The Horror Movie Magazine You Can
Really Sink Your Teeth Into
Issue #2

Kwaidan (Kaidan): a timeless classic among ghost stories  

David Christenson

DVD released October, 2000 by The Criterion Collection.
161 minutes, 1965, color.
In Japanese with optional English subtitles, monaural sound.
Widescreen, enhanced for 16x9 televisions.
RSDL, dual-layer.
Manufacturer’s suggested retail price: $29.95.

Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan is a collection of four Japanese ghost stories, strikingly beautiful in its visual composition and often as moody and unsettling as the best of Val Lewton or Rod Serling. It’s also a surprisingly effective movie for open-minded American horror fans, coming as it does from a cultural and chronological distance.

Kwaidan finally gets the home video treatment it deserves with the release of a new DVD from The Criterion Collection, that dependable source of classic films. It’s shown in its original widescreen aspect ratio, the 2.35:1 Tohoscope size, the same used for the later Godzilla flicks and equivalent to Hollywood’s CinemaScope. The transfer is stunning, as advertised, and the sound is crisp and clean. Before the Criterion release arrived, the only version I’d seen was a battered, blurry, grainy, pan-and-scan VHS tape from a local rental shop. That tape was interesting enough, but it’s not hyperbole to say that viewing the DVD was like seeing an entirely different and much better film.

There are four stories set in various periods of historical Japan. In “The Black Hair,” a social climbing samurai abandons his loyal wife for a more advantageous marriage, but his regrets lead him to a horrifying reunion. “The Woman of the Snow” is a demon inhabiting a fantastic snowy landscape, in the film’s most expressionistic segment. “Hoichi, the Earless” is a singer sought by ghosts to recite their tragic stories; when his human peers try to rescue him, he suffers from their carelessness. “In a Cup of Tea” is the shortest and strangest of the stories, based on a fragmented tale of a soul contained in a drink.

Each segment involves a ghostly visitation, but there is more afoot than fear. Kobayashi’s primary concern is social justice, as in another film well known to U.S. audiences, Samurai Rebellion (1967). Here the social message is not so clear, but the four stories do have some telling similarities. The spirits here are vulnerable, wounded by the insensitive actions of the living. The ghosts’ goal is not revenge but peace, and the real villains are human greed, callousness, emotional rigidity and lack of imagination.

The ghost film was an accepted Japanese genre by the time Kwaidan came along. From the silent era forward, dozens of horror films preceded Kwaidan, and dozens followed it, but hardly any of these were shown in U.S. theaters, for whatever reason. The antecedent most familiar to Western audiences is Ugetsu Monogatari (Tales of the Rainy Moon, 1953) by another masterful director, Kenji Mizoguchi.

Kwaidan, like Ugetsu, is an artfully photographed meditation on the supernatural, based on literary sources. Unlike Ugetsu, Kwaidan was released in a period when the foreign film was a well-established product in American theaters. Thus there is suspicion among some critics that Kwaidan was created not for domestic consumption but for an international audience, particularly for U.S. viewers, who had discovered Japanese cinema through the Hollywood influenced movies of Akira Kurosawa. Whatever the intent, the payoff was international success; the film earned the Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival and ongoing critical praise.

At this point in his career Kobayashi was successful enough to head his own production company and choose his own projects. In this case it may seem odd that he chose a collection of Japanese stories retold for Western readers by American writer Lafcadio Hearn. But Hearn was not a second-hand interpreter of these tales. He produced his book Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things (1900) only after years of travel and original research in Japan, gleaning folklore from storytellers and old written sources. (The full text of Lafcadio Hearn’s book has been transcribed to the Web by the Gutenberg project.)

It’s said that Kobayashi took 10 years to plan this film and a full year to shoot it. It was also the most expensive film made in Japan to that date, and as the saying goes, it’s all up on the screen. An abandoned airplane hangar was used to contain the elaborate sets—yes, the blizzard, the ruined castle, the country villages and the battle between ships at sea were all contained in one building. Kobayashi began his career as an art student, and his training shows in the set decoration and photographic composition, which incorporate elements of traditional painting and theater. He had full control over the details of construction and painted the sets himself, and borrowed actual historical treasures from museums for use as props. He shot his footage at the glacial pace of one to three takes per day.

Similar care was taken in recording the sound, all dubbed in post-production over the course of six months. The musical score, still an eerie experience, was groundbreaking in its time, composed by Toro Takemitsu employing characteristic Japanese sounds in electronic settings. In a reversal of the custom of Hollywood, where the composition of the score was frequently rushed at the very end of production, Kobayashi saw that the music was completed before shooting began. In a sense, the director composed the film to the music.

It probably goes without saying for DVD collectors that Criterion’s version of Kwaidan is top-notch. The colors are vibrant and detail is as sharp as one could hope from a film of this period. The soundtrack is clean, worthy of the carefully composed original, in the original monaural.

There’s an unfortunate lack of extras; the bonus material is limited to the original Japanese trailer. The pamphlet included in the package does include some helpful comments and some unnecessary plot summaries by critic David Ehrenstein. However, Criterion has done its usual fine job with the material available. Fans of Japanese cinema will be fascinated, while those who admire humanistic horror such as The Haunting and The Sixth Sense should find this classic both chilling and satisfying.

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David Christenson is a journalist, photographer, dealer in used and rare books, ex-beekeeper and movie buff who lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Copyright © 2001 by the author. All rights reserved.