Wednesday, 15 July 2020

The eerie-uncanny and 'Kwaidan'

The eerie-uncanny


I believe ‘Kwaidan’ was the first Japanese film I ever saw. I was already familiar with theatrical, symbolist set design from Derek Jarman’s and Peter Greenaway’s work, I am sure: that is, a cinematic world that was more like impressionistic paintings and was in no way trying to hide its cinematic artificiality, its theatricality. But with ‘Kwaidan’, this approach was in the service of straightforward ghost stories in a way that accentuated, through affectation, the storytelling nature of my introduction to Japanese ghost stories. I didn’t know Asian cinema at the time, but I knew horror, and this was one that foregrounded the eerie and the uncanny.

The eerie-uncanny is an abstract value and tone that lingers that endows a film with a haunting aftertaste; something a little opaque, unsolved or indefinable. It’s not that I don’t like a punkish brazenness and outrageousness – I love ‘Re-Animator’, ‘Santa Sangre’, ‘The Reflecting Skin’, ‘An American Werewolfin London’ and I have an inexplicable fondness for Xtro and ‘The Gate’ for example, and I’ve been known to enjoy Richard Laymon books too, none of which can be accused of subtlety – but their effect is visceral rather than lingering. In contrast, a film like ‘Terror of All Hallows Ever’ sticks with you not because of eeriness, but because it has the upsetting quality of unfairness (which I will write about elsewhere). 

Eeriness and uncanniness are central to my enjoyment of the horror genre. I am therefore more prone to return to and rate higher the works that possess this quality, which is why my preference is for such as more recent films like ‘A Hole in the Ground’ or ‘Black Mountain’, ‘In Fabric’, ‘I am the pretty thing that lives in the house’, or ‘It Comes at Night’, regardless of any flaws they may have. Of course, I am aware this is a particular strain of hauntings and the eerie-uncanny that won’t appeal to all (it’s the kind Amazon comments call “boring”). I am, after all, someone who favours the ambiguity of ‘Personal Shopper’. It’s not that these are favourites, but they speak to mystery and the unknowable and that’s resonates with me. These are pieces that leave question marks that make them resound.

By the time Robert Wise’s ‘The Haunting’ finishes its opening storytelling, it is set in motion as royalty of the eerie-uncanny, just as ‘Don’t Look Now’ is a vector for it. And, of course, you have ‘The Shining’. It gives ‘Cat People’ its evocative, sensuous core. ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’ is unforgettable for it (a peer like ‘Funhouse’ is too much a visceral ghost-train, but eeriness is there, not least in the monster wearing a monster mask).

It is the quality that still draws me to Mann’s ‘The Keep’ even if it isn’t actually overall unconvincing. It’s what makes ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ considerable, despite its reductive conclusion. Similarly, the negligible ‘The Monster Club’ anthology always stuck firmly in my memory because the episodes ‘The Shadmock Story’ and ‘The Humgoo Story’ proved to haunt me throughout my childhood due to their eeriness (I saw it again recently as an adult and discovered I still rated them, partly due to nostalgia; you can shrug at ‘The Vampire Story’ and it’s “We’re The Bleeney” pun). 

Rob Zombie is far more successful evoking the eerie-uncanny with the much derided ‘Lords of Salem’ than its introduction into his unfavoured ‘Halloween II’. Of course, Carpenter’s original ‘Halloween’ has this built in: “As a matter of fact: that was.” (Zombie’s ‘Halloween’ reboots Myers with brutalism.)

The eerie-uncanny is how and why Ingmar Bergman’s films can be so unpredictable and otherworldly whilst tied up with the earthiness of human existential and romantic conditions. He can have Death itself crossing the room without losing the flow of family drama. With Bergman, the eerie-uncanny is inexorably intertwined with human experience and perception. 

It’s why ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’ is so beguiling. Why ‘The Shout’ is so wonderfully odd and memorable. It enhances more minor entries like ‘The Lady in White’ into cult fare. A blockbuster peer like ‘Poltergeist’ is trying too much to be a fairground ride, although like ‘The Ring’, it makes TV screens scary. 

The current works of Robert Eggers and Ari Aster utilise the eerie-uncanny to great effect: everything comes with a hint of untrustworthy reality. But Aster punctuates with vividly visceral set-pieces. And the eerie-uncanny comes naturally to folk horror.

Andrei Tarkovosky veers between the eerie-uncanny and the ethereal (whereas Terence Malick is just ethereal). 

It’s central to the work of David Lynch, and often terrifyingly so. His sense of this is peerless, and it is why moments that would seem absurd or camp and overdone by other directors are often frightening when Lynch does them.

It’s why I love ‘Sapphire and Steel’ (one of the most unforgettable and disturbing moments in this show, for me, is when Sapphire (Joanna Lumley) is trapped in a painting, for example). And, yes, I am a MR James fan.

Dramas like ‘Cross my Heart and Hope to Die’, ‘Shadow of the Valley’ and ‘Persona’ utilise eeriness-uncanniness to hint at horror or magic-realism with an edge that provokes anxiety rather than wonder. (With ‘Cross My Heart and Hope to Die’, I’m thinking of the dressing-up party.) Magic-realism speaks to the boundlessness of possibilities whilst the eerie-uncanny speaks to reality’s unreliability, instability, and malevolence.

A thriller like ‘I’m Not There’ evokes this to convey how disconnected from the real world its killer protagonist is. Even a thriller like ‘The Ipcress File’ has this: something to do with John Barry’s score and the sense that there is something not being said. And ‘Performance’ and ‘Repulsion’ use this to portray descents into madness (although the latter is often considered a horror).

It's not the visceral, physical reaction of jump-scares that the eerie-uncanny offers. No, the eerie-uncanny is that something that is just not right, something glimpsed at the back of the frame, something you presume is “normal” or “real” but isn’t. It’s the shadow that suddenly moves and the precursor to madness. It’s ‘The Babadook’. ‘Seconds’.  Even ‘The Man from Planet X’ and many scrappy fifties b-movies have it: the black-and-white and a theremin surely helps. ‘Insidious’ almost has this in its middle act (the kid-ghost dancing in the house), but it’s ultimately just in the service of jump-scares and squanders the flavour. 

And then we come to a specifically Asian eerie-uncanny with films like ‘Kwaidan’ and ‘Onibaba’ with trend-setting long-haired female ghosts which would come to distinguish J-horror globally in the wake of Hideo Nakata’s ‘The Ring’ (1998) and Takashi Shimizu’s ‘The Grudge’. One thing I liked about Shimizu’s 2006 US ‘The Grudge 2’ was that it implied you weren’t even safe in your own hoody: both absurd and uncanny. ‘The Ring’ especially succeeds in bridging the divide between old-style ghost Gothicism and contemporary technology with videotape serving the traditional narrative purpose of dream-sequences: it’s this spanning of the old and the new that allows space for the eerie-uncanny, where the supernatural can get into the everyday.  And Gore Verbinki’s 2002 remake of ‘The Ring’ is a masterclass of eeriness and truly unsettling (I certainly remember it spooking me for the evening afterwards in a way films often don’t). Something like the collection of horror shorts  ‘13 Real AsianHorror Stories’ shows how the Asian approach to genre can whip up the eerie-uncanny in a very short space of time.

A lot of the eerie-uncanny can be in just the waiting… Not necessarily for a jolt, but for a chill, for disturbance, for something to make itself known.


(怪談, Kaidan, literally "ghost stories")
Koboyashi Mayaki, 1964, Japan
Adapted from the stories of Lafcadio Hearn by Mizuki Yōzo

set designer
Tannoura battle paintings
background artist
assistant art director

An uneasy wind blows open the gates, and we’re in:

Key to ‘Kwaidan’s ability to unhinge and to create the eerie-uncanny its use of sound. It plays much like a silent movie, for the sound design and the music by Miyajima Yoshio operates by its own rules, as if it’s intruding from another film, making noise often abrasive, discordant and unsettling in its unpredictability. This keeps everything ill-at-ease. 
“I’m not sure what the effect is, but by staggering the music, the audience is certainly caught off-guard,” Koboyashi says. And: “[Miyajima] doesn’t place the music in exact

parallel to the images on-screen; rather, he plays a little with the visuals. He creates a certain mu and then engages the music.” Donald Richie describes the idea of  mu as “very much like the idea of emptiness. […] So emptiness is not there until its antithesis is there.”* In ‘Kwaidan’, the audience can pour its own nervousness into these spaces: this disjointedness creates a nightmarish tone for being untrustworthy and often startling.

Similarly, in the deliberate artificiality of the sets and the art design, a kind of visual mu is created which leaves the viewer plenty of space to imagine background detail and endow it with realism. It is vivid, painterly and dreamlike. With the aesthetic mostly disassociated from naturalism, the viewer is ever aware of the presence of the art department. It is a work that leaves plenty of room for the viewer to colour in. 

To achieve this, sets were constructed in an aircraft hanger. Most impressive is sea battle depicted in ‘Hoichi the Earless’, but the decrepit house in ‘Black Hair’ and the winter vistas of ‘The Woman of the Snow’ and the painted skies are equally unforgettable and beguiling. It is both sparse and packed with detail. It is pure theatre where the world-building is on par with fantasy works such as, say, ‘The Dark Crystal’.  A side-effect of this ambition is that the film went over-budget and bankrupted the production company, Shochiku Studios.
But there are exterior shots in ‘Black Hair’, creating a contrast between the outside world that the samurai leaves his wife for, and the claustrophobia, chiaroscuro and rot of the haunted home. He leaves in search of wealth, and although Craig Ian Man reads this as a criticism of Western capitalism,* it is hard to credit just the West with a monopoly on cautionary tales of greed. However, Man positions ‘Kwaidan’ in the post-war context when Japan was still wrestling with its position and relationship with the world which gives it undeniable allegorical weight. As predictable as the tale is, it is still distinctively chilly, vivid, and mesmerising in execution, which is true for the film as a whole. It also follows that distinct Japanese horror tradition of insisting that hair is scary.
‘The Woman of the Snow’ has even more vivid sets, recreating blizzard-ravaged landscapes, rural scenes and eyes in the sky. There is no real fear or dread in this tale, but the cruelty of the impending and inevitable loss speaks to the often forgotten softer and sad corners of ghost stories. Melancholy is the sub-genre’s domain.

If the blizzards blowing over giant sets of the preceding story are impressive, the next up the ante even more, not least with comparable storm effects. ‘Hoichi the Earless’ starts with external shots of waves crashing on rocks, but the naval battle it the depicts is studio-bound, a remarkable set-piece, and this exaggeration only promotes the feel of a painting coming to life. This episode is the longest, feature-length. It tells of a blind biwa bard famed for his rendition of songs trumpeting a great battle, but ghosts of war still want to be celebrated for their sacrifice and trick him into serenading them. Again, the sets are often breath-taking in scope, both dense and minimalist. Hoichi covered in protective sutras gives ‘Kwaidan’ it’s poster boy, but practically any still is distinctive.

The final ‘In a Cup of Tea’ is ostensibly the least of the tales, or it superficially has the least gravitas. But again, it displays that nothing is too casual in Japanese horror that it can’t be used for haunting. A samurai drinks the soul of a dead warrior from a cup of tea and is haunted, but his stubbornness won’t let him accept what’s happening. This is where the film becomes very meta with the narration commenting on the author. Although the film via narration makes much of this being an unfinished tale, this actually ends on a note that much horror ends on – madness - so in fact ‘Kwaidan’ offers two conclusions.
Craig Ian Man reads all the tales through a post-war lens, and indeed it’s easy to see these tales as warnings of leaving traditional values, or exalting the ghosts of war, of falling for their trickery, of not letting the past stay secret. The theme of facing yourself politically and personally via supernatural encounters is what horror is for.

‘Kwaidan’ is taken from Lafcadio Hearn’s collections of Japanese ghost stories, and the tales are rich in the origins and tropes of supernatural stories, and for that they may be predictable. This is folklore, after all. But here, the execution is paramount, and a seminal example of the eerie-uncanny where it is the application of discord and the unsettling that makes it truly creepy, if not frightening (but ‘Black Hair’ and the first sighting of ‘The Woman of the Snow’ still have that essential creepiness). 

Koboyashi’s phantasmagorical rendering of folklore nods to the broad and colourful way storytelling plays with the listener’s imagination and to cinema as a playbox of illusion. Craig Ian Man talks at length of how critics have spoken of ‘Kwaidan’ as an Art Film rather than genuine Horror, but of course, it is both. It speaks to artistry and design as much as anxiety and fears. It speaks to that moment when reality fails and something else gets through, and that’s where the eerie-uncanny lives. The elegance of the genre is often neglected, or at worse refuted, but ‘Kwaidan’ is a seminal example.

* These quotes from the booklet for the ‘Eureka!: Masters of Cinema’ release of ‘Kwaidan’, pg. 72-3.

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