Site created 12/15/97.
review added: 11/7/00
1964 (2000) - Toho
review by Todd Doogan of
The Digital Bits
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A/A/C-
Specs and Features
164 mins, NR, letterboxed widescreen (2.35:1), 16x9 enhanced,
single-sided, RSDL dual-layered (layer switch 1:24:11, in chapter
16), Amaray keep case packaging, theatrical trailer, film-themed
menu screens, scene access (28 chapters), languages: Japanese (DD
mono), subtitles: English
is a really beautiful and eerie work. At its most simple and
(Western) accessible, think of it as Japan's equivalent to something
like The Twilight Zone. That's
not nailing it exactly, but I think, without shoving that analogy
under a microscope, it holds some truth. The film is comprised of
four supernatural vignettes bound together only by a narrator's
voice and theme of ghosts and spirits. The stories are all
originally crafted by Lafcadio Hearn, an Irish expatriate at the
turn of the 20th century that loved Japan and its folk stories so
much that he became a citizen, adopted a Japanese name, was accepted
by Japan and turned out to be one of their most well-loved
storytellers. He gathered this selection of tales (as well as scores
of others) from people he met while travelling Japan as a teacher.
The film itself is a beautiful canvas of fine art. That's what I
like most about Kwaidan. It's
got this Akira Kurosawa meets Cabinet of
Dr. Caligari production value going for it. Everything in
this film is huge. It's absolutely gigantic. But as huge as it might
seem, look at it with the knowledge that the entire film was shot
inside a huge set (actually an aircraft hanger) with the skylines
and vistas all hand painted. Like Akira Kurosawa, director Masaki
Kobayashi was a painter before becoming a filmmaker, and he uses his
knowledge of framing and art design to full effect. Even the shadow
work is all paint and beautiful lighting design. This is as close to
fine art as cinema can get.
Another interesting aspect of the film is the music and sound
design. The music is incredible, a flowing traditional and eerie
track by composer Takemitsu. It crawls under your skin right from
the opening credit sequence (which is, in and of itself, pretty
cool, and sets the film up perfectly). The sound design for the film
is just as eerie - especially in the Black
Hair story. The sound pushes you away while the visuals
suck you in. It leaves you in an odd cinematic Purgatory. If you
have the patience for foreign films, this is really a DVD that you
should check out.
Let's look at each of the four stories...
The first story is about young samurai who dumps his loving wife to
pursue a new life. His need for money and status finds him marrying
into a successful family and gaining an important post. But he's
haunted by the life he left behind. His second wife is spoiled, and
doesn't have the compassion his first wife had. And, as most who
turn their back on a past relationship find, there are more
important things in life than status. Things like love, honor and
compatibility. So he divorces his second wife, fulfills his
obligation to the lord he's currently working for and makes plans to
go back to his original life.
Years later, the samurai finally returns to his hometown of Kyoto
and find his first wife. She still lives in their old house, which
has seen better days, and she appears totally unchanged from the
last time he last saw her. Her black hair is as long and radiant as
the last day he laid eyes on it. She's excited to see him, and they
make plans of a life together forever. As they spend the night
together in their original wedding chamber, he promises to never
leave her again and he has the best night of rest he's had in a long
time. But things aren't unchanged for the samurai and, as he finds
when he wakes up, ill deeds must be paid in full. And promises of
life together are better thought out before they are made with
ghosts from the past.
This one is weird, but I like it. It's got some nice turnabout.
It's not too heavy, but it makes a few honorable statements about
having your cake and eating it too. The samurai, even if he has a
change of heart, already did whatever damage he's done. His wife
lived for him, and even if she loves him - a promise is a promise.
The Woman of the Snow
Two woodcutters, a young man and an old one, are forced to take
refuge from a terrible snowstorm. They find shelter in a small
fisherman's hut, but the torrential winds won't let them keep the
door shut. As they lie sleeping Minokichi (the young woodcutter)
watches in horror as a succubus enters their shelter and blows an
icy breath over the old man, freezing him dry. As she approaches
Minokichi, she seems to fall in love with his beauty and decides to
spare his life as long as he never tells anyone - not even his
mother - what he has seen that night. If he fails to honor his word,
the succubus promises to kill him. The next day, he returns home a
sick man and, thinking what he saw to be a dream, fulfills his
One year later, Minokichi meets a beautiful woman named Yuki, who
is headed to the town of Edo for a better future. Minokichi's mother
likes her immediately and invites her to stay for dinner. Minokichi
and Yuki fall in love, marry and raise three children - a perfect
family - who all the other villagers admire and envy. Over the
years, Yuki becomes the talk of the village for both her continually
youthful beauty and her devotion to her husband. Late one night,
while making sandals as gifts for his family, the light catches Yuki
in such a way that Minokichi remembers the story of that snowy night
and proceeds to tell her the story, breaking his bargain and
unleashing the wrath of the woman of the snow.
This is actually my favorite story of the four. Hoichi the Earless
(below) is "better" but I really like this one and found
myself relating to it. The characters are so well drawn that you
can't help but be upset when the woodcutter starts screwing up in
the end. And although you can guess the story right off, it's still
very sweet and actually comes off better because you know the "twist".
I really like the ending of this story, which seems hopeless... but
really may not be. You know Minokichi loves Yuki and his gift to her
is accepted, so maybe there's some hope. It's a cool ending.
Hoichi the Earless
Hoichi is a blind monk at the Amidaji Temple, near the site of the
battle of Dan-no-ura. He sings the ancient Song of the Taira Clan,
which tells of a battle on the sea where the surviving members of
the Taira clan, along with their infant emperor, drowned. During the
dusk hours, as he sings his song, a samurai warrior requests
Hoichi's to sing his song for his Lord, who is camped near the
temple. Honored by the request, Hoichi follows the samurai into a
densely foggy countryside. The song is so long that it takes several
nights to get through. Each night he goes into the fog, he comes
back sicker and sicker. Hoichi has sworn himself to secrecy, but the
head monk sends two monks to spy on him each night. When they come
back, they recount a tale of ghosts. The temple priest instantly
knows that the samurai and his lord are the ghosts of the Taira
clan, which are said to haunt the shores near the temple. He also
knows that, when and if Hoichi finishes his song, the ghosts will
tear him to pieces. In order to make Hoichi invisible to the
spirits, the priests writes holy text upon his body... but
mistakenly forgets to write on his ears.
What happens next is no surprise, but is pretty gruesome anyway.
This is the longest and biggest of the stories in Kwaidan.
It's a very well told story, and it's as much a story of the ancient
battle as it is of Hoichi. It'll amaze you, what the filmmakers did
here on a set for the sea battle. Fires raging, swords blazing and
warriors crashing into the sea. This is a beautiful and grim story,
worth checking out.
In a Cup of Tea
This final one's a little on the unfulfilling side, but it's still
okay. It plays with timeframes, jumping around a bit to make its
point (although I don't really know the point it's making). A writer
at the turn of the century holds a series of manuscripts and none of
them have an ending. We jump to New Year's Day, 1679. At the Hongo
temple, a samurai named Kannai pours himself a cup of water after a
hot day's guarding. As he draws the cup to his mouth, he notices a
face reflected at him. He throws the water away and gets another
cup, but the face is still there, smiling a taunting smile at him.
For a third time, Kannai tries to get his drink and for a third time
the face peers back at him.
That night, he spots the man he saw reflected in the water in the
home he guards and immediately they engage in combat. Kannai wounds
the mysterious stranger, who then disappears. The next night, three
men who claim to be retainers of the stranger confront Kannai and
inform him that since he wounded the stranger, he must wait until
the stranger is recovered and they will finish their battle. Kannai
strikes out at the three samurai and, as they battle, they disappear
and reappear, taunting him. Kannai leans back his head and with a
maniacal laugh abruptly goes mad.
From there, we jump back to the beginning of the story, just as the
writer's publisher arrives to find the author gone. He reads the
story and begins to wonder about the meaning of the tale. As he
waits for the writer to return, his landlady offers to make some
tea. Suddenly, the landlady screams and, when the publisher comes to
see what's wrong, he finds the writer's face reflected in a vat of
water staring out at them.
And that's it. There's no framing story - nothing more than the
tales themselves - and that's fine. These four short films are
perfect illustrations of the different types of ghosts that haunt
the human condition - ghosts of love, ghosts of the past and ghosts
of what we aspire to be. Some of the stories tackle more than one of
these ghosts at a time and, in some way, they tell the same tale.
All together, Kwaidan is a
really well made piece and is one that more people should see.
Thanks to The Criterion Collection, now you can on DVD. The
anamorphic video is very good. There are a few source print issues
that you're just not going to escape, but for a DVD transfer of
older material, this is damn fine. Colors are well represented and
the shadow detail is breathtaking. All Japanese film transfers
should look so good. The sound is a fine mono track, as was
originally produced, and it supports the film perfectly with no hiss
or hum. There aren't any extras, which is a shame. We're given a
trailer, but in this day and age of DVD, that's a given. I would
have liked a commentary track with some perspective of the stories
told in the film. I'm sure they mean more than I can grasp, but
since I'm not an expert of Japanese culture, some of it goes over my
head. Instinctively, I understand more of it, but there are some
things you just can't get unless you live the life, ya know?
Kwaidan is a shocker and it's
a beautiful one at that. Give it a chance to surprise you, because
it will. If you're already a fan and haven't picked up this disc, do
so. It's a keeper.