Kwaidan (1965, Masaki Kobayashi)

It’s been a pretty outstanding SHOCKtober over here. I did well to avoid the usual direct-to-video garbage of the last few years and watch stuff I’d actually heard would be good. So I figured I was due for a disappointment when I popped in Kwaidan, another period Japanese piece where everybody moves too slowly – another Ugetsu, in other words. But though it’s definitely true that everyone moves too slowly (and the more rich and upper-class, the slower they move) it’s an awesome looking movie, and even the stories I liked less were a pleasure to watch. I don’t know much about Kobayashi, but easily figured out that he had a background in painting. Watched the full-length version from Masters of Cinema.

1. The Black Hair
Rentaro Mikuni (The Burmese Harp, Vengeance Is Mine, Teshigahara’s Rikyu) is a samurai who has fallen on hard times. He has a good wife, Michiyo Aratama (Sword of Doom, The Human Condition, Ozu’s The End of Summer) but he “could not understand the value of love,” tells his wife “for men, advancement is the most important” and walks out on her, moves away and marries the daughter (Misako Watanabe of Youth of the Beast) of a rich man. But he finds himself unhappy, misses his first wife, so one day he throws it all away and returns to her, finding his property decrepit and run down, but her still sewing quietly in a corner. Or is she? After he pledges he’ll stay with her forever, she’s revealed to be a ghost. He ages about fifty years in the span of a minute, in a pretty awesome scene, then falls to the ground.

2. The Woman of the Snow
This one has the most remarkable images, which is good since I already know the story, first from Tales from the Darkside: The Movie but it also has similarities to The Crane Wife tale. A woodcutter (Tatsuya Nakadai, star of The Human Condition and The Face of Another, played the old king in Ran) is caught in a storm with an older man and witnesses a sort of Jack Frost woman freezing the man to death. She lets him live if he promises to never tell what he’s seen. Soon after, he meets a girl (Keiko Kishi of Early Spring, Sydney Pollack’s The Yakuza), falls in love, gets married, has kids, and one day laughingly tells her about that day in the snow, at which point his wife turns back into the snow demon and leaves him, saying if their children ever have reason to complain about his parenting she will return and kill him. The sky is a series of colorfully painted backdrops, often with an eye in the middle, always watching the woodcutter.

3. Hoichi, The Earless
I assumed for a while that the subtitles had missed a letter in “Fearless,” but no. This was the longest and best story. Set in a monastery near the site of an ancient sea battle, with head priest Takashi Shimura (the older detective in Stray Dog and star of Ikiru) and blind errand boy Hoichi (Katsuo Nakamura of Demons, Sad Vacation). Ghosts of the defeated army appear at a shrine and send a warrior to fetch Hoichi to sing them the story of the sea battle. He secretly performs for them all week, until the priest finds out, and tells him he’s in great danger. The priests write scripture across Hoichi’s skin – but miss his ears. The warrior comes and can’t find the singer, “I will take these ears to my lord to prove his commands have been obeyed.” The ghosts leave, and from then on, people come from all over and pay to hear the famed Hoichi the Earless play his music.

4. In a Cup of Tea
Kan’emon Nakamura (Mizoguchi’s 47 Ronin and Miyamoto Musashi) is a very serious warrior, a guard I think. He sees another man’s smiling reflection in a cup of tea, but drinks it anyway. The ghost (Noboru Nakaya, husband of the Woman in the dunes) appears “in person” with his retainers, challenging the warrior, who finds he cannot fight them since they can disappear at will. But all this is a story being written by an author (Osamu Takizawa of Fires on the Plain) who goes missing until his reflection is seen inside a pot of water – the weirdest of the four stories, and a good one to end on. Kobayashi made 20-some other movies, all of which I must see immediately.