Blu-Review: Kwaidan (Masaki Kobayashi, 1964) - Criterion Collection

by Jason Suzuki

Produced by the Ninjin Club, a production group established by the three actresses Keiko Kishi (who appears in the film as the Yuki-onna), Yoshiko Kuga, and Ineko Arima, Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan was a major undertaking. At three hours in length, Kobayashi presents four kaidan, strange period tales involving ghosts. Shot on a giant sound studio formed in a military airplane hanger, Kwaidan sports some of the most vibrant and realized visuals, taking full advantage of the build-from-scratch opportunities the sound studio allowed for such imagery which fully embraced its artificiality.

Unlike previous films The Thick-Walled Room, The Human Condition, and Harakirito name a few, Kwaidan is not as concerned with the social or the political. Instead the central focus of the film is storytelling, with each tale focusing on a different aspect of the relaying of a folktale. With the first story, The Black Hair, we have a pure folktale, the most self-reflexive aspects of this particular section are the sounds from Toru Takemitsu which play with synchronicity and foreground their disparity from the visuals. Doors will slam shut with no sound (a feature of post-sound utilized by Tati inPlayTime) and outdoor sounds will have purposefully altered, indoor qualities. The story is of a samurai who abandons his wife and marries into royalty to improve his condition in life. He is haunted by the memory of his first wife, with her striking long, flowing black hair. The samurai is so regretful that he revisits his old home in his mind before actually doing so. The first story introduces you to the way Kobayashi allows his crew and himself combine sound and visuals, making great use of dutch angles, to fashion an experience which calmly draws you in.

The second story of “The Woman of the Snow” follows woodcutter Minokichi (Tatsuya Nakadai)  who holes up in a hut with his mentor during a massive snowstorm. During the night he wakes to finds his mentor killed by the Yuki-onna. She spares him due to his youth but makes him promise he wont’t tell a soul of what happened that night. This was the story that was omitted from previous releases of the film, which is a shame as it to me is the one which evokes the most pathos, the influence of Japanese theater doesn’t usually allow this but is a direct result from Nakadai’s performance. You also lose some of the visual motifs like a pair of abandoned sandals which are prominently also featured in “Hoichi the Earless” and most likely elsewhere to be noticed on future viewings. With the first story it’s regret and memory which haunts the samurai while now we have the act of storytelling integrated into the narrative of the story itself. Minokichi will be punished for telling a tale and on top of that it was the one he was in. The relationship between the storyteller and the story is to be continued and expanded upon with the next two films.

“Hoichi the Earless” is the third story and the centerpiece of the film. Hoichi is a blind biwa player who lives at a monastery. His skill draws out the spirits of the Heike clan who invite him to perform The Tale of the Heike before them. Unable to see their ghostly appearance Hoichi goes night after night to perform this tale. The priests at the monastery (one of them played by Takashi Shimura) start to wonder where he goes every night. Kobayashi begins this segment with the actual events of the Battle of Dan-no-ura, intercut with painted renditions of the battle, almost like a story within a story. Moving on to Hoichi, we hear the tale again, yet this time within Hoichi’s story. We see how an event becomes a tale and how it changes from medium to medium and telling to telling. The idea of told tales acting as ghosts is developed more in this section which features some of the most striking sets and effects in the film.

And finally we make the narrator the subject in the film’s final segment, “In a Cup of Tea.” The narrator we see is a writer, awaiting a visit from his publisher, working on his stories. This acts as a frame narrative for another kaidan, the story of a samurai who sees a strange apparition in a cup of tea: the reflection of a sinister man, both foreboding and inviting, who appears upside down and finally right-side up whenever the samurai looks down to his drink. Purposefully left unfinished, it further links the storyteller with his stories. In “Hoichi” this was done by having the narrator interact with the subject of his narration while here it is that between creator and his fiction and fitting conclusion to this exploration of storytelling.

Most importantly the films looks and sounds brilliant. Compared to other releases of the film Criterion’s image seems to have a green tint. Given the high stylization of the film and the freedom Kobayashi allowed his crew to experiment and constantly push new ideas, I expect this to be an accurate presentation for the film. I wonder if their new interview with the assistant director Kiyoshi Ogasawara, who says he has restored the film twice, allowed him to look at and sound off on Criterion’s treatment for the film. The film is housed on a dual-layer Blu-ray.

As far as extras go we have about an hour’s worth of bonus material, a full length audio commentary from Stephen Prince, a few different trailers for the film, and an essay from Geoffrey O’Brien printed as a folded insert instead of a booklet. Stephen Prince provides a feature length audio commentary and amazingly never lets up with information and analysis of the film. Only for a brief moment during the Hoichi segment is he silent, which is understandable as it must be easy to just get caught up in the film and find yourself just watching it. He gives details on other versions of the film and what was altered apart from the omission of “The Woman of the Snow.” as well as much background to Kobayashi, author Lafcadio Hearn (who we also get a twenty minute video piece on as well), and just pure discussion of formal techniques of the film which helps direct the viewer to style motifs and what they might be conveying thematically. The other new feature is a twenty minute interview with assistant director Kiyoshi Ogasawara mentioned above. And finally, what turned out to be an enjoyable piece, is a discussion between Kobayashi and Masahiro Shinoda from 1993. I would have loved to see the entire discussion between them beyond Kwaidan.

Previously if you wanted to own the complete Kwaidan you had to import the Masters of Cinema Region 2 DVD which had the 20 minutes the previous Criterion disc was missing. Now Criterion has come back and made this one the edition to own. Not only does the film look great, with its seemingly endless supply of beautifully composed visuals, but Takemitsu’s uncompressed sound design shines just as well if not more. The new commentary from Stephen Prince, which he takes on the full three hours all by himself, contains a wealth of information. Very highly recommended.

Jason Suzuki is co-editor to Cinema Adrift.