scenes from Mishima’s stories and plays were retold within the larger film, on sets that made no attempt to resemble the real world. Kobayashi uses lighting and makeup to good dramatic effect, as well. The visuals are punctuated by Toro Takemitsu’s spare sound design — Takemitsu was credited with “sound effects” rather than a soundtrack.

‘I wanted to create an atmosphere of terror. But if the music is constantly saying, “Watch out! Be scared!” then all the tension is lost. It’s like sneaking up behind someone to scare them. First, you have to be silent. Even a single sound can be film music. Here, I wanted all sounds to have the quality of wood. We used real wood for effects. I’d ask for a “cra-a-a-ck” sound, and they’d split a plank of wood, or rip it apart, or rend it with a knife. Using all these wood sounds, I assembled the track.’ —from the documentary Music for Movies: Toru Takemitsu (1994)

Kwaidan is also quite slow — close to three hours to tell four stories — and even though it’s often described as a horror film, it’s not. At least, not the way we understand the horror genre today. “Kwaidan” means “ghost story”, and that’s what these are, in the same way that M. R. James’ stories are ghost stories: creepy and unnerving little tales with one foot in the past, and one foot in everyday life.

The first story, “The Black Hair”, is based on “The Reconciliation”, and opens with the quote above, in a voiceover taken almost verbatim from Hearn’s text. The samurai of the story realizes too late that he still loves his first wife, and vows to return to her. He finds her in their old home in Kyoto, years after he left her. The house is derelict and apparently abandoned, but the samurai finds his wife in a back room, looking as young and as beautiful as the day he left her. And very happy to see him.

If you read ghost stories at all, you know where this is going. And yup, it gets there. I expected the story to cut to black right at the punchline, or freeze, Twilight Zone style, but it lingers for a while. Too long perhaps. Still, I liked the use of silence as we watched our hero’s reaction to his nasty surprise. We see him screaming, crashing through walls and falling through rotten floorboards, but we hear — nothing, except the occasional bit of Takemitsu’s sound effects. The sense of unreality fits well.

The second story, “The Woman of the Snow”, is based on “Yuki-onna”, from Hearn’s collection Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things. This one is a classic folktale, and Kobayashi gives it a fantastical, fairy tale feeling with his set design: winter storms are represented with eyes in the sky, springtime love with celestial lips. As a bonus, the young woodcutter protagonist is played by Tatsuya Nakadai, known in the West for his roles in Yojimbo (he was the crazy brother with the revolver), The Sword of Doom, Kagemusha, and Ran, among others.

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Photo: Criterion Contraption. Read his review of Kwaidan, too.

Next is “Hoichi the Earless”, based on “The Story of Mimi-Nashi-Hoichi”, also from Hearn’s collection Kwaidan. This one was my favorite, visually, though my husband complained it took forever to get to the point. But who cares, when you get to listen to the biwa (okay, maybe not everyone likes the biwa), and watch the gorgeous stylized reenactment of the battle of Dan-no-ura, accompanied by Hoichi’s sung recitation of “The Tale of the Heike”. The ghostly royal court of the Heike sitting in the fog as the blind bard sings to them of their deaths, the scene of the priest and his assistant painting the sutra of emptiness — “Form is emptiness; emptiness is form” — on Hoichi’s body as protection, the scenes of the lords and ladies and their entourages who come to hear the legendary Hoichi sing. Magnificent stuff.

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Photo: e_n_s_o

They didn’t quite do the ghostly court scenes the way Hearn tells them in the story, which is more about the difference between written and visual storytelling than anything else. Pity, though, because I love Hearn’s version. Hoichi is blind, so he can’t see that he’s sitting in a cemetery. He only hears the sounds of a royal household sitting around him as he sings.

Then fresh courage came to him, and he played and sang yet better than before; and a hush of wonder deepened about him. But when at last he came to tell the fate of the fair and helpless,—the piteous perishing of the women and children,—and the death-leap of Nii-no-Ama, with the imperial infant in her arms,—then all the listeners uttered together one long, long shuddering cry of anguish; and thereafter they wept and wailed so loudly and so wildly that the blind man was frightened by the violence and grief that he had made. For much time the sobbing and the wailing continued. But gradually the sounds of lamentation died away…

No wailing in the movie. But I’m not complaining; I loved it. A bonus here, too: the priest is played by Takashi Shimura, the leader of the Seven Samurai, not to mention Dr. Yamane in Gojira (Yes, Gojira. Skip Godzilla, and Raymond Burr). And, oh yes, Kagemusha and Yojimbo and just about every movie Kurosawa made before the eighties.

Last story: “In a Cup of Tea” from Kotto: being Japanese curios, with sundry cobwebs. Hearn’s original piece is a meta-story, a meditation on fragments of stories that Hearn encountered in old books, and the untold stories behind the unfinished tales: “perhaps death stopped the writing-brush in the very middle of a sentence.” The story itself, about a samurai who looks into a cup of tea and sees someone else’s reflection, pulls you in nicely. The story halts — and then what happened?? The feeling of story interruptus is kind of pleasant.

I am able to imagine several possible endings; but none of them would satisfy an Occidental imagination. I prefer to let the reader attempt to decide for himself the probable consequence of swallowing a Soul.

Kobayashi goes and spoils the whole thing by giving this segment an ending. A cheesy ending, with a cheesy effect. Too bad, because the scene where the samurai sees the other man in his cup of tea is the creepiest scene in the entire movie.

My verdict? Long. But worth it.

3 thoughts on “Kwaidan (Ghost Story)

  1. I was shown the first segment – the story of the hair – before a screening of Ring (the original). It was part of a mini lecture on Japanese ghost stories. That one little bit that I saw was so eerie, probably down to the silence you talked about here.

    1. The first segment seems to be the favorite, for a lot of reviewers. And the way the first wife’s hair hides her face when the husband first sees her on returning — I think there’s a scene similar to that in Ringu? I never saw it — too chicken.

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