Kwaidan (1964)
Directed by Masaki Kobayashi

Kwaidan
Kaidan
Starring Rentaro Mikuni (Husband), Michiyo Aratama (First wife), Misako Watanabe (Second wife), Tatsuya Nakadai (Minokichi), Keiko Kishi (Yuki), Katsuo Nakamura (Hoichi), Takashi Shimura (Head priest), Tetsuro Tamba (Heike samurai), Osamu Takizawa (Writer), Noboru Nakaya (Shikibu Heinai)
Screenplay by Yoko Mizuki
Cinematography by Yoshio Miyajima

Shochiku, 183 minutes
Color, 2.35:1 scope ratio
English-subtitled DVD: Masters of Cinema (U.K., original cut); Criterion (edited cut)

Kwaidan can be described as a jidai-geki film and a Japanese horror anthology, but really it's a singular creation that defies categorization. Whereas Masaki Kobayashi's other best-known works like Harakiri and Samurai Rebellion are very heavily narrative driven (by heady Shinobu Hashimoto scripts in those two cases), Kwaidan is all about the visuals. It's a fantasia of color and imagery that looks like a lush painting brought to life. A lot of the soundstage backdrops were in fact painted by hand. The dreamlike effect bears some resemblance to what Kurosawa was going for in his own impressionistic anthology called Dreams, though I believe Kwaidan is more successful. It won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1965.

The Criterion DVD of Kwaidan is not the best edition available, which is an unusual circumstance. The Masters of Cinema edition released in the U.K. contains the original 183-minute cut of the film and a striking transfer that looks nearly HD. Criterion, on the other hand, put out a 161-minute edit with inferior image quality and framing, as you can see in a comparison at DVD Beaver. So I recommend avoiding the Criterion edition and getting yourself a region-free DVD player to experience Kwaidan properly.

Kwaidan (or actually, Kaidan) means "ghost stories," and the movie is made up of four individual tales. All are set in historical Japan and adapted from the writings of Lafcadio Hearn, an Irishman who lived in Japan. Each story has a simple, fable-like plot and a small group of characters to keep track of, making this one foreign film where you don't have to struggle to keep up with what's going on. You can just relax and let the the beautiful images wash over you. It's impossible to do justice to these visual extravaganzas in words, but here goes...

The Black Hair: A samurai who has fallen into poverty gets an opportunity to serve a new lord whose domain is far away. To take the post, the samurai has to leave behind his loving wife and marry into the new clan. Though his wealth and prestige reinstated, the samurai feels no connection with his shallow new wife and finds himself consumed with regret. When his term of duty ends, he returns to his former home hoping to reunite with his abandoned ex-wife. But things don't turn out quit like he plans.

The Woman of the Snow: When two woodcutters try to take shelter from a horrible snowstorm, they find themselves confronted by a ghostly ice queen. She takes the soul of the elder woodsman and leaves him a frozen corpse, but decides to spare other one because he's so young and handsome. Her only condition is that she'll return and kill him if he ever tells anyone about her. The woodcutter goes on to lead a happy life with a wife and three kids, until the day when he makes a stupid mistake. (Trivia note: After starring as a man in his 50s in Kobayashi's Harakiri at the age of 30, here Tatsuya Nakadai plays an 18-year-old – and is equally convincing all around.)

Hoichi the Earless: This lengthy episode, the showstopping main event of Kwaidan, centers on a seaside temple at the site of a legendary naval battle between the Heike and Ganji clans. A blind priest named Hoichi is renowned for his skills in playing the biwa (stringed instrument) and chanting a long, mournful ballad of the Heike clan's cruel defeat. A weird soldier summons Hoichi to give a command performance before an distinguished audience of nobles, taking the blind priest away night after night. Hoichi can't see that his audience is the ghosts of the Heike clan, and he's performing at their cemetery. When the head priest finds out about this, he takes action to save Hoichi from being destroyed by the spirits. But there's a hitch with his plan, and you can find a big clue in the fact that Hoichi's ears seem to be just fine, despite the story's title.

In a Cup of Tea: The brief closing vignette is really just a fragment of a story. A writer in Meiji-era Japan is researching old legends when he finds the strange story of a samurai who finds the soul of another samurai trapped in a cup of tea, and he inadvertently drinks it. The ghosts of the samurai and his servant appear to haunt the man and duel with him, and there the story ends. But the fate of the writer provides a degree of closure.

The stories are basic and not all that scary by our modern standards of shock-and-gore horror movies, but the visuals are breathtaking throughout. The most dazzling accomplishment is pure imagination on display in "Hoichi the Earless," from the opening depiction of the sea battle as an ancient mural in human form to the painting of prayer text across Hoichi's body. My favorite single moment is the flying fireballs that dance around Hoichi trailing wisps of smoke at the close of his interrupted biwa performance. There are no telltale signs of hidden strings or bluescreen compositing, and I have no idea how Kobayashi got that effect with pre-digital 1964 technology. Maybe the guy was just magic.

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