I had a chance to watch a classical Japanese horror film: Kwaidan, (translated as ‘ghost story’; also available as Kaidan in some countries). It is not much heard of, but watching it is like going through a visually stunning experience; one of the few horror films that I will remember for a long time. Made in 1964, the first thing any viewer will notice is the production value, knowing the fact that it was made four decades ago. It was the most expensive film to come out of Japan during that time, and had been applauded at the Cannes film festival. I don’t remember how I learned that a film like this exists, but I feel lucky to have found it. First of all, it is not too scary if one expects something like The Exorcist or The Omen. What is good about this film is something that is missing in most of the horror films being made today – the emotions of being in the midst of something unexplainable, the understanding that ghosts (if at all they exist) are more sorrowful than fearful. There is hardly a drop of blood in the film, and there is no emphasis on the killings the ghosts perform (elements which if removed from most of the successful horror films will leave them naked and boring). But Kwaidan may feel too slow to the audiences who want a fast-paced thriller served with a lot of blood and gore.
The film is based on the book Kwaidan: stories and studies of strange things by Lafcadio Hearn. Director Masaki Kobayashi has selected four tales from this book for the film, all unrelated. It is one of the early examples of anthology films. All tales have a little twist in the end, but the twists are not extraordinary like in The Others or The Sixth Sense, but they are though-provoking nonetheless. In all of the four stories the audiences may easily guess the mystery, but that hardly matters because the film slowly and progressively, with minimal background score consisting only of plucking strings, lets you enter into the mood of the tales – you know from the beginning that something terrible is going to happen, but more than fear what holds you is anticipation, the tension the film builds slowly and steadily with dreamlike imagery. Had it not been for the slow pace, the film would have been just another stinker. The four stories featured are as follows:
1) The Black hair: a Samurai leaves his wife in search of wealth and fame, but after years of lamenting and being unhappy with a rich but loveless second wife he returns back to his old village. Everything in the village is ruined, even his house, but what confuses him is that his wife hasn’t aged.
2) The woman of the snow: a woodcutter travels snowy regions where he encounters a Yuki-Onna (mythical woman according to Japanese folklore who is drop-dead gorgeous, and is always in search of warm human blood). There is a truce between the two, which if broken can end the life of the woodcutter.
3) Hoichi the earless: a blind Biwa named Hoichi is famous for singing a song describing an ancient battle fought between two samurai clans and its sad result. But every night he goes out of the temple, and returns in the morning, becoming tired and pale day by day. One stormy night the priest orders two servants to follow him to find out where he goes, and what do they see? The Biwa performs in front of an audience every night in a cemetery, unaware that his audience consists of ghosts of warriors who died in the same battle that he describes. But why do they call him earless?
4) In a cup of tea: Every time a Samurai tries to drink tea from a cup, an image of a man’s face appears. There is no one standing behind him or on the roof. He changes position of his hand, moves around the house, but the image remains persistent, and constantly smiles at him. Then the frustrated Samurai drinks from the cup…
For an Indian like me who hardly knows anything about Japanese traditions and myths it was a good experience. There is good amount of emphasis on period details, especially the samurai customs. After watching the film, I had a vague idea in my mind: why doesn’t anyone make a similar film on Indian folktales? I am sure our ancient scriptures are full of interesting folklores – and I am not talking about making a Drona!