Kwaidan is comprised of four Japanese ghost stories, each inspired by one of the stories in Lafcadio Hearn’s 1904 anthology, Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things. At the time of filming, Kobayashi’s Kwaidan was the most expensive Japanese film ever produced. Its high cost of production is up on the screen. As the film plays you see in vibrant technicolor the massive sets that were built in an airplane hanger. Kobayashi also does not let the large scale of his design substitute for attention to small details. A camera will never capture every small detail of its object, and in the case of Kwaidan, no better capture of the mise-en-scène would have made the audience believe they were watching anything other than something artificial–impossible because the horizon is always an unnatural color or matte painting. But Kobayashi surely spent money to assure that even the little pieces of his cinematic imagination felt like our most vivid dreams.
Take, for example, the second story, “The Woman of the Snow”. Much of the story takes place in a forest in wintertime. Access to an airplane hanger allowed for long shots to frame hills, a small lake, and two characters wandering in a snow storm. Unblinking eyes float on the painted horizon, and for this fantasy to seem real, the reeds around the lake and the snow that blew in the (indoor) wind were as realistic as they could be. (I would guess that in some corners of the set the fake snow must have accumulated to become snow drifts several feet deep.)
Kwaidan is often presented as Kobayashi’s respite from moral issues. Compared to the subject-matter of The Human Condition (which I have yet to see) and in terms of plot, Kwaidan is hardly asking moral questions. Yet at least two of the four stories–the first two–show individuals with the freedom to decide on outcome, but while also believing they will not suffer negative consequences from selfish decisions. The samurai in the “The Black Hair” leaves his first wife to marry another woman for higher social status. After attaining wealth and social privilege, he grows unhappy and fantasizes about walking through the gate and hallway of his old home, to see his first wife contentedly weaving with her spinning wheel. His arrogance is that he dreams his abandonment did no damage whatsoever.
“The Woman of the Snow” is a pure example of someone ignoring a clear truth. In the setting of a character actually experiencing a ghost sparing him and killing his friend, the truth of the ghost’s demand to never speak of this event is real as a law of nature. Thus, when years pass and the man tells his wife about the woman of the snow, who is played by the same actress that plays the wife, the return of the ghost feels almost deserved justice. She did say should would kill him if he said anything, so what did he expect?
The third story is called “Hoichi the Earless”. Hoichi plays the biwa and one night his playing attracts the attention of a spirit. This spirit is a samurai and brings Hoichi to a square to sing for a dead Emperor and his retinue. The spirits request Hoichi to sing about a 12th-century battle, named the Battle of Dan-no-ura. This recounting of the ancient battle is beautifully composed with a rotation of three shots: the Emperor and other ghosts sitting absolutely still as they listen to Hoichi; a slow pan over a Japanese drawing of the battle; and, warriors in dozens of boats that rock in the waves of red-colored water (the blood of those who died and fell overboard?). While the title of the story describes the injury Hoichi suffers from a mistake the priests make in trying to protect Hoichi from further visits from the biwa-loving spirit, the story is just as much about the tragedy of fading memory in history. The frozen faces in the audience of ghosts shows how distant everyone is from understanding the reasons for the ancient clans to kill each other in battle.
“In a Cup of Tea” is the last story in a film that is over three hours long. Sitting through to the very end takes a little patience. The fourth story is not of lesser quality than the other three, but the experience of it could feel unnecessary. By the end of the third story, Kobayashi has fed the viewer dozens of stunning visuals by having actors slow or stop their movement in long or medium shot. We get more artistic beauty from “In a Cup of Tea”–in this case from faces floating in water and from a swordsman fighting a ghost in his lord’s compound–but the anthology style of Kwaidan can let one feel little guilt for stopping early.