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KWAIDAN
Blu-ray Edition

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Rentaro Mikuni, Michiyo Aratama, Keiko Kishi, Tatsyua Nakadai
Director:  Masaki Kobayashi
Audio:  PCM Mono
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  161 Minutes
Release Date:  October 20, 2015

Film ****

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, beautiful and surreal, and crafted with absolute technical perfection in terms of use of 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.  You’ll see men fighting their way through a snowstorm, with a strange, gigantic eye in the sky peering down on them from above.  You’ll 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.  You’ll see colors, lines and curves used in masterful ways to heighten or relax the intensity of each shot.  But you’ll also appreciate Kobayashi’s 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 I’m convinced must have inspired the gargoyle episode in George Romero’s 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 she’s decided NOT to kill him, but warns him if he ever reveals to anyone what he has seen that night, she’ll 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 I’ll leave for you to discover.

The third part, “Hoichi the Earless”, is the longest and possibly the most surreal of the tales.  It’s 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 he’s playing in a graveyard to the spirits of the warriors and royalty he’s been singing about.

When the monks follow Hoichi one night and learn what he’s been doing, they realize he’s 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 can’t 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 film’s best surprise ending, the writer himself falls victim to his own creation.

These stories are all intriguing and unnerving, and the tales combined with Kobayashi’s 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 won’t soon forget after you’ve seen it.

Video ****

This is one of the most beautiful color films I’ve ever seen, and this 2K high definition 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 Blu-ray 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 image’s 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 movie’s age.  Considering film preservation in Asia is practically non-existent, the quality of this Blu-ray presentation is nothing short of miraculous. 

Audio ***

This is an uncompressed 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.

Features ****

The extras include a new commentary by historian Stephen Prince, plus a 1993 interview with Kobayashi, along with a new interview with his assistant director, a piece about the author whose tales inspired the ones in the movie, plus some cool trailers.

Summary:

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, you’re really going to appreciate their efforts to bring us this hypnotic Japanese masterpiece with the highest quality one could hope for. 

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