Director: Masaki Kobayashi
Screenplay: Yôko Mizuki
Based on Short Stories by: Lafcadio Hearn
Starring: Rentarô Mikuni, Michiyo Aratama, Misako Watanabe, Tatsuya Nakadai, Keiko Kishi, Katsuo Nakamura, Tetsurô Tanba, Kan’emon Nakamura, Osamu Takizawa
Running Time: 183 min
BBFC Certificate: 15
The horror anthology has long been a staple of cinema over the years. The first is believed to be Eerie Tales, a German silent movie released way back in 1919. The format remains popular now with a few notable anthologies released in the last decade, such as the V/H/S and ABCs of Death series. Like horror movies in general, few have been critically adored but there are exceptions. Dead of Night (1945) is one of the better-known classics of the sub-genre, but if you’re going on ‘up-market’ critical acclaim and award wins, it’s hard to beat Kwaidan. Picking up the Jury Prize at Cannes as well as being nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars, Kwaidan was yet another highly respected release from director Masaki Kobayashi, who had previously impressed with his epic Human Condition Trilogy and powerful samurai drama Harakiri.
Eureka included Kwaidan in their Masters of Cinema series on DVD a long while back (it’s number 29) and fans have been waiting with bated breath for it to make the transition to Blu-ray. Finally, the day has come and Kobayashi’s film is getting the HD treatment from a 2K Criterion restoration, along with a couple of new extra features and an extended booklet (or rather book – it’s 100 pages long!). Needless to say, I snapped up a copy to review and my thoughts follow.
Kwaidan tells four ghost stories taken from the work of Lafcadio Hearn, who had himself adapted them from traditional Japanese folk tales. Hearn was born in Greece to a Greek mother and Anglo-Irish father. He later moved to Ireland then later to the US and travelled around before eventually settling in Japan when he was forty. There he married a Japanese woman, Koizumi Setsu, became a naturalised Japanese citizen and the couple had four children. It is in Japan that Hearn found the inspiration for most of his work. He wrote many books about Japanese subjects, a number of which explored folk tales and ghost stories.
‘Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things’ was one of the books of folk stories Hearn wrote, but in fact, Kobayashi’s film takes stories from three different collections.
The first story in the film is ‘Black Hair’. It sees a samurai (Rentarô Mikuni) leave his wife (Michiyo Aratama) to rise to a higher social status by marrying into a rich family. His new life is miserable though and many years later he returns to his former home, realising what he had given up. Something’s not quite right though when he attempts to reconcile with his ex-wife.
The next story is ‘The Woman in the Snow’ (which was inexplicably cut out of some international releases to keep the running time down). It opens with a woodcutter (Tatsuya Nakadai) and his comrade falling foul of a terrible snowstorm. When they stop to take a rest, a spirit in the form of a woman appears and sucks the soul out of the man’s friend. She’s about to do the same to him but spares his life under the condition that he must never tell anyone what happened. Life goes on and the man marries a good woman (Keiko Kishi) who doesn’t seem to age. He manages to keep his secret for many years, until one fateful day.
Following this, we get ‘Hoichi the Earless’, which actually begins by visualising the story of a tragic battle at sea that claimed the lives of a young emperor and his family, as well as dozens of warriors. Hoichi (Katsuo Nakamura) is a blind musician who specialises in telling this tale. One night he is approached by a samurai who asks him to play his biwa and recount the story to his master. Unbeknownst to Hoichi, the samurai is the ghost of one of those lost in the battle and he visits the spirits of the long lost clan over several nights to perform to them. When some of Hoichi’s friends discover this, they try to protect him from the ghosts, with tragic consequences.
The final story is ‘In a Cup of Tea’, which is bookended by its own story-within-a-story, that of a writer (Osamu Takizawa) waiting for a visit from his publisher. The writer tells us the tale of a royal attendant, Sekinai (Kan’emon Nakamura), who sees a strange man’s (Noboru Nakaya) reflection in his cup of tea one day. As troubling as this is, he goes ahead and drinks the tea anyway. However, that night the mysterious figure appears in full form to haunt him. When he alerts the other attendants they don’t believe him and he’s then visited by a further three spirits.
The international success of The Human Condition and Harakiri spurred Kobayashi on to be more ambitious with his follow-up. He ventured into colour filmmaking and hired an airplane hangar large enough to house his enormous sets, as none of the Japanese studio facilities were big enough. All this excess meant the film went over on its budget about three-quarters of the way through its shoot. It bankrupted Kobayashi’s production company and Shochiku Studios had to let him go after the film was finished. However, his grand ambitions delivered the goods, resulting in a strikingly beautiful film that eschews realism for atmosphere and expressionism. Most notably, the backgrounds are surreally painted rather than designed to look like a natural sky. In one of the stories, there are eyes painted on it, throughout.
Unusual artistic touches like these are largely how Kobayashi brings out the horror of the stories. There are no jump scares or gore (though the end of ‘Hoichi the Earless’ is pretty brutal). Instead, the film gets under your skin through a constant sense of unease. Everything is deliberately paced and often very quiet, putting the audience on edge. When sounds do break out, they are used in unusual ways. The prime example of this is the end of the ‘Black Hair’ episode, where foley effects are kept to a bare minimum and used out of sync with the visuals. It’s a bold choice that could look like a mistake if done poorly but instead puts you off-balance.
Speaking of off-balance, the camera is occasionally tilted in an uncomfortable fashion too, further adding to the sense of unease. The cinematography, in general, is magnificent, with beautiful composition throughout and a great deal of elegant movement. The use of colour is fantastic too, with each story having a different palette, some with bold colours, others muted and some with cold blues. It’s one of the most beautiful-looking films I’ve ever seen.
Tôru Takemitsu, who composed the score and worked on the sound design, is a key figure in the film’s extraordinary soundtrack, mentioned before. His music is disconcertingly abstract and often uses affected sound recordings rather than straightforward instrumentation, resulting in a disturbingly creepy atmosphere.
On the surface, it could be easy to call the film out for being a case of style over substance, particularly as the characters aren’t particularly fleshed out and the stories are stripped back to the bare essentials. However, look more closely and you can see each story has something to say about post-war Japanese society. In particular, there is a focus on characters either blindly following or ignoring traditions or instructions. It also warns of the dangers of breaking promises and forgetting the past. This latter point could be taken as comment on the controversy over the revision of the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security in Japan, particularly with regards to repealing Article 9 of the constitution, which detailed Japan’s renouncement of war (I must give full credit here to Craig Ian Mann’s essay in the enclosed booklet, as I have no knowledge of Japanese history!)
All in all, it’s a stunning cinematic achievement with a subtle depth underlying its striking sense of style and atmosphere. Meticulously directed with haunting beauty and poetic elegance, it’s ‘art-house horror’ at its finest.
Kwaidan is out on 27th April on dual format Blu-Ray in the UK, released by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema series. The picture quality is excellent. Colours are wonderfully rich and details are clear. I noticed a very faint incident of fading at the start of the third story but it was very brief and barely noticeable. Audio is first-class too.
Extra features include:
– Hardbound Slipcase
– PLUS: A 100-PAGE Perfect Bound Illustrated Collector’s book featuring reprints of Lafcadio Hearn’s original ghost stories; a survey of the life and career of Masaki Kobayashi by Linda Hoaglund; and a wide-ranging interview with the filmmaker the last he’d ever give
– 1080p presentation on Blu-ray from Criterion s 2K digital restoration of Kobayashi s original director’s cut
– Original monaural Japanese soundtrack
– Optional English subtitles
– Kim Newman on “Kwaidan” a new interview with the film critic and writer
– Shadowings [35 mins] a new video essay by David Cairns and Fiona Watson
– Original trailers
There aren’t a huge number of video featurettes and the lack of commentary is disappointing, but the essay and Kim Newman interview are both excellent, providing thoughtful analyses of the film and further information about Kobayashi and Hearn.
The book makes up for any lack of longer documentaries or commentaries. Eureka always do a fine job of compiling their booklets but they really outdo themselves here. On top of an informative essay on the film, you get Hearn’s original short stories and a fantastic epic interview with Kobayashi.
An excellent package then that is easy to recommend.