Follow TV Tropes


Film / Kwaidan

Go To

A 1964 film directed by Masaki Kobayashi, based on the Japanese ghost stories collected and translated by Lafcadio Hearn. The spelling "kwaidan" for "ghost story" is deliberately old-fashioned; the current romanization would be "kaidan."

The film is an anthology of four unrelated stories.

  • "Black Hair": A samurai divorces his poor but honest weaver wife to marry the daughter of a prominent family and thus advance his position.
  • "The Woman of the Snow": A woodcutter (Tatsuya Nakadai) encounters the Yuki-onna spirit and is spared on the condition that he tell no one of his experience.
  • "Earless Ho'ichi": A blind musician who specializes in the historical saga The Tale of the Heike has to make a command performance.
  • "In a Cup of Tea": An unfinished story about a samurai who sees someone else's reflection, and a possible reason the story was unfinished.

Kwaidan won a special jury prize at Cannes in 1965 and received a Best Foreign Film Oscar nomination.

Tropes seen in this film include:

  • Adaptation Expansion: Hearn's original stories were just a couple pages long each, leading to this trope being put in full effect.
    • "Black Hair" The traitorous husband's trip to his new post and wife, which was just alluded to, is added, alongside a glimpse into their horrible married life which sours their relationship. The infamous "haunting" is also heavily expanded from a simple paragraph to a horrifying eight minute sequence.
    • "Earless Ho'ichi" already his longest tale gets this most, ending at roughly an hour and fifteen minutes (a length that would make it it's own standalone movie!); it begins with a retelling of the final Genji-Heike battle, only alluded to in the literary version, in full vivid detail, showcasing the mayhem of the naval battle with grim realism and amazing spectacle. The "present" sections are also heavily expanded; the various monks and helpers who were just one offs are turned into real side characters, the day to day life of Hochi and the temple staff are shown and the actual hauntings are also heavily expanded. It also gets an extended epilogue.
    • "In a Cup of Tea" was only one paragraph long; to begin with a "modern" subplot is added as the start and ending of the tale, detailing the author's experiences writing the unfinished story, and the author's editor coming to pick up his work. The experience of the Samurai on his homelife is similarly added, and there's a very prolonged fight between the "swallowed" Lord's retainers at the very end.
  • Affably Evil: The Ghosts of the Heike retainers, are very courteous in their interactions with Hochi (as expected of the Samurai class), and might not even be aware they're draining the life out of him, by taking him on these midnight extrusions.
  • Anthology Film: Four horror stories.
  • Bed Mate Reveal: In "Black Hair," the samurai finally returns home to his former wife, and they share a night of passion. The next morning, he awakens to find that he's lying next to a long-decayed corpse.
  • Big Bad:
    • "The Black Hair": The samurai's first wife, who died after he left her and seeks a terrible vengeance.
    • "The Woman of the Snow": The Yuki-onna, a snow woman who freezes people to death.
    • "Hoichi the Earless": Emperor Antoku, who presides over a court of life-draining phantoms.
    • "In a Cup of Tea": Heinai Shikibu, a ghost seeking vengeance on the samurai who drank his soul.
  • Big Badass Battle Sequence: The Battle of Dan-no-ura from "Hochi the Earless", which spot-lights the most infamous naval battle in Japan's history. In easily the most visually impressive sequence of the entire movie, it features dozens of fully armed soldiers fighting on warships, mass-volley's of arrow-fire, ships burning, and a river of blood.
  • Bilingual Bonus: You might be able to guess the ending of 'The Woman of the Snow" anyway, but if you know that "Yuki"—the name of the woodcutter's wife—is the Japanese for "snow", you'll definitely guess the ending.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The ending of “Earless Ho’ichi.” Ho’ichi has lost his outer ears and gone through a traumatic experience... but his story makes him famous, he ends up becoming a wealthy singer, and more importantly for him, he has a purpose in life, singing to honor the dead, and hopefully giving them some measure of peace. This is in marked contrast to the other three stories, each of which has a decidedly Downer Ending.
  • Blue-and-Orange Morality: The Yuki-onna seems to truly love the woodcutter and the family she made with him. However, Minokichi's promise to never reveal her existence takes priority over everything else. The fact that he's revealing her existence to herself doesn't matter.
  • Book Ends: The man's expression as he looks at the reflection at the end of "In a Cup of Tea" echoes that of the samurai at the end of "Black Hair."
  • Downer Ending:
    • "The Black Hair": The samurai realizes the folly of his greed and returns to his first wife. After a night of passion with her, he awakens to learn he slept with her corpse, and her vengeful spirit kills him via Rapid Aging.
    • "The Woman of the Snow": After ten years of marital bliss, Minokichi tells his wife about his encounter with the Yuki-onna. She then reveals she is the Yuki-onna, and abandons him in a rage, threatening to kill him if he harms their children. In his grief, Minokichi leaves out a pair of sandals he made for his wife, and ohs takes them, indicating she's not happy with the situation either.
    • "In a Cup of Tea": Sekinai gets in an epic battle against Shikibu's retainers, slowly going mad... Cut to the story's publisher looking for the author, who went missing. After finding a note where the writer describes his writer's block, the publisher and the writer's wife are horrified to see the writer's own soul has been trapped in some tea.
  • Dutch Angle: Used for most of the final few moments of "Black Hair", after the samurai realizes that his wife is actually a desiccated corpse.
  • Even Evil Has Loved Ones: Minokichi's wife Yuki reveals herself as the Yuki-onna he met ten years ago once he breaks his promise to never tell anyone about her. By all appearances, she will kill him... but she can't bring herself to do so because she genuinely fell for him. She also sincerely loves her children, is grief-stricken to have to leave them and warns Minokichi to never harm them in any way. In his shame and grief, he places sandals he just made for her outside that disappear in the snow, implying she accepts them as a final gift to remember him by.
  • Forbidden Fruit: The woodcutter must tell no one of his encounter with the yuki-onna, not even his wife. Eventually, he feels compelled to do it.
  • Foregone Conclusion: "Earless Ho'ichi."
  • Four-Star Badass: General Taira no Tomomori, the Heike Clan's supreme commander. He's shown cutting through the Minamoto clan soldiers like a hot knife through butter, and it takes a dozen arrows to finally fell him.
  • Giant Eye of Doom: In "The Woman of the Snow", a giant eye, presumably a manifestation of the yuki-onna, appears and is watching the woodcutters as they stagger through the blizzard.
  • Gold Digger: The samurai in "Black Hair" is a male variant: he abandons his first wife to marry a woman who can give him access to more wealth and power.
  • An Ice Person: The Yuki-onna, who is the personification of freezing to death.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: The monks and the temple helpers (barring the head-monk, whose a Nice Guy) all seem to be amused by Hoichi's disability and occasionally make snarky comments at his expense, but they care about him, and none hesitate to put their lives on the line as soon as his life is in real danger.
  • Interspecies Romance: Or so the woodcutter discovers when his loving wife reveals herself as the yuki-onna.
  • Mama Bear: The Yukionna is this to her children for certain. She outright states that if any harm comes to them or if Minokichi mistreats them in any way, she will kill him.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: The samurai in "Black Hair" eventually realizes his mistake in abandoning his first wife. However, by the time he finally returns, its far far too late.
  • No Ending: The samurai's story in "In a Cup of Tea.'
  • One-Man Army: Much of the Battle of Dan-no-ura is dedicated to showing General Taira's one-man rampage against the Minamato navy.
  • One-Word Title: Kwaidan.
  • Our Ghosts Are Different: These look the same as they did in life, and are stuck among the living due to Unfinished Business. They can shift between corporeal and incorporeal at will, alongside turning invisible. Otherwise their powers vary greatly, with some even having the ability to cast illusions or cause Rapid Aging.
  • Our Souls Are Different: These resemble their bodies, and can be drank by others. They are not the same as a person's ghost, but the soul being harmed does harm the ghost.
  • Our Vampires Are Different: Yuki-onna are shown to be vampiric Youkai as opposed to the ghosts of the rest of the film. They resemble beautiful pale women that absorb people's blood, causing them to freeze to death. They can call upon blizzards, but resemble humans when not doing so. They can even reproduce with humans.
  • Prehensile Hair: The samurai in "Black Hair" is obsessed with his former wife's hair, so it shouldn't come as a shock that he sees the hair coming after him at the end of the episode.
  • Protective Charm: Hoichi's master writes a magic inscription all over every inch of his body, which makes him invisible to the spirit of the dead warrior. Unfortunately, the master forgets Hoichi's ears.
  • Rule of Three: "In a Cup of Tea", the samurai tosses away the water when he sees the stranger's reflection twice, but the third time he drinks.
  • Scenery Porn: The visuals of Kwaidan are still considered breathtaking; the sets were all lovingly hand-crafted and feature brightly colored, painted backgrounds that really give an ethereal atmosphere. When you combine that, with the elaborate sets, vivid costumes, and otherworldly, but still sparklingly lightning, you have a beautiful movie.
  • Snow Means Death: It certainly does when you're meeting a yuki-onna snow demon.
  • Untranslated Title: Kwaidan is Japanese for Ghost Stories.
  • White-and-Grey Morality:
    • "The Woman of the Snow": Minokichi is shown to be a truly kind man, whose only flaw is breaking a promise he kept for a decade. The Yuki-onna is a frightening snow being who freezes people to death, but it's strongly implied this is just part of her nature and she's also a loving wife and mother.
    • "Hoichi the Earless": Hoichi and the monks are shown to be incredibly kind, with the former's only flaw being a tendency to keep secrets from the latter. The Heike are life-draining ghosts, but also deeply Tragic Monsters stuck reliving the trauma of their deaths.
  • Vengeful Ghost: All of them. Despite some having a benign appearance at first, the spirits in these stories are not friendly.
  • Yuki-onna: The title character of "The Woman of the Snow", a snow demon who takes mercy on a young woodcutter.