Most English language movies speculate on the possibility of ghosts. They are mostly seen by just a handful of protagonists as a manifestation of grief, loss or other mental condition. The ghosts are usually just all in their heads even though they seem ultra real. But in Kwaidan, a Japanese film from the mid sixties, ghosts are very real and will mess up your shit pretty badly.
Kwaidan is a collection of four folk tales. In each folk tale, the real world mingles with the spiritual world that no longer doubts the existence of either. These folk tales are meant to mimic the four seasons, which is achieved by wondrous and elaborate sets. In fact these sets seemed to be ripped straight from a king’s kabuki theater.
In the first tale, a selfish young samurai abandons his beautiful yet poor wife in favor of a life full of luxury. Time goes by and he starts to dream about his ex-wife’s beautiful black hair. He makes the decision to return to her. He finds her in close to the same position she was in when he left her, as beautiful as ever. How can he have aged and grown and she did not? He pays no attention to that fact as he begs her forgiveness and she grants it. But not all is as it seems. This tale no doubt inspired the look of Ringu so many decades after.
In the second tale, a harsh winter storm traps a father and son woodcutting team. They take shelter in a shack and pass out. The son awakes some time later to see a beautiful ice ghost sucking the life out of his father. Frightened almost to death, the young man watches in shock as the ice ghost spares his life because she likes him so much. But he must never tell anyone what she did. Ten years later, the woodcutter is married to a very lovely woman who doesn’t seem to grow old or change despite having three children. He loves and trusts her enough to tell her the story of how he was spared in that storm so long ago. But is the wife who she says she is?
The third tale is my favorite. It is about a young blind man living in a monastery. He is able to sing about an ancient battle that took place mere steps away from the place he lives. This battle involved the willful death of a young king and all of his subjects. The ghosts from this battle hear the song and ask the blind man to come sing for them at night. Every night the ghosts come and whisk him away and he tells the epic story of the battle in the only way a true Japanese musician can. (I love that music, it is so beautiful and simple) But these late night trips to the ghosts burial ground take a toll on his health, visible enough to alert the head monk. The musician tells him what is going on and the monk understands that the ghosts will destroy him if he is ever able to finish the story. So he and a fellow monk paint prayer symbols all over the musician’s body in order to protect him from being seen by the ghosts. But they missed one crucial part, his ears.
The last tale is about an old guard who sees a man in his cup of water. The man in the water mocks him and laughs at him. Eventually the man from the water cup manifests himself as a full-fledged human being and visits him while he is doing the graveyard shift. The guard and this ghost fight. The guard quickly realizes there is something off about this man.
Masaki Kobayashi, the director, is able to balance the supernatural world and the real world with ease. Despite the plot lines of these stories and the ornate sets that he puts them in, each story seems to be grounded in emotion that resonates. This is more difficult to pull off than may seem at first. In the reviews I saw of this film, much has been made about his transition from neo realist drama to fantastical folk-lore. But I feel that only a director that once told realist stories full of grime and raw emotions can achieve a believable fantasy world. A more famous example of this would be Fellini. Only because he was taught about neo realism and he achieved great success in that genre could he then be able to venture towards the surreal. I definitely believe that Kobayashi deserves the comparison to Fellini based on this film alone.
A couple of stray observations:
– This movie was based on a book by Lafcaido Hearn who was a journalist in the turn of the nineteenth century. What is unique about this fact is that the man was actually a Greek-Irish who emigrated to the United States and then later on to Japan. He fell in love with Japan so much that he changed his name to Yakumo Koizumi and wrote Japanese folktales that his new adopted country embraced with gusto.
– Please image google this movie. You will be able to see the magnificent sets that encompass this film if you do. In particular, I would pay attention to the winter tale. It’s deserted white landscape is punctuated by a vivid blue sky full of swirling eyes. It is amazing.