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Kwaidan Offers Four Japanese Ghost Stories With Universal Themes


The longest of the four chapters in “Kwaidan” is the one that features the indelible image of Hoichi (Katsuo Nakamura) having the Heart Sūtra drawn all over his face. “Kwaidan” doubles as folk horror, and like “The Woman of the Snow,” this chapter opens with a shot establishing the topography (in this case, waves crashing against rocks, instead of snow falling among trees). “Hoichi the Earless” has an oblique beginning that puts us down in the middle of a sea battle as a voice chants out a recitation of it over a stringed instrument. Skies of fire and seas of blood are juxtaposed with murals or scroll paintings and the sense that history is coming to life before our eyes.

Hoichi is a blind biwa player who is summoned to perform for a court of imperial ghosts. As one leads him there by the hand, Hoichi says, “I don’t deserve such good fortune,” not really understanding the nature of his situation—that these are dead people. The ghosts want to hear the tale of their final battle, which we’ve just seen, recited the way only Hoichi can. 

It’s “A Portrait of the Artist as a Ghost Whisperer.” Hoichi communes with the dead more than the living, and there’s a danger in that for any of us, whether it be sifting through dead letters or the detritus of pop culture.

The final, abbreviated segment of “Kwaidan,” Chawan no Naka (“In a Cup of Tea”), describes itself as an unfinished “story about a man who swallows down another’s soul.” Kannai (Kan’emon Nakamura) beholds a face that is not his own reflected in his tea.

When you see a ghost, you can either drink it down or deny it. My advice would be not to deny “Kwaidan.”

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