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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 11/7/00

1964 (2000) - Toho (Criterion)

review by Todd Doogan of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

Kwaidan Film Rating: A

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

Kwaidan 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...

Black Hair

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 bargain.

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.

Todd Doogan
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