I like ghost stories, particularly fantasy ghost stories. In case you didn’t know, “fantasy ghost stories” is code for ones that aren’t actually scary. Don’t judge me.
Anyway, if you do a keyword search using the word “ghost” on IMDB, you get 3988 results. Add a genre filter to narrow by “fantasy,” and the list narrows to 864. Sort the list ascending by year and entry number 98 is Kwaidan, the film I watched tonight.
“Kwaidan” is an archaic spelling of “kaidan,” which translates into English as “ghost stories.” This particular assemblage brings together four tales: “Black Hair,” the story of a impoverished samurai who abandons his wife to seek his fortunes elsewhere; “The Woman of the Snow,” the story of a woodsman’s encounter with a Yuki-onna; “Hoichi the Earless,” which reveals how the titular character came by his unusual nickname; and “In a Cup of Tea,” a story within a story about a writer and the samurai who is the subject of his as yet unfinished tale.
These four stories are only slightly more frightening than the scariest episodes of Scooby Doo, and they’re not particularly complex either. Nevertheless, they are interesting as examples of Japanese ghost stories in general and of the the work of Kobayashi in particular. Visually stunning, the works are highly poetic, and Kobayahsi uses sets, color, and economy to great effect. The backgrounds in “The Woman of the Snow,” for example, look more like expressionist paintings taken from a stage production than anything you’d normally see in a movie, yet somehow they fit the vibe and are never distracting. And in “Hoichi the Earless, Kobayashi successfully evokes the intensity of the battle of Dan-no-ura simply through the use of repeated close-ups of a painting depicting the event. The repetition of scenes from the painting reinforce themes in much the same way as repeated motifs in a soundtrack.
So far as being ghost stories goes, the ghosts in Kwaidan are not so much haunting or competing with the living as they are simply coexisting. Much like the enchantress in Ugetsu, these ghosts have their own goals and interact with the living only inadvertently when chance encounters put them in each other’s paths. There is desire, longing, ambition, and conflict, yes, but by and large, there is no malevolence. They aren’t relentlessly out to get you the way they typically are in American films.
BLUF: If you’re looking for jump scares, move along, but if a side of art house along with your ghost stories sounds intriguing, then this may just be your cup of tea.