“But here the old tale ends.”
That’s all a movie is, really. But most films work very hard to make us forget that fact. They use all the myriad techniques of cinema–continuity editing, realistic sound and cinematography, location shooting, method acting, etc–to convince us that we’re experiencing a form of documented reality. This is true even when it comes to horror films, whose supernatural elements would seem to indicate a constructed, fictional narrative. Doesn’t a ghost by its very nature imply a ghost story?
But what happens when a film goes the other way entirely? What happens when both movie and audience know that a story is being told? Today’s Killtoberfest entry, Kwaidan, is one answer to that question.
Kaidan (怪談) (sometimes transliterated kwaidan) is a Japanese word consisting of two kanji: 怪 (kai) meaning “strange, mysterious, rare or bewitching apparition” and 談 (dan) meaning “talk” or “recited narrative.”
A 1964 Japanese horror anthology, Kwaidan‘s stories are about that which is strange, mysterious, and bewitching, apparition or otherwise; but its presentation is about what it means to recite a narrative. Each of its segments involves a man who tells a story to a ghost, or spirit, and comes away worse for it; each combines the beauty and deliberateness of Japanese noh theater with the expressive language of cinema to illustrate how stories are shaped by their telling. Let’s take them one by one.
After opening credits set against footage of colored ink in water (imagery suggestive of both spirits and writing), Kwaidan‘s first story, “The Black Hair,” begins with the following narration:
“In old Kyoto, there was a young samurai who had been reduced to poverty by the ruin of his lord…”
Frustrated with poverty, the samurai leaves his wife, in a scene that demonstrates the nature of the stylized performances Kwaidan embraces. The actors’ movements are precise and calculated, their costumes rich in color and form. Feeling guilty, the samurai steps backwards out of the room even as he tells his wife that he must leave, the movement graceful and highly expressive of the ambivalent desires, his love for his wife and his shame and distress at being unemployed. Those contrary desires will haunt him in the next stage of his life, souring everything he is and does.
In the next passage, the samurai has found the fortune he desired, by marrying a woman of means. But having achieved one desire only inflames the other, and when it becomes clear that his new wife is cold and uncaring, the samurai dreams of coming home again. In these dreams he finds their home just the way it was, and discovers his first wife at her weaving, grateful and happy for his return. The contrast in class between the two wives and homes is stark; the samurai’s first house is as sparse as his wife is loving, while the manor he marries into is as lush and filled with servants as his new wife’s heart is empty. He idles his days at sport and games, unable to distract himself from his unhappiness.
Finally, at the end of long years of service to his new lord, the samurai returns home. Kwaidan is unusually slow and quiet, with minimal exposition, even from the narrator, who often merely repeats or clarifies things we have already seen. At this point in the story, the set tells the tale–the once pleasant house is now a decrepit ruin. Dust and cobwebs fill its corners; its walls are crumbling and overgrown. The soundtrack, sparse silence punctuated by eerie clicks and groans, shows it to be a haunted place. Why did he leave? Why was he not here to repair and protect it? When he finds his wife there, just as in his dreams, the samurai’s guilt and shame pour out of him in a torrent of sorrow. She accepts his return and apologies with grace, and they make love as husband and wife for the first time in years. He buries his face in her long, luxurious black hair, the hair that in his years apart came to symbolize to him everything he had thrown away. But the next morning is a horror.
Both “The Black Hair” and the next story in Kwaidan are the stories of men who are married to two women, one loving and one cold; this precarious dichotomy inevitably collapses in on itself, creating a moment when the object of the man’s greatest love is revealed as the source of unreasoning terror. Both segments suggest that the direction of our lives is a story we tell ourselves, nothing more. The samurai tells himself he deserves wealth, but eventually learns that he deserves something far worse for his selfishness. As for the woodcutter?
“In a village in Musashi province there lived two woodcutters…”
So Kwaidan‘s second story, “The Woman of the Snow,” begins. The film relates an incident involving an older man and his young apprentice who one winter are caught out in the woods in a terrible blizzard. These outdoor passages are some of the most beautiful of the entire film; snow swirls through elaborate sets whose unreality is made apparent by the matte paintings at the back. Typically matte paintings were meant to be visual illusions that extended a set’s outer bound–think of the Emerald City twinkling in the distance far beyond the Yellow Brick Road–and live on today in digital form, where artists use computer drawings to seamlessly connect vast, imagined spaces with real life sets. Kwaidan takes things a step further–not only are the paintings clearly paintings, but they aren’t even illusions. An abstracted sky brims with watchful eyes, or in later scenes, expressionistic swirls of color representing the sun and clouds. On one level, the film reminds us that we are watching a work of art, both carefully constructed and presented with an exaggerated theatricality; on another level entirely, we feel the press of spirits around, and fear for the humble woodcutters.
Staggering to the edge of a river whose boat lies on the opposite shore (“This was no time for swimming,” the narrator deadpans), the men seek shelter in the nearby shack. Shutting the door against the wind and shrugging off their burdens, the men fall gratefully into sleep… until the younger man awakens in a chill. He sees a woman of snow-pale skin leaning over his mentor, blowing frost into the old man’s face until he is cold and dead. The young woodcutter is paralyzed in terror, but as the woman leans over him, she sees his face and decides to be merciful. In exchange for sparing his life, she tells him he must never tell another soul what he has seen. Then she vanishes out the door and into the storm.
Ten years pass.
The old man was found dead the next morning. The younger man had nightmares for some time, but he has since recovered. He married and had children; his wife takes the young ones to their mother in law’s grave to pay their respects. On New Year’s Eve (an auspicious date that recurs throughout the film), the woodcutter completes a set of presents for his family–sandals with colorful laces, woven special for the holiday. His wife is pleased with her pair; as beautiful as she was the day they met, she happily declares them a perfect fit. But the woodcutter is suddenly reminded of that cold, snowy night long past. He tells his wife the tale, shaking his head at the strangeness of it. But of course he promised on pain of death never to relate the story.
The woodcutter’s resulting loss is horrifying precisely because we understood it to be inevitable, because that is the nature of narratives. The life of a person can go any way it likes, but the life of a character is bound at either end by fate and meaning. The theatricality of Kwaidan‘s sets, performances, soundtrack, and other elements put us paradoxically in the mood to feel more deeply, the way a campfire primes us to hear a scary story. Here especially the film’s lighting works to its advantage, shifting in an instant from the warm yellows of the domestic scene to the cold and creepy blue of the blood-drinking spirit whom we always knew would return. The woodcutter told himself the story of a certain kind of life, but that was a lie. His secret story spilled, he learns that he was in a folk tale all along–one neatly circumscribed by sadness and death. If “Black Hair” is about how guilt will always out, then both “The Woman of the Snow” and our next segment are about facing up to the truth of the story that, through no fault of your own, you’ve been written into.
“It was early in the morning of March 24th in the second year of the Genryaku era that the Genji and Heike clans at Dan-no-ura fought their last sea battle…”
From the personal to the historical. Kwaidan‘s third and longest tale, “Haoichi the Earless,” begins with a song. As someone plays the bao (a traditional string instrument), a wavering voice tells the story of a great and terrible battle, a massacre at sea. Losing the battle, unable to escape, the Heike eventually turn to suicide; even the attendant to the child emperor holds him tight and steps off their vessel, plunging into a bloody, violent sea. Sometimes the film cuts to woodcut illustrations, lingering over drawings of hundreds of men fighting, stabbing, dying, drowning, each face identical in its dismay.
At first glance, this is all elaborate backstory for a haunted house story. Or more specifically, a haunted temple story. Haoichi (who definitely has two ears) is a blind monk who serves at the temple, where strange things have been known to happen. It is a simple, peaceful existence. The priest and his underlings serve the community by presiding over wakes (it seems that in this area, people are often swallowed by the sea) and making offerings to the gods. The men are poor but happy, even Haoichi, and an extra slice of watermelon is a welcome treat. But one day, Haoichi is summoned by a ghostly samurai to the manor of his lord, who has heard how well Haoichi plays the bao and wishes to be entertained.
Night after night, Haoichi leaves the temple and returns pale and exhausted the next morning, leaving his fellow monks mystified. Where does he go? One night a thunderstorm compels them to search for him, concerned for his safety, and two comically foolish monks discover the path Haoichi has taken to a spirit realm. The transition from one level of existence to the next is once again overtly theatrical; the rain stops falling, and a ruined set of stone steps leads up to a platform wreathed in fog. Haoichi plays for the dead. The lost Heike, arrayed in all their finery, faces painted with the whites and greens and purples of rotting corpses, stand and listen to the song of their final day.
What is a ghost, but the past returned to trouble the living? Kwaidan argues that violence, emotional or otherwise, stains those people and places which experience it; that this wound haunts the flesh of the world, causing further strife. Even the dead are not free of pain. How sad, to exist in the afterlife, never changing, never healing, obsessively returning in the mind to those final moments of death and loss. But perhaps they find it comforting to hear their ending told in a story. At least stories, unlike lives, have clear meanings.
In one of Kwaidan‘s most striking and memorable sequences, the priest and his monks work to protect Haoichi from his next summoning by covering every inch of his skin, from the top of his head to the soles of his feet, with kanji, black and red ink which tells the Heart Sutra, a short passage of Buddhist wisdom. Words themselves become his shield against the sight of the dangerous spirits. But Haoichi does not come away from his experience unchanged, and when his tale spreads beyond the village and its temple, the blind man becomes famous, and the temple rich, for he is renowned far and wide for his decision to continue playing the bao to honor the spirits of the dead. In a sense, Haoichi succeeds through grace and piety in changing his narrative role from that of the victim in a ghost story to that of someone who empathizes with the pain of the Heike. Telling stories is, in the end, the best way to resolve them.
But what if a story has no resolution at all? Kwaidan‘s final segment, “In a Cup of Tea,” confronts its subject most directly. It’s a funny thing–the narrator tells us right up front that this story is an example of one that remains unfinished for unknown reasons, and yet it is still surprising when it ends abruptly.
For a while, we’re wrapped up once more in this last example of a ghost story, told in the film’s style, which is by now completely familiar to us. The deliberate pacing, the elegant sets, the stylized performances; this mode of expression has helped us to engage more deeply with the stories we’ve been told, and now it’s used to help us understand what stories mean to us. It starts simply yet surreally, with a lord finding a face in his cup of tea. The smiling face of a stranger is superimposed on the water, and try as he might–different tea, a different cup–he cannot rid himself of it.
Eventually he drinks it whole, and that night he is visited by the same man in spirit form. The man introduces himself, but the lord draws his sword and wounds the spirit, which vanishes. Later three samurai visit, themselves ghostly emissaries of the man in the cup of tea. The lord fights them with sword and spear, but no matter how often wounded, the men return. What could explain such a story? We’ll never know, because that’s where it ends. The writer has gotten up and left his desk.
As elliptical as this last narrative is, it is perhaps the most revealing of all. Long before the digital age, Kwaidan asks where the soul of a story truly resides. In the person who tells it? The one who passes it on? The one who consumes it like a swallow of tea? The fate of the missing author is the final little twist, suggesting that a tale is, at heart, a mystery. Our earliest stories, myth and folk tales arose from an oral tradition, their original author unknown. And who was there to tell of the Heike’s fate? History and narrative are all around us, the storm that we are lost within, a thicket of words growing in a painted set, acted and shot and edited and then relayed again. The world is but a ghost story, told by those who will soon be spirits themselves. And to them, it will seem unfinished. I would tell more of Kwaidan… but here the old tale ends.
Every year, Kyu attempts to watch and review 31 horror movies in 31 days. This year, it’s Killtoberfest 4: Four Gore and Severed Ears Ago, because if this election were a story, you wouldn’t believe it. Check out past Killtoberfests along with this year’s reviews, and be sure to follow us on Twitter @insidethekraken to track Kyu’s progress.