Review: Kwaidan (1964)

Kwaidan came out of left-field for me. I’ve not studied film academically, and although I’m a fan of Japanese film, I’ve not seen anywhere near as much as some of my compatriots here. Nonetheless, I’ve heard about Kwaidan — usually mentioned on places like the Mobius forums in the textual equivalent of reverential tones. So, I stuck my hand up for it when a copy arrived for review, and I’m glad I did.

Kwaidan is a collection of four short supernatural horror stories, based on the writings of a Westerner named Lafcadio Hearn, who moved to Japan and became a Japanese citizen in 1895. The four pieces are pure fantasy, full of stylised beauty and accompanied by an eerie soundtrack… through which real people move, forced to confront and deal with the spirits they encounter. This definitely isn’t horror in the “loud noises and rapidly increasing body count” mode, nor does it have the feel of the recent J-horror phenomenon (The Ring and its ilk). Kwaidan builds a feeling of impending doom and evokes conflicting emotions as its characters try to deal with their experiences rationally.

I don’t want to describe the stories themselves in any great detail so as not to spoil anything, but their titles are: The Black Hair, The Woman Of The Snow, Hoichi, The Earless and In A Cup of Tea. Although the style and mood of the four are quite similar, they’re very different stories; the first two deal with love and betrayal, while the third tale (that of Hoichi the Earless, with the title presaging his unfortunate fate) is on a larger scale as Hoichi encounters a troupe of long-dead samurai who wish to hear the epic tale of their House. The fourth tale is the story of an unfinished story, about a samurai who encounters the face of another in a cup of tea, with horrific results.

Kwaidan is a long film, clocking in at just under three hours, and likely won’t please some people who don’t like such langourously paced films. If you put in the time, though, I think you’ll find that it’ll stick in your mind for quite some time afterwards. Possibly you’ll find yourself anxiously checking your reflection in teacups and shying away from people with long, black hair.

Eastern Eye say that this is the first uncut English-subtitled version of the film, and it’s a lovely transfer to DVD — definitely worth picking up for fans of the movie.

9 sleepless nights of bima playing out of 10.
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