Kobayashi's Kwaidan: Horror, History, and Culture

  • Swarnavel Eswaran Michigan State University
Keywords: Horror Cinema, Japanese Horror, Kwaidan, Masaki Kobayashi, Snow Woman, Painted Backdrops, Surveillenec, Postwar Cinema


This essay focuses on the uniqueness of Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan through the lenses of history and culture, for instance, the significance of hair, not just as an abject figure, as seminally theorized by Julia Kristeva, but as symbolic of the avenging spirit of a distinct woman, a trait not uncommon in the East. Similarly, the significance of the ears to the musician: it has to do with art, as detailed by scholars, but more importantly, with Kobayashi’s history during wartime. The final episode often considered inferior to the other episodes by critics, is arguably the most effective invocation of the specter to indict the erasure of homosexuality in the official history of the male-centric Samurai world and, thereby, wartime Japan. Additionally, the second story of the Yoko-onna––the snow woman, at the intersection of the material and the ethereal deconstructs the angry ghost by positing it as the mindless victim of the militarist system by disavowing any personal reason for her murderous action. This essay interrogates the importance of causality through her behavior. Through such a reading, I want to draw attention to the cultural specificity of Kwaidan in engaging with the horror genre to address the specters which haunt the Japanese psyche. The disregard of a loving and caring wife and the inattention to the words of a wife who is seductive but part of the system, the possibility of music to evoke nostalgia and simultaneously mourn loss/destruction point to Kwaidan’s investment in the sensorium through sight and sound. Furthermore, the teacup that instead of leading to a meditative state, as entrenched in the popular imaginary regarding the Eastern ritual of tea drinking, invokes a past and simultaneously threatens the present, and leads us through the eruption of transgressive desire to the rupture of the apparent calmness and control of heteropatriarchy. Most important, Kobayashi’s ornate sets, stylized framing, and mise-en-scene, and Toru Takemitsu’s experimental music point to their predilection for art and sensuosity to layer the surface and delineate the uncanniness of the specter and play with its ephemeral quality through presence and absence rather than one of unswerving fearsomeness and devastation/conquest like in much cinema in the West where the ghost is posited as a binary opposite to be yielded to or challenged. Thus, the point of entry into Kwaidan is in reading it as a specter of history and departure is analyzing it as an exemplar of the horror genre predicated on the specificity of culture that privileges the sensorium.