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The Criterion Collection presents

Kwaidan (1965)

"Let us dream here...together."- First Wife (Michiyo Aratama), from segment 'The Black Hair'

Stars: Rentaro Mikuni, Tatsuya Nakadai, Michiyo Aratama, Kanemon Nakamura
Other Stars: Tetsuro Tanba, Jun Hamamura, Osamu Takizawa
Director: Masaki Kobayashi

Manufacturer: DVDL
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (disturbing imagery)
Run Time: 02h:38m:13s
Release Date: 2000-10-10
Genre: horror

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A+ A+B+B- C


DVD Review

In my minor dabbling with reading Japanese literature, especially supernatural literature, I've found them to be filled with amazing levels of creativity and imagination. Classic Japanese ghost stories are often similar to writings of other nationalities, but have a chilling simplicity to them. Of course, like many folk tales, these stories often teach lessons in common sense and morality, much like Grimm's Fairy Tales or Aesop's Fables. Kwaidan is a re-telling of four classic Japanese stories of the supernatural, written by Lafcadio Hearn, who was, surprisingly, Greek. After becoming a Japanese citizen in 1895, he apparently achieved such an intimate relationship with the cultural undercurrents of the country, that his work simply IS Japanese.

The first story is The Black Hair, the chilling tale of a poor Samurai who leaves his devoted wife in order to marry into a wealthier family. He achieves his goal, only to find out that his new, rich wife is a conceited bore. Soon, his thoughts wander back to his previous wife and be begins to regret the callous mistake he made in leaving her. He wants to return, but what will her reaction be?

The next story, The Woman Of The Snow, is about two woodcutters who find themselves caught in a brutal snowstorm. They manage to find their way to a riverside hut, but once inside, a mysterious female demon kills one of them. She spares the other's life, but only if he promises to never speak of his encounter to anyone, ever. He now finds himself having to live the rest of his life under this silence, finding it awkward and difficult. What if he should reveal his secret to someone very close to him?

In Hoichi, the Earless, a blind monk finds himself contacted by ancient ghosts that he has sung songs about. These ghosts demand that he sing his songs every night, and though Hoichi agrees, the nightly schedule is slowing killing him. Are the ghosts friendly or truly evil, trying to drive Hoichi to his death?

In a Cup of Tea is told as a story within the story, wherein the tale of a warrior who must do battle with a shadowy phantom comes forward. Unfortunately, the mysterious phantom is only one of a series of strange evils the warrior must deal with.

Simply put, Kwaidan is a masterpiece; an epic experience in Japanese filmmaking, filled with style and craft rarely seen. It is subtle and quiet, yet sutably disturbing and bizarre when it needs to be. Visually, massive, amazing sets are used to recreate locations, sometimes well done and sometimes intentionally fake and stylized in appearance. Brightly-colored lighting and fabrics are used to accent everything else, creating a dreamlike appearance to everything. Like many Japanese films and stage plays, complex make-up is rarely used to indicate the presence of a demon or ghost, but instead, slight changes in a person's pallor or eyebrows make the monster.

A minimalist musical score, created with traditional Japanese instruments, enhances the experience, along with a strange soundtrack often using exaggerated or out-of-sync sound effects to add tension to moments. This technique is blended with a very sharp sense of direction that adheres to a rigid artistic style. Though long, the film will reward patient viewers with its careful usage of tight drama, suddenly interrupted with flashes of supernatural encounters.

When originally released in the U.S., the second story was actually completely removed in order to shorten the length. This DVD marks an upgrade to Home Vision Cinema's VHS edition, which was the first mass availabile version of this film that was uncut and re-translated with better subtitles. The end result is a haunting and memorable cinematic experience, made even more potent by its use of rural Japanese culture as a backdrop. Kwaidan literally translates as "ghost story", and if ever there was a film bordering so close to the ethereal, it'd have a hard time competing.

Rating for Style: A+
Rating for Substance: A+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio2.35:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: General image quality teeters between A- and B+ quality. I decided to go with B+ because, despite the stellar, restored version of this film, some age problems have a minor, distracting effect. That said, the film is amazingly vivid, crisp, and clear for its age. The usage of bright color as part of the vast sets comes across perfectly with a crystal transfer. There are no compression artifacts, pixelization, or any kind of unwanted movement, even at full zoom. The fine details are easily visible, and the anamorphic enhancement has added good depth to the image with little aliasing. The source print has been cleaned up to an amazing extent, but some speckles and negative scratches are still very apparent, some of which effect long portions of the film. Despite these age flaws, this transfer is something any DVD fan should truly melt over. Kwaidan is reborn here. Subtitles are nicely sized, white-colored, and placed below the 2:35:1 image frame.

Image Transfer Grade: B+

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: The original, single channel Mono audio mix is used here. Though it sounds decent and certainly delivers dialogue properly, it's also very flat and harsh. This can't really be faulted, but in general, I'd recommend keeping the volume lower than you might do for the average DVD, otherwise the source flaws like tape hiss are exaggerated and effect the performance.

Audio Transfer Grade: B- 

Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 28 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL

Extra Extras:
  1. NTSC Color Bar Pattern
Extras Review: While there are no extras, I'm not sure what could have been added. The original trailer is present, as are Criterion's usual inclusion of color bars for making adjustments. The menus are expertly designed to incorporate the general theme of the film, and the keepcase cover and insert are equally well designed. The insert contains a short essay/description of the movie by critic David Ehrenstein who has written for the esteemed Cahiers Du Cinema. The insert usage of Japanese imagery along with shots from the film is to be applauded in an age where these booklets are often created with little artistic thought.

Extras Grade: C

Final Comments

Criterion's restoration is simply beautiful, and the film itself is one of the finest in its class. Moody, stylish, and slow-moving, Kwaidan is an eerie trip into a supernatural realm that seems impossible to escape. Highly recommended to all.

Dan Lopez 2000-10-06