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Japanese curios, with sundry cobwebs
A region 2 DVD review of KWAIDAN by Slarek
 

It is a little ironic that the author of one of Japan's most widely known and respected collections of ghost stories is not Japanese at all. Born in Greece of Irish-Greek parentage, Lafcadio Hearn emigrated to America at the age of 19 and worked for some years as a journalist in both Cincinnati and New Orleans. Later he fell in love with Japan and the Japanese way of life and eventually moved there and raised a family. He continued to write on a variety of subjects, some of his most prominent work being the adaptation into prose of a number of supernaturally-based Japanese folklore tales. These were published as collections such as Shadowings (1900), Kottô: Being Japanese Curios, with Sundry Cobwebs (1902) and Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things (1903). 61 years after Hearn's death, Japanese director Kobayashi Masaki set out to make a film of four stories adapted from the above three volumes. The result was Kwaidan (literally 'Ghost Story'), now rightly regarded as one of the most successful cinematic realisations of the supernatural yet to emerge from, well, anywhere.

In the first story, The Black Hair, a poverty stricken samurai divorces his loving and faithful wife and marries the daughter of the Governor of a distant province, in whose service he then works. But the marriage proves to be an unhappy one, and ten years later, when the Governor's official term of service is complete and the samurai is freed of his obligations, he returns to Kyoto in search of the woman he has been repeatedly dreaming of, and whom he feels he has done a terrible injustice. But all is not what it seems.

Woman of the Snow finds old woodcutter Mosaku and his young apprentice Minokichi caught in a snow storm on their way home from the forest in which they collect their wares. Cut off by a river, they take refuge in a broken-down hut, but in the night Minokichi is awakened by the arrival of a white-dressed woman, who kills Mosaku with an icy breath. Feeling pity for Minokichi, she spares his life, but on the condition that he never reveals what happened that night to anyone, not even his most beloved. A year later Minokichi meets a beautiful girl whom he takes for his wife, and one night, many years later, he watches her sew and is reminded of that fateful night...

Hoichi, the Earless tells the story of blind storyteller Hoichi, whose skilled biwa playing and emotive recital of the tale of the great sea battle of Dan-no-ura has impressed a priest of the Amidaji temple. The poverty-stricken Hoichi is offered a home there, which he gladly accepts, being required only to occasionally perform his musical and storytelling skills in lieu of rent. Left alone in the temple one evening, he is visited by a samurai in the service of a high-ranking lord. Hoichi's recital of the battle of Dan-no-ura has become renowned and he has been summoned to deliver the story to the court which the samurai serves. Hoichi's skills impress the lord so much that he is promised a large reward, but on the condition that he return for the next six nights to repeat his performance and that he tell no-one of his visits. Hoichi is true to his word, but the temple priests become curious about the nature of his night-time excursions, and one night two of them are dispatched to follow him.

In the final story, In a Cup of Tea, the attendant of a lord resting at a tea house fills a large water cup with tea to quench his thirst. As he raises the cup to his mouth, however, he sees in it the face of a young samurai, and yet there is no-one nearby to cast the reflection he initially suspects it to be. Repeatedly the face appears, and eventually the thirsty and frustrated attendant drinks the tea regardless. But is it only tea that he has swallowed?

The stories themselves are for the most part simple in structure (reflecting their brief literary length) and function, as do many works of horror fiction, as straightforward morality tales. After many years of such stories from both eastern and western film and fiction, few will nowadays be startled at the individual outcomes. But like Hoichi's tale of the battle of Dan-no-ura, the real pleasure of the tales lies in their telling, and it is Masaki Kobayashi's enviable skill as a cinematic storyteller that has earned Kwaidan its unique place in cinema history. And when I say unique I mean it – no other film looks quite like it, none I have come across sound like it, and its seamless blending of the theatrical and the cinematic create a compelling sense of other-worldliness that at times seems to lift the tales out of their historical context and into an alternate dimension.

Sometimes surreal in its evocation of waking nightmare, the drama is frequently expressionistic in the externalisation of the mental anguish of its characters. Visually the film is rarely less than stunning, and I'm not talking the chocolate box prettiness of Memoirs of a Geisha but a beauty that is as haunting as it is breathtaking. Yoshio Miyajima's scope photography and Shegemasu Toda's art direction are both extraordinary throughout, but are never superficially beautiful, always serving the story and atmosphere, sometimes in semi-abstract or symbolic manner. This is most vividly realised in the second story, The Woman in the Snow, where red skies are sprinkled with large, watching eyes, the light in a room suddenly shifts to evoke a memory, and the sun is fragmented in the style a cubist painting.

The film draws as much from Japanese theatre as it does from film, the influence of Noh plays – in the sets, the lighting, and the movement of characters – being repeatedly evident. And yet the drifting camera and sometimes unexpected angles recall the work of a number of Kobayashi's cinematic predecessors, not least Mizoguchi Kenji, whose landmark supernatural tale Ugetsu Monogatari has clearly been inspirational here (not least in the sequence in which spells are written all over Hoichi's body to protect him from evil), as it would also prove to be for other directors working in this genre.

Every bit as striking as the imagery is the soundtrack, where natural sounds are often completely removed and action played out either in silence or accompanied by Takemitsu Tôru's almost avant-garde score. The sometimes stark use of traditional instrumentation blended with strangely altered sound effects (the climax of The Black Hair, for example, is peppered with the electronically treated noise of breaking wood) proves genuinely unnerving, emphasising the theatrical link and perfectly complimenting the film's visual stylistics.

Of the stories themselves, Hoichi, the Earless is usually singled out for the highest praise and it's not hard to see why – it is the most substantial of the four (reflecting the longer length of the original story when compared to the others adapted here) and the most structurally complex. The opening visualisation of Hoichi's battle tale at first seeming like a splendidly realised but largely cosmetic inclusion – only later to we realise just why we were shown it in such detail. But this should in no way reflect negatively on the other three stories which, although shorter and more straightforward in their storytelling, are every bit as compelling and rich in detail. A little of this may be lost a non-Japanese audience, or at least one not familiar with Japanese history and customs: the significance of the title of the first story relates in part to the traditional Japanese ghostly figure of a white-dressed woman with long black hair (something seen more recently in horror works such as Ringu); the white kimono worn by the Woman in the Snow is how the bodies of the departed are dressed for funeral services; following his encounter with the Snow Woman, Minokichi meets and marries a woman named Yuki, the Japanese word for snow; floating fireballs are seen to represent the spirits of those who have died; older marriage rites involved the bride blackening her front teeth for the wedding, something that here could be mistaken for a toothless smile. But the film never relies on this small detail, and the underlying themes and morals of tales themselves are universal and can be easily understood and appreciated by any audience.

Although the stories in no way connect, there are still thematic and narrative links that bind them into a cogent whole. The importance of agreements is central to the first three stories and the breaking of them, for whatever reason, is shown to have serious consequences. That it is twice women who are wronged by men – whether it be a promise or a declaration of marriage – and men who suffer the consequences of their actions is a familiar aspect of Japanese ghost stories and films. Most vividly, though, the film creates the sense that the spirit world does not consist of a few ghosts trapped in limbo, but is a very tangible and populous place that co-exists with the land of the living and whose inhabitants are more powerful than even the most ferocious warrior. One thing is very clear – if you enter into an agreement with a spiritual being, break your word at your peril, and if you are going to protect yourself, then in the name of the gods, do it properly.

In the end, as I've already said, it's not so much the stories themselves but the way they are told makes Kwaidan such magnificent cinema. It combines operatic majesty with the unhurried and almost abstract minimalism of Noh theatre in a way that defies comparison. A beautiful, compelling and chilling film, Kwaidan imbues the poetic simplicity of Hearn's original tales with an almost Shakespearian grandeur, and in a manner that will send shivers down your spine.

the 183 minute cut

Kwaidan was originally released in the West in a severely cut down 125 minute version, which was completely missing the Woman in the Snow story. Its eventual restoration brought the film up to 164 minutes, which for some time was considered by many (myself included) to be the full version. Not so. The original Japanese print ran for 183 minutes, 18 minutes longer than the restored cut, suggesting that as well as removing the second story, other cuts were also made to get the running time closer to two hours for a US release. This Masters of Cinema disc follows on from both Spanish and Australian DVD releases in featuring that full, original cut. There are no drastic changes to the four narratives, the deleted footage consisting largely of extensions to existing scenes, or brief additional sequences that expand a little on story or character. A brief bit of nudity in the second story was obviously lopped for a western market that was still censorially uncertain about that sort of thing. Perhaps the most surprising change is the slight extension of the first story, more graphically emphasising the degree and speed of change the affected character is going through.

sound and vision

This is the second time Masters of Cinema have trod where the rightly revered Criterion have already walked – the first was with Kaneto Shindo's Onibaba, and there they actually beat the US specialists at their own game. Putting aside for a moment the fact that this is the full cut and thus has the edge over Criterion's release on that score, on first glance the Criterion transfer seems to have a definite edge – the colours are richer and the contrast more striking. The screen captures below serve to illustrate the differences between the two, although are a little unfair on the Masters of Cinema disc – viewed on a correctly balanced TV, the picture looks frankly terrific, with colour, sharpness and contrast all looking just right.

Criterion (above) and the Masters of Cinema (below)

Criterion (above) and the Masters of Cinema (below)

The shadow detail is considerably better on the MoC disc and minor instances of damage on the Criterion transfer (the start of the horseback archery contest is one) are not present here. The print on the Criterion disc also appears to have been slightly cropped from the original. Colours can vary quite drastically on the two discs, and it's a tough call to say which is correct, although the Criterion disc does look more 'enhanced', even if it does make for some lovely imagery. In the end it's a tough call between the two for various reasons, but I'm going to have to go with the MoC disc here.

It should be noted that, unusually for a UK DVD release, the transfer here is NTSC rather than the usual PAL. This both preserves the original running time and speed and avoids any potential NTSC to PAL transfer issues (the disc was sourced from a Toho Japanese original). The vast majority of modern TVs should have no problem at all handling an NTSC signal. If your setup by some chance does not, then this is something to take into consideration.

One area in which the Masters of Cinema disc loses out to Criterion is the soundtrack. While the sound on the Criterion disc has been very effectively cleaned up, the MoC disc displays a very audible crackle pretty much throughout. This is particularly noticeable because of the film's pared-down use of sound, including significant periods of silence.

extra features

Frankly I'm surprised, given the film's length, that MoC were able to squeeze anything else on this single DVD, but also included are three trailers, a Black and White Japanese Teaser (1:02), a Colour Japanese Teaser (1:23), and a Japanese Trailer (3:56). All are in surprisingly excellent condition and anamorphically enhanced.

There is also a Gallery of 10 production stills and 8 posters, reproduced at a decent size.

Finally there is, as ever, a quite superb accompanying Booklet, typical of MoC but for my money their best yet. In the manner of Criterion's Ugetsu disc, it contains reprints of all four of Lafcadio Hearn's original stories on which those in the film are based, a detailed biography of director Masaki Kobayashi and an extensive interview with him, a transcript from an interview conducted by Linda Hoaglund and Peter Grilli for Charlotte Zwerin's 1994 documentary Music for the Movies: Toru Takemitsu. The whole thing is a splendid read and runs for a most impressive 72 pages.

summary

If you know the film then this is the DVD you have been waiting for or perhaps even dreaming of (yep, that would be me). Even if you have the Criterion disc then I'd still highly recommend the Masters of Cinema release – this is the definitive version of the film, has better shadow detail and a superb accompanying booklet. The sound could do with a little cleaning up, but otherwise this is an absolute must-buy. If you've never seen the film, then this really is your lucky day.

Kwaidan

Japan 1964
183 mins
director
Kobayashi Masaki
starring
Mikuni Rentaro
Aratama Michiyo
Watanabe Misako
Nakadai Tatsuya
Kishi Keiko
Nakamura Katsuo
Tamba Tetsuro
Nakamura Kanemon
Takizawa Osamu

DVD details
region 2
video
2.35:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby 2.0 mono
languages
Japanese
subtitles .
English
extras
Trailers
Gallery
Booklet
distributor
Eureka! Masters of Cinema
release date
Out now
review posted
11 June 2006

See all of Slarek's reviews