Friday, April 17, 2015

Kwaidan (1964)

Kaidan, Japan, 161 minutes
Director: Masaki Kobayashi
Writers: Yoko Mizuki, Lafcadio Hearn
Photography: Yoshio Miyajima
Music: Toru Takemitsu
Editor: Hisashi Sagara
Cast: Rentaro Mikuni, Michiyo Aratama, Tatsuya Nakadai, Keiko Kishi, Katsuo Nakamura, Osamu Takizawa, Ganjiro Nakamura, Noboru Nakaya

Kwaidan was released very late in 1964 (December 29, thus barely skating in on the criteria of my ongoing Movie of the Year project) and went on to make something of a splash in art film circles, winning a Jury Prize award at the Cannes film festival the following spring and also getting an Oscar nomination in 1965 for Best Foreign Language Film. The way it proceeds, and the timing of its release—coming at about the time that Rod Serling's Twilight Zone was finally being put in the ground for good—makes me think it might have had some influence on a later Serling project for TV, Night Gallery.

First and most obvious is its anthology structure. Kwaidan is composed of four shorter pieces, most of them about 30 minutes long with one dominating for an hour. The stories are unified by tone, mood, and some general thematic elements but otherwise unrelated—different casts for each. More than that both Kwaidan and Night Gallery represent a kind of intellectualized horror, taking the usual elements that send people screaming around and hiding their eyes and abstracting them into deliberately realized, highly stylized bits and pieces: with harsh discordant music that can feel more like sound effects, strangely colored lighting, filters, and makeup, and weird stories of regret, loss, cruelty, and hopelessness, often with ghosts, vampires, witches, and such. It's not often outright scary, but usually at least a little unnerving, and always impressive as production design.

In fact, production design could well be the single most salient feature of Kwaidan, which feels across its substantial length much more often closer to a slow-moving avant-garde theatrical production. In fact, perhaps because of all the strangely colored skies, which look to be painted on canvas, and all the lighting and filters and other such disorienting strategies found in profusion here, the Criterion edition includes a "color bars" section, presumably to check your TV settings.

Kwaidan plunders literary and cinematic sources as well. The first story, "The Black Hair," borrows liberally from the end of Kenji Mizoguchi's classic Japanese ghost story movie, Ugetsu. And the last, "In a Cup of Tea," comes with a complex literary frame as "an unfinished story" found in an old book or manuscript. This story particularly reminded me of Night Gallery, with the conceit of its elaborate conceptual build-up and then the sudden truncation where the manuscript narrative "stops." The formal narrator mockingly invites us again to consider the meanings of an unfinished story and/or the act of swallowing a soul. Then there is one more twist.

The longest piece here is the wonderfully titled, "Hoichi, the Earless," which among other things looks forward to Peter Greenaway's The Pillow Book in certain obvious ways. As with all of these stories, "Hoichi" takes its sweet time developing, opening on a highly theatrical recounting of an ancient battle between two warring Japanese clans, and then briefly touring into nature documentary before settling into the contours of its ghost story, which is as crazy as anything else that goes before or after in Kwaidan. The most thought and effort clearly went into this segment, and if it remains just slightly belabored (it even finds occasion for moments of slapstick pratfalls) it's also perhaps the most effective at getting into the kind of subtle complexities I think this movie wants to explore. At the same time, it's slightly marred by trying so hard to be repulsive in such a delicate, refined way (also a hallmark of Night Gallery).

My favorite tale of them all is probably "The Woman in the Snow," a vampire story (rural Japanese style) that seems to positively relish the unfair cruelties it develops. It's a little bit ponderous, even a little bit pretentious—and our hero in this episode spends altogether too much time looking stupid at the points of revelation—but it is full of surprisingly effective strategies. There's an eyeball that appears out of the dark of a wooded landscape that I particularly like, a visionary moment that recalls other such scenes I know I've seen, but can't quite recall to mind (Dracula? White Zombie?).

I think what I like most about Kwaidan, and maybe the reason I see a connection to Night Gallery, is the brave and bold way it peers into the future of cinema at this key juncture, when film was going through so many intriguing changes. I'm not sure there's any other decade for the movies so marked by such explosive change and such radical departures of style. Kwaidan embraces Western traditions of the avant-garde with as much fervor as it does Japanese folklore and samurai stories. It feels emblematic for its time and place, with its Cannes award and its perfunctory Oscar nod and its heavy production design. Director Masaki Kobayashi is also one I've taken an interest in. I liked his Harikiri pretty well too, and just recently got a look at his lengthy trilogy, The Human Condition, which is impressive and worth just about every minute of the 10 hours.

Top 10 of 1964
1. The Up Series
2. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
3. Kwaidan
4. Woman in the Dunes
5. A Fistful of Dollars
6. A Hard Day's Night
7. The Masque of the Red Death
8. Band of Outsiders
9. The Americanization of Emily
10. The Naked Kiss

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