Kwaidan (or ‘kaidan’) is an old-fashioned term for a Japanese horror or ghost story. It’s also the name of a magical 1964 cinematic anthology of supernatural Japanese myths and legends, directed in 1964 by Masaki Kobayashi. Although you wouldn’t think it to look at it – with its simple, but elegant and highly-stylised painted backdrops, Kwaidan was one of the biggest budget and most elaborate Japanese film productions of that time.
As such, it’s a beautiful anomaly. It resembles theatre, really, more than any film that springs to mind. It was advertised as “a protest to modern society”. The producers seemed to think of legends as nurturing “the essence of the Japanese”, which was essential for their survival as a people. As we mentioned in our recent piece on AKIRA, the Japanese revival of traditional Imperial music forms such as gagaku in the 1960s seemed to have complicated resonances within the context of post-war Japanese culture.
Kwaidan is equally complex in this respect, and the film’s composer – Toru Takemitsu – was one of the musicians to whom the resurgence in gagaku was attributed. Takemitsu was initially a longstanding enemy of Japanese musical tradition. He was known for destroying his works in panic if he found he had accidentally strayed into a traditional Japanese scale. He shunned traditional Japanese instruments, because for Takemitsu, the very sound they made was too deeply entwined with his memories of the war, and with nationalism and militarism. Originally a contemporary of Iannis Xenakis and John Cage, Takemitsu san developed an early musique concrete in synchronicity with Pierre Schaeffer’s experiments in 1948, although the two were in ignorance of each other. Igor Stravinsky and Karlheinz Stockhausen were fans.
Nevertheless, despite his early advances in musical science, throughout the 1960s Takemitsu would become more and more fascinated with traditional Japanese instruments and until, by Garden Rain, in 1974 he had assimilated the tones and modes of hogaku and gagaku perfectly into his own self-taught style, creating a new musical language out of something ancient.
We made a mix of music from other parts of the world in 1974 – listen how other musical artists were psychedelicising, parodying, or subverting ideas about their national identity and history in sound. On this score, Toru arguably had as much in common with Kraftwerk or Brian Eno as the long-dead wraiths of gagaku who he drew breath from in Garden Rain.
Anyway, wraiths!! That brings us nicely back to Kwaidan. I hope this pondering on identity and expressions of it in music hasn’t put you off investigating this piece of work, because, really – first and foremost – Kwaidan is just an absolutely cracking ghost story. Well, four ghost stories. All beautifully choreographed.
Our favourite is the third story, Hoichi the Earless. In this one, Toru Takemitsu practically becomes a character in the story himself, as the biwa which he hacks much of the Kwaidan score out on becomes a major narrative point. Hoichi is a blind monk whose biwa skills are unparalleled. His talent goes largely unrecognised as his only audience is the dusk, to whom he nightly recites a suite of over 100 sequential arcane hymns. A mysterious samurai is drawn by Hoichi’s playing, and invites him to audiences with his master – an unnamed nobleman.
Every night Hoichi is led away to play and sing for the nobleman’s court, who request one lament in particular. The Tale of The Heiki is a moving piece of war poetry, depicting in literal terms a mighty battle which led to the fall of the child Emperor Antoku. In the film’s greatest scene, Hoichi kneels with eyes closed and face contorted by the tones pouring out of his mouth as he performs the 11-minute ballad.
Around Hoichi, scenes of fire and naval battle swirl on the floor and walls, as it is revealed that the noble court is none other than the spirits of the deceased Emperor and his warriors, and the venue is the cemetary that holds them. The acting and singing are engrossing, but Takemitsu’s own biwa playing is genuinely stunning.
The biwa isn’t an obviously pretty sound, like similarly-aged and designed instruments such as the Chinese pipa – the delicate, tumbling arpeggios of which require virtuoso levels of fingerpicking skill. The biwa is a lute played harshly and intuitively by a huge sharpened plectrum, about the size and shape of an afro comb. Takemitsu fills the piece with equal parts void and noise. The biwa sounds like jagged thoughts.
Mesmerised by the scene, one comparison which drew to mind was the way former Harry Pussy Bill Orcutt now tears unfathomable, visceral sound out of his acoustic guitar. But where Orcutt’s playing and Tourette-like vocal tics almost seem to act as a barrier, turning away everyone but the most forgiving and intense of listeners, Takemitsu’s playing works superbly as an elegy. It’s hard to define why, but it sounds genuinely communicative in its sparseness – each slash of the biwa sounding like it’s a splintered piece of some poor devil’s soul. Each tone sounds like a thought that has just occurred in the mind of the player, but weighted with impossible meaning and the gravity of history. In this sense the playing is truly meditative.
It’s almost ironically soulful for a composer who once claimed: “There may be folk music with strength and beauty, but I cannot be completely honest in this kind of music. I want a more active relationship to the present. (Folk music in a ‘contemporary style’ is nothing but a deception.)”
Anyway, that’s our favourite scene from Kwaidan. You should watch it and find your own favourite scene – there’s more than enough to love. And check out Takemitsu’s other works, which vary so much from year to year and symphony to symphony.
Buy The Film Music of Toru Takemitsu from Nonesuch