(Masaki Kobayashi, 1964) It’s not often that horror films are described with words like beautiful. That sort of thing doesn’t really sit well with the shock n’ awe goals of most entries in the genre. Then there’s Masaki Kobayashi’s 1964 masterpiece Kwaidan. At the time, it was the most expensive film production in the history of Japan and the movie flaunts those resources in every meticulously arranged frame. It is one of the most stunningly executed productions in the history of cinema, one that just happens to be a collection of traditional Japanese ghost stories that will unnerve viewers through it’s intoxicatingly sumptuous visuals. Given the rich history of ghost stories in Japanese culture, it’s no surprise that industry would lavish such a remarkable production around a haunting anthology. It’s also no surprise that Criterion would be the first company to release the full, uncut 183 minute version of the film in the US for the in one of their most stunning discs to date.
Kwaidan is broken up into four separate stories. The first entitled “The Black Hair“ tells the tale of a samurai who abandons his wife in favour of a new and cold woman who will enhance his social standing, only to return to his original true love years later with horrifying results. It’s the most overtly frightening of the four Kwaidan tales that slowly builds up to a horrifying climax that looks like an unholy cross between Sam Raimi and Akira Kurosawa (yes, that’s a good thing). The second tale, “The Woman In The Snow“, follows a young man lost in a blizzard spared by a ghost who tells him he can live as long as he never speaks of what happened. He then meets a young woman who looks eerily like that spirit and they wed in one of those tales that comes around in unfortunate ways. Hinged on an absolutely astounding snowbound set and some deeply unsettling mid-scene lighting cues, “The Woman In The Snow” is the highlight of the anthology. It somehow manages to be breathtaking gorgeous, incredibly creepy, and emotionally devastating.
The third and by far longest story is “Hoichi The Earless”. Opening with an unbelievable navel battle filmed on a sound stage, it’s the tale of a young blind musician who specializes in singing a song about that tragic battle. He finds himself hired to perform the song nightly for mysterious royalty who turn out to be the spirits of the departed from that battle and are draining him of life through these performances. His friends try to save the blind musician by painting his body in a sacred text. Unfortunately they forget one part (see title). leading to a tragic finale. This is the most iconic chapter in Kwaidan and even if it’s a bit overlong, there’s no denying the scale of the accomplishment. Finally, things wrap up with “In A Cup Of Tea“ an odd an almost comedic tale about a writer who keeps seeing faces in his tea that’s well done, yet can’t help but feel like a somewhat inconsequential let down following the creepy beauty of the first three tales.
At three hours of leisurely paced filmmaking, Kwaidan isn’t exactly a Halloween party favourite. It is a more poetic and refined ghost story in keeping with Japanese tradition. Masaki Kobayashi’s masterful staging of tales along with unmatched production design and lighting creates a visual feast easy to get lost in. The slowburn horrors in each story have a way of sneaking up on viewers through the ornate beauty of the production and the first three chapters definitely slither under the skin effectively. Acting is highly stylized in the Japanese tradition, yet fits with the gloriously overblown production. Each tale has a poetic beauty to its exploration of hauntings as well as an amusing EC comics style sense of ironic punishment. It’s almost a shame that Kwaidan wraps up with “A Cup Of Tea” given that it’s nowhere near as interesting of a story or as sumptuous of a production as what proceeds it, yet that’s a minor criticism. This gorgeous masterpiece (genre or otherwise) has so much to offer that dismissing it for closing with the weakest of four tales is nowhere near enough to diminish the overall impact of the piece.
From the opening frame of Kwaidan to the concluding screen, Criterion’s new HD transfer of Kwaidan never ceases to amaze. The film has never looked close to this impressive. Every color pops off the screen in blinding primary hues. Detail is so rich that each individual fake snowflake can be admired in the second chapter. It’s an absolute jaw-dropper of a transfer, immaculate in it’s vibrancy and detail. Viewing Kwaidan on this Criterion disc is like seeing it for the first time and this just might be the finest HD restoration that the company has delivered to date, which is really saying something. Sound is as crisp and clear as a natural monaural track can provide and should help draw viewers into the hypnotic beauty of the film.
There are only a few special features included, but they are strong. Historian Stephen Price contributes a three-hour commentary track that delves into the history, reception, and cultural significance of Kwaidan with impressive depth and insight. A 15-minute archival interview with Kobayashi lends a little of the director’s voice to the disc, while a fresh 22-minute interview with assistant director Kiyoshi Ogasawara provides added background on the difficulties and joys of the massive production. Finally Christopher Benfey provides a 17-minute video essay on the background and cultural significance of Japanese stories in a very welcome addition. Overall, this is one hell of a release from Criterion that will provide arty-farty types of all ages with an ideal horror masterpiece to spin on Halloween without fear of being sullied by cheap thrills of any kind.