Kwaidan (1965) (meaning "ghost stories") is a 182-minute horror film directed by Masaki Kobayashi. Based on works by Lafcadio Hearn, mostly from his collection Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things, the movie is composed of four independent tales: The Black Hair, The Woman of the Snow, Hoichi the Earless, and In a Cup of Tea.
I've been fascinated by Japanese ghost stories since first coming to Japan in the mid-90s. It was around then that I visited the grave of Oiwa Tamiya in Sugamo, Tokyo, for a magazine article I'd been working on about Yotsuya Kaidan. As the story goes, Oiwa was betrayed by her husband, the ronin Iemon, and after being poisoned to death she seeks revenge as a mournful, hateful ghost. I still have a photograph of her grave, and in the photo a spiral of smoke appears to be rising out of the stone monument. After I took the picture, I checked to see if any incense was burning. None was.
Around that time, I was also reading Hearn and discovering how different Japanese ghost stories are compared to the haunting tales of the West, particularly so for their deeply melancholic themes and their morose, unyielding female spirits, and the otherworldly ways of depicting the horrific consequences of injustice. How so many of these stories were passed on to instill in us a reverence for the dead, equal to that which we must hold for the living, or else.
Kwaidan is remarkable for its vivid, unsettling sets and also for its soundtrack (frequent long stretches of silence offset by screechy Japanese folk instruments and splintering wood). Roger Ebert described the film as "an assembly of ghost stories that is among the most beautiful films I've seen." The scenes are mesmerizing throughout. They make you feel spellbound and tense, and aware that this preternatural world Kobayashi has created is forever implacable. That its tortured, vindictive souls will be roused with a blood-curdling passion. That the snow woman will freeze the old man with her icy breath. That a wandering spirit will rip the ears off the blind musician.
All four stories entrance, but "The Woman of the Snow" stands out for its patience in allowing the story to unfold at just the right pace. Also for the blizzard and other disturbing weather, like those all-seeing skies with their ever-watchful eyes.