"Kwaidan" is director Masaki Kobayashi's visual masterpiece, though by no means his greatest film (that honor would belong to "Harakiri"). At the time of it's release, "Kwaidan" was the most expensive Japanese production ever made, with an incredible 350 million yen budget, and it's elaborate sets would suggest just that. At first glance one would assume that the film was made 'on location', as the sets are so expansive giving the viewer the impression of an actual time and place, yet the backdrops would suggest that the film was obviously shot on a set with painted backgrounds. The truth of the matter is that Kobayashi's vision was so great that no set could accommodate what he envisioned, so the film was shot in an aircraft hanger. Needless to say, Kobayashi's vision completely eclipsed what was allowed by the studio, and he was ultimately fired. That should give you an idea of how impressive a production this was (by 1964 standards).
Now, onto the film... One would be right to assume that, as this is a collection of ghost stories, that the film could essentially be classified in the genre of horror. This isn't really the case however, as the film (or films, as they are four independent stories, with no connecting narrative) puts more emphasis on the emotional build up to the climax than it does each film's horrific “punch line”. The characters are all 'real people', albeit significantly flawed. Take for instance the first short, titled “The Black Hair”, which arguably contains the most frightening climax of the four films – A man leaves his wife, as he's tired of living in poverty, and marries another. His new wife, although carrying a much greater social stature, makes him miserable, and he longs for the love he had with his previous wife. So, kicking his new wife to the proverbial curb, he heads back to the woman that truly made him happy in an effort to reconcile.
I absolutely hate giving away any sort of significant aspects of the plot in my reviews, but as I believe it is essential in explaining what differentiates Kwaidan from other, more modern horror films, I must do it. So... consider skipping the following paragraph if you have no desire to learn the outcome of the first story.
He finds his wife, exactly where he left her, they talk and make nice, agreeing that they need each other, and the man was completely wrong to leave her in the first place. e wants his old life back, if she's willing to accept him, and she is. It's the most wonderful night the man has had in years. His wife and his home are exactly as he remembers, it's as if nothing's changed. Upon waking in the middle of the night, the man discovers that all is not exactly as he remembers it. The house is in ruins, after years of neglect, and lying next to him is not the lovely wife he spent the night with, only her skeletal remains.
This particular short has what I believe is the most frightening conclusion of all the shorts, however, the film isn't about scaring the audience. There is certainly an ample amount of atmospheric tension, as Kobayashi likes to remove all the sound from a sequence and replace it with Toru Takemitsu's shrieking score, creating some genuinely unsettling sequences. "Kwaidan" is about the more dramatic aspects of ghosts, however. Ghosts are tortured spirits, and while we view them as frightening, there are emotions that are imbued within the characters that are too often neglected by filmmakers who's main concern is to exploit them for shocks and scares.
Take for example, the story I discussed above, “The Black Hair”, the story is not about the ghost... No, it's about the man, living with his decision. He's given one night to appreciate what he'd lost, only to have it taken away. A fitting punishment, as too many of us take for granted what we have, and just as often have made mistakes we regret. There's no changing the past, though, all we can do is live with ourselves. As I know little about Japanese culture, I can hardly comment on the aspects of the film which are specific to the ways of Japan, all I can do is comment on the universal topics that "Kwaidan" deals with – love, loss, and the weaknesses that are inherent within our spirits, as human beings.
Each story offers up a similar 'moral', and as such, each is a beautiful story in it's own right, provided you can appreciate the sacrifice of scares for a more emotional form of storytelling. The film's influence is obvious, both on the modern cinema of Japan, and even the Americas, as one story was adapted for George Romero's horror anthology, "Tales from the Darkside". "Kwaidan"'s influence is undeniable, and it's translation of lingering spirits to the inadequacies of man is unparalleled in the world of horror cinema.