Kwaidan gives us four Japanese ghost stories directed by Masaki (Samurai Rebellion) Kobayashi. Like most anthology horror movies, it is fairly uneven and at almost three hours, it runs on way too long. It still has enough moments of pure creepiness for me to give it a halfhearted recommendation.
The Black Hair (** ½) Tired of poverty, a samurai accepts a lord’s offer to marry his ugly daughter; even though it means that he’ll have to divorce his wife. Although the marriage gives him wealth and good standing in the community, he nevertheless pines for his ex. He eventually goes back to his first wife with deadly results.
The Black Hair is a slow-going affair that features very little dialogue and relies too much on the narrator to tell us what’s going on. The deliberate pacing is partially compensated for by some inspired camerawork though. While the twist ending is OK, it’s a bit one-note to really pack a punch. It’s also a bit disappointing given the story’s meticulous build-up.
The Woman of the Snow (***) Two woodcutters walking in a snowstorm take refuge in an abandoned shack. During the night, a pale-faced banshee kills one of the guys but spares the other dude’s life on the condition that he never tells anyone about her. He later winds up meeting a cute chick and they get married and have a family. Then he makes the unfortunate mistake about telling her about the banshee.
This story has the benefit of some effective imagery (Love those eyes in the sky!) and an overall creepy atmosphere. Too bad the ending is more than just a little predictable. Despite that, along with being a bit too similar to the previous story (a man wrongs a woman with tragic consequences), I still liked it quite a bit. This segment was later more or less remade as the gargoyle story in the Tales from the Darkside Movie.
Hoichi the Earless (***) A blind balladeer named Hoichi specializes in songs of war. One night he is visited by a ghost of a soldier who leads him to a cemetery where his dead brothers-in-arms demand to hear him sing about the battle they died in. Hoichi’s friends get worried that he spends all of his nights in a graveyard singing to ghosts so they hire a priest to paint magic spells all over his body to keep the spirits away. Unfortunately, the priest forgets to paint Hoichi’s ears and the ghosts rip them off.
Hoichi the Earless is the best story of the lot and is rife with stylish (almost theatrical) touches. The battle sequences are colorful and the scenes inside the graveyard are appropriately eerie. That said, it runs a bit long and has a few too many sluggish passages in between the cool stuff. The ending is still pretty tight though.
In a Cup of Tea (**) A guy reads an unfinished story about a feudal lord that is haunted by a face he sees in every cup of water he tries to drink. When he finally says “Fuck it” and drinks the water, the ghost comes out of the cup and messes with him. The story ends abruptly but then the guy reading it starts seeing faces in his water too.
The narrator tells us in the beginning of this story that some tales are left unfinished for one reason or another. Kobayashi should’ve kept this story unfinished and left it on the cutting room floor. While the concept of the face-in-the-water is sound, the decided lack of a decent ending winds up derailing this tale.
Kwaidan is a bit of a mixed bag. The film features some impeccable costumes and impressive sets and I admired the craftsmanship it took for Kobayashi to capture his vision on screen. However, this flick could’ve really benefited from some tighter editing (especially the first and third segments). If you don’t mind the staggering length, Kwaidan should still fit the bill for anyone who likes a good ghost story.
AKA: Kaidan. AKA: Ghost Stories. AKA: Hoichi the Earless. AKA: Weird Tales.