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Criterion Files #90: Kwaidan

By  · Published on June 23rd, 2010

The horror genre is rarely spoken of synonymously with the more distinctively artistic genres when it comes to significance to the film medium. For the most part, it’s historically been a genre of profit. People like being scared and are, seemingly by nature, intrigued by the unknown or the possibilities of the supernatural and will consistently pay money to experience it regardless of any artistic contributions, or lack thereof. So, often at most good horror films are thought of as ‘just’ very good horror films. However, in those rare instances where a horror film is spoken of in accordance with other films that have an extensive degree of artistic achievement we’re more inclined to distinguish them as good, or great films that just happen to have a horror pedigree; and such is the case with Masaki Kobayashi’s 1965 Academy Award-nominated horror anthology Kwaidan.

Place in history and keeping it there

The film, translated into English as Ghost Stories, is an adaptation of a collection of short stories from the novel of the same name, written by Lafcadio Hearn near the turn of the 20th century. The stories are a combination of original ideas created by Hearn along with narratives of Japanese folklore and urban legends. Part of the film’s accomplishment to delineate itself from typical horror fare is the fact that the stories were not updated to take place in the modern day and is thus a period piece, or collection of period pieces. It could be attributed to the plotlines being tied almost directly to the time in which they were written for in the novel, however the situations of each are seemingly timeless at their core; one of the stories was even re-adapted and modernized here in The States in the 1990 horror anthology Tales from the Darkside. As such we’d have to almost believe that the film was deliberately placed in the 19th century. It could have been a strictly monetary decision, however there’s no denying that a decent amount of the film’s effectiveness and atmosphere is attributed to its setting; and atmosphere is something that the Japanese seem to have a very fond appreciation for when it comes to their depictions of the paranormal.

Horror films as we experience(ed) them here in the West were mostly relegated and created to exist for the drive-in audiences, though it was beginning to break out of that mold around this time during the 1960s, starting most famously with Hitchcock’s Psycho and more in line with the subject matter of Kwaidan was Robert Wise’s The Haunting. They thrived on creating that display of threat followed by an immediate and stark release. It’s a technique we still love to use to this day as it makes for very entertaining and successful date nights. The Easterners, though, had a very different approach and appreciation for the ethereal. The existence of ghosts, spirits, demons and other figures appears to have a deeper connection with the Japanese and one they don’t treat lightly. It’s prevalent in their inclusion and treatment of that specific material in such 1950s world classics as Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu (a focal point of the narrative) and Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, as well as the works of the modern-day master animator Hayao Miyazaki who often presents the spirit world as complementary to our own reality.

In the films of Miyazaki and Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu the existence of spirits tie-in strongly to the direction of their respective stories, however in the case of Rashomon the inclusion of a spirit’s (false) account of an incident comes almost out of left field considering the rest of the film has absolutely nothing to do with the supernatural. It would appear to require a significant amount of suspension of disbelief (an American film would have a difficult time getting away with this), but to the characters within the film the account is completely plausible and accepted and it’s probably because of the cultural ideology on the existence of a co-existing afterlife.

This belief seeps through each scene of Kwaidan and adds to its effective ability to haunt you. It takes its content seriously and presents each story in a way intended to feel dread throughout and linger afterward. The photography is as gorgeous as one would find in Kobayashi’s other masterworks, such as his prior masterpiece Seppuku, and the camera moves and zooms meticulously to mimic the slow build of each story’s reveal.

Achievement despite the framework

As for the stories themselves and the format in which they’re presented you’d be hard-pressed to find a an anthology in the horror genre that hasn’t a single weak-link, but also one in which the stories are entirely segregated from one another yet feel as connected in, for lack of a better word, spirit. Each story is as isolated from the next as can be in terms of plot, character and conflict but all feel like brethren as if they belong as pieces of a more powerful whole. When presented individually they’re strong episodes, but when displayed in succession they’re almost as reliant on one another for full effect as the multiple accounts of the same incident are in Kurosawa’s Rashomon; like hearing the end to a story, but wanting to know more about the world surrounding it.

Few horror films ever reach the platitudes of acceptance by the aficionados as those reached by Kwaidan and aside from possibly a select few of the Amicus Productions films of the 1960s and 1970s and Dead of Night even fewer horror anthologies. Though, none of which were ever recognized by the AMPAS as one of the best films in the world for the year in which it was released like Kwaidan was. Not that the AMPAS is always the best gauge for identifying films of artistic merit, but in the case of the horror genre it should be considered the additional hurdles a film of this kind must clear in order to be taken seriously – as something more than just a means to get a girl to snuggle tighter. Believing in the possibility of the stories for which you’re telling, or in their truth can only help.

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