Directed by Masaki Kobayashi. Starring Rentaro Mikuni, Tatsuya Nakadai, Katsuo Nakamura, Haruko Sugimura.
Horror, Japan, Cert PG


Released in the U.K. on Blu-ray 27th April from Eureka Masters of Cinema.


The anthology has long been a staple of horror cinema. Whether it is the very English terrors of DEAD OF NIGHT from 1945, the 1950’s American horror comic stylings of George Romero’s CREEPSHOW or the various entries from Amicus that regularly popped up on screen in the 1960’s and 70’s the results often varied in quality from story to story. KWAIDAN, hailing from Japan in 1965 and winning the Special Jury Prize at Cannes, immediately gained a reputation not only for the quality of its otherworldly storytelling but its visual style also. This U.K. Blu-ray premiere from the Masters of Cinema label reinforces its reputation on both fronts. Telling four stories over three hours you can see imagery and tropes here that would filter down to the present day; long haired faceless ghosts, curses invoked by hapless innocents and spirits careless for the plight of those they haunt.


The Black Hair kicks off proceedings with its story of a samurai leaving his wife for a more prosperous life. Coming to regret his actions he returns to his seamstress wife but finds only madness. The Woman in the Snow tells of a woodcutter whose life is spared by a beautiful ghost one wintry night under the condition he tells no one of their encounter. Hoichi The Earless, which as Kim Newman points out in his interview on the discs special features makes a point of spoiling its twist in the title, tells of a blind biwa player asked to perform for a long dead clan who lost their lives in battle at sea. Lastly is the spare, and unfinished, tale In A Cup of Tea showing a samurai plagued by a reflection that is not his own.


Based on stories by Lofcadio Hearn it is interesting as an early example of J-horror. Its reputation as one of the most visually stunning films in the genre still stands to this day. Shot mostly on soundstages with hand painted backdrops it still stands as a singular achievement. The painted skyscapes of The Woman in the Snow with swirling clouds resembling ever watchful eyes bring a near surreal touch to proceedings aided by the quiet sound design that echoes throughout the whole film. Another visual highlight is the battle at sea in Hoichi the Earless that lends a theatrical quality to its storytelling. At times it has more in common with the films of Powell and Pressburger than it does with other horror films of the period.


The camerawork glides throughout showcasing director Masaki Kobayashi’s strong directorial style, aided by sharp and clever editing. Collaborators from his previous films, most notably Tatsuya Nakadai, as well as a host of other actors familiar from Akira Kurosawa’s samurai films appear throughout giving KWAIDAN another reason for burgeoning and longtime fans of Japanese cinema to check out this seminal work.


It is a beautifully designed film that is stunningly presented on the blu-ray with a spotless 2K transfer. Extras wise we have a visual essay from David Cairns and Fiona Watson which proves handy for those approaching the film from an academic angle. Kim Newman’s interview points out the film's place in cinema history; pointing out its, and the source materials, own historical influences. Also included is a perfect bound book featuring reprints of the original stories as well as an interview with director Kobayashi.


For those coming to Japanese horror for the first time it may prove intimidating due to its lengthy running time. However, if they are prepared to put the time aside and let the film work its eerie magic it could prove an alluring gateway drug to Japanese period cinema in its many guises, be it horror or samurai. For those already exposed to its magic this is a handsomely presented and indispensable package.


Iain MacLeod.



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