“I want to talk of the past and the present and the future with you…”
[Also known as: Kaidan]
Director: Kobayashi Masaki
Starring: Mikuni Rentarō, Aratama Michiyo, Watanabe Misako, Nakadai Tatsuya, Kishi Keiko, Mochizuki Yûko, Nakamura Katsuo, Tanba Tetsurō, Shimura Takashi, Hayashi Yoichi, Tanaka Kunie, Tani Akira, Takizawa Osamu, Nakamura Kan’emon, Kei Satō, Nakamura Ganjirō, Sugimura Haruko
Screenplay: Mizuki Yōko, based upon the stories of Koizumi Yakumo (Lafcadio Hearn)
Synopsis: A narrator tells three ghostly tales… In The Black Hair, an impoverished samurai (Mikuni Rentarō) abandons his wife (Aratama Michiyo) to pursue his fortune alone. To obtain wealth and security, he marries the daughter (Watanabe Misako) of a prominent family, before entering the service of the governor of a distant province. However, the memories of his first wife and their life together poison his second marriage; and when his term of service is done he rejects his second wife to return to his original home. At first the samurai is frightened by the desolation that he finds there—but then he discovers his wife waiting for him, as if nothing had happened… In The Woman Of The Snows, a young woodcutter, Minokichi (Nakadai Tatsuya), and his elderly master are caught in a snowstorm, finding refuge in a boatman’s hut. During the night, Minokichi awakes to discover a spirit of the snows bending over his master, who is dead. As he cowers in terror, the spirit-woman (Kishi Keiko) tells him that she has decided spare his life. She warns him, however, that he must never speak of their encounter to anyone, or he will regret it… In Hoichi The Earless, a blind musician called Hoichi (Nakamura Katsuo) gains fame for his playing of the biwa and his recitations. One night, when he is alone in the temple where he finds a refuge, Hoichi is approached by a samurai (Tanba Tetsurō), who tells him that his fame has reached a certain noble family. Night after night Hoichi accompanies the samurai and plays as requested—unaware of who he is really playing for… The narrator (Takizawa Osamu) is revealed as a writer of strange stories. He observes that many such stories have no real ending—for example, the one about Kannai (Nakamura Kan’emon), a nobleman’s guard who begins to see a reflection not his own in his cup of tea…
Comments: From its earliest days, Japanese cinema drew upon the country’s rich and ancient folklore, producing films that dealt frankly and seriously with the supernatural in a manner almost unheard of in the west. However, it was not until after WWII that Japanese films in general began reaching a wide audience outside their country of origin; and not until 1953 that such audiences were exposed to a Japanese ghost story. The breakthrough production was Mizoguchi Kenji’s Ugetsu Monogatari (more commonly known in English-speaking countries simply as Ugetsu), which that year won the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival. Overarchingly a rumination upon the senseless brutality of war and its effects upon the character of men, during its second half Ugetsu takes an unexpected turn when the central character, a farmer and potter attempting to exploit the unsettled times for his financial advantage, has a supernatural encounter.
But although the Japanese continued to produce horror movies, it was only intermittently that they reached an international audience; and the next such production to make a wide-ranging impact did not appear until late in 1964—screening at the Cannes Film Festival the following year. The ghostly elements in Ugetsu are only one of its intertwined themes; but in Kobayashi Masaki’s Kwaidan, those elements are not only front and centre, but the film’s raison d’être.
Kwaidan is an anthology film, a collection of four – or at least, three-and-a-half – ghost stories drawn from ancient Japanese folklore. However, their journey to the screen was not direct, but through an unexpected interpreter: the half-Irish, half-Greek, American by breeding and Japanese by adoption writer, Patrick Lafcadio Hearn—who in the final phase of his life took the Japanese name, Koizumi Yakumo. The product of a difficult youth involving periodic abandonment, and invariably displaying interest and sympathy towards fringe cultures and minorities (his first wife was African American, a marriage illegal when and where it was contracted), Hearn found fame as a journalist, author and translator. In 1890 he was sent to Japan as a newspaper correspondent; and, although the job fell through, Hearn recognised that after a peripatetic life, he had at last found his spiritual home. He found a position as a teacher, later secured a position as a lecturer on English literature at Tokyo Imperial University, converted to Buddhism, and made a second marriage to a Japanese woman (his first having crumbled under various pressures). His fascination with Japanese culture led him to collect, interpret and translate the local folklore, achieving the delicate balance required in rendering the stories in English without losing the nuance and sense of the uncanny of the original narratives.
Hearn published his first collection of tales, Shadowings, in 1900; following it with Kottō: Being Japanese Curios, With Sundry Cobwebs in 1902, and Kwaidan: Stories And Studies Of Strange Things in 1903; and it was these text that Kobayashi Masaki and his screenwriter, Mizuki Yōko, drew upon in shaping their film—which also explains its variant titles. To reflect the ancient origins of his stories, Hearn chose to use the archaic term “kwaidan”—often translated simply as “ghost story” but which, like many Japanese terms, also carries a more complex meaning revolving around the telling or passing on of such stories. The film was released under that title everywhere but Japan itself, where the modern spelling “kaidan” was used instead. (In any event, the ‘w’ is silent.)
In 1964, Kwaidan seemed an altogether improbable project for Kobayashi Masaki to undertake. The director, like many of his contemporaries, used his films to as an examination of the war upon Japan in general and upon himself as an individual: in the latter case, his experiences both as a pacifist forced into service, and as a prisoner of war. Over its first decade, Kobayashi built his career upon films of almost brutal realism, most famously his trilogy, Ningen No Jōken (The Human Condition). Running over nine hours in total, these three films follow a character very much like Kobayashi himself as he is confronted with the realities of war and life under a totalitarian regime. The director’s other films were, likewise, serious dramas about the state of Japanese society and, in particular, its youth; and invariably, they were shot in black-and-white.
All that changed in 1964. Abandoning alike his grimly realistic subject matter and his gritty, chiaroscuro-heavy visuals, the director went as far as he could possibly go in the other direction, creating an entirely unrealistic film featuring stunning colour cinematography and deliberately stylised art direction.
Screening in Cannes in 1965, Kwaidan was awarded the Special Jury Prize, and went on to be nominated for an Academy Award as Best Foreign-Language Film; winning in the process a reputation not only as a great movie, but as one of the most beautiful ever made.
Kwaidan is one of those movies that reminds you every moment that you are watching a movie. The opening credits, for example, play over swirls of coloured ink in water, both referring to the film’s source and anticipating the stories to come. Almost in its entirety, the film is artificial, the majority of it shot on sets painstakingly built within aeroplane hangers (the only buildings large enough to accommodate them), in front of painted backdrops and under a rainbow of lighting effects that together create a powerful atmosphere. In its entirety, the film suggests the passing of time, of the seasons; while individually, each of the four stories plays out within a particular palette of colours intended to evoke a specific emotional response from the audience. Fascinatingly, the colours of “reality” are almost invariably muted and bleak. It is when the supernatural touches upon the world of the living that it suddenly erupts into a riot of colour.
The experimental visuals in Kwaidan are matched and heightened by the film’s score, which was the work of avant-garde composer, Takemitsu Tōru. Though drawing upon traditional Japanese music and instrumentation (which itself plays a critical role in the third of the four stories), Takemitsu translates these into an abstract soundscape supplemented by sound effects – splintering wood, cracking ice, metallic shrieks, howls of wind – which reflect the action onscreen. It also uses silence to unnerving purpose.
Curiously, none of this overt artificiality interferes with suspension of disbelief. On the contrary, the intense stylisation finally achieves a kind of hyper-realism, in which the viewer becomes immersed.
Kwaidan is usually classified as “a horror movie”, and unquestionably it deals with the supernatural; but those looking for visceral shocks or sudden scares have come to the wrong film. While it offers some chilling touches, this is above all a mood-piece. Its stories play out within strange pockets of time and space where the supernatural world momentarily intrudes upon the natural. Its recurrent theme is human frailty; its dominant tone one of sadness. The film unfolds at a deliberate, leisurely pace that demands both patience and engagement from its audience.
These demands were initially too much for some, it seems: in spite of its rapturous critical reception, its awards and nominations, Kwaidan was cut upon its first release in the west, with the film’s second story removed in its entirety. Today, having found its natural resting-place within the Criterion Collection, it has thankfully been restored to its original 183-minute running-time.
(Note, however, that the initial Criterion release ran 161 minutes: a fully restored print was not offered until the 2016 re-release.)
The stories that comprise Kwaidan have a narrator, although we do not meet him in the flesh until very late in the film. The first of the four, The Black Hair, was adapted from Lafcadio Hearn’s The Reconciliation and is set in Old Kyoto, where a samurai has been brought low in the world by the ruin of the lord whom he served. Unable to stand the humiliation associated with his loss of status, the samurai decides to strike out on his own. His wife pleads with him not to leave her, promising to work as hard as she must to support the two of them, so that her husband may maintain his dignity. The samurai cruelly spurns her, however, turning his back upon her and the life of poverty which she represents to him; he advises her to remarry as soon as he divorces her, as he intends to do.
The samurai makes good on his promise / threat, securing a position in the retinue of the Governor of a distant province. However, he first marries the daughter of a wealthy and prominent family, in order to secure himself socially and financially, as well. Her parents, glad to have their daughter married but concerned about her being taken so far from them, press her new husband for promises that he will care for and respect her, which he gives.
But no sooner has he achieved his twin goals than the samurai begins to have second thoughts. Memories of his first wife begin to haunt him; their life together, which seemed to him so degrading such a short time ago, now holds a strange appeal. He thinks in particular of his wife’s love for him; her gentleness and patience; the joy with which she used to greet him. In particular he sees her at her loom and her spinning-wheel, where she worked to earn money for the two of them…
Not surprisingly, the samurai’s second marriage is not a success: “His new wife was selfish and callous,” the narrator informs us: a statement which we should, perhaps, receive with caution, as we see nothing to support it. Instead, it feels very much like the samurai justifying himself for withdrawing from his new bride. And certainly, when she comes to him in his bed and finds him, self-evidently, dreaming of another woman; when, even in his sleep, he rejects her kiss; her rage and offence are understandable.
Yet, as he did with his first wife, he tries to shift the blame for his situation. When one of his wife’s attendants reproaches him quietly for his neglect of her, he retorts that she can go back to her parents if she wishes, and as soon as she wishes: “I can’t stand seeing her dissatisfied look any more; tell her so!”
From here it is a short step to deciding to return to his first wife, to make amends. He is held, however, by his service to the Governor, if not by his duty to his wife; and it is many years before he is free to return to Kyoto. He arrives at midnight, finding a desolate scene: the land is overgrown, the house in a state of disrepair. Weeds protrude through the rotten floorboards, which collapse under his weight.
Then at last he sees a light in one room. There he finds what seems to him a miracle: one room, just as he left it, with his first wife working at her spinning-wheel. Beyond her, hanging so as to guard the entrance to their bedroom, is her uchikake, her red wedding-kimono—just as it always was. She has no reproaches for him, only the same soft, joyful greeting. She waves aside his abject apologies and his explanations, his promises to make amends: “What greater happiness could there be to see you again—even if only for a moment?” she whispers, as she rests her head against his chest. He holds her, stroking and breathing in the subtle fragrance of her long, black hair. She prepares their bed, using her uchikake as a covering. The light is extinguished…
The samurai awakes with the dawn, smiling. His smile vanishes, however, becomes instead an expression of confusion and fear, as he sees that the immaculate bridal chamber of the night before is now as dirty and desolate as the rest of the house. After looking around wildly, he kneels beside his wife, who lies wrapped in her uchikake, her long black hair spilling over it. Apprehensively, he reaches out and pulls back the cover—
—and discovers that he has been lying next to the remains of his long-dead wife.
At first he can do nothing but cringe against the wall in sickened horror; but then, pressing away as far as possible from the horror on the bed, the samurai begins to creep towards the door. He has not got very far, however, when the long black hair lying over the bedcover begins to writhe—and to inch towards him. As the samurai pounds on the thin walls, trying in his panic to break a way out, it throws itself at him…
The Black Hair is not a complex tale, but rather one whose punchline is inherent in its set-up. However, it serves more or less as the film’s appetiser, paving the way for the more emotionally profound stories to follow. It also introduces Kobayashi’s visual scheme for his film, and the way in which the clash of colours will be used.
Overall this story plays out against a dull palette of grey and brown and blue; the samurai’s second wife is marked as something apart by being associated with deep green and royal purple; while the single splash of red represented by the first wife’s uchikake signals the melding of the real and ghostly worlds.
Historically, however, The Black Hair is extremely important—inasmuch as, if you were ask someone to sum up modern Japanese horror cinema in a single phrase, that phrase might well be scary hair.
In Japanese folklore, the yūrei is a ghost or spirit held in the physical world by the manner of the person’s death, by their thoughts or passions at the time of death, or by the failure to perform the appropriate rites; until the rites are performed or the conflict resolved, the yūrei cannot find rest. And though a yūrei need not, of course, be female, when the 18th century artist, Maruyama Ōkyo, was asked to paint a ghost, he responded with an image of a pale, emaciated, white-robed woman with long, black hair—and so crystalised the visual concept of the yūrei.
While Japanese folklore offers ghost stories of all kinds, a dominant theme is that of the betrayed or abandoned woman who, often dying violently, returns as a yūrei to wreak vengeance. Such spirits naturally found their way into Japanese cinema, and from there into the world at large; so that the white-faced ghost-girl with the curtain of black hair – hair that sometimes has a life of its own – is now a film icon in her own right. To the best of my knowledge, however, Kwaidan was the first production to locate its horror in the long, black hair of a woman betrayed. (If anyone knows of an earlier one, please let me know!)
The second story, The Woman Of The Snow, was based upon Hearn’s Yuki-Onna. It opens in a snowbound forest, where a young woodcutter, Minokichi, and his elderly master are overcome by the growing storm. With difficulty they make their way to the river’s edge, but the boatman has left the ferry on the other side. Finally Minokichi drags his companion into the boatman’s rough hut: a poor shelter, but better than none. The two collapse in exhaustion.
In the middle of the night, Minokichi awakes. He finds that the storm has receded, though the snow continues to fall. The hut’s door, which he wedged shut, stands open; so that the hut itself is full of snow. And, kneeling over the elderly woodcutter, is a woman in white. As he watches, paralysed with terror, the woman’s icy breath envelopes the old man…
Then the woman turns towards him.
She glides towards him, kneeling and leaning in as she had towards the old man—but then she stops. Something in Minokichi – his youth, his good looks – has touched the snow-spirit; for such, of course, she is. She tells Minokichi that she has decided to spare his life. However, she warns him, he must tell no-one of their encounter; no-one, ever. If he does, she will know it…and he will be sorry… The door of the hut swings open as she glides towards it, and then she vanishes into the snow…
Minokichi is slow to recover from his ordeal, lying ill and withdrawn in the cottage he shares with his mother; and, for a time, she must cut and sell wood in order to support him. But with the coming of spring, Minokichi regains his strength and is able to venture out once again, and to reassume his financial responsibilities. Each day he goes into the forest to work, returning at nightfall with bundles of wood for selling.
One day, as he returns home at sunset, Minokichi encounters a woman, Yuki. She tells him shyly that she has lost her parents and has no brother, and so is travelling to Edo in the hope of finding employment as a servant. As they are travelling the same road, the two walk on together; and, as night falls, Minokichi invites Yuki to shelter for the night with himself and his mother…
Well. Yuki never does make it to Edo. In time, she and Minokichi are married; they have three children together, and care for Mother together for the rest of her life. Yuki herself gains a reputation as an excellent wife and mother: sweet-tempered, caring and dutiful, even her mother-in-law never had a bad word to say about her, as the other village women observe laughingly to one another; even as they cannot seriously resent the fact that Yuki never seems to get any older, despite living the relatively hard life of a woodcutter’s wife.
By this time Minokichi has a sideline as a maker of sandals: he has made pairs for each of the children, and we see now that he has made some for Yuki, too, a fine pair with red trimming. Yuki, meanwhile, is making new kimonos which, with the sandals, will be the children’s holiday gifts.
As Yuki sits quietly sewing, Minokichi suddenly looks at her intently: something in her attitude, in the way that the light strikes her, stirs a chord in his memory. He is puzzled at first, groping unsuccessfully for the recollection. Then he realises:
It turns out that Minokichi had forgotten the events of the fateful night in the boatman’s hut, his memory effectively wiped by his subsequent illness. Even now he is not entirely sure how much he is remembering and how much he might have dreamed. Slowly, he begins to put the pieces together: the storm; the death of the old man, his frozen body seemingly drained of blood; and the woman – the spirit: deadly, yes, but so beautiful, too…
“You looked just like her just now,” he explains. “That’s why I remembered.”
But—it probably was just a dream, he concludes, laughing softly to himself.
No, Yuki tells him quietly. It was not a dream…
The Woman Of The Snow is simultaneously the most artificial, the most beautiful and the most disturbing of the four stories in Kwaidan. Its removal, in early prints shown to non-Japanese audiences, must have robbed the film of much of its emotional resonance. It is a story of contrasts, the chilly blue-and-white mise-en-scène of Minokichi’s encounter with the snow-spirit in jolting contrast with the almost lurid yellow and red and pink that suffuses the scenes of his courtship of Yuki.
Some of the colour effects are, however, more subtle. As we saw in The Black Hair, a sudden splash of red, in this case the flag that hangs outside the boatman’s hut, signals the merging of the real and the unreal; when Minokichi later comments to Yuki that, “Red is your colour,” is acts as a warning to the viewer, at least. We never see her in red, but as the story progresses Yuki becomes increasingly associated with blue, another hint as to her origins. But my favourite use of colour here is the subtlest one of all: as the snow-spirit reminds Minokichi of the consequences of his broken promise, she contemplates the kimonos she was sewing for her children; their children: the cloth seems to radiate a soft pink light, whose warm influence gives the snow-spirit pause.
The external sets built for The Woman Of The Snow are also striking—and creepy. Most notable is a strange interlude as Minokichi staggers through the snowstorm with Mosaku, his elderly master: suddenly he finds himself in the clear, but alone, and under a sky full of heavenly bodies that resemble eyes; eyes gazing down upon him… This motif recurs at the story’s sad conclusion.
The yuki-onna is another Japanese spirit, one which lurks in the snow, or may in fact be of the snow. Though some versions allow that the yuki-onna does not always pose a threat, others depict the snow-spirit as malevolent, often preying upon unwary travellers. Kwaidan gives us both: almost ironically perfect in human form, the yuki-onna is a genuinely uncanny presence in the bookending scenes. Most unnerving of all is the film’s ambiguity about what, exactly, the snow-spirit does to the old man. Minokichi sees her enveloping him in her icy breath, and he is found frozen as well as dead; yet we are later told there was no blood in his body. But if this yuki-onna is a vampire, she is not a conventional one: as she leans over the terrified Minokichi, her lips part—showing only darkness beyond…
Kwaidan’s third story is its longest and its best-known. Hoichi The Earless is the story of a blind musician who gains fame for his recitations, which he accompanies with his playing of the biwa. Despite his talent, Hoichi’s disability causes him to find a permanent refuge in a temple where, as his fame spreads, members of the nobility call upon him in the hope of hiring his services.
Hoichi The Earless does not begin with its titular character, however, but with a representation of the Battle of Dan-no-ura, a famous 12th century naval battle in which the members of the Minamoto Clan (known as the Genji) defeated and, indeed, destroyed the Taira Clan (the Heike); with those few who survived the battle committing suicide rather than fall into the hands of their enemies. Among the Heike casualties was the six-year-old Emperor Antoku.
Kwaidan’s presentation of the battle is highly stylised, almost like a Kabuki performance, with formal, deliberate movements and a distinct lack of bloodshed; in this version, the child-emperor dies when his nurse jumps with him into the churning red waters around his ship. Nevertheless, the totality of the slaughter, and the magnitude of the defeat of the Heike, is conveyed to the viewer. The entire set-piece is perversely beautiful, full of intense colours and contrasts, and with scenes featuring actors intercut with shots of a scroll painting depicting the decisive battle, and which is far more gruesome than the live-action battle.
“And that sea and that shore,” the narrator concludes, “have been haunted for 700 years…”
The story then moves to the Amidaji Temple, established nearby with the ordained task of consoling the souls of the dead samurai. Many strange things have happened in the area since the building of the temple…
It is at this temple that the blind Hoichi has found a refuge. He is cared for by the order of the priest (played, much to my delight – I had forgotten since my last viewing – by Shimura Takashi): the duty falls chiefly to the distinctly unholy Yasaku and Matsuzo, who are employed to perform menial tasks at the temple.
One night, the priest and his attendant, Donkai, are called away to perform a service at the home of a parishioner, and Hoichi is left alone. Or is he? He becomes aware of another presence; yet no-one answers when he speaks.
But as he plays his biwa, someone does call out to him, addressing him by name. A figure in armour materialises in the temple courtyard; the viewer recognises the newcomer as Noritsune Notonokami, the courageous but doomed leader of the Heike forces, who has been dead for some seven centuries…
The visitor explains that he has been sent as a messenger by his royal lord, part of a coterie of nobles who have set up their encampment nearby, being in the district to view the site of the Battle of Dan-no-ura. Having heard of Hoichi’s skill as a musician and storyteller, and in particular of his recitation of The Tale Of The Heike, the visitor has come to accompany him back to the camp, so that he may play and sing for the nobles and their attendants. The humble Hoichi deflects the praise and tries to decline, but the visitor then puts the invitation in the form of a command.
Hoichi is led by the wrist along a path through the woods surrounding the temple. At the end of it is a stone fortress, with two huge gates which swing open at the visitor’s call. He and Hoichi enter, climbing a stone staircase and approaching an inner chamber. A female attendant takes charge of Hoichi, leading him to his audience…
There is trouble in the vicinity of the temple: several boats have sunk, with lives lost, and rumours are spreading of a ghost ship on the waters. The priest is kept busy arranging services and wakes; but he is nevertheless aware of Hoichi’s strange absence the night before. In the priest’s absence, Yasaku tries to have some fun with Hoichi: in his mind, there is only one reason why a man would sneak out at night; and he chuckles lewdly while trying to extract from Hoichi the details of his exploit. Tired and rather absent of mind, Hoichi replies quietly that he had business to attend to…
It is business not soon resolved, however. The visitor comes again the next night to collect Hoichi, emphasising the importance the musician saying nothing about his movements. And he comes again the next night, and the next… His nocturnal excursions have a severe impact upon Hoichi, noticed by the others: he has taken to sleeping most of the day, appearing at sunset; he is pale, ill-looking and clearly exhausted; yet he continues to deny that anything is wrong, and refrains from any hint as to his movements.
But while he may ignore the curiosity of Yasuku and Matsuzo, the priest’s questions are another matter. As Hoichi remains stubbornly silent, the priest explains gently that it is not a question of trust, rather one of the danger to which Hoichi exposes himself, wandering alone in the dark. Hoichi apologises for worrying the priest, and promises to take care of himself, but continues to evade the point.
And that night, despite torrential rain, thunder and lightning, Hoichi slips away again. This time he is spotted by Yasaku. He reports to the priest, who impatiently orders him and Matsuzo to follow Hoichi and bring him back. The two obey with the greatest reluctance—which only deepens when they find that Hoichi has left his sandals on the stone stairs leading up into the ancient cemetery in which the casualties of Dan-no-ura were interred…
It is only now that the viewer sees to whom Hoichi has been playing—an audience consisting of the young Emperor Antoku, his attendants and his samurai. But when Yasaku, Matsuzo and Donkai arrive, there is only Hoichi—playing and singing to the best of his ability, in the middle of a fog-enshrouded old cemetery, full of crumbling monuments to the dead…
In the face of the others’ testimony of his true whereabouts, Hoichi confesses everything to the priest, who sees that he is in grave danger. Having answered the call of the spirits and given himself freely into their service, Hoichi has put himself in their power. His new awareness of the nature of his summoners means that he is in imminent danger of his life; although, the priest insists, they would have destroyed him sooner or later. To break the connection and save Hoichi’s life, extreme measures are required. The priest orders Dankai to cover Hoichi’s entire body with sacred symbols. Then, when the spirit of the samurai comes again, he must sit motionless and silent, as if in meditation. If he neither moves nor speaks, the symbols will ensure that the spirit cannot find him.
Dankai and Hoichi obey the priest’s injunctions and, that night, the now-frightened musician waits alone for his ghostly visitor. When the spirit arrives, it is as the priest has said: with Hoichi still and silent, he cannot be located; not at first.
Alas! – in finishing his task, Dankai did not follow the priest’s instructions in sufficient detail: in covering Hoichi with the sacred symbols, he forgot about his ears…
Though the original advertising art for Kwaidan gave equal emphasis to its various stories, today it is the image of Hoichi’s face covered in painted symbols that is most often associated with this film—and with good reason: in a film full of striking visuals, this one has a peculiar power.
Though not made explicit within Hoichi The Earless, the symbols painted on Hoichi’s body are the text of the Heart Sutra, part of the much-larger Prajnaparamita (“Perfection of Wisdom”) Sutra, which deals with the vital Buddhist concept of emptiness. One particular incantation – Form is emptiness and emptiness is form. Form is not different from emptiness, and emptiness is not different from form – was believed to hold power over spirits by reminding them that they, too, are merely one aspect of the unreality of the world. This is the text inscribed upon Hoichi’s body.
The story upon which Hoichi The Earless was based is perhaps the most famous use of the Heart Sutra to ward off spirits, but as with most of the concepts contained within Kwaidan, it is one which recurs within Japanese folklore. There was even an earlier film iteration, in Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu, where a man, having discovered that he has married a ghost, has his body painted before confronting his unearthly wife. In that film, however, the symbols act rather as a crucifix does upon a vampire: the wife and her ghostly attendant are unable to touch or look upon the husband. He is not, as is Hoichi, rendered literally invisible to ghostly eyes.
Moreover, the symbols upon the husband’s body are only a minor aspect of Ugetsu; while in Kwaidan, they are among the most memorable of its many spectacular visuals.
In spite of the various supernatural manifestations in Kwaidan, and in spite too of the rendering of the Battle of Dan-no-ura at the beginning of the story, the climax of Hoichi The Earless contains the film’s only overt violence and bloodshed: a disturbing touch, in a film which makes most of its impact through inference and understatement. Yet the story’s conclusion finds Hoichi reconciled to his strange experiences. In their wake, his fame spreads even further; and he is constantly assailed by nobles wishing to be entertained by his talents. Hoichi never refuses such a request, but continues to recite and play his biwa—not for the earthly audience he cannot see, but to console the unhappy, restless spirits he knows surround him…
From the sadness of this coda, there is a disconcerting cut to a scene of girls playing in the streets of a village: a touch of ordinariness almost shocking in context. It takes some few moments for the viewer to get reoriented, and to realise that the narrator has emerged into the main action of the film. He is revealed as an author, a writer of strange tales. The setting, in the year 1900, and the suggestion that this author is setting down ancient tales, are clearly nods at Lafcadio Hearn. The author observes that many of the old tales exist only in fragmented form, with no ending as such. He wonders why this should be: was the original writer lazy, or did he quarrel with his publisher? Or was it simply that the work was interrupted, and never resumed; interrupted, perhaps, by death.
The author goes on to give an example of one such unfinished tale…
In A Cup Of Tea concerns Kannai, one of the guards of a nobleman, Lord Sado. One day Kannai breaks from formation, drawing disapproving looks from his fellows, to refresh himself with a cup of tea. But as he goes to drink, he sees within his cup the reflection of someone not himself…
It is the face of a much younger man, who smiles sneeringly at him. Disconcerted, Kannai glances around, changing his own stance and the angle of his cup; but he cannot find anyone or anything that could explain the reflection. On impulse, he empties his cup upon the ground. He then puts that cup aside, choosing another and pouring himself fresh tea.
And the reflection appears again. This time Kannai throws away not only the tea but the cup itself, which shatters. Defiantly, he then makes himself a third cup—and when the reflection appears again, even more defiantly he drinks his tea: reflection and all.
That night, Kannai is on guard duty within the residence of the Lord Sado. And as he begins his patrol, almost the first thing he sees is the covered cup of tea that has been left for him. He tries to ignore it, but it begins to obsess him. He knocks the cup to the floor—and immediately becomes aware of an intruder. It is the young man…
Stubbornly, Kannai denies that he recognises the intruder, instead demanding to know how he entered the house; but the young man dismisses this, instead insisting that the two of them have met before, and accusing Kannai of wounding him. At this, Kannai draws his sword and strikes at the intruder, calling out the rest of the guard at the same time. But by the time his fellows arrive there is no sign of an intruder, nor that someone has been injured; though Kannai is sure that his thrusts hit home. The other guards are unimpressed with Kannai’s claim that the intruder vanished through the wall…
The following night, an off-duty Kannai is trying to convince his sister – and himself – that he is not still worrying about the incident when a servant interrupts to say that three men have called to see him. Kannai instinctively takes his sword with him, and just as well: the three reveal that they are retainers of Kannai’s strange visitor who, they insist, was wounded the previous night. They warn Kannai that he will be back to repay the injury, once his wounds have healed. Kannai draws his sword and strikes at the three—but they prove every bit as elusive as their master.
The story breaks off suddenly, leaving Kannai, his sanity crumbling, laughing hysterically as the men he has just “killed” close in on him again…
We then return to the author’s room—but of the author himself there is no sign, though he continues to narrate. Shortly afterwards, the author’s publisher calls upon him, but cannot find him. He questions the author’s wife, who insists that her husband must be somewhere within; and, when they cannot find him, invites the publisher to wait. She then sets about making tea, while the publisher looks over the author’s work—including an unfinished story about a guard, who is plagued a reflection. Rather than provide an explanation himself, notes the author, he leaves it to the reader to think of an ending that will satisfy his imagination; to decide the likely consequence of “swallowing a soul”.
Suddenly, the author’s wife screams—hurling to the floor her teapot as she scrambles away from the cauldron of hot water in the middle of the room. The publisher advances cautiously, glancing down into the water—and then he, too, backs away in terror; hurling from him the author’s unfinished manuscript…
In A Cup Of Tea is by far the least substantial of Kwaidan’s four stories—as of course it was intended to be. Rather than being complete in itself, it acts as a meta-commentary upon the whole, tying back to those swirling inks at the beginning, and reminding us that this is just a movie, and that these are just stories. That said, it isn’t without a certain lingering effect: contemplating the swallowing of a soul may leave you just a little queasy…
Kwaidan in its entirety is a remarkable piece of film-making, as well as a brilliant translation to the screen of the strange, unnerving realm of the Japanese supernatural. Though its visuals sometimes overpower the narrative, each of the four stories, even the inconclusive final one, make an impact on the viewer; while together, they create a genuine sense of the uncanny.
Each of the stories, in its own way, deals with the intrusion into the world of reality of the ghostly realm that exists just out of the sight of man. But while the two may touch for a time, they cannot permanently meld; and the pervasive air of sadness that is Kwaidan’s dominant tone reflects the incomplete lives, the frustrated hopes, of its characters—alive and dead.
However, the film overall suggests that there is good reason why the two worlds must be kept apart. The first three stories each suggest that interaction with the world of spirits is deleterious to the living, whether the spirits mean it to be so or not. In both The Black Hair and The Woman Of The Snow, the spirits feed upon living: not of their flesh, or their blood, but their strength and energy. The returning samurai is aged instantaneously by contact with his long-dead wife; while the elderly woodcutter is literally consumed by the yuki-onna, though there is no mark left upon his body. Hoichi, too, is severely affected by his nightly visits to his ghostly audience, growing pale, ill and exhausted for reasons that have nothing to do with his lack of sleep. Rather, spirits of the dead are consuming the most vital part of him, his talent. The priest is undoubtedly right when he tells Hoichi that unless the connection is broken, it will kill him.
But neither is contact with the living a good thing for the spirits. Human frailty itself may be every bit as damaging. Both The Woman Of The Snow and Hoichi The Earless turn upon the making and breaking of a promise to a spirit; while in The Black Hair the samurai forgets his promise to care for and respect his second wife almost as soon as the words have passed his lips. It is, moreover, not deprivation that kills the samurai’s wife, but her husband’s betrayal.
But ultimately, Kwaidan can be summed up as a film about being haunted—a state which does not afflict the living alone. Nor does it require a supernatural presence.
Rather, there is a constant suggestion here that the past itself is a kind of supernatural realm, full of shadowy figures capable of influencing the present through the power of memory. Thus, in The Black Hair, the samurai’s ambitions, which seemed to mean everything, and the new life he builds to accomplish them, are ruined by the memory of his first wife and their life together; while Minokichi is able to find earthly happiness only by forgetting the past: once the memory of his encounter with the yuki-onna returns to him, his happiness is shattered.
In Hoichi The Earless, it is not Hoichi alone who is haunted. The ghosts themselves are transfixed by their own past, held from their rest by a compulsion to re-live, again and again, the last day of their earthly existence, the destruction of themselves and their clan. And even the incomplete In A Cup Of Tea holds intimations of this, glimpsed in the emphatic way in which the intruder and his retainers say their names to Kannai, and their insistence upon his recognition, his remembrance.
Perhaps, then, Kwaidan is not such an unlikely film for Kobayashi Masaki to make after all; it is merely a question of approach. The same themes are present here, in his stylised ghost stories, as in his gritty, realistic dramas. Both deal with the way in which the shadows of the past are thrown across the present; how they shape our lives, sometimes without our volition; how tenaciously they cling to us, in spite of our efforts to be free.
Want a second opinion of Kwaidan? Visit 1000 Misspent Hours – And Counting.