The following is one of the entries from my 100 Greatest Asian Films list, which I invite you to visit on this site if you haven’t already done so. — Dennis
An early twentieth-century Japanese folklorist of Irish and Greek descent, Lafcadio Hearn wrote the “strange tales” that Masaki Kobayashi’s Kaidan samples. This tense, spooky, stylized, painterly quartet of ghost stories transports us to another world in order to return us to human nature.
In “The Black Hair,” a samurai abandons his devoted wife and marries a governor’s daughter for the sake of career advancement, eventually abandoning her for his first wife, citing his thoughtless youth. But, as in Ugetsu (1953), the reunion is illusory, and the man here is punished for continuing selfishness; for doesn’t this motivate his abandonment of his second wife also? To underscore the point, the segment ends in a freeze-frame of his horrified face as he fails to exit a world of caustic memory and avenging ghosts.
“Woman of the Snow” features a supernatural snowstorm—trees dance in its thrashing winds—and culminates in the abandonment of a woodcutter by his wife over a broken pledge he made to a spirit in the storm. “Hoichi, the Earless” includes a ferocious battle at sea under a blood-orange sky and horrific revenge by ghosts of its warriors exacted against a blind musician for favoring pride over his sacred obligations to art and to the past. “In a Cup of Tea,” about a man who sees a stranger’s reflection in his cup of tea, is introduced by voiceover narration speculating on why some tales are left incomplete. After the cup falls to the floor, claiming being “wounded,” the stranger mysteriously appears in front of the man, de-materializes. The same thing happens to the aborted story! The author has vanished, too, leaving it to others to complete it so that he doesn’t disappoint. For us, the man has replaced the stranger at the bottom of the cup.
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