Sunday, October 10, 2010

Zen & Its Opposite: Kwaidan

Lafcadio Hearn helped popularize the distinct cultures of both the Crescent City and the land of the Rising Sun (where he is still well respected) to English speaking readers. The Irish Greek who naturalized in Japan via New Orleans remains best known for his ghostly tales adapted from Japanese folklore. The original Nipponophile, Hearn would have appreciated the premise behind Zen & Its Opposite, the Japan Society’s latest film series exploring the nexus of Zen Buddhism and the darker reaches of humanity. Appropriately, it starts this Friday with Kwaidan (trailer here), Masaki Kobayashi’s classic anthology film adaptation of four Hearn tales.

While Kobayashi needed three films to tell the story of his towering The Human Condition cycle, he was able to tell four stories within Kwaidan, albeit at a relatively generous running time 164 minutes. Fittingly for the Zen-inspired series, one is immediately struck by the lack of idle chatter therein. Of course, the samurai in the opening The Black Hair does not have much to say for himself. Divorcing his loyal wife to remarry into a connected family, he makes no pretenses of honor. However, he soon discovers why it took so long to marry off his shrewish new wife. For years, he pines the warm embrace of the wife he wronged and of course her long black tresses. If you are expecting a happy reunion though, you don’t understand the supernatural genre.

By contrast, young woodsman Minokichi seems to find domestic bliss in The Woman of the Snow, after being spared by the title spirit during a freak blizzard. She does so on the condition that he will never discuss the incident with anyone or she will immediately appear to finish the job. Hoichi the Earless then tells the story of a legendary blind biwa player living at a Buddhist monastery. Night after night a ghostly samurai takes him to recite the epic Battle of Dan-no-ura to the restless Heike spirits who lost to the Genji forces. Obviously, the very title telegraphs just how things will end up for Hoichi. Kwaidan concludes on a particularly strange note with In a Cup of Tea, a story of a samurai haunted by a spirit in his tea and the author who was unable to finish the tale. A rather clever narrative change-up, it still feels fresh in this game-playing postmodern age.

The quietness of Kwaidan makes the musical accents of avant-garde composer Tôru Takemitsu all the more unsettling. Yet it is the Daliesque landscapes that truly give the film its unworldly character. Eschewing realism, its haunted forests and eyeball filled skies are some of the most striking imagery ever immortalized on color film. True, there are not a lot of surprises in store for viewers, but Kobayashi ratchets up the tension quite effectively as viewers wait for the expected inevitable to happen. Indeed, many relatively early manifestations of j-horror tropes can be found in Kwaidan, like the supernaturally long flowing black hair and the malevolent spirits seen in reflections.

Connoisseurs of Japanese cinema will appreciate the first rate cast as well, including Tatsuya Nakadai frankly looking a bit old for the eighteen year Minokichi, but perfectly suiting the woodsman as a supposedly more mature family man. Though not as cute as she was in Ozu’s Early Spring, Keiko Kishi still makes quite an impression as his wife Yuki. Also keep an eye out for the always watchable Kurosawa regular Takashi Shimura as the head priest in Hoichi. Perhaps most haunting though is Michiyo Aratama, luminous in Kobayashi’s Human Condition, both poignant and disquieting here as aggrieved first wife of Black Hair.

Arguably, Kwaidan is the greatest realization of the horror movie as high art. Sumptuous to look at, while appropriately atmospheric and creepy, it is a work of strange beauty that should be even more rewarding on the large screen of the Japan Society’s first class theater. Highly recommended, it kicks off Zen & Its Opposites this Friday (10/15).