Director: Masaki Kobayashi
Starring: Rentaro Mikuni, Keiko Kishi, Kazuo Nakamura, Kanemon Nakamura
How often is it that a horror film can transcend its genre and create genuine feelings of sorrow and great beauty, alongside its desired goal of actually scaring us? Sure, Mandy was beautiful and Diabolique was terrifying, but Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan reigns over all when it comes to both the aesthetics of filmmaking and the pure terrifying qualities of its genre. In four supernatural tales (supposedly one for every season) that trespass gates of the bizarre and the otherworldly to bring to life an astonishing realization of vision, we are struck by sadness, anguish, pity, and of course, the disturbing confusion of the unknown.
We have one where black hair represents the punishing guilt for deserting the ones who love you, another where a man who is cursed by a secret existence of a Yuki-onna, one in which a fallen battlefield haunts a land for generations to come, and a brief finale that makes one avoid looking for answers in one’s own reflection. Only one of them has anything close to a happy ending, and even that one has severe consequences.
This being the first Kobayashi film that I’ve seen, I now yearn for his other work. Unlike many directors in production of a horror movie, he spares no expense in its production, yet leaves enough mystery for people to want more from a three-hour feature. This is one of the most visually beautiful films I’ve ever seen, its second story being bathed in a various tint, its blue tint giving the same chills as that of The Revenant. Even before the spiritual being appears, it is writhe with a sense of hopelessness. The third story begins with a wonderful rendition of the Battle of Don-no-ura, sung and narrated by the blind Hoichi (Katsuo Nakamura) before his story begins. This story’s appearance is reminiscent of a painting, rivaling the forthcoming Barry Lyndon in that accomplishment. The cinematography by Kobayashi’s frequent collaborator Yoshiro Miyajima is much to be adored.
Kobayashi went to great lengths to conceive this masterful work, operating on two separate sound stages at a time, oftentimes doing shooting for more than one vignette each day of filming. Was all this work worthwhile? You tell me—we have ghostly figures fading in and out of existence in effects that are ahead of their time, camera tilts to nudge at the characters’ declining sanity and, in one instance, a character rapidly aging with visibility in every shot, an effort that must have consumed the director’s time and energy. This is certainly a work of a talent that is not enough recognized by cinema lovers. Its narration is oftentimes expositional, sure, but its also a necessity to create four short films in one grandiose anthology.
In writing his review for Halloween, Roger Ebert wrote, “If you don’t want to have a really terrifying experience, don’t see ‘Halloween.’” Can the same be said for Kwaidan? Certainly not. If you value the authenticity and uncertainty of the traditional ghost story, have an appreciation for the unsung heroes of Japanese film, or want to experience the tranquil beauties in which cinema can achieve, then by all means, see this film. And it doesn’t hurt if you want to lose sleep either.