Friday, August 27, 2010


We’re back once more in 1960s Japan for another supernatural tale. Actually, in this case we’re back for four supernatural tales, as the HROHFYSSBYD finally arrives at its first anthology. I know some horror fans don’t really like anthologies under the argument that there’s always one story that’s not as good as the rest, but that’s just foolish talk. When done properly, an anthology gives you several good stories, all short enough that they don’t have time to wear out their welcome like the majority of horror movies end up doing. This one (based on the stories by Lafcadio Hearn) is one of the best I’ve ever seen, though it does tend to be more of an art house horror film than something more instantly crowd-pleasing like Creepshow.
The four stories (titled “The Black Hair”, “The Woman of the Snow”, “Hoichi, the Earless”, and “In a Cup of Tea”) mostly function more as traditional ghost stories rather than outright spooky horror stories, giving us tales designed to evoke feelings of melancholy and loss rather than fright or shock. The first gives us the story of an impoverished samurai who decides to gain a new fortune by leaving his wife and seeking fame with a new lord and family. Years later, he regrets his actions, and returns home to find his old wife still waiting for him, looking perhaps a little too perfectly like she did when he left. In the second, a young woodcutter and his master are caught in a terrible blizzard and try to take refuge in a seemingly abandoned cottage. Unfortunately, they find the Woman of the Snow in there, who kills the master and promises to let the younger one live as long as he never tells anyone else what has happened for as long as he lived. Years later, he finds himself with a wife and three kids and makes a very bad decision. The third, and my favorite, follows a blind musician at a temple who attracts the attention of the Heike royalty, whose ghosts have haunted the area since their deaths in battle seven hundred years prior. The head priest, discovering his night time travels and seeing the effects on his health, tries to help him repel the ghosts, but makes a terrible error in doing so. The final, and most bizarre, follows a samurai who sees the reflection of another man inside of his cup of tea. Later, he encounters the man himself, but after trying to stab him with his sword finds that the man disappears when stabbed. It’s got a very unusual ending (some would even call it a non-ending) befitting its overall strangeness.

The film was directed by Masaki Kobayashi, who was mostly known for his incredible films like Harakiri and the Human Condition trilogy (both of which are available from Criterion, as is this), as he made his only horror movie as though he were making another serious dramatic work that just happened to have Japanese spirits in it. It’s an approach that really works, as it means that the very first thing you can say about each of the four stories is that they all look completely gorgeous. The stories themselves are fairly simplistic, and indeed somewhat repetitious (particularly the first two, which both revolve around a man who finds his wife is not what she seems), but are still done extremely well, to the point where I don’t know which one to point to as the weak link in the group. The third one is certainly the goriest (in fact, it’s the only bloody one) and the fourth is the weirdest, but that doesn’t make either stand out so far as quality goes, only in uniqueness.

This film should appeal to anyone that enjoys old ghost stories. It fits with the tone of them perfectly, giving us a film full of quiet sorrow and beauty. At over two and a half hours, it’s a bit on the lengthy side, but it’s a thoroughly absorbing, rewarding film, and one that should not be missed by anyone. While I certainly don’t have anything against filmmakers who spend their entire careers making horror movies like Wes Craven or George Romero, I always enjoy it when a major filmmaker known for his more serious films decides it’s time to make a horror movie, and that’s just what we get here. It’s like if Woody Allen or Martin Scorsese suddenly decided they had to make a horror movie (and no, Shadows & Fog and Shutter Island do not count, however good both films are) and just making something incredible in the process. We certainly could do with more films like this.

Rating: ****

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