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Kwaidan – The Criterion Collection #90 (a J!-ENT Blu-ray Disc Review)

October 25, 2015 by  



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“Kwaidan” is a true masterpiece by filmmaker Masaki Kobayashi. A captivating Japanese horror anthology that features a smart adaptation, wonderful visuals and fantastic performances make this film on Blu-ray definitely worth owning! “Kwaidan – The Criterion Collection #90” is highly recommended!

Image courtesy of © 2015 The Criterion Collection. All Rights Reserved.


TITLE: Kwaidan – The Criterion Collection #90

YEAR OF FILM: 1964

DURATION: 183 Minutes

BLU-RAY DISC INFORMATION: 1080p High Definition, Color, 2:35:1 aspect ratio, Japanese Monaural, Subtitles: English SDH

COMPANY: Janus Films/THE CRITERION COLLECTION

RELEASE DATE: October 20, 2015


Directed by Masaki Kobayashi

Screenplay by Yoko Mizuki Based on the novel by Lafcadio Hearn (Yakumo Koizumi)

Produced by Shigeru Wakatsuki

Associate Producer: Takeshi Aikawa, Naotomo Kome, Minoru Tabata, Yoshishige Uchiyama

Music by Toru Takemitsu

Cinematography by Yoshio Miyajima

Edited by Hisashi Sagara

Art Decoration by Shigemasa Toda

Set Decoration by Dai Arakawa

Costume Design by Masahiro Kato


Starring:

Michiyo Aratama as the first wife (Kurokami)

Misako Watanabe as the second wife (Kurokami)

Rentaro Mikuni as Husband (Kurokami)

Kenjiro Ishiyama as Father (Kurokami)

Tatsuya Nakadai as Mi Nokichi (Yuki-Onna)

Keiko Kishi as Yuki the Snow Maiden (Yuki-Onna)

Yuko Mochizuki as Minokichi’s Mother (Yuki-Onna)

Katsuo Nakamura as Hoichi (Miminashi Hoichi no Hanashi)

Tetsuro Tanba as Warrior (Miminashi Hoichi no Hanashi)

Takashi Shimura as Head Priest (Miminashi Hoichi no Hanashi)

Yoichi Hayashi as Attendant (Miminashi Hoichi no Hanashi)

Eiko Muramatsu as Kenreiinmon (Miminashi Hoichi no Hanashi)

Kunie Tanaka as Yasaku (Miminashi Hoichi no Hanashi)

Kazuo Kitamura as Taira no Tomomori (Miminashi Hoichi no Hanashi)

Kan’emon Nakamura as Kannai – a Guard (Chawan no Naka)

Osamu Takizawa as Author/Narrator (Chawan no Naka)

Haruko Sugimura as Madame (Chawan no Naka)

Noboru Nakaya as Shikibu Heinai (Chawan no Naka)

Kei Sato as Ghost Samurai (Chawan no Naka)


After more than a decade of sober political dramas and social-minded period pieces, the great Japanese director Masaki Kobayashi (The Human Condition) shifted gears dramatically for this rapturously stylized quartet of ghost stories. Featuring colorfully surreal sets and luminous cinematography, these haunting tales of demonic comeuppance and spiritual trials, adapted from writer Lafcadio Hearn’s collections of Japanese folklore, are existentially frightening and meticulously crafted. This version of Kwaidan is the original three-hour cut, never before released in the United States.


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Back in the early 1900’s, author Lafcadio Hearn (also known in Japan as Yakumo Koizumi) introduced a variety of books featuring a collection of old Japanese texts of ghost stories.

Fast forward 60-years later and a Japanese anthology film directed by Masaki Kobayashi (“Harakiri”, “The Human Condition”) was created.  Based on the stories from Lafcadio Hearn’s books, four of the stories, all separate with no connection to each other, would be compiled to a film and would win the “Special Jury Prize: at the 1965 Cannes Film Festival and also receiving an Academy Award nomination for “Best Foreign Language Film”.

Released by the Criterion Collection back in the late ’90s, “Kwaidan” will now be released on Blu-ray in October 2015, 50-years afer the film was released in theaters.

The first story titled “The Black Hair” is based on Hearn’s “The Reconciliation” (featured in his 1900 book “Shadowings”).  The film would revolve around an impoverished swordsman (portrayed by Rentaro Mikuni) who leaves his first wife (portrayed by Michiyo Aratama) in order to take a better position to make more money.

He ends up taking another wife (portrayed by Misako Watanabe) but despite rising in the ranks to become a district governor and making better money, in the back of his mind, all he can think about is his first wife and her beautiful black hair.  And not at all interested in his second wife who is more shallow.

But what happens when the swordsman goes back home to visit his first wife?

In the second storyline titled “The Woman of the Snow” which is an adaptation from Hearn’s 1903 book, “Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things”, the story begins with a woodcutter named Minokichi (portrayed by Tatsuya Nakadai) and his older mentor Mosaku who take refuge in a fisherman’s hut during a snowstorm.

While freezing, he sees Mosaku being killed by a Yuki-onna (portrayed by Keiko Kishi), who is about to kill Minokichi but decides to spare his life because of his youth.  But she comes with a condition for saving his life, to never mention to anyone on what has happened or she will come back to kill him.

Minokichi manages to keep his word and marry a young woman named Yuki and they have three children and live happily ever after for ten years.  But despite everyone getting older, they are in awe of how come Yuki has not aged.  But what happens when Minokichi decides to tell his wife about the story of Yuki-onna?

The third story titled “Hoichi the Earless” is an adaptation of Hearn’s “Kwaidan” and begins with a song sung by a blind musician singing about the tale of the Battle of Dan-no-Ura and the war between two rival clans during the final phase of the Genpei War (a full depiction of the battle and the losing clan, its young emperor and workers all jumping off their boats and drowning in the red ocean).

Hoichi (portrayed by Katsuo Nakamura) loves to play his instrument and sing and lives and works for a priest (portrayed by Takashi Shimura).  But one day, the spirit of a warrior of the fallen clan takes the blind musician to play for the spirits of the royal family, meanwhile the priest and the others that work with him wonder where Hoichi is going in the middle of the night.

In the final story, titled “In a Cup of Tea”, which is an adaptation of Hearn’s 1902 book “Kotto: Being Japanese Curious, with Sundry Cobwebs”.

The story begins with a writer waiting for his publisher and wondering why a book ends with no real ending and reads the story about a warrior who drinks tea and each time he looks in a cup, he sees someone’s face.  But when the person shows up and visits the warrior in their secured compound, the warrior tries to fight with the man who disappears and runs through the walls.

Not knowing what is going on, one day, he is visited with three more warriors (who are ghosts) warning him that their master will return to avenge himself.


VIDEO:

“Kwaidan – The Criterion Collection #90” is presented in 1080p High Definition (2:35:1 aspect ratio). Having watched the older Criterion Collection DVD, one thing you will notice with this Blu-ray release is how much colorful the film is in HD.  How the film showcases better clarity for closeups and backgrounds and the film looks so much cleaner.

According to the Criterion Collection, “this new digital transfer of the original full-length version of the film was created in 2K resolution on a Scanity film scanner from the original 35 mm camera negative and a 35 mm interpositive.  Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, and warps were manually removed using MTI’s DRS, while Digital Vision’s Phoenix was used for small dirt, grain, noise management, jitter and flicker.

AUDIO & SUBTITLES:

As for the lossless audio, “Kwaidan – The Criterion Collection #90”. The film is presented in Japanese LPCM 1.0. Dialogue and music are crystal clear. The lossless soundtrack just sounds much better than the original Criterion Collection DVD release and I heard no hiss or crackle at all.

According to the Criterion Collection, “The complete monaural soundtrack for this 183-minute version was assembled from a variety of archival sources by Toho Co., Ltd. and remastered at 24-bit.  Further restoration was done by the Criterion Collection using Pro Tools HD and iZotope RX4.

Subtitles are in English SDH.

SPECIAL FEATURES:

“Kwaidan – The Criterion Collection #90” comes with the following special features:

  • Commentary – A 2015 audio commentary with film scholar Stephen Prince, author of “The Warrior’s Cinema”.
  • Masaki Kobayashi – (15:17) A 1993 conversation with director Masaki Kobayashi and filmmaker Masahiro Shinoda about the making of “Kwaidan”.
  • Kiyoshi Ogasawara – (21:41) A 2015 featurette featuring “Kwaidan” assistant director Kiyoshi Ogasawara about working with director Kobayashi and the original 183-minute version of the film.
  • Lafcadio Hearn – (17:14) A 2015 featurette by the Criterion Collection, English literature scholar Christopher Benfey, editor of “Lafcadio Hearn: American Writings” profiles Hearn.
  • Trailers – Theatrical trailers for “Kwaidan”.

EXTRAS:

“Kwaidan – The Criterion Collection #90” comes with a five-page foldout featuring the essay “No Way Out” by Geoffrey O’Brien’

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When I first watched “Kwaidan”, I found myself mesmerized.

Japan has many ghost stories but Kobayashi’s way of visual storytelling and its adaptation of Lafcandio Hearn’s novels and bringing out the elements of traditional Japan with a slight eeriness in its ownright is fantastic. It’s the visual aspect that captivates you immediately.

From its first story of a swordsman who leaves his wife because he is tired of being impoverished.  His loving wife begging to not leave her but the man chooses status over being poor, to find out that the grass is not greener on the other side and missing the woman he left behind.  But once he goes back to visit her years later, it’s that dark hair that remains strong in ghost stories (especially a lot of traditional Japanese art and modern Japanese horror such as “The Ring”) and it was an important sign of horror back then.   Also, I think for those not familiar with traditional Japanese culture and how women’s eyebrows were shaped and the use of “Ohaguro” (tooth painting, often in black as a sign of higher status) may surprise a lot of people.

The second story about Yuki-onna (snow girl) and a tale that has been around and has possibly crept up in other horror folk tales about the lady in white.  In this case, the snow girl telling a man that she has saved to never discuss what she had done or anything that happened that day.  But a promise that he decides to discuss with his new wife a decade later.  The visual aspect of the Yuki-onna’s movements as if she is floating on the ground was wonderfully done.

But it’s the third story about “Hoichi the Earless” that is absolutely stunning.  From the visual battle of Dan-no-Ura and watching the Taira warriors being defeated and everyone committing suicide and the song being sung by deaf musician Hoichi.  But not knowing that the person who visits him each night to perform in front of the Royalty are all ghosts of the Taira warriors is chilling, but also beautifully done.  I don’t want to spoil this part of the anthology film but it’s absolutely wonderful to watch.

The final story “In a Cup of Tea” is short and about a man who goes crazy after seeing a man in the reflection from his tea and being haunted by that person.

The entire film is a wonderful observation of traditional Japanese culture but its ghost stories and how it intersects with Buddhism and Shinto beliefs.  The structure of the film is captivating, eerie but wonderfully crafted by filmmaker Masaki Kobayashi and its many talents who gave a wonderful performance.  Once again, I was captivated by the movie, not just back then, even many years later.  Watching it once again, I’m still in awe about this film and absolute enjoyed it.

The new Blu-ray release from the Criterion Collection is cleaner and the colors are much bolder in this latest remastering.  The monaural soundtrack is crisp and clear with its dialogue and musical score and you also get new additional special features on this Blu-ray release as well.

Overall, “Kwaidan” is a true masterpiece by filmmaker Masaki Kobayashi.  A captivating Japanese horror anthology that features a smart adaptation, wonderful visuals and fantastic performances make this film on Blu-ray definitely worth owning!

“Kwaidan – The Criterion Collection #90” is highly recommended!

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