Saturday, October 29, 2005

Kwaidan - ghostly tales and good film-making

"Kwaidan" brings together a number of discrete, yet inter-related artistic traditions to produce a visually satisfying, emotionally rich, scary film. The Japanese film, which won honors at Cannes in 1965 does not seem dated in the least, despite building on tales by Lafcadio Hearn, the German-Irish immigrant writer, who moved to Japan from the United States in the 19th century, and embraced the culture of his second adopted country.

The film, directed by Masaki Kobayashi, contains four of the stories from the book, Kwaidan, which is available online, being in the public domain. The book was published in 1904, when the world was watching intently the escalating conflict between Russia and Japan. That conflict had the earmarks of the later World War, with an Eastern power, hitherto occluded by the rising powers of the West, flexing it's muscles with the help of modern Western technology.

The same ethos is expressed in the center-piece of the film, Hoichi the Earless, about a blind musician, a professional biwa-hoshi, known for his peerless recitations of the historical battles between the Genji and Heike samurai clans, which culminated in the destruction of the Heike in the twelfth century at the battle of Dan-no-ura, in the Straits of Shimonoseki.. This final battle saw a pitched fight between the two clans, with Genji archers breaking the Heike defense through the use of relatively modern archers, as well as a daring horseback ride down a steep cliff. The Heike were completely routed, unable to reach shore. The Rojo, or matron of the Royal Household leaped into the roiling seas with the infant Heike emperor. The film recreates this violent event through Kabuki - vividly depicting the horrors while highlighting the honor of the warriors. (It influenced the battle sequences in Conan the Barbarian)

The bloodshed reportedly left it's marks on the area, which features crabs named after the Heike, that have human faces on their backs. A Buddhist monastery was built there to the Amida Buddha, in whose name numerous samurai saw their doom, but that's another story. Hoichi makes his residence at this monastery, and one evening is summoned by a samurai to recite at his lord's court. His chanting is much appreciated, but little does he realize the true nature of this ghostly court.

The film, like the story, succeeds by drawing us in to the terrors of the dead commingling with the living. A yearning for fulfilment and a need for recognition make Hoichi unable to distinguish the reality. The priests of the temple strive to save him from the fell creatures, but make a critical error in their efforts.

The first and second stories in the film, "Black Hair" and "The Woman In The Show" are more personal in their horror. In "Black Hair", a samurai leaves his wife for reasons of personal ambition and striving away from poverty. Through his service to the lord, whose daughter he marries, he often thinks of his hard-working wife. He compares her to his new superficial bride, who can be transported into heights of bliss by the smell of fine silk. After a few years he gives up this languid life and returns to his hometown. His wife is still there, slaving away at her loom. He discovers his true love, but things have changed.

"The Woman In The Snow" or "Yuki-Onna" tells the tale of two wood-cutters caught in a blizzard one night. They stumble into a ferryman's hut to take shelter from the storm. A strange woman drifts in from the snow. The terrified younger wood-cutter watches her drain the blood from his father with a breath. She spares him for his youth, but warns him never to speak of her to anyone. Years later, he marries a beautiful woman he meets in the same woods, and has three children. He admires her beauty, but fails to notice that she never grows old. One night, he does look closely, and his discovery changes their relationship.

Both stories perhaps depict the neglected Japanese woman, one of history's silent sufferers. While the males went off to fight their futile wars, the woman were relegated to a role of weaving, artistic pursuits and housework. The samurai and the wood-cutter discover too late what they had ignored.

The final tale, "In a Cup of Tea", tells of a writer who keeps seeing a man's face in his cup of tea. The simplicity of this tale masks its innate complexity, and its horror is less obvious than the others.

The film combines fine story-telling with visually stunning sets and tonal music that sets the atmosphere, one of a winter's night, when a traveller might pause to tell a dark tale or two, then move on, into the night.

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Time traveler, world traveler, book reader