The image of a long, dark-haired, vengeful, female spirit is a relatively new concept to western audiences, thanks to imports and remakes such as “The Ring” and “The Grudge.” However, that image is a classic Japanese ghost that is present in two of the four traditional tales found in “Kwaidan”, a film that won several Japanese awards in 1964 and 1965 (it was also nominated for an Academy Award for “Best Foreign Film” in 1966).
“Kwaidan” is an anthology of four different ghost stories based on the writings of 1800s author Lafcadio Hearn: “The Black Hair”, “The Woman of the Snow”, “Hoichi, the Earless”, and “In a Cup of Tea.” Like most anthologies, some stories are better than others.
“The Black Hair” tells the tale of a young Samurai who decides to divorce his devoted wife in order to marry into another, wealthier and more powerful, family. How do you think the rebuked wife will respond?
“The Woman of the Snow” is easily the creepiest tale here. Two men become lost in a blizzard and stumble into a cabin, where they fall unconscious. Some time during the night, one man wakes to find a woman hovering over the other, blowing a chilled breath into his face as he freezes to death. What will become of the one who is watching?
“Hoichi, the Earless” has been much maligned as being overlong and dull; I found it to be my favorite story in the film. It depicts a great sea battle between two rival Samurai clans hundreds of years past, through story, art and sound. Then it takes us to a Temple, where a blind musician with a reputation for exquisitely retelling the battles, is visited by a man in armor. It seems his Master wants a private performance.
“In a Cup of Tea” is probably the weakest of the stories (with “The Woman of the Snow” and “Hoichi, the Earless” being the strongest). A man drinks a cup of tea with an image of a smiling Samurai reflected on the liquid within. What will be his price for swallowing a man’s soul?
Overall, “Kwaidan” is not a scary film, although it does have some creepy images. The reason it’s a classic however, besides its retelling of legendary tales, is its amazing visual design. The backdrops are gorgeous, and the costumes are bright, colorful and full of detail. Additionally, Criterion has done an impressive job restoring the film. Asian prints age particularly poorly, and Criterion has taken painstaking efforts to present a crisp image with (comparatively speaking) relatively low scratches. The only truly distracting thing was a side-to-side movement that occurred during “Hoichi,” but this is a minor quibble to those who have been brought up on much lesser-quality transfers.
“Kwaidan” is long (“most tales run around 25 minutes, while “Hoichi” is an hour), but worth at least one viewing, if only to see that ghosts in Japanese cinema did not start with “Ringu.”
Pros: Creative set designs and classic storytelling.
Cons: The sets are obviously sets (but that ultimately becomes their charm); the stories can feel a bit long to those raised on MTV-styled editing.
Review Rating: 4 out of 5 clocks in “In a Cup of Tea” are really cool! Where can I buy one?
Also known as: “Ghost Stories”, “Ghost Story” (literal English title), “Hoichi the Earless”, “Kaidan”, “Weird Tales ”
164 Minutes; Japan
Not Rated, but most tales would probably be equivalent to a PG (“Hoichi” might be a PG13).
Rentaro Mikuni – Husband (Black Hair)
Tatsuya Nakadai – Mi nokichi (The Woman in the Snow)
Katsuo Nakamura – Hoichi (Hoichi the Earless)
Osamu Takizawa – Author/Narrator (In a Cup of Tea)
Directed by: Masaki Kobayashi
Written by: Lafcadio Hearn, Yôko Mizuki
Viewing Format: DVD
(Originally published on HorrorWatch)