Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: Kwaidan: The Criterion Collection (1965)
Studio Line: Criterion

Winner of the Special Jury Prize at Cannes, Kwaidan features four nightmarish tales in which terror thrives and demons lurk. Adapted from traditional Japanese ghost stories, this lavish production draws extensively on director Masaki Kobayashi's own training as a student of painting and fine arts. Criterion is proud to present Kwaidan in a new ravishing color transfer.

Director: Masaki Kobayashi
Cast: Michiyo Aratama, Keiko Kishi, Rentaro Mikuni, Tatsuya Nakadai, Ganemon Nakamura, Ganjiro Nakamura, Katsuo Nakamura, Noboru Nakaya, Kei Sato
DVD: Widescreen 2.35:1/16x9; Japanese Digital Mono; subtitles English; single sided - dual layered; 28 chapters; rated NR; 161 min.; $29.95; street date 10/10/00.
Supplements: Theatrical Trailer.
Purchase: DVD

Picture/Sound/Extras: A-/C-/D-

For many ignorant Americans such as myself, when we think of Japanese cinema, images of Godzilla and anime pervade our minds. However, those kinds of movies don’t make up all of the films that come out of Japan, something I’m slowly starting to realize through the efforts of Criterion.

First I checked out a light comedy from the late Fifties called Good Morning. Frankly, the movie did little for me, as I thought it was nothing more than a pretty mediocre sitcom. I didn’t dislike the film but I also found nothing particularly compelling about it.

On the other hand, 1965’s Kwaidan presented a very different story. For one, the movie itself couldn’t possibly be less like Good Morning. Instead of a cute suburban comedy, we find a dark and moody anthology of mystical horror tales, all of which are fairly stark and dramatic.

Kwaidan includes four different narratives. First up is “The Black Hair”, in which a poor samurai leaves his wife to move up in society. He realizes his mistake much later and tries to fix it - with spooky results!

Next we get “The Woman of the Snow”. Here a woodcutter and his buddy become stranded in a nasty snowstorm. They take refuge in a shack but the pal gets offed by some sort of mystery woman. She spares our hero but warns him never to reveal what he saw. Eventually he marries a babe who never ages. After a while, he spills the beans to her - with spooky results!

The third sequence is “Hoichi, the Earless”. The Big H lives in a monastery and likes to sing of some ancient battles between warring clans, both of whose burial grounds are nearby. Eventually the ghosts get word of his tunes, dig them, and incessantly insist that he play for them. This wears out the poor guy, so the other monks try to help out; they cover him with paint that will make Hoichi invisible to the spirits. Unfortunately, they miss a spot - with spooky results!

Finally, the film ends with “In a Cup of Tea”. Here a warrior sees some strange dude staring up at him from his mug. Eventually this freak pops up in real life. Justifiably perturbed - hey, it bugs me to find any kind of debris in my drinks, much less some goofball! - our protagonist challenges the cup-squatter to a battle - with spooky results!

Based on my synopses, you may have noticed a certain pattern to all of the stories in Kwaidan. Yes, they all hinge on Twilight Zone-style funky twists upon their conclusions. To be frank, I found this gimmick to be less than effective, mainly because the tales themselves weren’t terribly compelling. As such, all we’re left with are the allegedly creepy endings, and those alone weren’t enough to redeem the flatness of the preceding narratives.

On the positive side, Kwaidan offers a nicely eerie and atmospheric visual experience. Director Masaki Kobayashi imbues the film with very effective images that provide virtually all of the movie’s elements of creepiness and foreboding.

Unfortunately, that’s about all there is to Kwaidan. Otherwise, there’s nothing much to it. The stories are all simple and predictable; the endings can be seen a mile a way, and little about the execution makes them more compelling. Ultimately, Kwaidan is a very strong visual experience that fails due to the ordinary nature of its narratives: looks great, less filling.

The DVD:

Kwaidan appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Overall, I thought the disc presented an absolutely stunning picture that seemed remarkably strong for such an old - and obscure - film.

Sharpness appeared nearly flawless. During some wider shots, I thought the image became slightly soft, but these instances were definitely the exceptions; for the most part, the movie seemed wonderfully crisp and detailed. Moiré effects and jagged edges raised few concerns, and I witnessed only mild artifacts from the anamorphic downconversion on my 4X3 TV. Print flaws seemed marvelously absent for a film of this vintage. Some debris appeared on occasion, and I also saw infrequent examples of a few light scratches and white speckles. Grain looked absent, and the movie displayed no signs of more significant defects like blotches, hairs or tears. It’s a very clean and fresh print.

Though much of Kwaidan used a stark and limited palette, when colors appear they seemed gorgeous. Usually the hues came out via clothing, and the tones seemed rich and lush, with wonderful depth and intensity. Probably the movie’s most attractive scenes occurred during “Hoichi, the Earless”; the battle sequences presented many bright and accurate colors that glowed with vibrant tones.

Also fine are the film’s black levels, which is especially important given the dark nature of so many shots. Blacks looked dense and deep and showed no signs of paleness or grayness. Contrast appeared solid, and shadow detail was absolutely exquisite; virtually all low-light sequences looked appropriately opaque but lacked any signs of excessive heaviness. Really, my only problem with any aspect of this visual presentation related to the minor print flaws; even with those, Kwaidan still earned a solid “A-“.

Much less satisfactory was the monaural soundtrack. Presented in Japanese, this mix seemed rather thick and harsh. It’s generally a simply track; the film features almost no score, so music is a virtually non-consideration. Effects came across as moderately distorted at times; for example, a snowstorm scene appeared very thin and shrill. For fairly obvious reasons, I can’t adequately judge the intelligibility of the Japanese dialogue, but I thought the speech sounded consistently edgy and rough; the lines lacked any natural qualities. In addition, the soundtrack featured occasional patches of background noise. Ultimately, the audio of Kwaidan earned a “C-“ due to a combination of the age of the material and the simplicity of the mix. Had the movie used more active sound, I undoubtedly would have been more displeased with the audio and given it a lower grade.

Kwaidan includes only a couple of supplements. We find the film’s theatrical trailer and some general production notes appear in the DVD’s booklet. Written by David Ehrenstein, the text adds little to my appreciation of the movie. It briefly discusses the project’s history and then provides synopses for each of the four stories. Usually the booklets found with Criterion DVDs offer fine essays about the films, but this text seems awfully weak and it doesn’t live up to the standards of the collection as a whole.

Frankly, I think that the booklet is so weak because of the lack of substance found in Kwaidan itself; how much interpretation or exposition can one offer about such a simplistic film? Visually, Kwaidan seems effectively moody and creepy, but its stories are very predictable and uncompelling. The DVD provides a simply stunning picture, but the sound appears weak and the package includes almost no extras. Perhaps someday I’ll find some interesting Japanese cinema, but Kwaidan wasn’t it; the movie left me cold.

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