Directed by: MASAKI KOBAYASHI
1964, TSPDT Rank #898
For those who are familiar with Kobayashi's uncompromising and socially-conscious psychological dramas (The Human Condition, Harakiri), Kwaidan will probably come as a shock - even if you're somewhat prepared for it, as I was. Knowing that it was actually the follow-up to Harakiri makes it seem all the more out of left field, as this sweeping and richly colorful adaptation of four supernatural folk tales could not be more removed visually from the stark black-and-white agony portrayed in Harakiri. However, the first of the four tales presented in Kwaidan finds us in similar territory in terms of plot, as Kobayashi once again highlights the harsh realities experienced by many unemployed samurai during the peaceful reign of the Tokugawa shogunate, which gave them an exalted position in their social hierarchy but had little use for them otherwise. Still, even in this first tale, historical and social commentary quickly give way to a palpable supernatural undercurrent unlike anything previously seen from Kobayashi.
The second tale is perhaps the best of the four, featuring otherworldly set design work and a story which is firmly rooted in the tantalizing and inexplicable mysteries of the spirit world. The next two tales - one almost half the film's total length and the other barely twenty minutes - each have their moments, but ultimately throw the film off balance. As with many portmanteau/anthology films, the lack of a unifying thread to connect the individual parts leaves the viewer with a collection of cobbled-together impressions, rather than one distinct, cumulative experience. So while I enjoyed each part of the film to some degree (some more than others), the strangely unformed nature of the film detracted somewhat from the experience as a whole. Having seen his mammoth ten-hour trilogy The Human Condition, I know that Kobayashi was capable tying many narrative threads together to form a satisfying whole, but Kwaidan feels strangely unfinished in comparison. However, it's possible that the film might be better approached as a collection of short films - as each is unique and has something to offer, both aesthetically as well as supernaturally. It may also be that the film was intended to express the loose ends and uncertainties present in encounters between the living and the dead in its form as well as its content. In any case, there is still a lot to appreciate here, even if the film's uneven nature ultimately makes it feel like less than the sum of its parts.