Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan is a series of four tightly strung short films based on ancient Japanese Ghost Stories as collected by Lafaciado Hearn. Though many period pieces try there hardest to withtain a sense of accuracy to the time period, evoking as realistic and believable a setting as cinematically possible, Kobayashi delivers the exact opposite. Reality is rarely glimpsed throughout the film, almost all of it is unabashedly filmed on large, sprawling soundstages with large, obviously theatrical sets filled with wild, painted back drops. While many would try to evoke a realistic setting in a horror film, it is highly effective, taking us to a world that we understand is far away and maybe even almost forgotten, giving the atmopshere a surreal, dream like effect, reflecting the other worldy encounters mortals have with various ghosts and demons, showing us a world where the supernatural is very much alive and well. One short film, “The Snow Maiden” is prehaps the strangest looking in the film. Time passes quickly throughout, going from dawn into night in much of its length. While many would struggle to obtain subtle, nature like colors to evoke the passage of time, we are shown wild primary colors transitioning from vibrant oranges to dramatic blues to signify night time, constrasting madly with the white snows that surround the man-made landscape. Back drops also change in a fully theatrical manner, the moon is an obviously painted eye resembling that of an owls, symbolising the reign of the supernatural and the discovery that the dutiful wife is truly the Snow Maiden, a ghoul that devours the souls of those who have frozen to death. Throughout watching the movie, one understands that the theatricality of the film is not only an artisitic statement, but a very practical solution to several scenes that would be nearly impossible and tedious to film on location. In the next film “Hoichi the Earless”, we begin with an epic naval battle set in Ancient Japan between two rival clans. We are shown a dramatic soundstage with brilliantly colored water, where the battle is presented with the poise and pantomime of a kabuki play, a wild yellow sky blurred with impressionistic magenta.
Kwaidan’s theatricality not only shows within its lighting and sets, put throughout the camera work as well. Filmed in a 2:35.1 aspect radio, the large sprawling cinema-scope framing allows the camera work a strange distance from the audience, where we are shown long and beautiful wide shots, and only a few zoom in’s of characters reactions here and there to show us the scope of the characters conflicts. In “The Black Hair” we are presented with a man who has betrayed his true love to marry another and take a position as Samurai, choosing riches over the poverty he once faced. In one scene, as he observes his noble estate he now requires, we are shown an elegant and slow zoom in of his face, where we instantly understand his inner conflicts. This if followed by another scene, in which he hallucinates, imagining he sees his lost love across a lake, washing her laundry. We are shown a graceful close up shot of the woman, revealing her face filled with a false hope that he will return. Kobayashi gives us this distance between the film and the audience prehaps to remind us that these are folk tales, settings and situations wildly diffirent from encounters much of us have in everyday life, watching simple stories as one would watch on a stage. Even shots that aren’t sprawling and wide are sprinkled with a sense of obvious, but effective theatricality. In a archery contest, we are shown several quick shots of a man waving a fan to start the contest, a shot of hooves violently running, a long shot of the man on horseback, we eventually come closer and closer to him, where we are shown what is obviously the actor sitting on something other than a horse, a fan blowing in his face, the camera rocking back and fourth to give us the illusion of movement, followed by shots of his lover. Through this, we understand his guilt and how his thoughts of her have led him to ultimate distraction.