Review Date: October 8, 2000
Released by: Criterion
Release date: 10/10/2000
Region 1, NTSC
Widescreen 2.35:1 | 16x9: Yes
Kwaidan consists of four short stories - The Black Hair, The Woman of the Snow, Holichi, the Earless and In a Cup of Tea. Each of the stories is based on the writings of Lafcadio Hearn, a folklorist from the 19th century. Criterion has released Kwaidan onto DVD just in time for Halloween. Does it hold up to Criterion's usual high standards? Lets take a look.
The first story, The Black Hair, tells the tale of a young couple - a samurai (Rentaro Mikuni) and his wife (Michio Aratama). The couple is extremely poor and the samurai longs for a better life. He decides to leave his wife and marry into a rich family. She begs him to stay, promising to work even longer hours to provide a better life for them. But he leaves, and he does indeed marry into a rich family. He soon discovers that being rich doesn't always mean happiness. He comes to the realization that while his new wife is rich and brings him power, he doesn't love her. The samurai goes back to his first wife, begging for forgiveness. She quickly agrees to take him back and he vows to stay with her for all eternity. Little does the samurai know how quickly "all eternity" is going to come and what it has in store for him.
The second story, The Woman of the Snow, tells the tale of two woodcutters - Mosaku and his apprentice, Minokichi. As the two are doing their daily job - collecting wood in a nearby forest - they are overtaken by a great snowstorm. Eventually they take shelter for the night in a shack. The two quickly fall asleep, but Minokichi is awakened in the middle of the night. What he sees is beyond belief - a lady in white - The Woman of the Snow, who steals the warm blood of the living. He sees her blow her cold breath onto Mosaku, which instantly freezes his face, killing him. She moves towards Minokichi to deliver the same fate to him, but decides to spare him out of pity. She warns him to tell no one of what has happened that night, otherwise she will return to kill him. Minokichi recovers from the incident and keeps his promise for many years. But one night, 10 years into the future, he tells his wife what happened. He's no longer sure if it was a dream or reality, but he fears The Woman of the Snow no longer. As he soon finds out, that was a big mistake.
The third story, Hoichi, The Earless, tells the tale of Hoichi the blind monk, a wonderful musician who spends much of his time singing of ancient battles between two samurai clans. His music is so good that the spirits of the dead samurai rise up and command him to play music for them. This happens night after night, very late after everyone else has gone to sleep. The other monks begin to worry about Hoichi, but he refuses to say what he's been doing at night. One night the other monks follow him and discover his secret. The head monk tells Hoichi that the spirits will tear him apart if he obeys them again. The head monk paints Hoichi's entire body with prayer verses to ward off spirits. There's one problem, however - they forgot to paint his ears!
The fourth story, In a Cup of Tea, tells the tale of Kannai, a warrior who is menaced by a elusive spirit. Kannai first sees the spirit in a cup of tea staring up at him. Next he is confronted by the spirit in its bodily form, but before Kannai has any real chance to fight it the spirit disappears. Frantic, Kannai runs about screaming for all the other warriors to wake up, explaining to them that someone has gotten into the house. The others look but no intruders are found. Kannai tries to explain that it was a spirit - a spirit that is capable of walking through walls, but the others just laugh, telling him that he's tired and has been seeing things. Later Kannai is greeted by three additional spirits that are servants of the first spirit he encountered. He fights them and eventually destroys each, or so he thinks. It's here that the tale is cutoff - this particular tale is being told by a storyteller and the book he's reading it from abruptly ends. What was the ending for this tormented warrior? You'll have to use your imaginations to decide...or maybe not!
Kwaidan is sort of like Tales from the Crypt or Tales from the Darkside. At the end of each episode they don't always tie everything up into a nice happy ending - the bad guy dies, the good wins, the couple lives happily ever after - that kind of stuff. Instead, you are often left with a very unhappy or uncertain ending for remaining characters, and you will have to use your imagination to think of any possible future that may lie for them. Does it work in Kwaidan? Yes, I think it works extremely well. The stories are all quite good, though if I had to choose a favorite it would be The Woman of the Snow, only because I love the whole creepy concept of the story - from beginning to end. The concept has been used in numerous American movies, but for all I know The Woman of the Snow may be where it originated. The story was written in the late 1800's after all. I won't go into more detail as I may spoil it for some.
I didn't really find the stories in Kwaidan all that scary, except for The Woman of the Snow, which definitely sent some chills down my spine. I tell you one thing - I wouldn't want that creepy looking Woman of the Snow breathing on me. Like I said earlier, however, all the stories are all quite good. Not only that, but the acting is top notch. There's also some of the most incredible looking sets I've ever seen, along with terrific costumes. The attention to detail is truly amazing. It's very obvious that the filmmakers went to great lengths to provide realism here, and they definitely accomplished it.
Many horror fans may not get their "fix" from Kwaidan, but it's a beautiful looking movie with some wonderful stories. Some will definitely get creeped out by it, but many probably will not. Regardless, it's an enjoyable movie and I recommend everyone see it.
Criterion presents Kwaidan in an anamorphic widescreen transfer in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. While I mostly have positive things to say about this amazing transfer, there are a few problems in it as well. First the positive. The transfer has incredibly rich, vibrant colors. The green in the forrest, the blue water, the white snow - all look incredible thanks to extremely strong colors. With so many realistic sets and beautiful costumes this is a huge plus. The image itself is extremely sharp and detailed, remaining relatively grain free throughout the presentation. For a movie from 1965 I'm very impressed. Given the Japanese don't have anything in their movies to make it appear dated (sorry, no bell bottoms or afros here), you'd swear this movie was made yesterday if you didn't know any better. So what are the problems with this incredible transfer? The main problem, which was definitely distracting for me, were these clear vertical lines that consistently appear and disappear for a few seconds at a time throughout the majority of the film. These lines are worst in the first two stories, but they also appear, though less often, in the final two stories as well. Is this a major problem? Not really, but you're definitely going to notice it. It's not consistent, but I doubt there is even a five minute stretch where it doesn't occur. Besides that, you'll see some other blemishes such as scratches and specks of dirt which also appear in many scenes. I don't consider these problems major, especially given all the positive aspects of this transfer. I think Criterion did a good job that is more than worthy of its B+ rating.
Kwaidan is presented in Dolby Digital Mono sound. Dialogue was clear without any distortion or background noise heard. Dialogue isn't too important since it's Japanese and you'll be spending most of your time reading English subtitles. Subtitles are very easy to read - they're bright white and are located in the black bars, which is a definite plus. Of course, with a 2.35:1 aspect ratio you sure better put the subtitles in the black bars.
Liner notes by David Ehrenstein, a film critic for over 30 years. He tells of the writings of Lafcadio Hearn, who wrote each of these stories back in the 19th century. He also give a plot synopsis for each story. An interesting read that isn't too lengthy and definitely give you some more knowledge of Kwaidan. On the DVD itself you'll find a theatrical trailer to Kwaidan.
I enjoyed Kwaidan very much. While I myself only found one story to be particularly creepy, all of the stories are enjoyable, not to mention the incredibly detailed sets and costumes. I'm so glad that Criterion has released this onto DVD; not only because it gave me the opportunity to see this beautiful movie (I am one of those people who is too stubborn to see anything on VHS, regardless of how good it may be), but also because it has the high quality audio/video presentation that we expect with any Criterion DVD. There are no extras except for liner notes, but don't let that stop you from either buying or renting this DVD. I definitely recommend seeing it to find out if it suits your tastes.
Movie - B+
Image Quality - B+
Sound - A-
Supplements - C
- Running Time - 2 hours 41 minutes
- Not Rated
- 1 Disc
- Chapter stops
- Japanese Dolby Digital Mono
- Optional English Subtitles
- Liner notes by film critic David Ehrenstein
- Theatrical trailer