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  Kwaidan Nowt Queer As Folk Tales
Year: 1964
Director: Masaki Kobayashi
Stars: Michiyo Aratama, Misako Watanabe, Rentarô Mikuni, Kenjiro Ishiyama, Ranko Akagi, Tatsuya Nakadai, Keiko Kishi, Yûko Mochizuki, Katsuo Nakamura, Tetsurô Tanba, Takashi Shimura, Yoichi Hayashi, Kan'emon Nakamura, Osamu Takizawa, Noboru Nakaya
Genre: HorrorBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 2 votes)
Review: Here is an anthology of Japanese folk tales with a supernatural flavour, beginning with a story of a samurai who was poverty-stricken thanks to his corrupt master, so left his wife to make a new fortune. Then a woodcutter stumbling through a snow storm meets a spirit of winter who he makes a promise to. Next, a blind biwa player at a temple near the sea is called on to perform for an audience not of this Earth. Lastly, a writer wonders about unfinished books, not knowing his latest yarn about a guard spotting a face in his tea will suffer the same fate.

Kwaidan now has a reputation as one of the most exquisite horror movies ever made, certainly as far as the visuals went with director Masaki Kobayashi having everything designed to within an inch of its life to ensure onscreen it all looked precisely how he wanted it. This extended to the spooky soundtrack as well, with some excellent sound design for that appropriately paranormal air, so you might have expected the end result to be something special. Yet while it was undoubtedly great to look at, there was a distinct lack of anything particularly exciting in these ghost stories: in short, they were so stately that quickening the pulse didn't seem to have crossed Kobayashi's mind.

Not helping was a predictability to the first two tales at least, where if you could not work out where the samurai who left his wife was going to end up, or whether the woodcutter would blab his secret to his wife, then you simply had not seen enough horror movies - that second one would be obvious in its twist if you had seen the episode of the Tales from the Darkside movie with Rae Dawn Chong, which was unfortunate, but it was not as if Kobayashi was immensely skilled at springing his twists here anyway. As far as the first went, it was interesting for being initial sighting for Western audiences of the ghost girl with the long black hair, which fast became a staple of Japanese chillers.

Although even that's not giving too much away as the samurai returns to his first wife to find the house they shared tumbledown and derelict, but the woman herself as young as she ever was. The opening pair of narratives both share a fear of women, or of crossing women at any rate, but the third one, the longest, was the most ambitious. Trouble was, its onscreen title was Hocihi the Earless, which completely gave the game away as to how the biwa player would end the story, which was a shame as otherwise this had the best plot. For over ten minutes we are treated to a legend of a sea battle in song, then go on to see the ghosts of that battle wish to hear of their exploits so call on the blind man to perform for them.

Being blind, Hoichi (Katsuo Nakamura) has no idea of who his audience is, but when the priests find out at the temple they think, we're not having that, this is exploitation, and come up with an ingenious method of saving the musician's skin, er, most of it that is. Again, this moves at a snail's pace, yet was so genuinely strange that it did command the attention; the final segment, about the tale left dangling, tells you what to anticipate and seems to be saying something about storytelling expectations, then goes and slaps on its own punchline involving the hapless author which is weird enough, but lacking much resonance, and a curious note to finish on. Needless to say, if you wanted a feast for the eyes, and to an extent the ears too, Kwaidan was most welcome, but as it leaned so heavily on the artier side that anything remotely visceral was relegated to a scene or two. Admirably presented then, but a lot of it, and not exactly engrossing where it mattered - those crawling stories. Music by Tôru Takemitsu.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark


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