More Asian Horror, this time not part of the post-Ringu era, but a classic from 1964. Kwaidan is an anthology film, collecting four of the folk-tale-inspired ghostly horrors of ex-pat writer Lafcadio Hearn, all set in pre-modern Japan.
The Black Hair (from which the 2006 anthology-film, Dark Tales of Japan, got the title and idea for its Blonde Kwaidan segment) tells of a poor samurai who abandons his faithful wife for a new bride from a wealthy noble family. Later, regretting the unhappy match, he goes back to his old home to find it ruined but his wife still there, still spinning on the same old wheel. He spends the night with her but wakes to find himself lying next to a withered corpse, then goes mad as its long black hair comes to life and pursues him through the crumbling ruin.
In The Woman of the Snow, an apprentice woodcutter sees his master frozen to death by the breath of a pale, demonic woman, but avoids a similar fate by promising never to speak of what he has seen. Some time later he marries, though of course doesn’t notice how remarkably similar his bride looks to that very same ice demonness. Inevitably, he breaks his promise and tells his wife what happened that night.
Hoichi the Earless is the rather bleak tale of a blind biwa-player whose skill brings him to the attention of the denizens of the underworld. To stop him from being snatched, nightly, to play before an undead court, a local priest covers Hoichi from head to foot in holy writings, missing only his ears. That night, when a ghostly messenger comes once more to summon Hoichi, all he can see is a pair of ears floating on their own in the air. The next thing we know, Hoichi is screaming, clutching where his ears once were, blood pouring from between his fingers. Lovely.
The last segment, In a Cup of Tea, is a story-within-a-story, as we learn why one writer failed to finish one particular story about a samurai who inadvertently drinks a man’s soul.
Throughout, Kwaidan makes no attempt at realism, but uses very theatrical sets, sometimes with fantasticated backgrounds, as with the Dali-esque eyes-in-the-sky of the Woman in the Snow segment, which adds to the superstitious feeling that all of nature is alive with a threatening demonic presence.
The most striking aspect of the film, though, is its soundtrack. Kwaidan uses a minimal set of traditional instruments, one of which, at times, sounds almost like an eerily extended human scream. The moments of supernatural horror are made all the more effective by the way natural sound effects drop into silence, as if the characters have fallen into another order of reality, while the sparse music twangs and grunts and screeches.