It's a 1964 Japanese horror anthology, containing four separate stories that have been adapted from an English translation of Japanese folk tales. No, really. The translator was one Lafcadio Hearn, who was born in 1850 in Greece, spent most of his life in America and ended up living permanently in Japan. He's the reason why this film's title is generally transliterated "Kwaidan" rather than "Kaidan", by the way, since in those days that spelling was correct. The Criterion DVD even includes a mini-book of all four stories and the last interview Masaki Kobabayashi gave before his death.
As for the movie itself, it was Oscar-nominated for Best Foreign Film and won the Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. It's also over three hours long and doesn't wear its length lightly. It's slow and not particularly character-based, with most of the original stories being only four or five pages long. I rather liked them, but folk tales are simple narratives. That's true here too. Obviously Kobayashi's film is going for more of a slow burn with the storylines, but that doesn't mean he's not still faithfully reproducing them. Because of this we have a story that's often being told by a narrator rather than the cast, while the script's going out of its way to avoid lifting the characters off the page. They're stereotypes rather than living, breathing people. They're plot functions on legs, frankly. Admittedly I can see why the film's chosen to do it this way and and furthermore the actors are working hard to inhabit their one-dimensional roles, but to be honest they're not always very interesting. Hoichi the Earless has no personality, for instance. Even the dialogue tends to be drawn directly from the source material, which tends to mean there's not much of it.
The result is a film that's not the most accessible to the casual viewer. It's a work of art, but you've got to meet it halfway. My theory is that it works better if you're familiar with either the original stories or Japanese folk tales in general and can thus better recognise the dramatic shapes and what Kobayashi's doing with them. After all, he's clearly succeeded in his goals. It's not as if he was trying to make a Carry On film and forgot to invite Sid James or something. Personally speaking I could see what was going to happen in the first two stories from a mile off, which made them predictable but for me they were also the film's most enjoyable segments. It helps that they both also go a bit beyond the obvious ending, putting a bit of a twist on the cliche. On the other hand, with the third segment I couldn't tell what the story was on about and got bored. However if I ever rewatch it, I suspect I'll be able to get into its groove more easily and probably find myself enjoying it more.
After all, if you think about Western fairy tales, they're all about storytelling patterns. The hero will be the youngest of three brothers and so on. Their predictability is almost the point. If you don't have the necessary cultural background, then you'll be missing the context that underlies everything in them. Anyway, that's my theory.
The film's four segments are: (a) The Black Hair, (b) The Woman of the Snow, (c) Hoichi the Earless, (d) In A Cup Of Tea. The Black Hair is the most heavily narrated of the four stories, to the extent that at one point early on I wasn't sure if I was seeing a flashback or the next part of the story. The visuals are almost more like illustrations. We begin with our hero telling a woman that he's going away to another province and that she should marry someone else. Bastard, I thought. Sure enough, I was right. He didn't bring his wife along because he's about to advance his job prospects by marrying someone of a higher social position. We soon learn that our hero is a positive genius for doing the wrong thing by his women. You've probably already guessed 90% of the story just by reading this much of my review, but what makes the segment worth watching is its almost painfully precise combination of visuals and audio. The soundtrack's a vital part of this film, despite the fact that it barely features any music at all in the traditional sense, instead being a weird and slightly nasty collection of noises and lots of silence. Needless to say it also looks stunning, but the scariest thing for me was the painted black teeth of our hero's second wife. Wow, historical fashions can be freaky.
I also liked the fact that we're going a bit further back than the usual Edo or Azuchi-Momoyama periods. I'm embarrassed not to be able to place the era more precisely, but I'd guess that those costumes (and hats!) are either Heian or Kamakura. That's a thousand years ago, give or take a few centuries.
The second story was my favourite, which may or may not be related to the fact that it's the story I was most familiar with beforehand. Urusei Yatsura's Oyuki was a parody of this Japanese folk tale, while it's also one of the segments of Tales from the Darkside: The Movie (1990). The original folk tale's yuki-onna (or "snow woman") is someone you really, really don't want to meet. She's a bit like a ghost, a vampire or indeed Death himself. She's beautiful and not even entirely without feelings, but she'll turn your blood to ice. Literally. Anyway, our story begins with two woodcutters getting trapped in a hut in a snowstorm one winter. Guess who shows up. Surprisingly she leaves one of them alive, but leaves him an order never to mention her to anyone as long as he lives. Sigh. Gee, you guessed. Again though the ending's different enough to throw your the laziest predictions slightly off-course, while I liked the actors in this story the best. They really bring something extra to the story, giving it more of a human dimension than I'd expected and much more than in Lafcadio Hearn.
It's even important for the story that they're good-looking, not to mention the flash of boob. That was surely a body double, but what the hell. What's particularly weird though is the way that Kobayashi's going out of his way to make the outdoors sets look artificial, most obviously with dramatic skies on which are occasionally human eyes or red female lips. The snow too is obviously sand or something. However as a style I quite like it, if only with the running feature of seeing the same sets redressed for different seasons, much as we saw the Kyoto house in The Black Hair look scary and abandoned at the beginning and then fifty times worse on coming back there later. The soundtrack's still off-putting in a good way, too. My notes say "scraping".
However even there, I prefer Tokuzo Tanaka's feature-length version from four years later, The Snow Woman
. It's less arty and prestigious, but to me it was more powerful.
Returning to Kwaidan... Hoichi the Earless has the strongest ending, but it's my least favourite segment. We begin with a historical battle scene that had me checking the clock and realising in horror that I was only halfway through. Battles are rubbish. Fortunately they're soon all dead, either killed or having committed mass suicide, which was a happy ending as far as I was concerned. Unfortunately this merely allows the story to move on to a new kind of boredom. His name's Hoichi and he's blind. Yes, that's right. That was my thought too. This is the longest segment, running for more than an hour. Hoichi himself shows no personality at all and it's clearly less engaging than the Lacfadio Hearn original, which is doing cool things with spooky scenes being told from a blind character's point of view. I didn't see the point of the movie version, frankly. However it improves out of sight for the evil ending, while this is easily the segment with the coolest visuals. I loved the spectral castle and the flying fires, while Hoichi covered in Buddhist sayings for the finale is one of cinema's freakiest images. I bet this is what inspired The Impossible Planet's squiggle-writing all over Toby in Doctor Who, for starters. It looks amazing, but for me that wasn't enough.
Last of all is In A Cup of Tea, although that's something of a forced mistranslation and it's actually a tea-bowl containing water. This is the thinnest of the stories, running only thirty minutes, but the lead character's enough of a violent dickhead that it becomes clear we're meant to be looking forward to his inevitable downfall. This story has the coolest horror concept of the four, but it's not doing as much as it could have with it. It doesn't even have a twist on its twist.
Overall, this is clearly an important film, both in terms of its genre and for Japanese cinema, but I wouldn't say it's necessarily trying to be entertaining. However it is eerie and sometimes nasty, while I admire the otherworldly feel it's creating with its expressionist visual style and its unsettling soundtrack. My favourite Kobayashi quote is referring to the latter. "And quite a contrast to those documentaries that are entirely sodden with music, yes." If you're worried about the length, by the way, its portmanteau structure means that you could break it up into multiple viewings. There's even an intermission halfway through.