1964; directed by Masaki Kobayashi; adapted by Yoko Mizuki; 183 mins
Having long wanted to catch up with the work of Japanese director, Masaki Kobayashi, here I find myself first diving into the real outlier in his work. Kobayashi was best known for sombre political films which addressed issues of pacifism, conformity and rebellion. Here, we have a compendium of impenetrable ghostly parables from feudal Japan, occurring anywhere between a hundred to eight hundred years ago…
The Black Hair: An impoverished Samurai leaves his wife for a much wealthier woman. When that goes south, he returns to his true love but his poor past spousal treatment catches up to him…
The Woman of the Snow: Taking shelter in a storm, a weary woodcutter is cursed by a mysterious woman who threatens to kill him if he ever tells anyone of their meeting. Can he remain silent to the grave?
Hoichi the Earless: A young musician is chosen to perform his soulful recounting of a mighty battle for a ghostly emperor and his ancient army of the dead.
In a Cup of Tea: An author relates one of his many unfinished tales in which a samurai is haunted by a face appearing in… well, guess…
Hands down, I think this may be one of the best movies I’ve ever seen. From the opening credits, with their garish, multi-coloured inks swirling about the screen (a genius bit of mood-setting style) and stabs of Toru Takemitsu‘s incredible score, I was onboard. As a big, three-hour epic, it never forgets that it is a horror film and maintains a profound* eeriness which, coupled with the high emotion of each tale, hooks you by the gut early on and doesn’t let up.
The cast are across the board, brilliant. All of them give it a theatricality in keeping with the surroundings (alongside Akira Aomatsu and Yoshio Miyajima‘s astounding lighting and cinematography) giving Kobayashi’s vision an anchor of emotionality which stops the whole enterprise from feeling like a history lesson. They are in turn aided beautifully by Yoko Mizuki‘s wonderful screenplay, adapted from the book Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things by Greek/Irish Japan-o-phile, Lafcadio Hearn. It gives you a palpable sense of the characters as ordinary people caught in the ether, between this life and the next. Through sheer misfortune, they become prisoners of time itself – be it the fleetingness of life or the eternity of death – and the fact that they have little to no say over which world they must occupy.
It’s a film that makes no concessions to realism, most apparent in the gorgeous set design by Shigemasa Toda. The sets, in particular the skies painted in abstract strokes or dotted with all-seeing eyes, are not there to immerse you in an authentic setting but rather one of otherworldly tales and ancient deeds. To be believable as opposed to realistic. Plus, what special effects there are still hold up really well! Pre-CGI visuals alongside age-old techniques, both used seamlessly and to perfection to cap off a perfect film. Go see!
*I know, that word is so overused these days but it seemed appropriate enough to get away with it. Sorry for any offence caused.