Film reviews

Kwaidan (1965) – Blu-ray Review

Kwaidan is an anthology film from 1965, directed by Masaki Kobayashi, specifically focusing on Japanese folklore and ghost stories and it is one of the most gorgeous things you will see on film. This new release from Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema range is their usual high quality fare, with the new transfer an utter delight for the senses.

It consists of four stories. In order they are ‘The Black Hair’, ‘The Woman of the Snow’, ‘Hoichi the Earless’ and ‘In a Cup of Tea’. ‘The Black Hair’ tells the story of a poor samurai who has had enough of living in poverty with his adoring wife, so he abandons her to take a new position and a new wife that he marries just for the status of her family, only to realise that he has made a terrible mistake.

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‘The Woman of the Snow’ is the story of a woodcutter named Minokichi who has a strange experience while trapped in a blizzard. Nearly frozen to death, he seems to encounter a strange and terrible woman (a Yuki-onna) who saves his life, but warns him that if he ever tells anyone else what happened then she will return and kill him.

‘Hoichi the Earless’ is the longest story of the four, telling not only the tale of the final climactic sea battle between the Heike and Genji clans, but the story of a blind young monk called Hoichi, skilled in playing the biwa (a type of lute) who finds himself lured away by the ghosts of the dead warriors to retell the story of their death every night.

The final story, ‘In a Cup of Tea’, is the shortest and in some ways both the most stylish but also the most unsatisfying in terms of resolution. It is a meditation on why so many stories and tales reach us unfinished, and what might have happened to the authors, framed around the story of a samurai plagued by ghostly warriors and strange visions in a cup of water.

It would be far too limiting to describe Kwaidan as a horror film. It’s a series of ghost stories, and while a couple of them do have some horrific moments, it would be like trying to call Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytales “horror”. These are folk tales, dealing with archetypal characters: the dutiful wife, the ambitious samurai, the poor woodcutter and so on. Each story is almost entirely shot on a set, so each is presented and framed as if you were watching a stage play, with beautifully dreamlike backdrops that, especially in the case of ‘The Woman of the Snow’, play their own part in helping to tell the story.

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This is, without a doubt, one of the most stylish films I’ve seen in a long time, the hand-built and painted sets not trying for realism, instead going for a stylised version of reality. There are lots of lovely little period details that add to the authenticity, from the samurai preparing to fight to the blackened teeth of the nobles (as was the custom for a time). Almost every shot could stand on its own as a work of art. The camera work is a thing of beauty, especially during the fight scene from ‘In a Cup of Tea’ with its use of shadows of close-up shots.

Each story has its own unique use of light, most clearly illustrated by the ‘The Woman of the Snow’ which juxtaposes the harsh blues and whites of the Yuki-onna with the warm oranges and reds of most of Minokichi’s scenes. Aurally, it’s uniquely presented with sparse use made of music, vocals and effects, with many scenes being presented in almost total silence, giving the entire presentation a dreamlike, otherworldly feel.

Eureka offer two versions of this physical release. There is a limited edition version that comes in a slipcase with a collector’s booklet, and the standard release. Both have the same special features on disc, a fairly decent selection that includes trailers, an interview with author Kim Newman where he bubbles over with enthusiasm for the film, and a video essay called ‘Shadowings’ by David Cairns and Fiona Watson.

Kwaidan is a singular experience. There’s definitely nothing quite like it and at an eye-watering 183 minutes in length it’s not what you might describe as an easy watch, though with each story standing on its own there’s nothing to stop a viewer watching it in sections. There have been and still are plenty of horror anthologies but there’s only one Kwaidan and any fan of Japanese horror, or Japanese cinema in general, should have this in their collection. An absolute classic.

Kwaidan is released on Blu-ray on 27th April from Eureka Entertainment.

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