Kwaidan Movie Review: A Kaleidoscope Of Otherworldly Visions | CoolJapan

Adapted from classic ghost stories written in the early 19th century by Lafcadio Hearn (also known as Koizumi Yakumo), the anthology film Kwaidan features four of the author’s best-loved Japanese supernatural folk tales.

Photographed entirely on breathtaking hand-painted sets, the film is a ravishing feast of hair-raising spectacles.  Japanese cinematographer Yoshio Miyajima's magnificent cinematography was matched by a superb sound design that's unexpectedly way ahead of its time.  In Black Hair, when the protagonist, a samurai who has deserted his loyal wife who is a weaver for the daughter of a family with better means reminiscences about his love, the screen shows only his withered face and the sounds of a loom weaving.

The two photos above are an example of the daring juxtaposition of wide shots and extreme close-ups in the film, that echoes its themes of hate and love, life and death.

During most of the film, an absolute silence shrouds the scenes in a disquieting air that leaves you both enraptured and vulnerable. Compared to the movies today where every scene carries a musical prompt to tell you what to feel, Kwaidan has barely any.  And yet, that is how it keeps you on its toes, from story to story, ghost to ghost, in its airtight bubble.

Winner of the Special Jury Prize at Cannes in 1965, Kwaidan is a true visual extravaganza.  Its much-welcomed starkness in script and brevity in dialogue reminds one of Japanese haiku, traditionally a three-line poem with seventeen syllables which emphasises simplicity, intensity, and directness of expression.  What it lacks in dialogue is compensated by sumptuous sets that are dense in metaphors that speak of the best and worst of humanity.

These hand-painted sets were so lavish that only hangars were large enough to hold them.

Its themes of revenge, feudal strife and loyalty to the family name with a supernatural context also reminds one of Liaozhai Zhiyi or Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio, a collection of Classical Chinese stories by Pu Songling, comprising close to five hundred ghostly tales dating back to the Qing dynasty.  Still hugely popular presently, its short story format and themes of love and revenge still permeate much of Asian film today.

Deathly secrets surround the characters in "Snow Woman".

Just as when it was first released, this film remains fresh, astonishing and profound as ever. A quiet, engaging study of what human nature is capable of when pushed to fight for survival. Indeed, its themes are still relevant today as it is centuries ago.