Kwaidan Review

Without wishing to either overstate the case or denigrate the film in any way, Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan is primarily an exercise in style. Based on a series of ghost stories by Lafcadio Hearn, a writer of US origin and Greek-Irish ancestry, Kobayashi abandons any sense of naturalism or realism and instead draws on his own background as a student of painting and fine arts, creating a stylised, theatrical otherworldly realm for four of these stories to play out to the full extent of their surreal beauty and eerie elegance.

The first story ‘The Black Hair’ relies on the traditional horror image of the woman with long black hair, now quite familiar from the recent resurgence of Japanese horror. An impoverished samurai leaves his wife in Kyoto to take up a position with a rich Lord. His wife begs him not to leave her, promising she will work harder at weaving to earn the money they need, but to no avail. A samurai, he needs to keep his pride and position and divorces his wife to marry the daughter of the noble family. He comes to regret his decision, finding himself little more than a servant for his new wife’s whims. Haunted by the memory of his former wife, he eventually returns to make amends for what he has done to her, but his contrition soon turns to horror.

In the best tradition of ghost stories, there is a strong psychological element to ‘The Black Hair’, the horror of the samurai’s reencounter with his former wife being born out of guilt and remorse for what he has done to her, combined with fanciful reminiscences of her characteristics and habits and appearance, not least of which of course is the beautiful sheen of her long black hair. Kobayashi’s treatment of the story is extraordinarily effective in every respect. Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood comes to mind for the powerful evocation of mood and menace through the use of silences, noises and creaks and its deliberate pacing and flow of camera movements. Kobayashi however takes this a stage further through an appropriate use of colour to emphasise situations, and the use of post-sync and unsynchronised sound to all the more effectively capture the surreal aspects of the experience. All of this combines to create an environment that is less naturalistic than psychological and representative of a state of mind – one that is tormented by guilt and driven to madness.

If there is any influence of Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood in ‘The Black Hair’, Kurosawa returned the compliment in his 1990 film Dreams, a film made up of four sections whose vividly colourful sequences and nightmarish content recall Kwaidan, particularly the segment ‘The Blizzard’, which would appear to have much in common with the second story in Kwaidan, ‘The Woman of the Snow’. In this story two woodcutters, an old man Mosaku and his apprentice Minokichi, get caught in a great snowstorm while working in the forest. Taking refuge in a boat hut belonging to the ferryman, they are visited by an evil spirit, a pale woman in white who drains the life out of Mosaku. The woman however takes pity on Minokichi and spares him, but warns that if he should breathe a word of what he has seen to anyone, she will come back for him and kill him. Some time later, Minokichi marries Yuki, a woman he has encountered on the path. Yuki is a good and loving wife, who bears him three beautiful children, but never seems to age. One day something in her manner reminds Minokicki of the encounter in the snow ten years ago.

As with the first story in the film, ‘The Woman of the Snow’ is as complete a portrayal of this particular ghost story as you could imagine. Filmed highly theatrically on incredibly large and elaborate studio stages, every element is under the control of the director, who emblazons the skies with menacing and watchful eyes, while the score and soundtrack again matches the mood. Every little detail, colour, sound, play of light and gust of drifting snow serves to illustrate the emotions and import of the tale, heightening its dramatic content - the warm glows of Yuki and Minokichi’s love switching in a sudden shift of light to express cold chill of betrayal and loss.

With its use of colour and theatricality to express powerful emotions, it’s difficult to imagine that Kobayashi’s treatment of the third and central segment of Kwaidan, ‘Hoichi The Earless’ would not also have been a reference for Kurosawa when he came to make Ran or even a similar ritual ceremony involving spirits in Dreams. Using every possible means (barring realism) to capture the epic proportions of an historical tragedy, Kobayashi employs music, folksongs, traditional illustrations on a tapestry, and a highly theatrical and stylised setting to illustrate a mythical battle at sea between the Genji and Heike Samurai clans at Dan-no-ura in the Shimonoseki Straits. Faced with defeat and trapped on their boat in the bay, the story recounts the tragic fate of Lady Mii, who throws herself and the infant Emperor into the sea rather than being taken by the enemy that surrounds them. Following her example, the whole royal entourage follow her and plunge into the blood stained waters. Such is the force of this depiction that the setting of the Amida Temple in the same location 700 years later is filled with a sense of horror and sadness for all the souls who died there. A blind boy called Hoichi, a young student at the temple and a master musician, is asked to perform the 100 songs of the battle every night for a very special audience – but his master (played by Kurosawa veteran Takashi Shimura), warns him of the great danger he has placed himself in. The story, marvellously staged and inventively depicted through a host of remarkable effects, demonstrates the power of mythology, tradition, art and storytelling to convey the essence of the past, memories of the dead, as well as the dangers that lie in such close identification with them.

This Borgesian idea is explored also in the final section of the film, ‘In A Cup Of Tea’. About to take a drink from a bowl, a samurai, Kannai sees the reflection of a strange man, but swallows the liquid down anyway. Later, while on duty at his master’s fortress, the figure reappears to Kannai, calling himself Shikibu Heinai. Before he vanishes through a wall however, the samurai is able to strike the spirit with his sword, but it is not the last ghostly visitation he will encounter. It’s in the framing element of an unfinished story however that the tale’s purpose and the strength of the film itself is revealed – in the power of suggestion and imagination, the essential elements of what make up the very best ghost story.

Kwaidan is released in the UK by Eureka under their Masters of Cinema imprint. The DVD contains the full 183 minute version of the film, not the 161 minute International Cut previously available on Criterion’s US DVD. The DVD is in NTSC format and is encoded for Region 2.

Kwaidan is an exceptionally beautifully photographed film that relies on its use of lighting and colour as well as its pacing and camera movement to achieve its full impact. Thankfully, the Masters of Cinema release supports that in terms of the accuracy of colour tone, fully bringing the compositions to life, as well as in the overall stability of the transfer, with scarcely a flicker to intrude on the long, languid tracking shots. A progressive transfer, this flow holds up better on an appropriate display. Brightness and contrast are perfect, presenting the image with fine detail. Blacks are also rich, deep and detailed. One or two minor marks remain on the print, usually occurring around the splicing and overlapping of scenes, but blink and you’ll miss them. The majority of the film is free from marks, specks of dust or damage of any kind. Compression artefacts show up only very rarely in the breaking up of thin parallel vertical lines. An unconverted NTSC transfer, there is a slight softness to the image and a little bit of colour bleed in the softened edges. In the main respect however, the transfer perfectly presents the film in the tone that befits it.

The mono audio track, presented in Dolby Digital 2.0, is hardly hi-fidelity, but it is generally clear and accurate. There is a certain dull, low tone that is quite bassy, causing voices to resonate somewhat. A trace of crackle is faintly audible throughout but dialogue is nonetheless quite clearly distinguished, as are all the creaks and sounds that make up Toru Takemitsu’s experimental score which doubles as sound effects for the film.

English subtitles are provided in a clear white font and are optional. They are placed entirely within the frame of the image, not in the black bar at the bottom of the frame.

There are no substantial extra features on the DVD itself. Anything of any length would probably have compromised the bit-rate for a three hour film. On the disc itself however are a Black & White Japanese Teaser (1:03) which offers a glimpse of how the film was shot and extols the qualities of the film’s colour scheme. This is something the Colour Teaser (1:23) obviously does a little better. The Japanese Trailer (3:56) is magnificent, superbly setting the tone and mystery of the stories, while giving a marvellous indication of the extraordinary look and colour of the film. Since I think this speaks for the film better than any review or screencapture, I feel I should refer you to the Trailer on the Masters of Cinema Web Site. A Gallery is made up of 10 b&w Still Photos, as well as three screens of Japanese and International Poster Designs. The main extras however are in the accompanying 72-page illustrated booklet, which reprints Lafcadio Hearn’s original ghost stories, has an overview of Kobayashi’s career by Linda Hoaglund, and an interview with the director himself looking back on his work.

Comparison with Criterion Collection edition
The most significant difference between the Masters of Cinema release and the Criterion Collection edition is of course the running time. The Criterion runs to 161 minutes, the Masters of Cinema is 183 minutes long. As both editions are NTSC format, there is no PAL speed-up on either. The cuts appear to be applied to at least the first three stories, with about 2 minutes missing from ‘The Black Hair’, 10 minutes removed from ‘The Woman of the Snow’ and a further 10 minutes of deletions from ‘Hoichi The Earless’. None of the cuts are significant in terms of affecting the plotting of the stories, but they certainly affect the quite deliberate pacing.
As far as the video quality goes, there really is no comparison. The Criterion colours have a strong blue tint, the image is overly contrasted and rather dark. There are rather more marks and scratches on the Criterion print also. The aspect ratio of the Criterion is around 2:28:1, while the Masters of Cinema has more information in the wider 2.50:1 ratio. There is no significant difference in the audio tracks, or in the extra features, the Criterion containing only the film’s trailer. Comparison screenshots are provided below – Criterion first, Masters of Cinema second.

Kwaidan may be a superb exercise in style, but it is not experimental just for the sake of it. Every image and sound is perfectly calculated to present four intriguing ghost stories in the most effectively chilling way possible while at the same time drawing out the deeper psychological elements and meaning that are underlying in them. Kobayashi uses every element at his disposal as a filmmaker, but draws on other art forms – theatre, music, illustration, folklore and his own background as a trained painter, to make an influential film truly like no other. Thanks to Masters of Cinema, we can see that vision in its full colour glory and uncut.

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out of 10

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