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.
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.