An elder ronin samurai arrives at a feudal lord's home and requests an honorable place to commit suicide. But when the ronin inquires about a younger samurai who arrived before him things take an unexpected turn.
The mother of a feudal lord's only heir is kidnapped away from her husband by the lord. The husband and his samurai father must decide whether to accept the unjust decision, or risk death to get her back.
This film contains four distinct, separate stories. "Black Hair": A poor samurai who divorces his true love to marry for money, but finds the marriage disastrous and returns to his old wife, only to discover something eerie about her. "The Woman in the Snow": Stranded in a snowstorm, a woodcutter meets an icy spirit in the form of a woman spares his life on the condition that he never tell anyone about her. A decade later he forgets his promise. "Hoichi the Earless": Hoichi is a blind musician, living in a monastery who sings so well that a ghostly imperial court commands him to perform the epic ballad of their death battle for them. But the ghosts are draining away his life, and the monks set out to protect him by writing a holy mantra over his body to make him invisible to the ghosts. But they've forgotten something. "In a Cup of Tea": a writer tells the story of a man who keep seeing a mysterious face reflected in his cup of tea. Written by
Classical Japanese tragedy, Expressionist visual style
There's a good bit of discussion of this film as "horror"; may I suggest that it's horrific in the sense of the ancient Greek tragedies. There's no attempt to coerce your Hollywood-abused adrenals into delivering just one more squirt by means of some in-your-face special effect. In fact, for each of these slowly developed stories, once you've understood the premise, the story will unfold pretty much as you've guessed it must, inexorably, relentlessly. The ghosts aren't there to "spook" us, they're to show us our common human spiritual and emotional failings. The horror of a ghost wife, for instance, isn't that her chains drag noisily across the the hardwood parquet floor, but that we've created her by our insensitivity, our misplaced values, or our betrayals.
The visual style is stupendous! The action takes place in a disappeared, iconic world of classical medieval Japan, perfect, and admitting no trace of the reality of modern times. Overlaid is a European Expressionist color sensibility, with emotionally charged color displacements of sky and skin, as if Hokusai and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner had been working cooperatively on the sets and lighting.
This is a wonderful movie. Please ignore attempts to fit it into some box, some genre. Rather look at it as a mature work of art, which happens to choose old Japanese ghost stories as its starting point.
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