Any horror cinema enthusiast would do well to experience – to bathe, in fact – in the luscious spooks and rattling phantasmagoria of Japanese horror cinema in the 1960s. For fans of the genre, the only comparable historical periods for a nation’s horror cinema would be German horror in the 1920s and Italian horror in the ’70s. The German cinema topples anything for sheer awe and hanging-on dread, and the Italian cinema cannot be surpassed for pure maddening Grand Guignol calamity and grotesque, baroque, colorific ballets-of-blood. But, in terms of spectral atmosphere and cosmic displays of the painterly otherworlds lying just under the sheets of humankind’s darkest nightmares, Japanese horror cinema in the 1960s rises above any and all cinematic horror sub-groups for displaying the macabre in the most exquisite, transcendental, heavenly detail.
Partially, this is because Japanese ghost stories (Kaidan literally means “ghost story”) owe a kinship to the national myths of Japanese folklore unmatched in spiritual connection by any other nation. Watching Kwaidan, one receives not merely the shivers and shakes of a good fright, but a sort of spectral omniscience cascading over you. There’s a lyrical stream into Japanese history running rapid throughout Kwaidan; it feels somehow connected to another dimension where justice and revenge are the currency of paranormal beings and our surface lives are but a playground for more tempestuous creatures who view our world as a combination of sport, politics, moral playground, blunt necessity, and wasted time.
The brilliance of Kwaidan is, on one hand, simply a matter of toeing the mid-century-Japanese-horror-cinema party-line. These films play judge, jury, and executioner, presiding over all of humanity with tales of the immortal and undead pursuing justice on the living. The Japanese horror cinema from this time period (dating all the way, in fact, back to the silent era with undead, edge-of-sanity classics like A Page of Madness) was born and bred in the oven of Japanese tradition, and this sort of mythical, mystical ghost story was just ripe for an almost metaphysical cinematic experience. It goes without saying that Kwaidan is one of the most existentially sensorial films ever made, marinated in the spirit of transformative landscape painting and woodblock art from Japan’s history. It goes without saying because all Japanese horror films from the era were sensory-first tales of feeling, where sight and sound concoct tales to live in, and not simply to watch. On one hand, then, Kwaidan is not unique; it is simply a towering tree in a much wider forest of Japanese horror films, primed at a conceptual level to work as cinema regardless of the individual qualities of each film. You could say that Kwaidan has an unfair advantage then.
But Kwaidan, directed by Masaki Kobayashi, has a leg up on the chief competition from the era, from Kaneto Shindo’s charred chiaroscuro masterworks Onibaba and Kuroneko to the boundless alley cat cool of pop-hell cinema with the proto-punk Jigoku (which, being set in modern day, really is a split from Japanese horror at the time). Simply put, Kwaidan has color. Okay, Jigoku has color too, and it too breathes every primary color it can possibly imagine, but there’s something about the way Kobayashi applies Shindo’s ghostly tales of Japanese myth-making, as ethereal as they are animalistic, and shocks that style to vivid life with a burst of watercolor delight. Photographed by Yoshio Miyajima, Kwaidan is a sure bet for one of the most beautiful color films ever released.
Largely because, even though it bears a closer thematic and structural similarity to Onibaba and Kuroneko, Kwaidan is clearly in devoted admiration with Jigoku’s unhinged surrealism. This anthology tale (oh, by the way, Kwaidan is an anthology horror film, making it even more of a surprise that it is so wonderful) has, pointedly and purposefully, much less of a fixation with narrative structure than with sheer cinematic deconstruction. Scenes don’t transition into each other; they bleed around one another, scream out at each other, jump out of closets to frighten one another, and dress up in skeleton costumes with each other because it suits their fancy. The four tales, “The Black Hair”, “The Woman of the Snow”, “Hoichi the Earless”, and “In a Cup of Tea” are formally defined and separated from one another, but more than in any anthology horror film before or since, they are friends. We get the sense they courted each other earlier, planning their chills in unison so that the wider haunted house experience of the film would exceed any of the individual parts.
Indeed, Kwaidan is the rare anthology film without a weak link, or what might qualify as a standout. The piece has an impressionist tapestry-like milieu that eschews flavor-of-the-moment shocks for hard-won gloom and an impenetrable air of forlorn death in the air (perfected with Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu a decade before, but almost matched here) . Toru Takemitsu’s bone-chilling display of woebegone wails that fluctuate throughout the score are but one harmonious element, whispering through the tales and making each one but a plane or a stop in a larger space of the mind. We aren’t so much watching stories as occupying a place of Japanese history, tied more ceremoniously to further planes of existence and the vestiges of the past than most national histories are. Fittingly, not only does Kwaidan know its own cinematic history, but it makes the doom and loss in the air so tactile and present that it doesn’t so much wrap its way around our necks as invade our core beings. The best horror is a cinematic trance, and I can think of no film that understands this tempo better.
Within, colors dance, but like a trance, the film is always cool and laconic even in its patented hysteria; reds punctuate the frame, but in the best of the tales (“The Woman of the Snow”), the dominant umber is a chilly, lucid blue. At first, the blue is a sea of floating emotions, a not-quite-contrast to pallid white snow, but the water-like blue hides foul monsters aplenty, and the longer you swim around with your eyes closed, something will force them open. Or ensure they can never open again. The calming blue becomes sickly and sinister, and the relentless leisure of the film emerges as a sinuous trick to lull you into false comfort. The androgynous blue permeates like cadaverous molasses. Kwaidan is an exquisite corpse of a film, leery of lively emotional outburst yet also freed from the prison of having to resort to histrionics whenever a scare emerges. Kwaidan doesn’t play for immediate gratification; it’s in it for the long crawl.
It is the sort of cinema that wafts around you, and the sheer experimentalism on display in these four tales adapted from Lafcadio Hearn’s written collections of Japanese ghost stories reveals how these tales, for the Japanese public, are much more connected to the bone and mind than the page. Sure, they were written down, but the spirit of the tales lie in a translucent semi-physicality that feels both present and distant, like we are peeking into another world and it is slowly layering itself onto our existence. These tales float beyond the page and into the minds of storytellers who give them new life with physical gestures, movements, and darts of the eye (assuming the tales were knowing the life they were born for, one around a campfire). Kwaidan is simply the cinematic variation of the mood shackling the mind of anyone who heard the tales. It is but an externalization of the vibe of the tales; the storybook cinematography and production design (Kwaidan arguably boasts more expressionistically chilling production design than any film since the 1920s) fill out a place in the mind like no other horror film.
Kwaidan may also be the great Japanese cinematic treatment of Kabuki and Noh theater, the great Japanese dramatic traditions that slid themselves purposefully into the intoxicating essence of the Japanese ghost story. The jerked movements, fascinating use of implication, suggestion, and negative space, and the luxuriant design of the theater was somehow more abstract than Western theater and yet decidedly more cinematic, a promise fulfilled in Kwaidan. These tales are like four darkly savage peas amalgamated in a pod, four prior recluses meant for each other like a traveling carnival of disparate, wayward spooks who finally found a home in each other. Together at last, they are ready to wreak havoc on your mental state, and you ought to oblige them. They’ll figure out a way whether you do or not.