The Japanese classic film "Kwaidan" is a perfect example of understated yet effective horror storytelling.
The first time I came across Masaki Kobayashi’s “Kwaidan” (1964) was several years ago, when it was shown in one of our Film classes in college. But as much as it embarrasses me to admit it, I fell asleep at certain parts of it so I didn’t really understand the whole thing. I’d like to think that today I have much more tolerance when it comes to film viewing, so for the last few months I’ve been spending my free time catching up on old films. Last night, it was “Kwaidan.”
“Kwaidan” is an award-winning, critically-acclaimed anthology film made up of four short, unrelated stories based on folk tales penned by Lafcadio Hearn. The stories are shown as follows: “The Black Hair,” “The Woman of the Snow,” “Hoichi the Earless,” and “In a Cup of Tea.” Among all four stories, I liked “Hoichi the Earless” the most. Admittedly I found it a bit boring at the beginning – it’s actually the longest segment – but the story ultimately proved to be a very good one.
In contrast to Western horror movies, which often employ gore and shock to thrill their audiences, Japanese movies (as well as other Asian movies in this genre, too) are usually quiet and understated. In “Kwaidan,” the characters have calculated, slow movements. It has a rather unusual score, a combination of ambient sounds and string instruments, and, unlike the norm, it goes almost completely quiet altogether at certain climactic scenes. There’s a slow, almost draggy, build up to the end of every story, but it only serves to keep the audience at the edge of their seats.
Nevertheless, it’s this understated nature that actually plays more with the viewers’ imaginations to make things appear scarier than they really are. Personally, I think there’s just something a bit more disconcerting and haunting about a story on the paranormal and the unknown.
Like this article? Check out our articles from the Friday Movie Flashback series in the Lomography magazine!