Blog Directory CineVerse: Far out tales from the Far East

Far out tales from the Far East

Thursday, October 19, 2017

It doesn't boast much action. Its pace may be glacier slow for many Westerners. And many would scoff at categorizing it as a "horror film." But Masaki Kobayashi's "Kwaidan" is still considered one of the greatest of all horror anthology movies. On the strength of its unforgettable visuals alone, here is a picture that can leave a memorably macabre imprint and implant an unshakable feeling of foreboding doom and dread. After discussing the movie last evening during our CineVerse meetings, here were the major takeaways we concluded:


  • The stylized and artificial sets and colors; the filmmakers seem to be purposely trying to avoid realism and instead portray an exaggerated, expressionistic simulation of reality in which visuals and sound are hyperbolic manifestations of a particular character’s mindset or experience.
  • The craftsmanship evident is meticulous; this was the most costly Japanese movie to date; it was photographed nearly completely on hand-painted sets within a giant airplane hangar, providing a needed sense of vast scope that enabled the use of extreme widescreen (2.35:1) to portray extra wide compositions.
  • The soundtrack abandons traditional over-dramatic horror/mystery music, instead relying on outlandish instruments and objects to generate unsettling noises and music. Essayist Gwendolyn Foster wrote: “Toru Takemitsu’s bold and modern soundtrack, which deftly avoids the clich├ęs of conventional film music…uses expressionist sounds, and bizarre instrumentation interspersed with sections of uneasy quiet and deliberately disarms the spectator, while simultaneously weaving a spell that draws the viewer further into Kobayashi’s colourful and highly stylized realm.”
  • The horror isn’t violent, graphic or traditionally shocking. Instead, it evokes an eerie, otherworldly atmosphere and a milieu in which the characters seem to be drifting between two states—the real world and the supernatural world, which often blend together. Foster further suggested: “Kwaidan is a film of nuance and restraint, despite the excesses of sound design and wildly stylized visuals. Kobayashi’s misc en scene is deliberate and proceeds with the assurance of dream-like logic, or the lack thereof. Kwaidan is a psychological horror film for those who are seeking an utterly immersive experience, in which the viewer is gradually seduced by the deeply saturated colour, the expressiveness of the seemingly vast hand built studio sets, and the sheer time factor. In its visual and thematic structure, Kwaidan is ultimately an expressionist fairy tale for adults, in which all is artifice, and yet at the same time mesmerizingly real.”
  • The film feels decidedly Eastern in its sensibilities, yet comprehensible to Westerners. Consider that the source material comes from Japanese folk tales reinterpreted by a westerner—Lafcaido Hearn, an Irish-Greek writer who lived in Japan—and was inspired by woodblock printmaking of the 17th century Edo period and Kabuki theater. Yet, the stories would fit right in with western-style anthology horror and thriller texts like The Twilight Zone.
  • Cosmic karma: how breaking your promise can come back to haunt you.
  • The dangers of venturing beyond the normal limits of safe reality. Criterion Collection essayist Geoffrey O’Brien wrote: “These are not tales that point to any obvious moral other than the danger of venturing, deliberately or by accident, beyond the invisible barriers that mark the limits of the human world. What lies beyond those barriers is the domain of supernatural terror, but it is also the domain of art. In Kwaidan, beauty is not decoration but a direct link to unknown and perilous realms.”
  • The terrifyingly cold and vast emptiness of the universe. “The three main stories of Kwaidan offer no escape. The gorgeousness of their painted skies and otherworldly color schemes, the transparent unreality of everything we see, all the bravura touches of stylization, only emphasize that one may travel to the farthest reaches of the imagination only to find at last a great and terrifying void,” noted O’Brien.
  • “Hauntedness as a state of Japanese existence,” according to Slant Magazine’s Carson Lund. “. Kobayashi’s gambit is to contextualize these hauntings in political terms, as reflections of deep-seated anxieties within Japan as a result of its strict moral codes…(the film) seems as much a cautionary message to Japanese audiences on the danger of following the mistakes of history.”
  • Black River
  • The Human Condition I, II, and III
  • Harakiri
  • Suspiria, with its lavish and exaggerated color
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Shining, two Kubrick films that share a sense of cold, expansive and hermetic space

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