Watching Kwaidan in 2020

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No genre ages on the screen quite like horror. CGI certainly comes in handy when you deal in realistic depictions of human injury and supernatural intercessions into the everyday world. This is particularly true when the success of these elements relies on a strong sense of visual atmosphere. A big studio budget doesn’t exactly hurt. It appears that successful horror cinema in the 21st century needs all the technical wizardry it can get.

But there are always exceptions, of course, and The Blair Witch Project seems like the go-to example every time this discussion comes up. Yes, it was made on a shoestring budget and went on to rake in a stunning turnaround upon its release. Part of this, however, is due to the promotional efforts that went into this project. There’s no denying that the ambiguity surrounding the “truth” of the Blair Witch legend worked in the film’s favor, even if you do believe that the film stands just fine on its own two feet. Nevertheless, it still feels like one of those things that could only “fool” mass audiences once.

But this isn’t yet another article about The Blair Witch Project.

We’re here to talk about the ravishing work of Japanese horror cinema, Kwaidan. In particular, I’m interested in convincing you that it’s still worth watching in 2020.

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Based on a series of folk tales collected by weird fiction staple Lufcadio Hearn, this 1965 film, like all cinema of its era, is at a severe technological disadvantage by current industry standards. Such a time gap, particularly given Kwaidan’s visual ambition, can truly stand out to modern viewers. While cinephiles seem to prefer to gloss over such differences in favor of a seemingly “objective” perspective that automatically places each film–rather academically, I might add–in its own historical context, this does little to guide casual audiences to a greater appreciation of the work in question. That’s why I feel the need to get this out of the way. Yes, Kwaidan can feel very dated, particularly in the multiple instances in the climax of the initial segment where the soundtrack seems to lag somewhere behind the action.

Yes, there’s very little in the way of special effects. Yes, the sets are blatantly fake. And yes, the backdrop is literally a series of still images throughout the film.

See? This isn’t quite the same as suspending your ultra-modern viewing standards for the length of a bit of the Hellraiser franchise.

Ignore all that.

Or better yet, pretend you’re watching a stage performance. Or do what I did: focus on the subtle and sometimes stunning interplay between the vivid colors of the illuminated backdrop and the action very meticulously unfolding before you. Watch the hollow, unmoving eyes in the sky throughout “The Woman of the Snow” as they watch two unsuspecting men stumble into another world in the midst of a blizzard below. Watch white clouds run with blood or burst into a towering blaze while two people grope innocently towards love. Listen to Hoichi the Earless as he sings the stunning tale of the Heike. Let the battle of Dan-no-ura unfold without interruption, and you’ll find that it’s less of a lengthy exposition and more a work of art on its own.

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Whatever you do, slow your mind, find your balance, and summon your patience. I’m here to tell you that Kwaidan is a joy that demands you to meet it on its own terms. It’s fitting that a few of the tales collected here savagely punish those who strive too vigilantly to control their fate. Like the Woman of the Snow herself, it’s best to accept this otherworldly beauty without the profanation of overthinking.

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What makes Kwaidan so unique, especially in the age of fast-paced, showy blockbuster horror affairs like Insidious, is that it is not simply a film. It’s an experience, one about as close enough to being “wholly other” in the realm of horror cinema as possible without alienating the audience. That this movie provides viewers the tools to adjust to this otherness–a slow, steady pace with an emphasis on the environment, much silence between bits of dialogue, scenery that, for all its artificiality, is musical as much as it is visual–elevates it grandly above the pitfalls of self-consciously experimental renderings of the weird. No, Kwaidan is not out to beat you over the head with its strangeness. It’s organically strange, a characteristic emerging from its subject matter that was generously allowed to stain every surface of this film. And that alone is worthy of celebration.

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This film isn’t simply a quaint relic from the past. All signs indicate that it similarly impressed audiences when it was released in ‘65. It won the Special Jury Prize at Cannes that year as well as a nomination for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards. Nevertheless, you really don’t hear fans of the weird lavishing praise on Kwaidan as you do, say, The Wicker Man. This is a damned shame.

It’s a shame to be expected, however, since this film does demand a certain imaginative openness from its viewers. I’m far from making the claim that watching Kwaidan is “good for you,” since I firmly believe that art doesn’t need the cheap, pragmatic apologetics of a society firmly imbedded in the cult of self improvement. Art is something wholly apart from the materialistic concerns of the everyday–it’s an experience closer to the outlying notions of (real) worship and play than the mundane exchange of small pains for petty gains. By this metric, Kwaidan is certainly a work of art; you should experience it for the same reasons you should experience all great films.

What I’m trying to convey is, like all subjective experiences, beyond words. Let this somber song unwound like a variegated sunset of dreams. Your time will not be wasted–in fact, you’ll find that time has politely withdrawn somewhere along the way and is waiting, an unwelcome but necessary companion, with your jacket at the exit.

–Justin A. Burnett


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