Winner of the Special Jury Prize at Cannes, "Kwaidan" features four nightmarish tales in which terror thrives and demons lurk. Adapted from traditional Japanese ghost stories, this lavish widescreen production draws extensively on director Masaki Kobayashi's own training as a student of painting and fine arts.
Widescreen: 2.35:1, Enhanced for 16X9 TVs, Color, Mono, Original Language: Japanese, Subtitles: English
ales of the supernatural have never been so lavishly visualized for the camera as they have been in Masaki Kobayashi’s four ghostly tales of the paranormal found within the startlingly creative Japanese masterpiece, Kwaidan. Ten years in development, one year of filming production and $35 million dollars later, the 1965 film based on traditional Japanese ghost stories took home the Special Jury Prize at Cannes Film Festival.
Attempting to provide the luxurious visual thrill of films like What Dreams May Come and The Cell, Kwaidan had limited special effects available for its time and so relied upon its directors previous studies and admiration of painting and the fine arts. His ingenuity with stage production is clear from the beginning as the environments are clearly sets by design, but so elegant in detail that their very presence adds to the surreal nature of the film’s content.
Kwaidan’s appeal does not start and finish with its extravagant set design that portray locations sometimes seeming as large as football fields. The costume design is as traditional as it is exceptional and imaginative at the same time. The large cast of characters delivers so much raw feeling and emotion to the film, we’re easily enthralled by the unfolding of onscreen events. Kobayashi’s [Black River, Human Condition] directing style seems so artistically fine-tuned throughout as he grasps the visual marvel of the character’s surroundings, but doesn’t fail to capture even the smallest inklings of emotional diversity in close-up shots of his hardened actors. Kwaidan is testimony to film enthusiasts of younger generations that modern filmmaking technology is not required to create that more than satisfactory aura of tension and intrigue.
Criterion has taken the 35 year-old aging film and created a new transfer that surely does as much justice to the film as is possible. The video shows strong signs of deterioration at times demonstrating unavoidable defects in the source material in the way of specs and lines. However, the presentation of this film on DVD as it stands is nearly flawless. The color in the painted backdrops and costumes is strong in saturation with only the contrast from dark to light imagery suffering at times. Otherwise, I was quite pleased with the video presentation of this DVD.
Kobayashi’s use of audio in this film is extremely subtle. The majority of audio is limited to dialogue while the rest consists of dubbed sound effects and occasional music performed on the Japanese Biwa (similar to a guitar). It may take some getting used to for some of you, but at times in the film where major noise-creating events are occurring - there will be none. However, I find that the visuals and direction of the story are so fascinating that the limited use of audio in fact caters to the strengths of the presentation. Keeping this in mind, the Dolby Digital mono track is very old and uneventful, but also quite enchanting, haunting, and beautiful at the same time.
Aside from a booklet containing a write-up of the film by critic David Ehrenstein and a theatrical trailer (which, as always, I suggest you don’t watch until after viewing the film) and color bars on the disc itself - there are no other extra features to speak of. Unknown to me is whether or not there exist any supplemental materials for this production, but it certainly would have been nice to have some further background information on a film of this magnitude if not only in the way of production notes or interview transcripts.
This DVD alone, despite its lack of additional materials, warrants purchase for one’s collection if you are a true admirer of international film and its masterpieces. However, if the idea of reading through nearly three hours of subtitles in the context of traditional ancient Japan bothers you - you’re better off skipping this one. A very excellent movie otherwise.