"Kwaidan" - Dir: Masaki Kobayashi, 1965
"Kwaidan" - literally "Ghost Stories", is exactly what it is - a portmanteau collection of creepy tales set in Medieval Japan.
For some reason the 60's and 70's are notable for a number of these portmanteau style collections, in the case of Hammer Films in the U.K, these continued to be made well into the 1970's before the idea of several short stories packaged into one film fell out of favour with audiences - it suggests that the impetus to make these films was to compete with the rise of television and serial formats like "The Twilight Zone" etc.
In the case of "Kwaidan" the source was a literary one since it adapts tales collected by Lafcadio Hearn, a Westerner who via a rather circuitous and fascinating route ended up in Japan and became a naturalised citizen.
The film is composed of four stories, "The Black Hair", "The Woman of the Snow", "Hoichi the Earless" and "In a Cup of Tea" and a rather drawn-out but beautifully staged backstory that sets up "Hoichi the Earless".
Each film has a very staged and almost artificial look to the art direction, clearly to help to enhance the atmosphere, and leans heavily toward Japanese graphic art stylisation - this is particularly evident in "Woman of the Snow" where sets are often not extensive and with striking expressionistic painted backdrops that make no attempt at verisimilitude.
This theatrical quality never detracts from the stories, however, and the overall impression is surreal and dream-like.
"In a Cup of Tea", the concluding chapter, is perhaps the most surreal story of the set and it's this surreal quality that adds immeasurably to the horrific payoff - as a film, it's almost like a waking dream and you're left with a sense of unease, something that must have been felt by audiences as they left the cinema.
Economy of means, clever editing and in-camera effects all suggest that costly computer graphics seen in contemporary cinema can often serve to over-egg films - I'm still not sure how the flaming "Jack 'O'Lanterns" seen in "Hoichi the Earless" were created and even after the explanation that they are being puppeteered on invisible wires, their movements are spookily suggestive of some otherworldy intent as they dodge and weave between the actors and props on-set.
This is a good example of a film where colour and widescreen format really add to the overall experience and aren't just arbitrary or commercial choices, in the same way that "Onibaba" makes great use of monochrome.