Kaidan | 1964 | Japan | Directed by Masaki Kobayashi

Logline: Four tales of the supernatural, jilted wife, wrathful woman, greedy warriors, mischievous Samurai, that tell of possession and confrontation.

The title translates as “ghost stories”; and the four tales combined clock in at nearly three hours; the first two are around forty minutes, the third is about seventy minutes, and the last tale is the shortest, at twenty-five minutes. The first three are based upon traditional Japanese folk tales, and the last was written specifically for the movie. Screenwriter Yoko Mizuki took the first three stories from the published works of Greek ex-pat Lafcadio Hearn, who moved to Japan in 1890, and so taken with the culture he changed his name to Koizumi Yakumo.


The film production company employed Kobayashi to helm the ambitious project partially because of the social commentary he invested in his movies. He had never made a fantasy picture, yet he completely immersed himself in the project, even painting much of the elaborate sets (which were constructed inside an unused aircraft hangar) single-handedly. The direction, as well as much of the production design, combined elements of Kabuki Theatre and traditional art. Rich in colour, often using tableaux for poetic effect, Kwaidan is a masterful mural of motion picture art that dabbles with surrealism and expressionism. 

The Black Hair (Kurokami) has a Samurai suddenly leaving his wife and re-marrying into a wealthier family. But his new wife is odd and cold, and he longs to return to his first love, despite having abandoned her. When he does, he discovers nothing’s changed, especially his ex-wife. Something strange is in the air. This is the freakiest of the four tales, and one can see the influence it has had on modern J-horror, especially Ring and The Grudge.

In The Woman of the Snow (Yuki-Onna), two woodcutters are caught in a blizzard and seeks shelter in a shack where they are visited by a chilly spectre who drains the lifeblood of one of the men. She makes the other promise never to tell a soul. Years later the man is married, and itching to tell his story, and so he spills the beans to his curious wife …

In Hoichi the Earless (Miminashi Hoichi no Hanashi) a blind servant with a gift for plucking strings is besieged by the ghosts from a battle 700 years earlier. The ghosts demand he entertain them with his melancholy ballads, but it comes with a cost. Priests attempt to protect him from their wrath with painted prayers all over his body, but they fail to cover his ears …

In a Cup of Tea (Chawan no Naka) a Lord visiting a temple sees the visage of a young man floating in his bowl, much to his bewitchment. Later that night the spirit appears again at the Lord’s home, but his presence is menacing, malevolent even.

These ghost stories are not that frightening, but they are drenched in atmosphere, soaked in an oneiric mood, and saturated in design. Executed with a sparseness of dialogue and a audio minimalism, yet still vivid, even studied. The score is as experimental as it is creepy. The overall tone is one of careful thought, reflection, ponder, and muse. Provocative without being ostentatious, these are nightmares for the quiet soul.

Kwaidan won the Special Jury Prize at Cannes. It is an acquired taste; very languid, very composed, very deliberate, but ultimately rewarding.