Kwaidan (1964 Japan)

kwaidanA four-segment horror anthology and one you’d be hard pressed to find more removed from the typical plastic bats and cobwebs Gothic anthologies of Amicus or Hammer. While it can be billed as a “horror” movie and it deals with the supernatural, it’s not really frightening. However if “work of art” was a genre, Kwaidan would be among the best it had to offer.

All four segments are more like traditional Japanese folk legends about ghosts, the kind of spooky stories you could hear an elder narrating to kids around a bonfire in a village near Kyoto or the outskirts of Okinawa. Just two years after the seminal Seppuku – which was done in stark black and white with a geometric, well disciplined style, Kobayashi returns with another tour-de-force, this time in extravagant, expressionistic colour. A visual feast proving that in the right hands style can be substance. His camera, with its slow tracking shots, is like a brush, painting a celluloid canvas with vivid, lush compositions. It comes as no surprise to find out that he had a background in painting. The combination of eerie, supernatural material, the dreamlike atmosphere and the use of colour in lighting and sets reminded me of Mario Bava. Although Kwaidan by no means fits into the Gothic horror mold. Conscious of the folk legend material he’s working on, Kobayshi wisely shot the movie in studio sets using large painted backgrounds that look deliberately artificial as much as they look gorgeous.

kwaidan-pagentryIt feels like a big stage play or an elaborate dramatic poem. Somewhere between the real and the mythic. A land of some other order. The stories all revolve around ghosts and are as simple and predictable as any spooky story that you might hear. But they do a great job of providing an eerie skeleton for Kobayashi to hang on his beautiful style. What else do we have? It moves with extreme slowness, the use of colour is incredible, the lighting, at times subtle and evocative or wild and expressionistic, the slow tracking shots, long stretches of silence, a body painted with holy text, Tetsuro Tamba in full plate samurai armor, white ghastly faces, bodies falling in blood-red waters, a painted sunset backdrop, an intelligent play on vague endings, minimal score, chords echoing from somewhere. Kwaidan proves that style IS substance. A visual triumph for your eyes to feast on. Kwaidan is another in a series of absolutely brilliant films Kobayashi did in the 60’s. Beautiful, creepy, poetic, atmospheric as hell; it is the work of a master and one of the best Japanese movies you’re likely to see.




  1. Excellent review! Couldn’t agree more, this film is truly visually stunning and a must-watch to all horror fans. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I can always count on you for lovely comments. Thank you! 🙂


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