KWAIDAN (1964) / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: MASAKI KOBAYASHI / SCREENPLAY: YÔKO MIZUKI / STARRING: MICHIYO ARATAMA, MISAKO WATANABE, RENTARÔ MIKUNI, KENJIRÔ ISHIYAMA / RELEASE DATE: APRIL 27TH
Eureka entertainment continue on its Masters of Cinema label by releasing Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan on Blu-ray. The film consists of four Japanese folk tales and is a subtle, slow but beautiful departure in filmmaking, not found in modern horror.
Unlike horror anthologies such as Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965), there is no central story that binds these tales together, we are just presented with them, one after the other, with an intermission half way through - which is a nice touch. Like Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio and the Grimm Fairy Tales, these are Japanese stories that were collected in a book by author Lafcadio Hearn, only told orally by superstitious villagers previously. The Black Hair features a samurai, unhappy with his life of poverty, leaving his wife to marry a noblewoman, which he instantly regrets. However, when he is reunited with his first love, it is not the idyllic life he dreamt of. Next we have Woman of the Snow, in which two woodcutters are caught in a snow storm and the eldest is killed by a ghost. She spares the younger man’s life, only if he swears never to divulge what has happened. The longest tale is Hoichi the Earless, about a blind monk, adept at playing the Baiwa, who is forced to perform a song that details a famous battle between rival clans for a group of ghosts. Finally, we have In a Cup of Tea, a story within a story about a guard who sees a spirit in his brew, which he drinks with terrible consequences. There is certainly common themes running through these stories, the perils of being selfish, not keeping a promise or being too arrogant. Getting involved in the world of the supernatural usually doesn’t end well, and if you do, stick to the rules.
Kwaidan uses small sets with painted backgrounds, but it looks magnificent. The fact the stories are set in different periods of ancient Japan, helps the film age well, and being the early ‘60s, this was an early foray into colour. Kobayashi really takes advantage of this, using his palette masterfully; from deep autumn reds to the use of blue light to denote the presence of something otherworldly. The painted backgrounds of Woman of the Snow feature an ominous eye that foreshadows things to come; a theatrical device perfect for this style of vignette. Of course, any anthology always suffers, due to the disjointed nature of having standalone stories, especially ones with no connecting narrative, Hoichi the Earles, probably staying with us too long. However, Eureka has designed a wonderful package that features the original uncut version, an interview with Kim Newman in which he discusses the film, and a video essay by David Cairns and Fiona Watson that skillfully breaks down the movie and the life of its creator. It’s certainly a testament to Kobayashi that even in high definition, the quality of the sets, lighting and use of angles hasn’t diminished. These stories are truly timeless.