Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan


(Japan, 1964)

(The title means, literally, ghost story.) Lafcadio Hearn was a strange sort of fellow. After a writing career in Ireland, Cincinnati, and New Orleans, he was sent to Japan in 1890 and fell in love with the place. He married a woman from a samurai family, became a naturalized citizen, and changed his name to Koizumi Setsu. Then he started writing articles and stories that helped introduced Westerners to the very exotic culture of Japan. This movie consists of four spooky stories written by him.

Even today, in the twenty-first century, there is much that is still extremely exotic to us about feudal Japan, its culture and esthetics and, maybe most of all, ritual. (Hell, even today there is much about Japanese culture that is quite strange to Westerners.) I sometimes wonder if they had rituals for things like trimming one’s toenails or emptying the chamberpots. I mean, they make a big magilla out of pouring a pot of tea, for chrissake. Not that I mind, it is said to be beautiful. But I’m an impatient Westerner, and the one thing that can interfere with my enjoyment of a film set in this period (until I get a grip on myself, that is) is the glacial pace of life as shown in these films. I realize that it’s based on stylized Noh drama, that in real life things were almost certainly a lot more hot-blooded and a lot less spic-and-span. But I watch some of these scenes with people sitting motionless in their outrageous kimonos and hats, staring straight ahead with a bowl of rice sitting untouched in front of them, from time to time belting out a line from deep, deep in the gut, and I find myself thinking, “Real party animals, these Japanese.” (Japanese men always speak gutturally, and loudly, and quickly; Japanese women always speak softly and musically. Why is that?) Then they stretch out on a quarter-inch-thick mat and rest their heads on a block of wood. It was a very austere culture.

Having said all that, I love Japanese films like this. This is one of the best. The color photography and set design is outrageously, lushly, stunningly beautiful. And the stories are all suitably spooky.

The Black Hair. A samurai fallen on hard times abandons his wife and takes up service with an important man in a distant province, marrying his daughter. But he finds he regrets his decision, can’t get his first wife out of his mind. Years later, he returns to her, and … but I can’t tell that.

The Woman of the Snow. If Salvador Dali designed the sky, it would look like the one in this segment, set on a huge sound stage knee-deep in studio snow. Vast eyes look down on the action, swirls of primary colors hint at clouds, and at madness. Two woodcutters seek shelter from a snowstorm in a small shack. They are visited by a Yuki-onna (snow witch), who freezes the old man but lets the young one live because of his youth. But if he ever tells anyone, anyone at all, about what happened, she will know it, and return and kill him. Later, he marries a young woman named Yuki …

Hoichi the Earless. The Battle of Dan-no-ura would be as familiar to Japanese audiences as … oh, let’s say Trafalgar would be to a Brit, or Gettysburg to an American. Seven hundred years ago two samurai clans on boats met in a narrow bay, and one was decisively defeated. Legend has it that the six-year-old Emperor Antoku was killed by his mother as she flung herself into the sea, along with a lot of others when they saw the battle was lost. The fight is filmed in a vast studio tank, with the warriors standing motionless on their little boats until battle is joined. These shots alternate with lovely paintings. It is way beyond gorgeous.

(Aside: This is the battle that Carl Sagan talked about in the original Cosmos, concerning the Heiki crabs whose carapaces look like samurai warriors and are believed to be the reincarnated spirits of the combatants. He theorized that it was a case of unintentional artificial selection. The fishermen who caught them tossed back the ones with faces. Over seven hundred years, the chances increased that such crabs would breed, and now they all look that way. This rather cool hypothesis had been disputed and seems unlikely now.)

Many years later young Hoichi, a biwa hochi (biwa player), the new boy at a Buddhist temple, is visited by a samurai spirit. Being blind, he doesn’t know he’s being taken to a graveyard instead of the home of a great noble. There, he is asked to sing and chant the long, long story of the battle. It runs to over a hundred verses, so night after night he plays to these magnificently dressed ghosts in a great palace, which we see and he doesn’t. The head priest (the great Takashi Shimura) learns of this, and says Hoichi is in great danger. They cover every inch of his skin with sacred texts (a really, really great visual image) to protect him, but they forget about the ears. When the samurai comes for him, all he can see is the ears. So he tears them off.

There is a nice little coda. People come from all over Japan to listen to the singin’ and pickin’ of Hoichi the Earless. He becomes a very rich man! This is my favorite of the four stories.

In a Cup of Tea. Set in the year 1900. The least effective of these stories, in my opinion. We are told that many fragments of old Japanese stories exist. Why did the author stop writing them? We see a man sitting at his desk, writing, and then go to the tale of a samurai who starts seeing a face in a cup of water. (We never see the face in a cup of tea, because the man is too scared to look into a liquid again.) Then he is besieged by ghosts, which he fights. He seems to have killed them, but they keep coming back. And then … well, we cut back to the writer, whose reflection has been imprisoned in a well. Kind of a cheat, I thought.