Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Compassed by Spirits

To be effective, horror films often create a feeling of inescapable doom, of retribution brought down on the protagonist based on half-hidden, inflexible rules. 1964's Kwaidan (怪談) exemplifies this aesthetically and thematically. An anthology film consisting of four stories, each based on a Japanese folk tale, it's an eloquent portrayal of the tight logic of supernatural--or human subconscious--forces.

You might recognise these Heike crabs if you've seen Carl Sagan's Cosmos. In that series, Sagan talks about how superstitions throughout history have shaped the world in ways no-one consciously intended. The Heike crabs, he explains, were believed to be possessed by the souls of samurai who perished in the Battle of Dan-no-ura but what looks like a samurai mask on the back of the Heike is in fact due to artificial selection, fishermen over the centuries tossing these crabs back in the water for fear of upsetting the spirits, thereby allowing these crabs to pass down the genetic codes that create the face and multiply. The third story in Kwaidan concerns Hoichi (Katsuo Nakamura), a blind priest at a Buddhist temple who is invited to play the biwa and sing the tale of the battle by the ghosts of one side of the ancient battle. Takashi Shimura appears in a small role as the head priest and he knows there can only be one outcome in Hoichi's interactions with the dead.

This was a decade after Shimura stepped down from taking lead roles in Kurosawa films due to diminished ability to perform brought on by illness--I think he had a stroke that interfered with his ability to memorise lines--but he seems as good as ever in Kwaidan.

It's fitting to think of Carl Sagan and his discussion of superstition in Cosmos and how often beliefs in the sovereignty of non-existent gods or spirits resulted in death and destruction. Most of Kwaidan is shot on deliberately artificial looking indoor sets, giving the film a stylised look similar to The Ballad of Narayama or Gate of Hell with similar thematic purpose--creating the impression of a beautiful but confining world of human perception.

This is from the second story which is about the Japanese mythological figure the Yuki Onna, literally "Snow Woman". We see her eye painted on the sky, watching the two peasants long before we see her manifest in the form of a woman.

Tatsuya Nakadai stars as one of the peasants and Keiko Kishi plays the Yuki Onna. He watches her kill the other peasant but she spares him because she's attracted to him. But she warns him she'll kill him if he ever speaks of what he's seen--very much in the logic of superstition, her promise even seems to outweigh her love for him.

I would say, though, the two most effectively frightening stories are the first and last. The first story, about a married couple down on their luck and the husband abandoning the wife in order to accept an auspicious marriage arrangement, may seem to have a predictable ending at first. But its manner of executing that predictable ending is strikingly bizarre and brutal.

The final story is very short, featuring cameos from Haruko Sugimura and Ganjiro Nakamura--the former demonstrating an unexpected talent for horror screams. It's presented as an unfinished tale and the fact that it's unfinished works out to be another effective layer in the prison of supernatural malice.

No comments:

Post a Comment