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Film / Kwaidan

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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 too, 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 get's 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.
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    • "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 their 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 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.
  • Bookends: 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."
  • Dutch Angle: Used for most of the final few moments of "Black Hair", after the samurai realizes that his wife is actually a dessicated corpse.
  • 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 hestiate 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.
  • 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.
  • Our Ghosts Are Different: Generally speaking the Ghosts in Kwaidan are depicted as having Unfinished Business, are vary greatly otherwise in terms of powers, personality, and level of aggression.
  • Our Souls Are Different: "In a Cup of Tea." Can't get much different then being able to drink and swallow it while it manifests in your tea-cup as a laughing face.
  • 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 warriror. 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.
  • 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.