KWAIDAN ($30) is a haunting Japanese film of the supernatural that contains a quartet of ghostly tales. However, unlike American ghost stories that set out to scare the heck out of the viewer, the tales in KWAIDAN create an eerie mood that is far more disturbing than it is frightening. In the hands of director Masaki Kobayashi, KWAIDAN is like a piece of fine art that has been delicately painted onto a canvas with bold colors that stimulate the viewer's eye and draw them into the world he has created. Although the stories in KWAIDAN are completely Japanese, they are based upon the writings of Lafcadio Hearn, who was a European by birth. In his lifetime, Hearn perfectly assimilated himself into the Japanese culture and later, became a naturalized citizen of his adopted country.
The first story is The Black Hair, which tells of an impoverished samurai (Rentaro Mikuni), who divorces his loving wife (Michiyo Aratama) to improve his station in life. Although the samurai become wealthy through marriage, his second wife (Misako Watanabe) is a spoiled, vane creature who he does not love. As the years pass, the samurai grows to regret his selfish actions and longs for the love of his first wife. When he finally returns to the home of his first wife, he finds the house in poor condition, but his ex-wife is seemingly unchanged by their years apart. The samurai begs forgiveness for his callous actions and his ever-loving ex-wife forgives him for the mistakes of his youth. Happily, the samurai takes the woman that he loves in his arms and vows to never leave her, all the time marveling over her beautiful black hair that hasn't changed over time. Only in the light of the following day does the samurai discover the true ramifications of his youthful mistake.
The Woman Of The Snow is the second, and my favorite tale in the film. This dreamlike story opens in a forest, with a young woodcutter (Tatsuya Nakadai) getting lost in a blinding snowstorm with an older companion. The two take refuge in an old shack to wait out the storm. Over the course of the night, a ghostly female apparition appears and sucks the life out of old man, while the woodcutter watches helpless. Although he would seem to be the next victim, the apparition takes pity on the handsome young woodcutter and spares his life, as long as he promises to never tell anyone what he has seen. While the woodcutter survives the encounter, the effects of the storm take their toll. After his recovery, the woodcutter meets a beautiful young girl named Yuki (Keiko Kishi) whom he makes his wife. Ten years pass and Yuki is the perfect loving wife, who bares the woodcutter three children. Yuki is also something of a marvel in the village- despite having three children she doesn't seem a day older than when she first arrived. One evening, while sitting happily at home with his wife and children, the woodcutter is reminded of the night when his life almost ended. Thinking that his encounter with the ghostly apparition was nothing more than a dream, he tells his wife the story…
The third tale, Hoichi The Earless, is the film's most disturbing and graphic encounter with the supernatural. Hoichi The Earless is set in a monastery and tells the story of a blind musician named Hoichi (Katsuo Nakamura), who is renown for recounting in song an ancient epic sea battle between the Heike and Genji clans. Hoichi prowess is so great that the ghosts rise up and demand that the blind musician perform the songs that tell of that long ago sea battle. While, Hoichi is willing to perform for his audience, his blindness prevents him from realizing just who sits and listens to his performance. The long nights of performing these epic songs take their toll on the blind musician and the priest (Takashi Shimura) at the monastery grows concerned for Hoichi's well being. Eventually, the priest discovers for whom Hoichi gives his command performances and realizes that the ghosts will rip him to pieces when he completes the final song. Hoping to spare Hoichi this grisly fate, the priest paints the musician's body with a prayer that renders him invisible to them. Unfortunately, the priest forgets to paint Hoichi's ears, which the ghosts can still see…
In A Cup Of Tea is the final tale, which tells of a warrior (Ganemon Nakamura), who is about to take a drink of tea, when he notices the reflection of someone else in his cup. Getting another cup of tea doesn't rid the warrior of the strange reflection. Later that evening, the owner of the reflection visits the warrior to confound him even further. Although he challenges the stranger to a fight, the warrior finds dealing with a man who can cast his reflection into someone else's cup of tea is more difficult than any of the enemies that he faced in the past. While In A Cup Of Tea is an interesting tale of the supernatural, the story doesn't resolve itself in typical fashion and may leave the viewer somewhat unsatisfied.
KWAIDAN has been released on DVD as part of The Criterion Collection. Criterion has done a very nice job of transcribing KWAIDAN to DVD by giving the film a brand new wide screen transfer that is enhanced for 16:9 playback. KWAIDAN is properly framed at 2.35:1, so that the film's splendid compositions can be fully appreciated. The film element used for the transfer displays mild blemishes, as well as some scratches, but the beauty of the film's cinematography and production design still shine through with striking clarity. The image on the DVD is sharp and finely detailed, with only occasional shots showing a mild softness. Because KWAIDAN was shot in the studio, many of the images have an artificial quality that makes them seem more like a painting than a film. The transfer perfectly renders this desired effect, with the DVD creating images of haunting beauty. Colors are incredibly vibrant when used for effect. The DVD has no problem rendering the intense hues without distortion or bleeding. Blacks are cleanly rendered and the image provides good contrast and shadow detail for a foreign film from 1965. Dual layer authoring keeps digital compression artifacts from becoming noticeable.
The Dolby Digital Japanese monaural soundtrack is free from distortion and other defects. However, the limited fidelity of the original recording make the track seem a bit thin sounding and occasionally slightly strident. However, with normal amplification, the track will sound just fine. Removable English subtitles are provided on the DVD. The basic interactive menus provide access to the standard scene selection and set up features as well as a theatrical trailer.
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