Read over lists of the greatest Japanese horror films, and you’re sure to encounter Kobayashi Masaki’s 1964 anthology classic Kwaidan. (怪談, Kaidan. The film’s English title is an archaic remnant of the romanization stylings of its source material.) Indeed, the movie often comes in near the top of such lists.
The word “J-horror” conjures up images of Sadako climbing out of her well or pale children click-clicking under futon blankets. As a result, the film in question may confound some modern viewers. The four stories contained in the massive 3-hour+ adaptation of Lafcadio Hearn’s folklore do contain ghosts, spirits, and otherworldly vengeance. However, the ethereal pacing and imagery of Kwaidan are more likely to entrance than to frighten.
Still, if this spookiest of seasons is inspiring you to take a venture down into the Japanese netherworld, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better entryway.
The Structure of Kwaidan
Kwaidan‘s four vignettes allow us to journey into the land of the uncanny. In The Black Hair, an impoverished samurai abandons his loving wife for a chance at a higher station in life; upon realizing just how much he’s lost in the bargain, he then learns to his horror that you can never really go home. Yuki-Onna tells the chilling tale of the legendary Snow Woman, alluring but deadly. Hoichi the Earless demonstrates the danger of entertaining the restless spirits of departed warriors. Lastly, In a Cup of Tea taunts the viewer with the unknowable and the threat of the unfinished in life (and in narrative).
Trepidatiously, let us examine the film that Roger Ebert once described as one of the most beautiful he’d seen in his life, and which Guillermo Del Toro said was “…one of the most perfect films, artistically, I’ve ever seen”.
Let’s talk about some ghost stories.
Four Tales of Fright
Kwaidan is a film that defies easy categorization. It’s horror, but it’s not scary; it’s a film by the most political director of Japan’s golden age of cinema, but does not appear to contain much social criticism. (At least on a superficial level – more on that later.) It’s more beautiful than grotesque. Even as an anthology, it’s strange, breaking the rule of three with its four segments and sporting a prodigious 3-hour runtime.
Indeed, even Kwaidan‘s choice of stories to adapt can be puzzling. The four stories are all from collections by the famed Lafcadio Hearn, who in the late 19th century did more to spread Japanese culture to the West than perhaps anyone else. Two stories, Yuki-Onna and Hoichi the Earless, come from his titular 1904 collection Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things; both of these are ubiquitous pieces of folklore so well-known that Japanese elementary students could recite them. The other two are more obscure tales collected in other Hearn books.
Stories of Ghostly Vengeance
At first brush, the four stories seem related to each other only in how they embody the literary and oral tradition of kaidan (怪談). Literally meaning “discussion so the uncanny,” Kaidan are essentially ghost stories. These types of tales rose to popularity in the early Edo period (1603-1867). The printing press and a highly literate population made circulating stories of the eerie and supernatural easier than ever.
The citizens of Edo thrilled to tales of the strange and the gruesome. Such stories often had deep folkloric and religious roots. But the moral lessons imparted by earlier versions of ghost stories gave way to a more voyeuristic enjoyment of the bizarre.
Ghostly vengeance played a recurring role in such stories. Indeed, vengeance is a theme that runs through the four tales in Kwaidan. Vengeance for abandonment, for promises broken, for battles lost, and for that which is harder to perceive.
Three Personal Visions
The four stories of Kwaidan are the visions of three notable creators. Each is deserving of their own articles; it’s worthwhile to briefly discuss each here.
Lafcadio Hearn (1850 – 1904)
The son of an Ionian mother and an Irish protestant father, Patrick Lafcadio Hearn was one of the most important figures in explicating and popularizing Japan abroad during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A colorful but difficult life of abandonment and constant wanderlust eventually led the prolific writer and journalist to Japan in 1890. There, the spiritually-seeking Hearn found the country of his dreams. Japan, which had only recently ended its long centuries of feudal samurai rule, held a sense of deep intrigue, quietude, and meaning that the author felt the modernized West lacked.
Lafcadio remained in Japan for the last 14 years of his life, marrying a Japanese woman and becoming a citizen. (In Japan, he is often known by his naturalized Japanese name, Koizumi Yakumo.) Although unable to read, write, or speak Japanese, Lafcadio nonetheless played a major role in collecting Japanese folklore. His voluminous writings on Japan became incredibly popular both abroad and in the country itself. All four chapters in Kwaidan are based on his versions of older Japanese stories.
Kobayashi Masaki (1916 –1996)
Born in Otaru, Hokkaido, Kobayashi Masaki became one of Japan’s most notable Golden Age film directors. A pacifist, Kobayashi originally intended on being a painter (much like his contemporary, Kurosawa Akira). After studying East Asian art and philosophy at Waseda University, Kobayashi found employment at Shochiku Studios in 1941. Only a year later, the young man was called up to the war effort. His exciting work as an assistant director had been stymied; instead, he would spend years in Manchuria and elsewhere with the army, a slave to the whims of the militarists he so despised. Taken prisoner in 1945, Kobayashi spent a year as a POW in Okinawa. His time in the military greatly shaped his perception of the world, and further solidified his hatred of imperialism and unjust hierarchies.
Kobayashi was finally able to return to film in 1946. Alas, the war had greatly delayed the timeline of his career. He was forced to spend six years as an apprentice before finally debuting as a full-fledged director.
Kobayashi’s films derive many of their themes from the director’s social ideals and ingrained hatred of militarism; his 9-hour epic, The Human Condition, portrays the brutality of the imperial army as few Japanese films have. He followed up that film with the internationally renowned Hara-Kiri (切腹, 1962), which lays bare the corruption and oppressive nature of the samurai system. Kwaidan followed up Hara-Kiri, becoming the second of a trilogy of period pieces.
Takemitsu Toru (1930 – 1996)
Kwaidan combines Hearn’s stories with Kobayashi’s visual flair and social commentary; the third ingredient that sets Kwaidan apart is its distinctive aural stylings. A film focused on the boundaries between our world and that of the supernatural, Kwaidan relies heavily on its sound design to create an atmosphere of the uncanny. For its success, we have Takemistu Toru to thank.
In film, we expect to hear synchronous sounds – visuals onscreen should be matched with the corresponding sounds they would make in real life. Takemitsu, a prominent figure in avant-garde music composition, gives us a very different aural environment for Kwaidan. Synchronous sound is mostly eschewed for long silences permeated by sudden, eerie creaks and cracks (produced by the snapping of bamboo and the breaking of ice). Music comes in the form of traditional Japanese instruments, like the shakuhachi flute and stringed biwa, but even these are made to sound unnatural. Electronic manipulation of the chanting of sutras is just one among many techniques Takemitsu uses to set the film in a historical Japanese environment while producing a sense of unease. Most distinct of all, however, are his silences; the ma, the space between.
Takemitsu’s first major film score was for Kobayashi’s Hara-Kiri; that film, too, makes memorable use of sound. Takemitsu would go on to score over 90 films and gain international acclaim, and Kwaidan is all the more unique as a film thanks to his aural stylings.
Producing the Uknown
The breakout success of Hara-Kiri granted Kobayashi great purchase in the Japanese film industry. For his next film, he chose to dive more deeply into Japanese folklore and spirituality. He received the largest budget he would ever wield for a film’s production. Even so, it wouldn’t be enough.
Kobayashi’s vision would require a massive undertaking; not only in sheer effort but also in terms of physical space. The soundstages in Japan at the time were nowhere near large enough for the sets he envisioned for his disparate tales of feudal-era horror. Instead, an old military airplane hanger in Uji, Kyoto, was seconded for the film’s purposes. (Kobayashi, so staunchly against the militarism of the wartime years he’d lived through, must have perceived the irony in this.) The majority of the film’s budget went into creating extensive practical sets within the hanger’s vast 1,100 yards long, 88 yards wide interior.
The Color of Dread
Incredibly, Kwaidan was to be Kobayashi’s first color film. Only two years earlier, he’d released his seminal samurai social commentary Hara-Kiri (切腹) in black and white. Two years after Kwaidan, he’d again be working in monochrome, with 1967’s Samurai Rebellion. As his first time workingin color, Kwaidan could easily have gone the way of Kurosawa’s intitial color film, Dodes’ka-den. (A film that Kobayashi would help fund.) Both Kobayashi and Kurosawa were painters in a pre-directoral life, and both directors employ painterly backgrounds that invoke the surreal in their debut color films. Neither Kwaidan nor Dodes’ka-den are made to look realistic; that we’re aware we’re watching a film designed by human artists is the point. But where Kurosawa only occasionally succeeds with the often garish art design of Dodes’ka-den, Kobayashi’s film takes to color like few films before or since.
It’s thus remarkable how the color used in Kwaidan is perhaps some of the most beautiful in film. Blood red skies; swirling white snow; ghostly blue pillars in a ruined palace; greens and browns of decay. Each of the four vignettes has its own color scheme, thoughtfully chosen by Kobayashi and his team as the starting point of each production. The film is a sight to behold.
Beyond Mere Campfire Tales
In fact, “sight” is a major reason why this film is elevated beyond its source material. The other reason is “sound.” In Hearn’s original writings, all four stories are brief, campfire-ghost-story-like affairs. Kobayashi’s meaningful direction, Miyajima Yoshio’s incredible cinematography, and Takemistu’s sound design bring these stories to life as the page hardly could. Also notable is the screenplay by prolific screenwriter Mizuki Yoko. Although spare in dialogue and narration, the version of these four stories greatly expands upon the original Hearn text in ways that deepen the experience considerably.
Single sentences in Hearn’s work become lavish, irrepressibly beautiful set pieces. Take for example this line from Yuki-Onna: “Mosaku and Minokichi were on their way home one very cold evening when a great snow storm overtook them.” In the film, this becomes an eerily lit blizzard, our characters trudging through snowdrifts, watched all the while by unnoticed, supernatural eyes peering out from every corner. A “very cold evening” is now the very embodiment of the inhospitable ravages of winter, and of the supernatural chill brought on by the presence of the Snow Woman. (Or is it she whom the storm brings?)
Hoichi the Earless
Kobayashi greatly expanded all four stories in his film versions. Hoichi the Earless is perhaps the greatest example; in the original, we are told in the span of two sentences that there was a great naval battle at Dan-no-ura in the straights of Shimonoseki some 700 years ago. Here, the Heike clan met its fate, smashed by the military might of their rivals, the Genji clan. Defeated, the Heike women lept from their boats to watery graves rather than be captured; the young emperor Antoku is also among those who died in this fashion. Unlike in Hearn’s telling, this battle is shown in grand and terrible detail in one of the film’s most indelible scenes, switching from beautifully choreographed violence to close-ups of a period scroll depicting the famed, climactic clash.
This third tale is undoubtedly the film’s centerpiece; while the first two are also strong (especially Yuki-Onna), it is Hoichi the Earless which is the most unforgettable. The original tale is extremely well known in Japan, and for good reason; the film adaptation, however, expands on it in a way that makes the story seem made for a visual medium.
Making the Imagined Seen
The titular Hoichi is a blind biwa player who lives at a temple near the straights of Shimonoseki; the biwa, a stringed instrument, was long believed to produce music that could reach the ears of the dead. In the written story, Hoichi is commanded by a strange warrior to perform the epic of Dan-no-ura for an unseen group of the highborn. Blind as he is, Hoichi is perceptively able to recognize the noble nature of those he is playing for based on their dialect and mode of speaking; he is unaware, however, that his audience are the restless souls of the Heike court who perished in the ancient battle.
In the written story, the twist is derived from Hoichi’s inability to see his surroundings – thus meaning the reader does not see these ghosts, either. In film, however, all can be shown. If the on-screen battle was an incredible filmic sight, then the ruined palaces of the tormented dead are almost sublime. Shimmering, shattered blue pillars reach towards a bright, empty sky. Ghostly warriors and nobles sit on raised platforms in the stillness of death. Beneath the sculpted wooden walkways, mists float over mysterious waters, recalling the underwater tombs of the deceased of Dan-no-ura.
(Mass amounts of dry ice were employed to create this mist effect. Kobayashi would later cheekily remark, “I wonder if I’m the only director to receive a year-end gift from a dry ice vendor.”)
The entire segment has to be seen to be believed. It’s not scary – little of the film is – but it is remarkably otherwordly.
A Feast for the Eyes… and Mind?
So remarkable are the visuals that even the oddest of the stories, In a Cup of Tea, is filled with images that stay with the viewer. A beguiling samurai smiles from within the liquid of a tea cup; an apparition appears next to a solitary Japanese-style clock, ticking out time in a room unmoored from everyday reality.
But despite the seemingly straightforward ghost-story nature of the four plots, something deeper lies beneath. Viewers often remark on the lack of apparent social commentary in Kwaidan – but a more detailed reading of Kobayashi’s choice of stories reveals something more. The Black Hair is about the emptyness of social climbing. For celebrated film studies professor Stephen Prince, the all-seeing eyes hidden in the skies of Yuki-Onna represent the survielence state of wartime Japan. (Prince goes even further, suggesting that the Snow Woman herself represents the false future and sudden evaporation of the promises of Japanese militarism.) Geoffrey O’brien has discussed how Hoichi the Earless deals with historical injustices and suffering brought painfully and ruinously back to life; Prince sees Kobayashi’s version of the story as emblematic of the violence and coercion the upper class wields callously against those lower on the societal ladder.
Kobayashi could have chosen any of the dozens of ghost stories Hearn recorded. That he selected these four seems to say something (even if the final segment is purposefuly more obtuse). Such examination allows Kwaidan to be more than just ghost stories, and more than simply a great-looking film.
Beguilling World of the Uknown
When it released in the US (in a highly truncated 2-hour form), Kwaidan was a major critical success. The film further cemented Kobayashi’s reputation, even earning an Academy Award nomination. At Cannes, Kwaidan won the Special Jury Prize. In its home country of Japan, screenwriter Mizuki Yoko won the Kinema Junpo award for Best Screenplay for her work on the film.
Despite the critical acclaim, Kwaidan was not a financial success. Production had been terribly expensive, with the budget running out long before filming ended. Kobayashi was forced to borrow millions of yen from friends and sell his house just to complete the movie on his own terms. He was never again given a budget on the same scale. Although Kobayashi made many more films, their productions would be compromised in ways Kwaidan had not been. In this sense, Prince sees In a Tea Cup as oddly prophetic; the author would indeed be unable to fully finish his own stories.
All four stories in Kwaidan reflect the dangers of stepping into the unknown; of venturing where mankind is not tolerated to tread. With Kwaidan, Kobayashi created a movie of a scale and atmosphere that few would be able to attempt again – himself included. In its singular nature, the film is as uncanny – and as intruiging – as the world of spirits it aims to display. For that, it is a must watch for fans of the otherworldly – and of Japanese film.
In the US, Kwaidan is available on home media from the Criterion Collection and on their streaming service, Criterion Channel.
What to Read Next
 The 13 Best Japanese Horror Films. Tofugu
 Guillermo Del Toro talking about Kwaidan by Lafcadio Hearn. YouTube
Hearn, L. (1904). Kwaidan: Stories and studies of strange things. Public Domain.
Prince, S. (2015.) KWAIDAN Commentary. Kwaidan blu-ray, Criterion Collection.
O’Brien, G. (2015.) Kwaidan: No Way Out. Current. Retrieved from https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/3756-kwaidan-no-way-out.