Although J-Horror dominated the late 90’s and early 00’s Japan actually has a rich history of supernatural cinema and one of the most beautiful and brilliant films from its past is Kwaiden.
Literally translated as ghost stories this period set anthology adapted from Lafcadio Hearn’s novel into a screenplay by Yôko Mizuki tells four fearsome tales drawing on the legends and folk lore of the land.
Directed by Masaki Kobayashi the entire movie, which is presented here in its 183-minute original Japanese cut, is shot on breathtaking hand-painted sets that give everything an air of the abstract. Increasing both the theatrical and the dreamlike qualities of the stories these huge sets transform each scene into living works of art that the unfortunate humans toil on while teased by forces beyond there comprehension.
Opening with tragic love story The Black Hair we meet a samurai who leaves his wife because he cannot bare to live in poverty with her. Marrying a hard and heartless woman for her families wealth he is haunted by images of his first devoted and loyal love working away in their decaying home.
Finally realising his mistake he leaves his second wife rushing back for reconciliation. Finding his previous partner still in their humble dwelling the pair are reunited and spend the night together however the swordsman wakes up to a terrible sight. The final scene of the section is both shocking and surprisingly well done, evoking imagery any J-Horror fan will be familiar with in the horrible black hair of his betrayed partner.
The Woman of the Snow also has a familiar feel to it as the themes and twist have transferred into a number of European folk tales and modern films. Two woodcutters get caught in a terrible snow storm and witness the arrival of Yuki-Onna also known as Yuki the Snow Maiden played perfectly here by Keiko Kishi.
Yuki takes the older mans life but spares the young woodcutter telling him he must never tell anyone of what he witnessed. Fearful and disturbed the lad returns to his home and meets a young woman traveling to Edo. The charming girl ends up staying with him and his mother and eventually the pair fall in love and settle down.
Years latter married and with many children the couple are the talk of the village seeing as they are not only so happy but the woodcutters wife remains looking as young as the day he met her. One night at the height of his happiness the husband decides to share the one secret he had never told a soul with the love of his life. However the cataclysmic climax is probably predictable to most horror heads and anyone familiar with Tales From The Darkside: The Movie which pays homage to this story.
The most epic and outstanding section is the strangely titled Hoichi the Earless which opens with a retelling in song of a huge sea battle between two clans that ended in everyones death. This song is played by Hoichi a blind musician recognised for his talents singing and playing the guitar like instrument known as the biwa hoshi, who works at a temple where the other monks look after him.
One night a spectral samurai hears Hoichi and asks him to play for his master leading him off into the forest. Night after night the serious spirit comes to the temple taking Hoichi away to retell The Tale of the Heike to a growing court of ghostly figures who perished in the blood soaked Battle of Dan-no-ura the song describes.
Noticing he is missing all through the night the priests fear for Hoichi’s health and his soul. Finding him distraught and dishevelled in a graveyard performing to the court of the dead Emperor they take him back to the temple and devise a plan to prevent the spectres ever taking Hoichi again. The wise mens plan seems foolproof but results in a gruesome and disturbing scene which transforms Hoichi mentally and physically forever.
An action packed oddity ends the quartet of stories in Kwaidan. Named In a Cup of Tea it features a wrap around about a writer discussing unfinished stories and then moves back in time where we meet a samurai who starts seeing a mans face appearing in, you guessed it, a cup of tea.
Resulting in a mystical duel between the haunted man and the ghostly guardians on the spirit he saw in his cup the narrative returns to the writer for one last scare to send the audience home with.
Available for the first time in the UK the brilliant Masters of Cinema Blu-ray is exquisitely restored and packed with extras making Kwaidan even more essential and enjoyable. Vivid and visually astounding this ghost story spectacular is strong in story and spectacle proving supernatural scares will always transcend time and language.
KWAIDAN (Masters of Cinema) New & Exclusive Trailer