Kwaidan (1964) (Blu-ray Review)
Directed By: Masaki Kobayashi
Starring: Rentarô Mikuni, Michiyo Aratama, Misako Watanabe
Rated: UR/Region A/2:35/1080p/Number of Discs 1
Available from The Criterion Collection
After more than a decade of sober political dramas and social-minded period pieces, the great Japanese director Masaki Kobayashi (The Human Condition) shifted gears dramatically for this rapturously stylized quartet of ghost stories. Featuring colorfully surreal sets and luminous cinematography, these haunting tales of demonic comeuppance and spiritual trials, adapted from writer Lafcadio Hearn’s collections of Japanese folklore, are existentially frightening and meticulously crafted. This version of Kwaidan is the original three-hour cut, never before released in the United States.
There is a lot of mixed things one could say about Kwaidan. Kwaidan or “Ghost Stories” is just an all out haunting looking film. That is a compliment to the tone and the look (Maybe a little too dark at times for the transfer to shine). You can’t deny it is a gorgeously shot movie. It is made with a masters eye and you can’t say a bad word at all about the cinematography. You can’t help but get all caught up in the look. And as we proceed on through each story, we see some very bizarre looking sets and imagery. It IS a horror movie after all. You probably won’t be used to seeing scary movies that look like this, but we do have some very nice style going on here. No matter which of the four stories we are seeing, “Black Hair”, “The Woman on the Snow”, “Hoichi the Earless”, or “In a Cup of Tea”, we get a common haunting and rather depressing to the sight theme that makes you just feel as if what you are watching something that has a deeper meaning than what the eye can see. Not that what we can see is at all not a thing of beauty. You just know you are watching something special and important, so in that I’m a little confused on why I didn’t like it enough as I feel I should. I think we’ve all had that happen once or twice before, especially if you are a big movie buff. You hear and hear about a movie most of your friends love, but when you see it you aren’t blown away, even if by all account you probably should be. The film looks the part, it has creepy visuals, and it just feels overall like a big deal, but for me it wasn’t THAT big of a deal. I think I’ll compare it in ways to a film like 2001: A Space Odyssey. It is a film that is epic, but also just as dull at times as it is visually stunning. That turns out to be the worst enemy of Kwaidan. It is a bit long in the tooth and not the most exciting film ever shot, even if it looks great in general.
Still allow me to break-down the four segments we have here. In “Black Hair” a stubborn samurai divorces his true love in order to marry for money, but soon he finds out the marriage is doomed anyway and returns to his old wife. Only bad thing there is, something is really weird about her now. Next up, “The Woman in the Snow”. Stranded in a snowstorm, a woodcutter meets an icy spirit in the form of a woman who then proceeds to spares his life on the condition that he never tell anyone about her. A decade later he forgets his promise. Now can you guess how that probably goes? “Hoichi the Earless” is next up. In this one, 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 as luck would have it, they’ve forgotten something very important. Closing this one out is, “In a Cup of Tea”. Here a writer tells the story of a man who keep seeing a mysterious face reflected in his cup of tea. Pretty simple, but effective none the less. As you can see, there is a lot of good stuff here. Often times more than not it gets dragged out, but I can see where some will love it. I can also see where some of you might be like me and be a little bored with it overall. All in all it is a perfectly shot film that has all the tools to be a five-star affair, sadly in my opinion anyway, it just drags out too much and fails to match the visual side of it.
– New 2K digital restoration of director Masaki Kobayashi’s original cut, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack
– Audio commentary by film historian Stephen Prince
– Interview from 1993 with Kobayashi, conducted by filmmaker Masahiro Shinoda
– New interview with assistant director Kiyoshi Ogasawara
– New piece about author Lafcadio Hearn, on whose versions of Japanese folk tales Kwaidan is based
– New English subtitle translation
– PLUS: An essay by critic Geoffrey O’Brien
Quality of Transfer: 85%