One of the most ravishing color films ever lensed, KWAIDAN is a four-part horror anthology from director Masaki Kobayashi (HARAKIRI)—not heretofore known for his interest in genre material—that adapts stories by expatriate writer Lafcadio Hearn. Born in Greece in 1850, Hearn lived in America for twenty years, covering the crime beat in Cincinnati and compiling voodoo legends in New Orleans. After a stint in the West Indies, Hearn relocated to Japan in 1890, where he took a Japanese wife and began to explore the uncanny byways of the folklore, publishing a handful of volumes on the subject before passing away from heart failure at the age of 54 in 1904. Kobayashi appropriated his title from Hearn’s collection KWAIDAN: STORIES AND STUDIES OF STRANGE THINGS (1904), even though half of the film’s vignettes are in fact taken from other books.
It took Kobayashi several years to finish KWAIDAN, going heavily into debt to several different production companies along the way. Filming took place in a massive hangar that had been used by Nissan to display their latest automotive lines, giving Kobayashi and production designer Shigemasa Toda plenty of room to construct stunning large-scale sets replete with highly theatricalized painted backdrops. The cavernous space also allowed Kobayashi and cinematographer Yoshio Miyajima total control over the complicated lighting setups that lend the film much of its expressionistic, borderline surreal ambiance.
KWAIDAN’s opening title cards are intercut with shots of brightly colored ink swirling through a watery void in a design gambit that’s oddly reminiscent of several of the Roger Corman Poe films, a resemblance that’s even more intriguing given that Poe was an early and profound influence on Hearn. The first tale, “The Black Hair,” concerns an impecunious samurai (Rentaro Mikuni, HARAKIRI) who forsakes his beloved first wife (Michiyo Aratama, THE HUMAN CONDITION) in order to wed an aristocratic woman (Misako Watanabe) who can provide him with wealth and status. When she proves to be a cold fish, he returns to his home in Kyoto, only to find his wife living amongst overgrown weeds in a dilapidated hovel. She hesitantly welcomes him home for the night; but, in the morning, he finds that he has spent the night next to her corpse, only its long, black hair showing any signs of life. In a grotesque flourish not found in the source material, the hair pursues him to his doom.
“The Woman of the Snow” relates an encounter between young woodcutter Minokichi (Tatsuya Nakadai, THE HUMAN CONDITION), waylaid in the forest by a sudden arrival of a blizzard, and a vampiric snow maiden (Keiko Kishi, THE YAKUZA), who spares his life so long as he agrees never to tell another soul what he’s seen. Not long after, he meets lovely Yuki (Kishi again) on the road, taking her home to mother (Yūko Mochizuki, THE BALLAD OF NARAYAMA) and soon marrying her. Ten years later, he lets slip to Yuki what transpired that fateful night at the cabin, leading to a denouement that’s far less bloody than the virtually identical segment with James Remar and Rae Dawn Chong in TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE: THE MOVIE, since Kobayashi wrings Minokichi’s loss and bereavement for all the transient melancholy it’s worth.
“Hoichi the Earless” centers on a blind biwa player (Katsuo Nakamura), whose skill with the instrument is sought after by the restless ghosts of a samurai clan defeated 700 years earlier in a brutal sea battle. While Hoichi recites the skirmish’s outcome in voiceover, Kobayashi depicts events in a highly stylized manner, alternating between internecine tableaux vivants (shot in a capacious water tank) and two-dimensional images of the battle drawn from an illustrated scroll. This technique is consistent with Kobayashi’s expressed desire to “de-naturalize” the entire film, which pretty well explains the painted backdrops (replete with giant eyes and lips) and kabuki-style lighting choices. This segment also provides the film’s most iconic image: Hoichi, seeking protection from the ghostly warrior (Tetsurō Tamba HARAKIRI) who comes each night to summon him, has the text of a sutra drawn over every inch of his body (well, almost…) by a Buddhist priest (Kurosawa mainstay Takashi Shimura, SEVEN SAMURAI).
“In a Cup of Tea,” the most self-reflexive vignette, is a nested narrative that shuttles between New Year’s Day, 1900, and a time 200 years earlier. In 1900, an author (Osamu Takizawa, FIRES ON THE PLAIN) labors over a story while awaiting a visit from his publisher (Ganjirō Nakamura, THE LOWER DEPTHS). We then see his story acted out: A retainer is startled by visions of a man (Noburo Nakaya) reflected in his titular cup; rashly, he knocks back the brew, slurping down the man’s disembodied soul in the process. Later that night, a succession of apparitions appear to harass him. Then, abruptly, the narrative breaks off and circles back to 1900, where the author has mysteriously vanished from his workspace. Kobayashi invites audiences to conclude the insert story in any way they choose, while simultaneously finishing the film with a haunting spectacle that quite literally beckons the viewer into the world of spectral stories and other strange things.
Criterion’s 1080p/AVC-encoded Blu-ray transfer, taken from a 2K digital restoration of the 183 minute director’s cut, looks and sounds spectacular. Kobayashi’s meticulously considered color schemes are so full and rich in HD that they beggar description. The linear PCM mono track puts Tōru Takemitsu’s eerie avant-garde score front and center. Takemitsu’s ideas were influenced by the musique concrete works of Western composer John Cage; consequently, his experimental score deploys bursts of “prepared” pianos and electronically altered traditional Japanese instruments—not to mention the dialectical accompaniment of sound’s negative space, silence—in places that frequently run counter to audience expectations.
There are also a bumper crop of new supplements. The biggest bonus is a commentary track from film historian Stephen Prince that offers rigorous formal analysis, offers many subtle visual and thematic connections between KWAIDAN and Kobayashi’s other films, and lays out the differences between film and Lafcadio Hearn’s source material. It’s a wall-to-wall track with few lapses into silence, and Prince manages to keep it conversational and compelling for the entire time.
An amiable conversation (15m 15s) between Kobayashi and filmmaker Masahiro Shinoda (PALE FLOWER), recorded in 1993 for the Director’s Guild of Japan, focuses on the financial and logistical complications of making a film on KWAIDAN’s scale outside of the Japanese studio system. In “The Highest Standards” (21m 41s), assistant director Kioshi Ogasawara discusses the film’s production history in lucid detail, talks about rediscovering the surviving 35mm elements, and outlines the restoration process for both cuts of the film (141m and 183m).
“The Ancient in the Modern” (17m 16s) has literary scholar Christopher Benfey talking about Lafcadio Hearn’s life and career, how he went about collecting the folklore material that comprises KWAIDAN and other books, and the complex cultural transactions that inform not only Hearn’s stories but also Kobayashi’s film. Interestingly, Benfey suggests that the Japanese term kaidan might best be translated as “weird tales,” aligning Hearn’s work not only with his idol Poe, but also with the Algernon Blackwood/Arthur Machen/H.P. Lovecraft tradition of uncanny literature. There are three trailers: one in B&W (1m 7s) and two in color (1m 25s and 3m 58s). The foldout booklet contains Geoffrey O’Brien’s essay “No Way Out.”