Review by Michael Jacobson
Stars: Rentaro Mikuni,
Michiyo Aratama, Keiko Kishi, Tatsyua Nakadai
Director: Masaki Kobayashi
Audio: Dolby Digital Mono
Video: Widescreen 2.35:1, 16x9 Enhanced
Features: Theatrical Trailer, Color Bars
Length: 161 Minutes
Release Date: October 10, 2000
Kwaidan is a masterpiece of pure cinema. Director Masaki Kobayashi weaves together four
strange, sometimes unsettling tales of the spirit world into a film that is hypnotic,
color, widescreen, and geometric lines to frame, break up, or lead the eye further into
his picture. To experience this movie is to
place yourself in the hands of a master craftsman.
He creates his atmosphere from his images, which are a marvel. Youll see men fighting their way through a
snowstorm, with a strange, gigantic eye in the sky peering down on them from above. Youll witness a strange kind of Valhalla
where the samurai warriors of old come to life amidst fire and fog to hear their
historical tales being told. Youll see
colors, lines and curves used in masterful ways to heighten or relax the intensity of each
shot. But youll also appreciate
Kobayashis terrific use of sound, in particular how quiet the picture tends to be,
adding to the false sense of security. When
it gets loud, the results are often startling. Kobayashi
is also a master of pacing, keeping his film moving forward at a deliberate rhythm which,
like the best works of Stanley Kubrick, is purposely slow because the nature of the
picture demands a more relaxed tempo.
The first tale, The Black Hair, is about a poor samurai
who cruelly divorces his loving, faithful wife when he gets the chance to marry into money
and social stature. He tells her she is now
free to do the same thing and rise above her poor station as well, but his motives are
entirely selfish. As the years pass, though,
he cannot forget the woman he left behind, and begins to regret his reckless choice. Finally, at long last, his obligation to his rich
but petty new wife ends, and he returns to his old home.
The house has deteriorated, but he finds his first wife exactly as he left her: young, beautiful, and forgiving. Is it happily ever after for the reunited pair? Get ready for a startling twist.
In The Woman of the Snow, a tale Im convinced must
have inspired the gargoyle episode in George Romeros film Creepshow, two
woodcutters are trapped in a terrible blizzard and seem doomed to die. The younger of the two has a vision of ghostly
white female figure using her frosty breath to kill the older one. When she turns to the younger man, she informs him
shes decided NOT to kill him, but warns him if he ever reveals to anyone what he has
seen that night, shell come back and finish the job.
Years go by, and the young man keeps his word.
He eventually marries, has three kids, and goes on with his work and his life,
until one night, thinking the whole scenario must have been a dream, he finally spills the
tale of that fateful evening. What happens
next Ill leave for you to discover.
The third part, Hoichi the Earless, is the longest and
possibly the most surreal of the tales. Its
about Hoichi, a blind musician who assists in a monastery.
He sings songs about ancient samurai battles, which attracts the interest of a
passing stranger. This stranger invites
Hoichi to accompany him to his home and play for him and his compatriots, but he must
never tell anyone where he goes or what he does. Hoichi,
being blind, goes with the man and plays his songs, but never realizes hes playing
in a graveyard to the spirits of the warriors and royalty hes been singing about.
When the monks follow Hoichi one night and learn what hes been
doing, they realize hes in terrible danger. To
ward off the spirits, they paint ancient religious text over ever part of his body. But, they forget to cover his ears, leaving them
vulnerable for when the angry spirit returns.
In the final tale, In a Cup of Tea, a writer is composing
an unusual ghost story. In it, a samurai is
surprised to find a ghostly reflection in his teacup, which he cant get rid of. He eventually drinks the tea, and finds himself
host first to the owner of the face, and later his three warriors, all of whom come to
fight the samurai. In sequences both comic
and strange, the samurai tries his best to fight off the phantoms, who continually
disappear and reappear. In the films
best surprise ending, the writer himself falls victim to his own creation.
These stories are all intriguing and unnerving, and the tales
combined with Kobayashis great technical style heighten the overall experience of
watching the movie. He has created a world
where the beautiful and the horrific not only coexist, but actually live in a symbiotic
relationship where they feed and fuel one another. The
beauty of the imagery in contrast to the fearfulness of the stories make this a picture
that stands as a unique one in the horror genre. This
is one you wont soon forget after youve seen it.
Criterion is a company reputed for delivering top quality transfers
of classic films to disc, and they have released their finest work to date in Kwaidan. This is one of the most beautiful color films
Ive ever seen, and this transfer captures and expresses that beauty without flaw. Even long time trumpeters of Criterion like myself
are going to be transported to a new level of restoration ecstasy here. The best compliment I can give it? At no time during my viewing could I actually
BELIEVE I was watching a 35 year old film. It
looks as good as most films on DVD that are only a few years old, and even better than
some of those. This film employs a wide range
of color and lighting, from the bright, raging, heightened look of some daylit sequences
to the blackness of the darker, brooding, foreboding ones.
Never at any time or under any visual extreme did I notice a compromise of the
images integrity. From foreground to
background, these images are always sharp and clear and boast superb definition. There are no compression artifacts to be found: no grain, no shimmer, no chroma noise, no obvious
signs of enhancement. Even the darker scenes
maintain their definition, and though I looked intently to be sure, I can report there is
absolutely nothing to complain about. The
colors are gorgeous and startlingly rendered from beginning to end. There are no signs of bleeding or fading or
distortions, even in compositions that employ heavily contrasting colors. Even the print itself is in remarkably good shape,
with very little in the way of spots or dirt to give away the movies age. Considering film preservation in Asia is
practically non-existent, the quality of this DVD presentation is nothing short of
This is a digital single channel mono mix, which is unspectacular but
perfectly good. Many spaces in the film are
absolutely quiet for extra effect, so the dynamics really range from complete silence to a
few loud effects. The audio enhances the mood
of the picture, as sometimes Kobayashi will forgo effects and let obviously loud scenes
play silently, or he will use strange musical cues at any given time as a bit of
forewarning. There are moments when I noticed
a little bit of hiss in the background of the audio, but not enough to be distracting. Dialogue, though in Japanese, appears to come
across with clarity and prominence. All in
all, a perfectly suitable listening experience to accompany the visuals.
Only a trailer (which is fairly cool) and color bars.
Kwaidan is another one of the many important but less than mainstream titles that Criterion has made available to true cinema buffs, and represents perhaps their crowning achievement in terms of video quality to date. As strong and important as the visuals are in this film, youre really going to appreciate their efforts to bring us this hypnotic Japanese masterpiece with the highest quality one could hope for.