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4.6 out of 5 stars
Kwaidan (The Criterion Collection)
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89 of 92 people found the following review helpful
on October 12, 2000
Wow! What a gorgeous film this is! Kwaidan is quite possibly the most beautiful scary movie you will ever see. The cinematography in Kwaidan is superb, and the film has an epic feel to it, rather unusual for a horror film. In fact, I would even call this film the "2001" of horror movies, and I imagine that if Stanley Kubrick had gotten around to directing a Japanese-style horror movie, it would look a lot like this film.
Kwaidan was made in the mid-1960s, and at the time, it was the most expensive Japanese film ever made. It was a big success at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Special Jury Prize. The film is a collection of four ghost stories, told with a decidedly Japanese flair. The first story is about a man who abandons his wife only to return years later. The second story is about a man's encounter with a snow vampiress. The third story, my favorite, is about a monk who gives nocturnal recitals for mysterious and ghostly hosts. The last story is about a man who drinks down a ghost. That's all you really need to know, as the stories are quite straight-forward. It is the manner in which they are told and photographed that makes them so powerful.
The pacing is very deliberate and slow but gives you plenty of time to appreciate the numerous beautiful images that appear on-screen. The director, Kobayashi, filmed Kwaidan in a very surrealistic fashion, and the entire soundtrack was post-dubbed. As such, the sound effects come and go in very unexpected ways, like nervous twitches. This lends a further eerie atmosphere to the film.
The DVD is by Criterion, so you can expect a great transfer. And the transfer is absolutely stunning! Just look at the trailer (included on the DVD) and compare with the quality of the film itself, and you will be amazed. The picture is crystal clear with bright colors and deep black (the many night scenes look great, not muddy at all). There are no pixelations or artifacts and barely a trace here or there of scratch marks that belie the film's age. Sound is monophonic. Too bad Criterion didn't include a commentary track, but I suppose with an almost 3-hour film, there wasn't much room left on the DVD for anything else.
Still, if you like eerie ghost movies like The Innocents or The Haunting (original B/W version) or The Changeling, you will really appreciate this film. Kwaidan is not horrifying or scary in a "Halloween" or "Scream" manner; rather it creates an uneasy sensation of dread and despair. Highly highly recommended!
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26 of 27 people found the following review helpful
on June 28, 2003
Spoilers --yes, it is important always to announce coming spoilers because there are still people who haven't seen this film. (After hearing about it for a decade, I hadn't seen it till this past week.)
There is surely little I can add to what's already been said here about this film. So maybe what I have to say boils down to a YES vote for the pacing, atmosphere and story content of Kwaidan. But I will venture a few comments.
Unlike some other reviewers, I don't consider the first two tales, Woman of the Snow and The Black Hair-- nor the last tale, In a Cup of Tea-- negligible. Your pulse and breathing slows, the pitch of your senses drops an octave and even time seems to step off its treadmill to oblivion as you enter into the warp and weft of Kwaidan through The Black Hair. Over all, the director showed great ingenuity in the way he 'shot around' moments that could have been sunk by the formative level of special effects at that time. (How many films of this vintage are ruined for modern viewers by the universal presence of the veritable zipper in the back of the monster suit? Nearly all. This film avoids that pitfall, and yet still manages to give you something awesome to look at. --In other words, the director didn't just lazily avert his camera's gaze, as low budget horror films of the time often do, and fall back on what became an abused old saw that "the audience can always supply stronger horrors in their mind than I could for them." The director gives us plenty to look at and remember visually later.)
Woman of the Snow develops a poignant relationship between a wife-- who is not what she appears-- and her husband. Their story is sweet. You hope they prosper as a family, while you fear otherwise. A tone that is basically domestic and anti-horrific is set. When the serenity of their lives is climactically shattered, it is doubly hard to watch. You feel pity and sorrow for the man, and even for the monster, more than horror. There is no gore. A beautiful way of life is dissolved forever by a careless word, a moment of candor with a loved one that prompts unforeseeable consequences. That is real horror.
Hoichi is probably the standout story, if only because it is given the full space in time for which storytelling at this sort of pace begs. The visual effects in those scenes involving Hoichi's visits to the dead are handled with incredible deftness. They are the best this pre-cgi, pre-morph technology era could have hoped to achieve and they still stand up amazingly. I fairly gasped when I saw these scenes.(The most beautiful use of what are essentially dissolves I have seen.) This segment makes some of the best use of silence and near silence also. As the ghost assaults Hoichi, there are sparse, muted musique concrete plocks and bings on the soundtrack. The effect is suffocating. No flurry of Wagnerian sturm und drang could have worked as well for this rending scene.
After the breadth and luxury of the Hoichi segment, In a Cup of Tea may seem a little abrupt. This is not a bad thing. Hoichi was allowed enough latitude that they even managed some rare comic relief there. A Cup of Tea is a tart, terse afterword of a segment. It's like an episode of the half hour Alfred Hitchcock Presents in that it explodes the surprise at the very end, then exits with no comment at all. This is perfectly in keeping with Hearn's source stories or a John Collier or W.W. Jacobs short story. --Anything written in the form after Poe, really. Everything builds toward the final effect.
If you haven't seen Kwaidan, I recommend it. You need a grey day, first of all, or a night to view it. You need to banish all your irreverant, overly-ironic friends who might surprise you and 'get it', but as likely won't. And you have to want to like it. If all these conditions are in place, I can almost guarantee you'll be very glad you invested the time in the film.
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22 of 24 people found the following review helpful
on August 30, 2003
I remember seeing this movie on halloween night of 2002 on IFC when they were playing the most beautiful and bizarre films ever made, after watching a lot of classic american horror films, i was already bored of watching them, because i already knew what was going to happen. I remember it was around 8 pm, noone home i was on the computer typing something and figure it wouldnt be worth sitting down watching these movie, until this movie the first of the six movies they were playing. The credits alone at the beginning of the film and the music made me want to watch it and discover what this fascinating piece of art was, i wouldnt even consider it a film, its more of 4 storys of art. So beautiful, i read somewhere that it was the first color japanese film in Japan and thats the reason why there is so much color. Something this beautiful can only be watch on a good dvd at night to see this dazzling piece. If you like this movie, check out the movie others the director did, i seen them all and they are very good.
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on July 14, 2000
"Kwaidan" is a cinematic masterpiece of the horror genre which, unfortunately, is not nearly as well known to genre fans as it should be. In my view it ranks with Werner Herzog's 1979 re-make of "Nosferatu" as the finest horror film ever made in color. Part of the reason for "Kwaidan"'s obscurity is its national origin (though, strangely enough, the Japanese folktales which form its basis were written by an American expatriate, Lafcadio Hearn). Yet even in Japan, the film was a commercial flop, despite superlatives from critics. More likely, the obscurity of "Kwaidan" derives from its artistry; viewers who come to it for the first time will probably be only marginally aware that they're seeing horror at all. Search in vain for gore and special effects; the film almost recalls Val Lewton's old classics in its reliance on suggestion. As an anthology, moreover, "Kwaidan" is in the same league as the 1946 British film, "Dead of Night," except that it has no over-arching "frame" device to tie the stories together. All four films which make it up are essentially revenge plots: simple and straightforward, like most folktales, though I would like to mention a personal favorite: "Yuki-Onna," whose surrealist account of a female vampire awed me with its weird snow-scapes and eerie soundtrack. By all means, see "Kwaidan" if you have any curiosity at all about horror as viewed through the lens of an artistic master; I only wish American directors had a comparable interest in quality.
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31 of 37 people found the following review helpful
on July 29, 2000
I became a fan of the more artistic genre of Japanese film with Kurosawa's Throne of Blood and Hidden Fortress, both black and white classics of the style. After I happened to see this collection of stories on TV, I ordered the video. Still impressed after several viewings, I've decided to purchase the DVD version when it comes out this fall so I can see the film in it's most perfect form for home viewing. The collection is based on a series of short stories by a Louisiannan writer, Lafacado Hearn. Kwaidan is Japanese for ghost stories, a type of fiction I've enjoyed since childhood introduction to MacBeth and The Christmas Carole, and these are some very well written examples. My favorites of this collection were the Woman in the Snow and Earless, the former for director Kobayashi's incredible sense of color, sound and setting, and the latter for his sense of historical pagentry and drama and its surprise ending. An incredible piece of artwork. I will probably give my video version to a friend who is also fond of the genra and an afficionado of all things Japanese.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on March 18, 2001
With his "Kwaidan" score, Toru Takemitsu created the most remarkable work of art by using sound as music and music as sound. The line between the two is as blurred as the film form would allow it, in 1964 or nowadays. True to the Japanese tradition, his sound is minimal and well measured. It is executed with great taste and utmost precision but retains all of its natural qualities. It is probably the most effective score that I've ever heard. The only question for me is whether this can even be called 'a score': it certainly deserves a new word to be coined for it. In fact, I do remember noticing unusual opening credit for it but I can't remember the exact words that were used.
If you were moved by the flow of his notes in "Woman in the Dunes" or were intrigued with Masaru Sato's amazing score for "Yojimbo", this will take you to a completely new level of listening. It's an absolute aural masterpiece from this high master of film music!
Of course, this is only my opinion but I usually listen to movies more carefully than I watch them. You'll just have to trust my ears and their taste on this one.
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16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on October 11, 2012
Nobody seems to have mentioned it here, but this Criterion edition is the 'international' version. at 160 minutes (Amazon has listed the wrong running time as usual) it is missing a staggering 22 minutes of footage. The original Japanese version can be found if you do the research. The Region 2 dvd from "Masters of Cinema" is the full-length version, and it is even a better transfer! When buying films like this I always do my research, as many Asian films have shorter versions for international films. Very disappointed in Criterion; they are usually great, but they really dropped the ball for this title.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on March 2, 2004
The photography in this film is alive! The sets and costumes are vibrant and brilliantly hued and the cinematography captures it in all its painted glory! But besides that...the stories in this film are all interesting, with some very original ideas. They are four Japanese ghost stories, each one with either a surprise ending or a surreal plot twist that made me want to watch the next one. Some of the stories are genuinely creepy, while others are not so much creepy, but more along the lines of folklore, like tales form The Brothers Grim with an Eastern flavor. While I've read critical reviews hailing this as a masterpiece of traditional Japanese story-telling, I don't completely agree. There is plenty here to marvel at, and much of it does seem perfect for the time it was made(1965), but in the end it is a collection of ghost stories, well-made and thoughtfully produced, with memorable scenes that linger long after the film ends. This is a solid edition to my DVD collection, and it is easy to recommend.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
Fans of the supernatural, ghost stories and students of the intricacies of Japanese culture will find much to savor in these richly spooky tales. Romance, revenge and even tattoos all play roles in shocking fables which you won't soon forget.

Unlike most Criterion DVDs, there are no extras to speak of, save a thin booklet, but as usual the print quality is excellent and sound more than serviceable. The production values and complex sets must be seen to be believed and at times one feels as if they've entered into a large theatre where a stage show is being played out. However, don't think for a minute that this stage feel is ever confining. The compelling stories and complex execution allows the viewer to soar freely into chilling lands of wonderment and horror.

Expect the unexpected and treat yourself to one of the most original and memorable film thrillers ever created.

Criterion, please re-release this with worthy extras!
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on November 1, 2006
Gorgeous sets and costumes power four ghost stories set in ancient Japan.

In the first story, the Black Hair, a samurai leaves his life of poverty with his first wife to marry a wealthy woman. His new life eventually sours and he returns to find his true love, only to discover that things as not as they appear.

In the second, the Woman of the Snow, two woodcutters are forced to seek shelter during a blizzard. There they encounter a malicious female spirit who can kill with her breath.

In the third, Hoichi the Earless, the ghosts of the defeated Heiki from the battle of Dan no Ura haunt the cemetery near a small temple. A blind musician living their encounters the ghosts but doesn't realize who or what they are. Veteran actor Takashi Shimura of Seven Samurai and Godzilla fame makes an appearance as the head priest.

In the forth, In a Cup of Tea, a samurai is haunted by a ghostly image reflecting in his drinking cup. The story is told from the point of view of an unfinished manuscript, leading up to a dramatic ending when we encounter the author.

Each story is well crafted, combining slow buildups to sudden scenes of horror. All in all a worthy venture into Japanese ghost stories.
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