#5 in my ranking of Masaki Kobayashi’s films.
There’s a streak in a lot of filmmakers where they want to make a film that’s obviously fake. Most of what they do is heavily realistic, and yet they all have this desire to tell a story that’s inherently formalistic. Fellini largely made a career out of it after leaving behind the Italian neo-realist movement, and Kurosawa tried a few times to different effect (Throne of Blood and Dodes’ka-den in particular), but it’s rare to see a filmmaker move from something like Harakiri to Kwaidan so elegantly. A collection of four ghost stories (Kwaidan translates to Ghost Stories, a title that I sometimes wish had been translated instead of allowed to remain in the anglicized Japanese), it’s Kobayashi’s quietest, steadiest, and most introspective film, and it’s gorgeous.
If there’s a lesson behind all of these, including the intentionally incomplete final section, it’s that you don’t mess with the spiritual realm. The spirits are tricksters and vengeful to boot. The wrongs you do in this life could be visited upon you in the next, and those you wrong in this life who pass on before you could haunt you still in this life. There’s a heavy moral component to these tales, like children’s stories warning them of the dangers of the greater world and keeping them on a track of good behavior, but at the same time, they are told with such incredible tact and skill. Using massive, hand-painted sets to create an otherworldly feel (that if they did not at least partially inspire the dream sequence in Kagemusha then I’ll eat my shoe), Kobayashi is trying to transport us as much as he can to the spirit realm, and that sort of unreality really works in the film’s favor.
The first tale, “The Black Hair”, is of an ambitious samurai who abandons his first wife and marries another, vain woman to advance his position in another part of Japan. After years, he returns home to find the house he shared with his first wife dilapidated and falling apart, all except the back rooms where his wife still toils away at her spool as though she had never aged. They fall asleep next to each other in the night, but the next morning he is met by a horrible vision. The young woman untouched by time has been turned into a rotting corpse, then a skeleton, then just her hair that attacks him as he grows speedily older, the spirit of his wife taking the years that he had taken from her.
The second tale, “The Woman of the Snow”, is of a young peasant (Tatsuya Nakadai) who is saved by the kindness of the Woman of the Snow (Keiko Kishi), a beautiful, mysterious figure in the blizzard he and his father are trapped in. She takes his father’s life but spares him because of his youth and beauty with the threat that she will kill him if he tells anyone. A year later, he meets a woman and marries her, fathering three children as ten years pass, and time seems to have no touch on his wife. One evening, as he’s making sandals for the family, he’s struck by how much his wife and the Woman of the Snow look alike, a memory he had suppressed. He tells her, and her true identity is revealed. However, she cannot follow through on her threat because the three children that sleep in the other room, so she leaves with another threat, to treat the children kindly for the rest of her lives. He leaves the sandals he made for her in the snow, and they disappear as she takes the final gift from her husband.
The third tale, “Hoichi the Earless” is the longest of the four and the one that most embraces the traditional forms of Japanese theater. It begins with a chant on the biwa by the titular character (Katsuo Nakamura) of the demise of the Heike clan in a sea battle that ended with their infant emperor being thrown into the sea by his mother to protect him from the vengeance of their opponents. It is also shown using real ships on a large tank set as men in armor fight each other, and we follow several Heike soldiers to their deaths. We then move to Hoichi’s real life. He is a young, blind man who has been taken in by some Buddhist monks. He works for them in his own limited capacity, and one evening while the monks are away, a spirit of the Heike army visits and demands Hoichi’s presence and skill with the biwa to play for his great lord. For several days, Hoichi goes and plays, singing the ballad of the fall of the Clan of Heike with great skill, but his disappearances worry the priests, particularly the head priest (Takashi Shimura). The servants follow him one night to discover the truth, that he’s playing in a graveyard, and Hoichi is slowly dying because of it. They protect him that night by covering him with sacred text painted onto his skin, missing his ears. When the Heike warrior comes to claim him again, he sees nothing but the ears, pulling them off of Hoichi’s head to prove to his master that this was all he had found of their singer. Hoichi then lives the rest of his life in fame and defiance of the spirits that maimed him.
The final tale, “In a Cup of Tea”, is put forward as an incomplete tale by the narrator (Osamu Takizawa) who also plays the author in a small bookend section around this particular tale. He surmises why the tale might be incomplete before digging in with an attendant to a great lord getting up from his position outside amongst his fellow retainers and getting a drink of water. In his cup he sees a strange face. After several times getting a new cup and seeing the same face, he drinks in defiance. Later that night, he’s visited by the man who owns that face, Shikibu Heinai (Noboru Nakaya) in a secure part of the lord’s manor. The samurai attacks, wounding the spirit who disappears through a wall. The next night, the samurai is visited by three of the Heinai’s attendants, also spirits, who warn him that Heinai will return the next month. The samurai attacks to no avail, and the tale ends. In the wraparound story, the author disappears as his narration comes to an abrupt end at the visit of his publisher and appears as an image in the house’s pot of water.
These are all seemingly first and foremost mood pieces. They are quiet, contemplative looks at the interaction between the real world and the spiritual realm, and they are remarkably different from Kobayashi’s other work. He threw himself into this world, and he came out with four haunting tales with somewhat nebulous meanings that all feel appropriate for a touch of a metaphysical realm of which we can only catch glimpses of ourselves. The tales are completely engrossing in that way as Kobayashi allows the scenery to enfold us, drawing our attention in by focusing us on small details. His previous films had been fairly dialogue heavy (I don’t really have a complaint about that, mind you), but the quietness of this is not only different, but with purpose. He was able to adapt his own skill and mindset to these stories at the same time. There’s a deep sense of justice in these tales that aligns pretty closely with what he’d said before in his other movies. It’s rare to find a film in a body of work that feels both so apart and so in line with everything else at the same time.