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Directed by Masaki Kobayashi with a screenplay by Yôko Mizuki based off of the writing of Lafcadio Hearn, Toho's 1964 film Kwaidan comes to Blu-ray in its complete form (the previous DVD release included the shorter version) for the first time on home video in North America.
The first of the four stories that makes up the whole of the film is Black Hair. Here we learn the story of a poor samurai (Rentarô Mikuni) who divorces his wife (Michiyo Aratama) and leaves town. Now free, he remarries another woman (Misako Watanabe) out of love but for her money. Not so surprisingly, this second marriage fails quite quickly and our samurai soon finds himself longing for his first wife. He returns to her but when he does, it doesn't take him long to realize that something has changed and that she's not quite the same as she once was.
In The Woman In The SnowWe follow a woodcutter (Tatsuya Nakadai) as he takes shelter from a terrible snowstorm. When he does, he witnesses a strange female ghost kill his older travel companion. His life is spared on the condition that he not speak of this but decades later when he falls in love with a strange and mysterious woman, his past comes back to haunt him.
The third story, Hoichi The Earless, follows the titular Hoichi (Katsuo Nakamura), a blind musician who lives a strange life in a monastery where his music attracts the attention of a high court made up of spirits (one of whom is Tetsuro Tanba). So impressed are they with his music that they demand he come up with a song suitable for representing the battle that wound up taking their lives for them. Communicating with the ghosts is having a harsh effect on Hoichi's life, however, and so the monks who he lives with (led by Takashi Shimura) decide to cover his body in a scripture that should ward off the spirits… if it's done properly.
The fourth and final story is In A Cup Of Tea. Here a writer tells the story of a man that sees a strange face reflected in his cup of tea, but there's more to it than that and as the story plays out the connection to the man drinking the tea and the reflection he sees is more very clear indeed.
Truly a film that is as beautiful as it is sincerely eerie, Kwaidan might seem like a daunting task given that it has a three hour running time but it never seems like a chore to get through. Each of the four stories that makes up the whole is told quite efficiently, there isn't really a whole lot of padding here, but at the same time the pacing does seem rather deliberate. If director Masaki Kobayashi is just as concerned with using the right visuals in the right place at the right speed as he is with plot details so be it, when the end results are as absolutely enthralling as they are here it doesn't matter. This is a world that is easy to get lost in, the kind that only seems to exist as Japanese folk stories and it's those cultural traits that often times make Hearn's stories as visually impressive as they are here. The period settings and locations allow Kobayashi and cinematographer Yoshio Miyajima to experiment with color and shadow and they really do get some wild results here. The film is ripe with unforgettable imagery, sometimes startling in its depictions of horror and other times just simply beautiful to look at.
The film makes use of a pretty large cast but the principals involved all do very good work. It's always a pleasure watching seasons professionals like Tatsuya Nakadai and the omnipresent Tetsura Tanba, particularly when they're able to work with material as rich with nuance as this, but the lesser known cast members all turn in strong work here. Some of the performances are uniquely physical, others more dependent on dialogue and character development but they all fit the tone of the movie very well.
With top notch production values, a quartet of great stories, excellent performances and a score that is both memorable and evocative of the type of sinister content that the movie deals with, Kwaidan is one of those rare pictures that is pretty much perfect. Those unfamiliar with the film should look past the intimidating running time and give it a shot, it's influence on more modern Japanese horror is obvious and it has lost none of its power over the years.
Kwaidan arrives on Blu-ray in AVC encoded 1080p high definition in a transfer framed at 2.40.1 widescreen in a new 2k scan from the original negative and it looks gorgeous. Color reproduction is impressive right from the start and it consistently pops throughout the movie without ever looking artificially boosted. Black levels are nice and deep but not at the expense of shadow detail and the darker scenes are free of any obvious crush. Skin tones look nice and natural when they're supposed to and appropriately unnatural when the story calls for it while detail and texture are nice and strong in pretty much every frame. There's very little here in the way of print damage, just a few specks you really have to look for to even notice, and the image is pretty much pristine while retaining a nice film-like tone throughout. There isn't any noticeable use of heavy noise reduction nor are there any edge enhancement problems or compression related flaws.
The only audio option on the disc is a Japanese language LPCM Mono track and it sounds quite good. No alternate language options are provided although subtitles are available in English only. For an older single channel mix this track has admirable depth and range. Dialogue is clean, clear and nicely balanced while the score sounds very impressive. Hiss and distortion are never a problem and the subtitles are easy to read and free of any typographical errors.
Extras on the disc start off with a new audio commentary by film historian and noted author Stephen Prince. Taking on a three hour feature film couldn't have been an easy task but Prince proves up to the task. This incredibly well researched discussion covers all the bases you'd hope it would. We learn not only about the director, the cast and the crew but also where the studio was at during the time this picture was made, the literature that inspired the movie, the sets and costumes used in the film and many of the themes that it explores. This is concise, very detailed and about as informative as it gets.
From there, the featurettes begin with an archival interview with Kobayashi conducted in 1993 by
filmmaker Masahiro Shinoda that runs for just over fifteen minutes. This is a pretty concise rundown of the making of Kwaidan told primarily from the director's own point of view and its inclusion here is quit welcome. Up next is a twenty-two minute long new interview with assistant director Kiyoshi Ogasawara. He talks in quite a bit of earnest detail about what it was like working under Kobayashi's direction and about his thoughts on the man's work and about this feature itself. He also talks about what he was responsible for as the AD on the film. The disc also includes a seventeen minute piece that covers the life and times of author Lafcadio Hearn, the man who wrote the stories that the feature was based on. This is handled by Christopher Benfey, the man who brought us the book Lafcadio Hearn: American Writings and it works quite well as an introduction to the author's work and as an exploration as to its effects on Japanese folklore and pop culture.
Rounding out the extras are a black and white trailer for the feature, two separate color trailers for the feature, menus and chapter selection. Inside the Blu-ray case is a full color insert booklet containing credits for the disc and the feature along with an informative essay on the history and importance of the film written by critic Geoffrey O'Brien.
This Blu-ray reissue of Kwaidan is a vast improvement over The Criterion Collection's older DVD in every way. The transfer is much better, the film is in its full length version and the extras are informative and very well put together. As to the feature itself, it's a fantastic horror film, a classic really. It's loaded with atmosphere, excellent performances and haunting set pieces told with amazing style. Highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.