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CRITERION

MOVIE INFO
Director:
Masaki Kobayashi
Cast:
Rentarô Mikuni, Michiyo Aratama, Misako Watanabe
Screenplay:
Yôko Mizuki

Synopsis:
A collection of four Japanese folk tales with supernatural themes.

MPAA:
Not Rated.

DISC DETAILS
Presentation:
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Audio:
Japanese LPCM Monaural
Subtitles:
English
Closed-captioned
Supplements Subtitles:
None

Runtime: 183 min.
Price: $39.95
Release Date: 10/20/2015

Bonus:
• Audio Commentary with Film Scholar Stephen Prince
• 1993 Interview with Director Masaki Kobayashi
• Interview with Assistant Director Kiyoshi Ogasawarsa
• Profile of Writer Lafcadio Hearn
• Three Trailers
• Booklet


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EQUIPMENT
Panasonic TC-P60VT60 60-Inch 1080p 600Hz 3D Smart Plasma HDTV; Sony STR-DG1200 7.1 Channel Receiver; Panasonic DMP-BD60K Blu-Ray Player using HDMI outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Kenwood 1050SW 150-watt Subwoofer.

RELATED REVIEWS


Kwaidan [Blu-Ray] (1965)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (October 19, 2015)

For many ignorant Americans such as myself, when we think of Japanese cinema, images of Godzilla and anime pervade our minds. However, those kinds of movies don’t make up all of the films that come out of Japan, something I slowly began to realize through the efforts of Criterion.

First I checked out a light comedy from the late Fifties called Good Morning. Frankly, the movie did little for me, as I thought it felt like nothing more than a pretty mediocre sitcom. I didn’t dislike the film but I also found nothing particularly compelling about it.

1965’s Kwaidan presented a very different story – literally, as the movie itself couldn’t possibly be less like Good Morning. Instead of a cute suburban comedy, we find a dark and moody anthology of mystical horror tales, all of which seem stark and dramatic.

Kwaidan includes four different narratives. First up is “The Black Hair”, in which a poor samurai leaves his wife to move up in society. He realizes his mistake much later and tries to fix it - with spooky results!

Next we get “The Woman of the Snow”. Here a woodcutter and his buddy become stranded in a nasty snowstorm. They take refuge in a shack but the pal gets offed by some sort of mystery woman. She spares our hero but warns him never to reveal what he saw. Eventually he marries a babe who never ages. After a while, he spills the beans to her - with spooky results!

The third sequence is “Hoichi, the Earless”. The Big H lives in a monastery and likes to sing of some ancient battles between warring clans, both of whose burial grounds are nearby.

Eventually the ghosts get word of his tunes, dig them, and incessantly insist that he play for them. This wears out the poor guy, so the other monks try to help out; they cover him with paint that will make Hoichi invisible to the spirits. Unfortunately, they miss a spot - with spooky results!

Finally, the film ends with “In a Cup of Tea”. Here a warrior sees some strange dude staring up at him from his mug. Eventually this freak pops up in real life. Justifiably perturbed - hey, it bugs me to find any kind of debris in my drinks, much less some goofball! - our protagonist challenges the cup-squatter to a battle - with spooky results!

Based on my synopses, you may have noticed a certain pattern to all of the stories in Kwaidan. Yes, they all hinge on Twilight Zone-style funky twists upon their conclusions.

To be frank, I find this gimmick to be less than effective, mainly because the tales themselves aren’t terribly compelling. As such, all we’re left with are the allegedly creepy endings, and those alone aren’t enough to redeem the flatness of the preceding narratives.

On the positive side, Kwaidan offers a nicely eerie and atmospheric visual experience. Director Masaki Kobayashi imbues the film with effective images that provide virtually all of the movie’s elements of creepiness and foreboding.

Unfortunately, that’s about all there is to Kwaidan. Otherwise, the film tends to fall flat. The stories are all simple and predictable; the endings can be seen a mile a way, and little about the execution makes them more compelling.

Ultimately, Kwaidan is a strong visual experience that fails due to the ordinary nature of its narratives: looks great, less filling.


The Blu-ray Grades: Picture B+/ Audio B-/ Bonus B-

Kwaidan appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this Blu-ray Disc. The movie held up very well in this splendid transfer.

Only minor instances of softness cropped up here. The majority of the film offered terrific delineation and clarity. I saw no shimmering or jaggies, and the image lacked edge haloes. Print flaws also failed to cause distractions.

Though much of Kwaidan used a stark and limited palette, when colors appeared they seemed gorgeous. Usually the hues came out via clothing, and the tones seemed rich and lush, with wonderful depth and intensity. Probably the movie’s most attractive scenes occurred during “Hoichi, the Earless”; the battle sequences presented many bright and accurate colors that glowed with vibrant tones.

I also liked the film’s black levels, which seemed especially important given the dark nature of so many shots. Blacks looked dense and deep and showed no signs of paleness or grayness. Contrast appeared solid, and shadow detail was strong, as low-light sequences looked appropriately opaque but lacked any signs of excessive heaviness. Across the board, this was an attractive image.

Though not as good, the film’s LPCM monaural soundtrack worked fine for the material. With the original Japanese dialogue in tow, it’s a simple track, as the film featured minimalist score. Effects also didn’t have a lot to do, as this tended to be a quiet, atmospheric mix.

For fairly obvious reasons, I can’t adequately judge the intelligibility of the Japanese dialogue, but I thought the speech sounded acceptable. The lines didn’t seem particularly natural, and a lot of bad dubbing abounded. Still, the dialogue didn’t demonstrate notable flaws.

Again, music and effects didn’t show much ambition here, so they didn’t tax my system. Those elements appeared decent to good much of the time, though. The effects and music didn’t sound especially dynamic, but they appeared reasonably clear. Nothing here impressed but the track also didn’t disappoint.

How does the Blu-ray compare to the Criterion DVD from 2000? Audio sounded clearer and smoother, without the background noise and distortion that marred the DVD. Visuals were also cleaner, better defined and more dynamic. I thought the DVD looked good in its day, but it couldn’t compete with the high quality of the Blu-ray’s transfer.

Note that the 2015 Blu-ray provides a longer version of Kwaidan than the one on the 2000 DVD. The latter offered a moderately abbreviated 161-minute cut of the film, whereas the Blu-ray gave us the director’s original 183-minute edition.

While the 2000 DVD included almost no supplements, the 2015 Blu-ray contributes some extras. These open with an audio commentary from film scholar Stephen Prince. He delivers a running, screen-specific look at the source stories, character and narrative, themes and interpretation, sets and production design, visuals and cinematography, music and audio, cast and performances, changes among various cuts of the film, and related notes.

With more than three hours at his disposal, Prince occasionally sags and essentially narrates the film. Given the movie’s length, though, I can excuse that minor tendency, especially since Prince offers so many good details much of the time. He relates a lot about the flick and connected domains in this likable, informative chat.

From 1993, we get a 15-minute, 18-second Interview with Director Masaki Kobayashi. Along with filmmaker Masahiro Shinoda, Kobayashi discusses aspects of Kwaidan’s creation such as sets, visual/color design, studio/financial concerns, audio, music, and the movie’s reception. Nothing scintillating emerges here, but the chat offers a decent array of facts.

Next we get a modern day Interview with Assistant Director Kiyoshi Ogasawarsa. This 21-second, 41-second piece covers his work on the film as well as his relationship with Kobayashi and reflections on Kwaidan. Ogasawarsa remains sharp and vivid, so he gives us a nice look at the movie, especially when he digs into the various cuts of the film.

Finally, we locate a Profile of Writer Lafcadio Hearn. In this 17-minute, 16-second program, English literature scholar Christopher Benfey talks about the author behind Kwaidan as well as the stories themselves and their adaptation for the film. Benfey offers an engaging piece with useful notes.

In addition to three Trailers, the package offers a 10-page Booklet. This provides an essay from critic Geoffrey O’Brien. It’s not one of Criterion’s better booklets, but it adds some value.

Visually, Kwaidan seems effectively moody and creepy, but its stories tend to be predictable and uncompelling. The Blu-ray provides strong picture quality along with acceptable audio and some informative supplements. I like this release but the movie itself leaves me cold.

Viewer Film Ratings: 3.6666 Stars Number of Votes: 3
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