Beautiful, if a little uneven due to the varying lengths and quality of the stories. Kwaidan is a visual treat, combining Japanese folklore and theater with what were then modern filmmaking techniques, gorgeous costuming, and some wonderful makeup effects. The performances are spectacular all around, with each sequence skillfully conveying a sense of growing dread.
Unfortunately for a portmanteau film, I find Kwaidan is completely dominated dominated by one story, “Hoichi the Earless.” It’s the longest of the four stories present in the film and feels like a mini-movie in its own right. If anything, it could probably have been broken out into a film of its own. I would be ok with this, as “Hoichi the Earless” was also my favorite story of the lot and feels like it possesses the most weight, both from its emphasis on Japanese history as well as its pulling from the Japanese epic The Tale of the Heike…and the acting of Takashi Shimura. I love Takashi Shimura. It’s gruesome and beautiful at the same time.
The other stories play lesser roles that, while still effective, serve more as a build up and cool down for “Hoichi the Earless.” “The Woman of the Snow” is eerie and beautiful, “The Black Hair” is shocking in its horror and dilapidation, and “In a Cup of Tea” features a half-finished story that results in madness and a sudden shock to punctuate the end.
Since the final story is half-done, it falls apart towards the end, and it lets the movie falter on its final notes. That’s a problem with this sort of anthology format, where a single misstep at the wrong time could bring down the entire production. Because of the domination of one story, the rest feel weak, and because of the collapse of the final story, the ending feels off. That’s why I can’t say Kwaidan is a perfect film; it’s an excellent film, but anyone interested in approaching this sort of horror film needs to really consider where stories fit, how they relate to each other, and how they’re going to influence the overall production. You know what happens when it goes right? You get Creepshow, which is amazing. When it goes wrong, you can end up with Creepshow 2.