Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Kwaidan (1964)

A revisit of Masaki Kobayashi's masterpiece of atmospheric horror, "Kwaidan" (1964), an epic collection of four spine-chilling tales of the supernatural, effortlessly enthralled yet again, with its majestic flourish, this time in a brand new, fully restored, uncut Criterion transfer, the spectacular cinematography with its gorgeous colours enhanced, like you've never seen. 

All four stories now appear in their full, unabridged detail, previously unavailable even in the earlier Criterion edition. Of course, the cuts were in no way hampering the meaning or the flow of the stories, but what is the point if a film is not enjoyed in its complete form, in its original, intended glory?

What we get with the new release, is the complete 183 minutes version with a mesmerizing image transfer that will make your jaw drop. The richness of the beautiful colours is significantly highlighted in this stunning new transfer. The film's biggest asset is its chilling, slow-burning, otherworldly atmosphere, the likes of which are rarely matched, and this new edition with its sharper, fuller look, accentuates it like never before. 

Kobayashi takes us right into the realm of the spirits with a dense, enchanting environment replete with a bravura sound design and a dissonant score by the great Tôru Takemitsu, creating an unsettling, hypnotic atmosphere. The set design is magnificent; words are simply insufficient to describe how great the achieved look really is!

The supernatural realm comes frighteningly alive with Kobayashi's extraordinary vision. There are effects of the kind that would shame any modern horror. Forget all the mindless gore, fake CGI and those annoying, cliched jump scares of today; this is true horror that makes your hair stand on end, simply by placing you in spirit (pun not intended) in the ghostly otherworld created by the talent on board.

In order to enjoy a film like "Kwaidan", you really have to immerse yourself in the universe created by Kobayashi. Of course, he does more than half the job quite effortlessly, for once you witness those magnetic frames, you can't help but experience the mystical pull and be swept away, far within! With a strong command on storytelling already established with his prior masterworks like "Harakiri" (1962) and "The Human Condition" (1959-1961) films, the viewer cannot help but submit to Kobayashi's narrative prowess and watch the haunting poetry in motion unfold.

All of the tales are brilliant of course, but the one that stands tall is still "Hoichi the Earless" an old folk tale, often recreated in Japanese theatre as well. Akira Kurosawa regular, Takashi Shimura stars in this segment in an important role. There's a distinct tragic air to this ancient lore; a dirge-like quality that has to be seen and felt to be believed. The assembly of ghosts in a manor listening to the recital of a tragic tale of a lost battle is one of the greatest sequences ever seen in cinema, accomplishing the unique feat of being hair-raising and sorrowful at the same time!

"The Black Hair" tells the story of a wronged woman, whose husband, a samurai abandons her owing to poverty and returns many years later, full of regret, only to make a horrible discovery. The design of desolate ruins, and especially the makeup effects in this segment are nothing short of brilliant. It is unbelievable how authentic they are for the time the film was made.

"The Woman in the Snow", starring one of Japan's most famous stars, Tatsuya Nakadai, tells the tale of a ghostly woman who asks for a solemn oath from a young woodcutter in exchange for sparing his life. The woodcutter manages to keep the oath, except much later in his life. The consequences of breaking a promise are revealed in a terrifying twist. The use of colours in this segment is exemplary. Various vivid shades of blue and red are used to a striking effect. Special mention must be made of the colouring of the sky; the way it changes across times, and that nightmarish design of a giant eye looking down upon the earth is goose-bumpy as hell!

The final tale, "In a Cup of Tea" is the shortest and the most surrealistic of them all. It all begins when a middle-aged samurai begins to see the reflection of an unknown younger man in his cup of tea. The man in the reflection eventually shows up, causing havoc with the samurai's mental state.

This story ends with a fantastic meta twist, while maintaining in an initial disclaimer that it was an old folklore passed down across generations, but one that did not have a concrete ending! A clever little conclusion is provided here in the form of an epilogue of sorts, of course, and it is the kind of finale that will make you cheer in sheer admiration. 

"Kwaidan" is an essential classic of Japanese cinema. If you wish to witness a filmmaking marvel, grab it now!

Score: 10/10

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