Kwaidan (1965) (which means "ghost stories") is a 182-minute horror film directed by Masaki Kobayashi. Based on Lafcadio Hearn's stories, mostly from his collection entitled Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things, the movie consists of four unconnected 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 I moved to Japan in 1996. A couple years later, I visited the grave of Oiwa Tamiya in Sugamo for a magazine article I'd been working on about Yotsuya Kaidan. I still have a photograph of her grave (off of which a smoke spiral appears to be rising—I swear no incense was burning there when I snapped the shot). Around that time I also read Hearn's collection and discovered how different Japanese ghost stories are compared to haunting tales in the West, particularly with respect to their deeply melancholic themes and morose female spirits, the otherworldly ways they depict the horrific consequences of injustice, and how so many of them were penned or otherwise passed on to instill in us a reverence for the dead on a par with that we must hold for the living (or else).
Especially remarkable about Kwaidan are the vivid, ofttimes unsettling sets and the 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 truly mesmerizing, and watching them I felt spellbound but tense, knowing this folkloric preternatural world Kobayashi created for us is implacable, that sooner or later it's tortured souls would be roused with blood-curdling passion and vindictiveness . . . that the snow woman would freeze an old man with her icy breath, that a wandering spirit would tear the ears off a blind musician.
Kwaidan must be watched. All four stories are entrancing, and I particularly enjoyed "The Woman of the Snow" for its patience in allowing its story to unfold, for the blizzard and other weather-related effects, and for those all-seeing skies with their unnerving ever-watching eyes.