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With: Rentaro Mikuni, Michiyo Aratama, Misako Watanabe, Tatsuya Nakadai, Keiko Kishi, Katsuo Nakamura, Tetsuro Tamba, Kanemon Nakamura, Osamu Takizawa
Written by: Yoko Mizuki, based on the book by Lafcadio Hearn
Directed by: Masaki Kobayashi
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Language: Japanese with English subtitles
Running Time: 161
Date: 12/29/1964

Kwaidan (1964)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Japanese Ghost Stories

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Kwaidan has been advertised as a Japanese horror anthologyfilm, like the classic Dead of Night (1945), Spirits of the Dead(1968), Creepshow (1982), and many others. Viewers might be surprised tofind that Kwaidan is not really that scary, and in fact is far too slow toeven be called a horror film. But as they watch, they may find, like I did, thatit's one of the most beautifully crafted films ever made.

Kwaidan was directed by Masaki Kobayashi, who is perhaps best known for his Human Condition trilogy for co-producing Akira Kurosawa's Dodes'ka-den (1970). He has never really developed a reputation in this country equal to that of the Japanese masters Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi, or Nagisa Oshima. His work was only imported when it looked like it might be an arthouse hit or a potential Oscar nominee. Kwaidan was such a film, and it was nominated for Best Foreign film in 1965. (It lost to The Shop on Main Street.) It could be inferred that Kobayashi was more a commercial filmmaker than an artistic one, geared more towards awards than posterity, as shown by the cutting of one of the episodes of Kwaidan for its U.S. release (to give it a more reasonable running time).

But though Kobayashi's place in film history may be questionable, Kwaidan looks surprisingly good viewed 36 years later on the new Criterion Collection DVD. It turns out that Kobayashi had a particularly good eye for framing, deep-focus photography, staging, economic cutting, and--most especially--changing of lighting within a single shot. I would go so far as to suggest that Kwaidan is a good document for film students to study to learn how to make films outside the MTV school.

The four segments of Kwaidan were adapted from stories by Lafcadio Hearn, who lived in the United States in the 1860's before moving to Japan. The first story, "The Black Hair," is the least interesting and was done much better a decade before in Kenji Mizoguchi's Ugetsu (1953). The second story is the one that was originally cut from U.S. release, "The Woman of the Snow." It's about a young man who meets up with a snow witch who spares his life, but must deal with the consequences. This story has one very spooky scene as the snow witch scuttles out a door. The door bangs open a second later to reveal nothing but wind and snow.

The third story, "Hoichi the Earless" is the longest, running about an hour, and is much more engaging than the first two. We meet Hoichi, a blind musician who finds himself beckoned to play each night for a group of ghosts. The fourth story, "In a Cup of Tea," is the best and probably the scariest, where a samurai discovers a smiling face in a dish of water he is about to drink.

We've grown accustomed to more violent, more suspenseful, and scarier stories than these, but there's no questioning the quality of this film. I can't really think of another film that is so visually accomplished in these particular areas. Working within a widescreen frame is a skill that few ever mastered. Of the great directors known for being visually meticulous, like Max Ophuls, Orson Welles, and Stanley Kubrick, only Ophuls ever made a widescreen film, Lola Montes (1955). And though Ophuls was brilliant at layering images within his frame, he never got the hang of the empty frame or the deep-focus that Kobayashi uses to tell his stories.

Admittedly, though, it's the allure of the ghost stories themselves that allowed me to sit through this very long (161 minutes), and very slow movie. I don't think I would be so inclined to sit through anything else of Kobayashi's. The Kwaidan DVD, however, is an amazing use of the new technology. It's a stunning transfer. Though the disc has not much else to offer besides a theatrical trailer (very cheesy) and the good, clean subtitles, it's worth seeing just for the visual wonder that is Kwaidan.

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