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Synopsis: Four Japanese tales of the supernatural by Lafcadio Hearn. The Black Hair: A young, impoverished samurai abandons his wife and marries the daughter of a noble family in order to further his career, only to find himself haunted by the first wife's image. The Woman in the Snow: Trapped in a snowstorm, a man witnesses his friend killed by a female snow spirit. She takes pity on him and allows him to survive on the condition that he never speak of what he has seen. Hoichi the Earless: Not realizing his life will be in danger, a blind musician agrees to sing for the ghosts of a long-dead clan of nobility. In a Cup of Tea: A samurai is disturbed by the reflection of a ghost in a cup of tea as he is about to drink it.
The title of Masaki Kobayashi's Kwaidan (1965)--pronounced kaidan in contemporary Japanese--means a ghost story or tale of the supernatural, usually with a period setting. In Japan the genre dates back to the Edo period; one of the most famous examples is Ueda Akinari's Ugetsu Monogatari, stories published in 1776 which the director Kenji Mizoguchi adapted in his 1953 masterpiece. Beyond its basic appeal of an adaptation of Lafcadio Hearn's ghost stories, Kobayashi's film is remarkable for its stylized production design, its stunning color cinematography, and its spare, expressive musical score by Toru Takemitsu.
Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904) is one of the more interesting writers of the turn of the century, not least because of his eventful life. Born of Greek-Irish ancestry on the Greek island of Leucas as Patrick Lafcadio Hearn, he was abandoned by his parents as a child and raised by relatives in Ireland. (His father left his mother for another woman, and his mother gave him to relatives at the urging of her second husband.) As an adolescent Hearn studied a year in France; while he despised the atmosphere of the Catholic school in which he studied, he nonetheless admired French culture and later translated authors such as Theophile Gautier. All his life he remained sensitive about his appearance: he was short, of olive complexion, blinded in one eye due to an accident, while his one functioning eye protruded abnormally.
In 1869 Hearn left for America and first settled in Cincinnati, where he soon established himself as a reporter whose sensationalistic tales achieved a kind of gruesome poetry. (Jonathan Cott's 1991 biography Wandering Ghost: The Odyssey of Lafcadio Hearn incorporates generous excerpts from his early writings.) After spending some time in the West Indies, in 1889 Hearn traveled to Japan and settled there permanently, where he taught and continued work as a journalist. During that time he married and became a naturalized citizen, adopting the name Koizumi Yakumo. His Japanese-inspired essays and books of fiction--including the 1903 collection of stories entitled Kwaidan--played an important role in disseminating early knowledge of Japan to the West. Incidentally, George Chakiris starred in a 1984 Japanese miniseries about Hearn's life in Japan.
Director Masaki Kobayashi (1916-1996) first achieved notoriety with the ten-hour Human Condition trilogy (1958-1961) about a pacifist soldier in World War II and the abuses he suffers within the Japanese military system. While Kobayashi remained a politically engaged filmmaker throughout his career, in the Sixties he directed three period dramas that really enabled him to showcase his stylistic mastery: Harakiri / Seppuku (1962), Kwaidan and Samurai Rebellion (1967). Kwaidan was shot almost entirely on studio sets, enabling Kobayashi to maintain precise control over the color and overall visual design. For example, one character walks over a blood-red stream in "Woman in the Snow" episode. Similarly, the battle sequence in "Hoichi the Earless" uses a restricted color scheme and a semi-abstract set that evokes traditional Japanese painting. The startlingly artificial painted backgrounds visible in many sequences at once emphasize the studio-bound nature of the film and recall traditional Japanese theater. Kwaidan's extraordinary use of color and overall visual design very likely influenced Akira Kurosawa's later use of stylized color schemes in film such as Dodes'ka-den (1970), Kagemusha (1980), Ran (1985) and Dreams (1990). In particular, one can see clear connections between Ran and the battle sequence in the "Hoichi the Earless" episode.
In a 1972 interview with scholar Joan Mellen, Kobayashi pointedly took issue with the characterization of Kwaidan as a horror film: "My main intention was to explore the juxtaposition between man's material nature and his spiritual nature, the realm of dream and aspiration. I wanted to create a drama which dealt directly with the spiritual importance of our lives. I also enjoyed conveying the sheer beauty of traditional Japan."
Toru Takemitsu (1930-1996), the film's composer, was certainly the leading Japanese composer of the twentieth century and a major figure in postwar music in general. He was largely self-taught, though he did associate with and study under other experimental Japanese composers of his generation. His work is especially revered for its ingenuity and sensitivity in orchestration. Although influenced by Western composers such as Claude Debussy and Olivier Messiaen, he also drew upon traditional Japanese music as a source of inspiration. His major compositions include orchestral works such as Requiem (1957) and A Flock Descends into the Pentagonal Garden (1977), chamber music such as Toward the Sea (1981), and solo piano music such as the Rain Tree Sketch and Les Yeux Clos series for solo piano.
For Takemitsu, composing film scores held a special appeal because of what he regarded as the film medium's inherent "eroticism" and "violence," which he felt gave cinema a stronger grounding in physical reality and thus the essential elements of existence. He tended to work closely with directors not only in terms of placing musical cues, but also the use of silence and sound effects. In that respect, for him the entire soundtrack becomes a new kind of musical score. In an interview for the 1994 documentary Music for Movies: Toru Takemitsu, the director Masahiro Shinoda comments: "He always shows up on location during the filming, and takes every opportunity to look at what we have filmed. His involvement parallels the director's. It's very reassuring, working with him."
In the same documentary Takemitsu described his approach to Kwaidan as follows: "[...] I wanted to create an atmosphere of terror. But if the music is constantly saying, "Watch out! Be scared!" then all the tension is lost. It's like sneaking up behind someone to scare them. First, you have to be silent. Even a single sound can be film music. Here [in the episode "The Long Black Hair"], I wanted all sounds to have the quality of wood. We used real wood for effects. I'd ask for a "cra-a-a-ck" sound, and they'd split a plank of wood, or rip it apart, or rend it with a knife. Using all these wood sounds, I assembled the track."
Over the course of his career before his untimely death in 1996, Takemitsu worked on nearly 90 films. Especially noteworthy is the work he did with filmmakers of the Japanese New Wave such as Kobayashi in Harakiri and Kwaidan, Hiroshi Teshigahara in Woman of the Dunes (1964) and The Face of Another (1966), Masahiro Shinoda in Double Suicide (1969) , and Shohei Imamura in Black Rain (1989). It would not be exaggerating to count many of these collaborations among the most artistically daring and accomplished feature films in the history of world cinema, thanks in no small part to Takemitsu's contributions as a composer and sound designer.
Producer: Shigeru Wakatsuki
Director: Masaki Kobayashi
Screenplay: Mizuki Yoko, based on stories by Lafcadio Hearn
Photography: Yoshio Miyajima
Music and Sound Design: Toru Takemitsu
Editor: Hisashi Sagara
Art Director: Shigemasa Toda
Cast: "The Black Hair": Rentaro Mikuni, Michiyo Aratama and Misako Watanabe. "The Woman in the Snow": Tatsuya Nakadai, Keiko Kishi. "Hoichi the Earless": Katsuo Nakamura, Tetsuro Tamba, Takashi Shimura, Kunie Tanaka. "In a Cup of Tea": Kanemon Nakamura, Osamu Takizawa.
by James Steffen