The kaidan enjoyed great success on the big screen in the 1950s where there was a huge international interest in Japanese cinema thanks to Akira Kurosawa. The so-called kaidan eiga enjoyed much popularity during this era with works such as Ugetsu Monogatari (1953), Ghost Story of Yotsuya (1959), The Ghosts of Kasane Swamp (1959), Jigoku (1960), Oni Baba (1964), Illusion of Blood (1965) and Kuroneko/The Black Cat (1968), among others.
Kwaidan uses the long-honoured portmanteau format and is not dissimilar in many ways to tvs The Twilight Zone (1959-63) and the various Amicus anthology films around the same time beginning with Dr Terrors House of Horrors (1964). (Indeed, the Snow Woman segment was later borrowed wholesale and without credit as one of the stories in Tales from the Darkside: The Movie ). Kwaidan is also an attempt to tell horror stories from a specifically Japanese historical background. Despite the vast cultural differences between feudal Japan and the post-War America milieu of The Twilight Zone, it is surprising how similar many of the themes that run through these anthology stories are the greedy and selfish receiving just desserts punishment, that any dabbling with the supernatural will cruelly come back to visit he who unwarily plays.
Director Masaki Kobayashi has a strong flair for the artistic it is a genuine shame that he made no other genre films than Kwaidan for on display here is a talent that rivals that of Akira Kurosawa. All of the stories are set in the dynastic past, which is evoked with a command of cinematic artistry that is extraordinary. The film is conducted with a fascinated regard for formal ritual. The purpose of this is clearly one of contrast as when the supernatural does enter, its effect on established order is shattering like in Black Hair with the long ritual of the wife welcoming the samurai home, which is then shattered by his shock discovery of her skeleton and descent into hysteria; or the scene in Hoichi the Earless where the nanny steps into the sea holding the infant emperor with dream-like and ritual slowness, followed by the remaining soldiers. Kobayashi uses lighting schemes and colour contrasts with extraordinary effect shooting twilights that are both yellow and pink, snowy skylines that are like giant whorls, even one sky that looks like a giant birds eye. The effect is the creation of a wholly fantastic world where one is never sure whether it is photographed or it exists inside a studio. In Snow Queen, Kobayashi manages to change from the everyday to the eerily otherworldly within the space of a single shot simply by changing the lighting from normal warm colours to an otherworldly blue reflected off actress Keiko Kishis white-painted face.
Hoichi the Earless is the finest of the stories from its captivating recounting of the epic of the battle to the amazing images of the monks painting Hoichis body and the ghost warrior trying to find Hoichi, seen from his point-of-view as a blanked-out shape with only a pair of ears, to the shock ending. Snow Queen is also superb in its evocation of otherworldly mood. The other two stories are, although by no means poor, weaker in comparison. Black Hair is largely dependent on its twist ending so its effectiveness does not come until the end of the tale it may have worked better as one of the middle segments rather than the opening. In a Cup of Tea suffers from the same problems that the writer in the story acknowledges a lack of resolution.
In most cinematic release prints seen in the West in 1965, Snow Queen was cut and released as a separate short. (This was in order to reduce the films running time from three to a more commercial two hours). This is an odd artistic choice, considering that it is one of the best segments. Removing it leaves Hoichi the Earless bookended by Black Hair and In a Cup of Tea, which surely only weakens an otherwise exceptional film. The full film has however been restored for its video and dvd release.