East Bay View (a blog about several things)

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Sunday, February 19, 2006

Canonball #996: Kwaidan

Starring Mikuni Rentaro, Nadakai Tatsuya, Nakamura Katsuo, Nakamura Kanemon
Screenplay by Mizuki YĆ“ko, from stories by Lafcadio Hearn

Directed by Kobayashi Masaki

A yokai or two turn up in Kwaidan, but it's mostly about the ghosts. It's an anthology of four traditional stories retold in the book Kaidan by Yakumo Koizumi, alias Lafcadio Hearn, a Irishman who was born in Greece and died in Japan, while living in America long enough to get hounded out of Cincinnati for marrying a mixed race woman. (Forgotten today, he's an important figure, shaping common perceptions of both New Orleans and Japan.) In the movie, a samurai remarried into status regrets leaving his first wife. A woodcutter, whose life has been spared by a demon, finds love. The biwa player Blind Hoichi McTell plays for a long-extinct Imperial court. And a writer never finishes his tale of the man in a bowl of tea. The plots are simple and functional; it's the narration that adds suspense, as in Poe.

This is horror in the way that many fables are horror, drawing on your fear of your reasonably satisfying life being disturbed, even if we rationalists don't think resurrected martyred samurai are the problem. The women don't have much to do except be good, or evil, or dead, but the everymen get more room to show that the psychologically simple can be emotionally rich, while also fulfilling the equally important task of looking petrified at appropriate moments. Nadakai Tatsuya is particularly sensitive as the man who can't believe his luck in finding the perfect wife: she's beautiful, loving and don't forget obedient. Of course, since he doesn't credit his wife with any deeper motivations, he doesn't realise it's his obedience that's the key to his happiness.

Kobayashi wrecks any preconceptions you might have about a Japanese style: this isn't Ugetsu, spooky tracking shots notwithstanding. It's as saturated with symbolic colour, blue-robed nobles plunging into blood seas, as anything I've seen by his contemporary Suzuki Seijun, but there's a stillness at the heart of the film that seems very antiquarian. This is most notable in the sound mix: traditional instruments are used for effects, with synchronisation less important than mood: percussion acts as punctuation. The past is appealing because everything unravels so formally -- even amputation. Nice place to visit, wouldn't want to live there.


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