*. Kwaidan is a movie that vibrates on a string of tension plucked between opposing elements in its design. I know that sounds kind of fluffy, but I’ll try and explain.
*. Most obvious, at least at a first glance (and a first glance is all it takes), is the opposition of nature and art. Kwaidan flaunts its artificiality in nearly every shot. There are only a few scenes that were filmed on location, the rest being shot inside what was a converted airplane hangar (that was being used as an auto warehouse at the time) because there weren’t any studios in Japan big enough for the sets.
*. What gives rise to the tension is that this isn’t a movie of notable interiors but one largely set out of doors, filled with forests and rivers and lakes and dazzling skyscapes. I’ve even heard it suggested that the stories are meant to represent the different seasons, though I have trouble seeing it. In any event, it’s a movie that constantly evokes the natural world, but in outlandishly unnnatural ways. The skyscapes are operatic backdrops (Coppola was obviously a student, borrowing those floating eyes for Dracula), and even the sound of the blowing wind is played on flutes.
*. Another opposition, much commented on by Stephen Prince in his DVD commentary, is between surface and depth. On the one hand there’s what Prince identifies as the imitation of traditional Japanese painting and its “flat, 2-D pictorial space” that mitigates any sense of volume. On the other, there is the frequent use of foreground items, often with a thematic intent (for example, a post or other vertical barrier dividing a pair of characters), or the tunnels of trees, or gates and doorways seeming to open unto endlessly receding vistas.
*. I also think of the use of colour to create a sense of depth and space, which is something Welles did in The Immortal Story (1968). Is it a coincidence that both films were their respective director’s first feature work in colour?
*. Then there is the opposition of sound and silence. Welles too thought that music in film allowed silence afterward, and even suggested that this silence was music’s most important role. As Prince notes, that’s also the function it has here, as the odd score by Toru Takamitsu deliberately loads up calculated intervals of silence. Assistant director Kiyoshi Ogasawara remarks that the point was to show how “silence is also sound.” The one creates the other.
*. Here’s another pair to consider: unity and diversity. Kwaidan is an anthology-horror film, a genre not usually identified with the art house or high production values. Such films are often only loosely held together by a frame narrative, but there is little attempt at that here (or none at all, depending on how you read the ending). This makes the audience wonder what it is that connects them, or if there is any connection aside from their all being adapted from the stories of Lafcadio Hearn.
*. In his Criterion essay, Geoffrey O’Brien writes that “the first three stories Kobayashi chose to include all involve broken vows, broken not through conscious malevolence but through what seem like unavoidable circumstances.” Well, yeah. Sort of. This seems awfully loose to me though. Sort of like “angry ghosts.”
*. Personally, I don’t see much in the way of a unifying theme aside from the fact that all the stories deal with the supernatural. But because they’re all collected here together we instinctively look for ways to combine them, to see what they have in common in less obvious ways. The alternation of horror and sadness mentioned by Ogasawara strikes me as a good insight, but again it’s rather vague, describing a general tone adopted toward the material rather than a guiding principle.
*. Finally, I’d point to the opposition of big and small. On the one hand it’s an epic, the most expensive Japanese film ever made to date, filmed in the vernacular of the historical costume drama and even incorporating a giant naval battle scene. But it’s also a movie that was shot on what I think were just a couple of studio sets, however elaborately designed. In short, it’s a movie that feels cramped and expansive at the same time.
*. These are some of the ways I look at Kwaidan. There are others, like the tension between the Kubrickian exactness and control of the film, its flatness and precision, with its subject matter of heightened emotional states, but you get what I’m saying. It’s a movie that rides a balance between all of these opposites and remains hard to pin down.
*. One of the things that makes it hard to pin down is that it’s hard to connect to what came before or after. I think in particular of how bizarre and extreme Japanese fantasy and horror films were soon to become, from Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell (1968) and Obayashi’s House (1977) to today’s J-horror, but those movies don’t feel anything like Kwaidan despite some surface similarities. If there’s a link to Kwaidan it’s in the anti-mimetic or anti-realistic rendering: the highly artificial sets and nervy music. But still, they seem very different.
*. At three hours, does it go on too long? Of course purists will howl no, but it’s a question worth considering. It was cut in order to be shown at Cannes, and an entire story (“The Woman of the Snow”) dropped for the American release. Only recently was it restored to its original length.
*. I find that the slow, deliberate camera work and pacing does work against the film somewhat, but in ways that I can’t really put my finger on. Obviously Kobayashi isn’t in a rush, and that’s his style, but for all the loveliness of the film to look at I do think that it’s missing something.
*. I mentioned already that’s it’s not a movie that inspires much in the way of a larger interpretation. I don’t see a unifying theme to it. The same could be said of the symbolism. Most obviously there is the all-seeing eye in the sky. What is the meaning of this bit of design? Prince’s commentary takes a stab at it, referring to it as the eye of God and the surveillance state, the “cosmic celestial eye” and the “nightmarish translation of this ideal of imperial divinity and slavish service to it.”
*. Perhaps, but I don’t see what that has to do with the action. My hunch is that the eye is like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s billboard of the eyes of T. J. Eckleburg in The Great Gatsby. These eyes became the novel’s most famous iconic image, but Fitzgerald may have just thrown them in because he was struck by the original cover art for the novel. I have a hunch the eyes in the sky here might be the same: evocative but perhaps merely whimsical.
*. As for the final image of the man in the urn, that may be meant to be Hearn but I think it’s really Kobayashi himself, waving at us like the image of God that scientists saw in the photographs of the Big Bang at the beginning of the universe. I think it’s a perfect touch to place at the end of such a heavy film. Heavy, and light.