Screenplay : Yôko Mizuki (based on stories by Lafcadio Hearn)
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1965
Stars : Michiyo Aratama (First Wife), Keiko Kishi (Yuki), Rentaro Mikuni (Samurai), Tatsuya Nakadai (Minokichi), Keiko Kishi (Yuki), Ganemon Nakamura (Kannai), Ganjiro Nakamura (Head Priest), Katsuo Nakamura (Hoichi), Noboru Nakaya (Heinai), Kei Sato (Ghost samurai), Takashi Shimura (Priest)
Masaki Kobayashi's Kwaidan is a visually ravishing film that uses dazzling color palettes and carefully composed widescreen photography to bring the viewer into an entirely supernatural world. Almost nothing in Kwaidan is separable from the supernatural; the use of expansive sets, painted backdrops, and complex lighting schemes lend everything an otherworldly quality.
The four seemingly unrelated stories that form Kwaidan (the title literally means "ghost story") were based on the writings of Lafcadio Hearn, a Greek-Irish folklorist who became a naturalized citizen of Japan in 1895. Hearn's stories are adaptations of Japanese legends and myths; each one is different, yet they all come together as a sort of strange puzzle whose pieces fit together in tone, rather than as a narrative.
The first two stories, "The Black Hair" and "The Woman of the Snow," are precursors to the kinds of horror stories that would fill the pages of EC comics like Tales From the Crypt in the United States in the 1950s. That is, they are primarily about punishment. In "The Black Hair," a selfish samurai (Rentaro Mikuni) leaves his peasant wife (Michiyo Aratama), in order to marry a rich woman. When the samurai finds his life unfulfilled, he attempts to return to his first wife, only to find horror and punishment for his selfish acts.
The second story, "The Woman of the Snow," is about a young woodcutter (Tatsuya Nakadai) who is punished when he breaks a promise to a deadly spirit woman not to tell a secret. Both stories focus on male protagonists who are punished because, in one way or another, they betray a woman's trust. Another thematic element that links the two stories is the aging process, specifically the fact that both stories feature women who, for supernatural reasons, do not age while those around them do.
The third story, "Hoichi, the Earless," is the longest of the four stories and the most well-known. It involves a blind musician named Hoichi who is so good at playing the biwa and singing the story of the great sea battle between the Heike and Genji samurai clans that the ghosts of the dead warriors visit him at the monastery where he lives and takes him to their nearby burial grounds so he can perform for them. The sequences that depict Hoichi playing for the ghostly samurai are among the most impressive in the film in scope and composition. Equally impressive are the highly stylized battle sequences between the two samurai clans. The scenes are obviously filmed on a stage, but their theatrical-like quality fits neatly into the Hoichi's musical retelling.
The fourth and shortest story, "In a Cup of Tea," also involves ghostly samurai. One in particular haunts a warrior (Kanemon Nakamura) who first sees him reflected in a cup of tea. This story is the most self-reflexive in its narrative in that it is consciously framed by a writer who is telling the story. In this way, the fourth story links thematically with both "Hoichi, the Earless" and "The Woman of the Snow," both of which prominently feature storytelling as part of their narratives.
However, the narratives in Kwaidan essentially take a backseat to Kobayashi's incredible visual style. He and cinematographer Yoshio Miyajima turn the screen into a painting that moves and flows. The compositions are so carefully crafted and the tone of each scene is so intricately interwoven with color and camera angle that you are constantly tempted to simply pause the film and stare at the screen. Kobayashi's camera movement is fluid and authorial, often utlizing odd angles and moving in unexpected ways to convey the confusion of various characters when they are faced with the unexplainable (this is especially apparent in the fourth story when the warrior finds himself faced with someone else's reflection in his tea).
Kwaidan is a difficult film to classify, and it is a particularly lucent example of the shortcomings of trying to pigeonhole films into particular genres. Kobayashi includes elements of horror and the supernatural, but Kwaidan is also a notably romantic film infused with great passion. Often, these conflicting tones are set in contrast to each other. For instance, in the second story, the scenes of the woodcutter and his newfound love, Yuki (Keiko Kishi), running through sun-drenched fields with a luminous orange sky behind them are strikingly contrasted to earlier scenes, shot in cold blue tints, in which the woodcutter watches as a ghostly spirit disappears down a snow-covered forest trail, with a sky in the background that had formed into what appears to be a giant human eye.
That one film can successfully contain--and is reliant upon--such a complex visual schema is extraordinary. Not since the early days of German expressionism has a filmmaker made set design and camera angles speak in such a profound manner. Kwaidan is certainly a unique film that demands multiple viewings to absorb all its has to offer. And, while some horror aficionados may find themselves restless with its deliberate pacing and lengthy running time (the second story was eliminated when it was first released in the U.S, in 1965), it is a film that, in the end, rewards the patient viewer.
|Kwaidan: Criterion Collection DVD|
|Audio||Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural|
|Supplements||Original theatrical trailer|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection / Home Vision|
|The new anamorphic, high-definition digital transfer taken from a newly struck 35-mm composite low-contrast print is outstanding. Kobayashi filmed Kwaidan in Tohoscope, which is essentially the Toho studio's version of CinemaScope. Thus, the film is widescreen (2.35:1) with extraordinarily rich and deeply saturated colors. The new Criterion transfer does justice to cinematographer Yoshio Miyajima's brilliant photography, with solid, well-saturated colors that evidence no bleeding. Color schemes range from intense reds to cold blues, and the transfer handles the shifts very well. Blacks are generally solid, and the detail level is consistently high with only a few scenes that appear soft. There is a minor amount of damage in the form of nicks and a few vertical lines, but hardly anything to complain about for a 35-year-old film.|
|Unfortunately, the soundtrack has not aged as well as the visual element of the film. Rendered in Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural, the soundtrack sounds excellent in terms of music, dialogue, and effects, all of which are rendered with good depth and a broad range. While some of the stories employ only a minimalist soundtrack of organic sounds, others employ complex sound effects and intricate Japanese music. The problem is that there is a noticeable amount of hissing during all of the silent portions of the film. While it is not overly distracting, it is still quite noticeable.|
|The only supplement provided is a fairly scratched-up original Japanese theatrical trailer, which is presented in anamorphic widescreen.|
©2000 James Kendrick