Who directed it? 

Masaki Kobayashi (1916-96), best known for two masterful jidaigeki he made either side of this film, Harakiri (1962) and Samurai Rebellion (1967). He was also the auteur behind the mammoth three-part antiwar saga The Human Condition (1959-61), whose almost 10-hour running time makes it one of cinema’s most imposing achievements.

What does the title mean? 

Kwaidan or kaidan (the word translates into English roughly as ‘strange or mysterious tales’) are Japanese horror stories in a period setting, and which almost always involve ghosts or demonic forces. Four such stories are told here.

Would I recognise anyone in it? 

The cast of Kwaidan varies across its four parts, but it’s Tatsuya Nakadai who should be most familiar to aficionados of Japanese cinema. Nakadai, a regular player in his long career for Mikio Naruse, Kon Ichikawa and Kurosawa (he was Sanjuro’s chest-bursting villain and played Lord Ichimonji under heavy make-up in Ran), makes his seventh of 11 appearances for Kobayashi with Kwaidan. He appears in the film’s second segment, The Woman of the Snow, as a woodcutter whose youthful beauty convinces a malevolent spirit to spare his life during a deadly snowstorm.

Kwaidan (1964)

Where did the idea come from? 

Though all four stories are ostensibly based on classic Japanese folk tales, Kobayashi and screenwriter Yoko Mizuki were specifically inspired by those featured in the work of Greek-Anglo-Irish writer Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904). Hearn lived an itinerant life before, aged 40, he finally settled in Japan, where he became a naturalised citizen and wrote collections of local ghost stories, including 1904’s Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things.

Just how scary is it?  

Gorehounds and fans of a short, sharp jump-scares might disagree, but pretty damn scary. Unfolding across three hours, Kwaidan is a slow-burn chiller, suffused with the kind of quietly rising dread that Kobayashi did so well. This is unsettling, uncanny horror, in which each individual tale leisurely builds to a macabre punchline.

What sets it apart from other horror films?  

In a word, money. Kwaidan was the most expensive Japanese film ever made up to that time, and it shows: along with art director Shigemasa Toda, set designer Dai Arakawa and cinematographer Yoshio Miyajima, Kobayashi creates a vast expressionistic fairytale world unlike any other seen in cinema. Shot almost entirely on giant sets built inside an airplane hangar, the style of Kwaidan is deliberately, strikingly artificial – here, huge eyes gaze out of painted winter skies, upon manmade lakes and snow-dusted forests of symmetrically planted trees. Roger Ebert for one was fond of Kwaidan’s big-budget majesty; he called it “among the most beautiful films I’ve seen”.

Is there one segment that stands out from the rest? 

Unusually for an anthology film, there’s no real weak link out of Kwaidan’s four stories, though part three, ‘Hoichi the Earless’, might deserve singling out as the best. The longest of the film’s segments, it tells of a blind musician who’s lured into playing an epic song for a royal court of ghouls, and opens with a recreation of the 1185 Battle of Dan-no-ura – a historic naval battle that ended with the death of the six-year-old Emperor Antoku – done like a lavish theatre production.

Kwaidan (1964)

Is there a message?  

These are folk tales, so there’s a moral component to each story, even if Kobayashi’s primary aim is to shock. In the world of Kwaidan, spirits mete out appropriate justice for the living: tattletales pay the price for loose tongues; the foolish are made to suffer; selfish men are punished. If there’s an overarching theme, it’s that the spirit world is almost totally indifferent to the despair of humankind.

Were all horror movies like this at the time?  

Hardly, though anthology films were certainly more in vogue in the 1960s than they are now. Other notable omnibus horrors from the decade include Roger Corman’s Tales of Terror (1962), Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath (1963), Freddie Francis’s Dr Terror’s House of Horrors (1965) and Spirits of the Dead (1968), the last of which is comprised of three spooky segments directed by Roger Vadim, Louis Malle and Federico Fellini.

What should I watch next?  

Other notable examples of kaidan from this golden period of Japanese cinema include Ugetsu Monogatari (1953), Onibaba (1964) and Kuroneko (1968). You can probably also count Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (1957), which transposes Shakespeare’s phantasmagorical Macbeth to feudal Japan, replacing its hallucinations and ‘weird sisters’ with terrifying Noh theatre-inspired apparitions.

Originally published: 19 August 2020