Review of The Criterion Collection Blu-ray edition.

d. Masaki Kobayashi (1965)
Spine: #90
Blu-ray Release Date: October 20, 2015

Screen captures below are taken from The Criterion Collection Blu-ray disc, but resolution has been reduced from 1920x1080 to 900x506 and slightly compressed. You may click on them to view the 900x506 image.

In 1890, the Greek-Irish writer Lafcadio Hearn — who spent time in Ireland, France, Cincinnati (where he flouted Ohio’s anti-miscegenation laws by marrying a black woman), New Orleans (where he wrote extensively about the Creole culture), and the French West Indies, as well — landed in Japan. For a man who had been many places, accumulating many cultures along the way, it seems he finally found a place to rest. He married a Japanese woman, became a naturalized Japanese citizen, changing his name to Koizumi Yakumo, and spent the last fourteen years of his life there. He began to collect and write Japanese tales, including ghost stories, or “kwaidan,” which he compiled and published, spreading these bits of Japanese culture to the wider world that, due to centuries of Japanese isolationist policies, was just beginning to make connections with the nation again. In 1964, Masaki Kobayashi adapted four of these tales into the omnibus film Kwaidan. Today, The Criterion Collection is releasing a new edition of the film on Blu-ray, and I highly recommend it. Kwaidan‘s ghostly world has a vivid and varied color palette, ephemeral mists, frozen evenings, haunted dusks and dawns, and plenty of shadowy encounters that all benefit greatly from this upgrade.

Kwaidan Cover

As I mentioned above, the film “collects” four independent ghosts stories, which, in this release, come to form the single 183-minute film (the former Criterion DVD edition was around 23 minutes shorter though; at the date of this review, the shorter version is still the version Criterion has made available on Hulu).

Contrary to rumor, there is no additional story in the directors cut. We get the same four tales of ghostly encounters:

First, we have “The Black Hair,” in which a man forsakes his wife because he is sick of living in poverty only to find he misses her desperately when his new life proves to be a disappointment. Years go by, but he finally returns to the wife he abandoned and who is excited to welcome him home.

Next, in “The Woman of the Snow,” a pair of woodsmen are snowbound and in danger of succumbing to the elements . . . or worse, a yuki-onna, a woman who once froze to death in the snow and now takes other travelers to their death. The younger woodsman is horrified to find a yuki-onna hovering over his traveling companion. When she kills the older woodsman, the yuki-onna comes to the younger one and decides to spare him because of his youth (and perhaps because he is played by Tatsuya Nakadai). The yuki-onna tells him he must never tell anyone of their encounter or her mercy.

Kwaidan 0

The longest piece is “Hoichi the Earless.” Poor and blind, Hoichi is cared for by priests at a temple. He’s is a minstrel who excels on the biwa. His rendition of “The Tale of Heike” is so wonderful, in fact, that he conscripted to play it for the dead. The priests discover what has been keeping Hoichi out at night when they find him playing in an old graveyard. Trying to protect him, they cover his body — except for his ears — with prayers.

Kwaidan 4

Last, we get a tale about a samurai who sees the reflection of another man every time he looks into some water. “In a Cup of Tea” is perhaps the most mysterious of all because we are told from the beginning that it is unfinished — Hearn and, following suit, Kobayashi, leave its resolution to our imaginations.

By forgoing one feature-length narrative, Kobayashi has also freed himself to eschew conventional plot mechanics (including an ending, in the case of “In a Cup of Tea”), instead focusing atmosphere and mood, mystery and implication, elements he heightens with unabashedly extreme stylizations, such as the beautifully painted horizons that sometimes feature eyes or even, as we see in this still, something resembling lips.

Kwaidan 1

The film is hand-crafted and revels in displaying its artificiality. Rather than take us out of the film, though, reminding us that these are all actors on a set, the artificiality calls forth the art forms used in the past, often to express heightened emotions. Indeed, the film begins with a drop of ink spreading its tendrils in water; the credits are intercut shots of calligraphy on textured paper. One of the most complex segments of the film, the opening to “Hoichi the Earless,” is a dramatic portrayal of the Battle of Dan-no-ura, a naval battle from 1185. All of the characters are dressed in formal military regalia and move in a slow choreography that culminates in a series of suicidal jumps into the blood-red water. Intercut into this battle are pans of a beautiful painting of the battle. While obviously quite different from a realistically portrayed battle sequence, I found it invigorating and, above all else, moving. The dramatic, slower pace, the shots of the painting, allow us to focus on and deeply feel the emotional stakes.

These emotional stakes don’t inspire the kind of horror we might expect and even hope for from a ghost story, though there are still some horrific moments and transformations, like this one from “The Black Hair”:

Kwaidan 2

For some, such moments are too few and too far between, an understandable response if the expectation is for thrills and chills. For the most part, Kwaidan‘s ghosts inspire a sense of regret, longing, and irretrievable loss that comes when happiness is cut short or a dream turns out to be a nightmare. While not especially horrific, these are, nevertheless, exactly the kind of emotions that haunt our everyday lives.

Supplements: Criterion released a DVD edition of Kwaidan years ago, but this is a new edition featuring several new supplements.

  • New to this release is a commentary by film historian Stephen Price. I did not have a chance to listen to the full commentary this past week, and I wanted to get this review out today. However, I was very impressed with Price’s commentary for the new edition of Kihachi Okamoto’s The Sword of Doom that Criterion released in January of this year. From my sampling of the Kwaidan commentary, Price will cover a lot of ground again, and I cannot wait to listen to it fully. I’ll return here with an update when I do.
  • There are also two interview supplements that look behind the scenes: a 15:15-minute interview with Kobayashi from 1993, conducted by the filmmaker Masahiro Shinoda, and a new 21:41 interview, called “The Highest Standards: Kiyoshi Ogasawara on Kwaidan” (Ogasawara was an assistant director on the film). Because the craft of the filmmaking is vividly on display, I was excited to hear about Kobayashi’s meticulous process. This was the most expensive Japanese film to date, with large sets built — and hand painted — inside an airport hanger. What an unconventional film to get such lavish treatment, but, then again, it’s a film that, if we follow Kobayashi’s vision, called for such treatment.
  • Last, other than three trailers, we get a 17:16-minute piece on Lafcadio Hearn in which Christopher Benfey, an English literature scholar and editor of Lafcadio Hearn: American, looks at Hearn’s unique life.
  • The disc comes with an accordion-style insert featuring an essay by critic Geoffrey O’Brien. O’Brien talks about the exotic appeal of the stories, both to the wider world in 1900 and to Japan itself in the 1960s, when time and catastrophe must have made these stories feel foreign and strange to them as well.
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