Kwaidan (1964)

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Released 15-Mar-2006

Cover Art

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Horror Main Menu Introduction
Main Menu Audio
Teaser Trailer
Trailer-Production Trailer
Theatrical Trailer
Gallery-Production Gallery
Trailer-Godzilla: All Monsters Attack, Seven Samurai
Rating Rated PG
Year Of Production 1964
Running Time 175:27
RSDL / Flipper RSDL (79:15) Cast & Crew
Start Up Menu
Region Coding 4 Directed By Masaki Kobayashi
Studio
Distributor
Toho
Madman Entertainment
Starring Rentaro Mikuni
Michiyo Aratama
Misako Watanabe
Tatsuya Nakadai
Keiko Kishi
Katsuo Nakamura
Tetsuro Tamba
Kanemon Nakamura
Osamu Takizawa
Case Amaray-Transparent-Secure Clip
RPI $24.95 Music Tru Takemitsu


Video Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame None Japanese Dolby Digital 2.0 (224Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio 2.45:1
16x9 Enhancement
16x9 Enhanced
Video Format 576i (PAL)
Original Aspect Ratio 2.35:1 Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures Yes
Subtitles English Smoking No
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits No

NOTE: The Profanity Filter is ON. Turn it off here.

Plot Synopsis

An ambitious samurai ditches his wife to marry into wealth and position, but finds himself drawn back to his first wife. A woodcutter survives a chance encounter with a Snow Woman who warns him never to tell of his experience or she will kill him. A blind biwa player finds himself performing songs for a ghostly company. A writer chances upon an unfinished tale concerning a retainer who sees a face in a cup of water. These are the four tales that comprise this classic film of the supernatural.

This is the first film directed by Masaki Kobayashi (1916-1996) to be released on DVD in Australia. He was a director who was less prolific than many of his contemporaries, and of his 22 films only six seem to be readily accessible in the West. These six can all justifiably be called masterpieces: the Human Condition trilogy, Harakiri, Kwaidan and Rebellion. Apart from the presence of actor Tatsuya Nakadai, these movies have something else in common: each is full of striking, stunning images, undoubtedly a result of Kobayashi's background as a painter.

Kwaidan was his first film in colour, and at the time it was the most expensive production in Japanese cinema history. The expenditure shows on the screen. Using the largest purpose built set constructed in Japan to that time, many of the outdoor scenes are shot on a soundstage, with realistic buildings and foliage set against expressionistic painted skies. This is best seen in the second story, where the sky features human elements, such as eyes or a set of lips.

The film is based on ghost stories written or collected by Lafcadio Hearn, a Greek-born author of Irish descent who settled in Japan in the 1890s. The Japanese ghost story has a long tradition, as does the ghost story in that country's cinema. While many may only be familiar with the scores of movies produced in the recent "J-Horror" boom instigated by the success of the Ring TV series and films, the ghost/horror story dates much further back. The earliest example that is readily available outside Japan is Kenji Mizoguchi's Ugetsu (1953), which features a story very similar to the first story in Kwaidan. Later in the 1950s a lesser known director named Nobuo Nakagawa started making ghost and horror films with considerable success, both financially and artistically. Unlike their Western counterparts the Japanese supernatural films were often "A" pictures, with prominent actors and directors involved. At the same time there were less ambitious genre pictures churned out by some studios, such as Daiei's Yokai Monsters series.

After his realistic critiques of the war and the code of Bushido Kobayashi turned his hand to what is essentially a vast fantasy. Often slow-paced and rarely actually scary, Kwaidan is a treat for the eyes. With the director's eye for composition and remarkable art direction, this is one of the most pictorially stunning movies ever made. There is hardly an unimpressive shot in the entire film, and the cinematography of Yoshio Miyajima is wonderful. The film may be a bit long and slow for some tastes but it is a carefully crafted and absorbing, often awe-inspiring experience and deserves to be seen by as many people as possible.

Along with Red Beard, Kwaidan was one of the last big gasps of the Japanese studio era, and by the end of the decade the film industry had virtually collapsed. Kobayashi's own career suffered and his subsequent films were not widely distributed outside his home country. An attempt in the late 1960s at co-producing films with The Club of the Four Knights (Akira Kurosawa, Keisuke Kinoshita, Kon Ichikawa and Kobayashi) did not lead very far.

Kobayashi's regular lead actor during the 1960s Tatsuya Nakadai features here as the woodcutter spared by the Snow Woman (Keiko Kishi). Also in the cast is Rentaro Mikuni, a now-veteran actor with three Japanese Academy Awards to his credit, as the lead in the first story. Kurosawa regular Takashi Shimura appears as the priest in the third story, along with the prolific Tetsuro Tamba as a ghostly warrior. Chishu Ryu's name was listed on the pre-release trailers for the film but he does not seem to be in the final product.

When initially released in the West the film was shorn of some twenty minutes. This release from Eastern Eye is the first time the complete version with English subtitles has been available on home video, though it will not hold that distinction for long. I have reviewed a few Eastern Eye DVDs and seen a few more again, and this must rank as their best release yet.

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Transfer Quality

Video

The film is presented in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.45:1 and is 16x9 enhanced. Unlike numerous previous Eastern Eye release this is a native PAL transfer, not a conversion from NTSC.

The film looks stunning. The transfer is clear and sharp. Colours are excellent, with flesh tones looking spot on. Black levels are nearly perfect, and I did not notice any issues with shadow detail. The colour palette is quite different from the US release, which is discussed in the region comparison section below.

A couple of times I noticed slight jumps or faint marks indicated splices, but otherwise the transfer is almost entirely free of film artefacts. There is a slight flickering which suggests the source material was not completely pristine. There are no serious film to video artefacts. There is some slight aliasing on some of the finer woodwork, and there is a brief example of posterisation at 134:24.

Optional subtitles are provided in English, in a yellow font. White font might have been better, as can be seen from the subtitles for the titles of each story, but the yellow colour is not so distracting. There was one spelling mistake ("your" instead of "you"). The subtitles are well-timed and easy to read.

The disc is RSDL-formatted with the layer break sensibly placed between the second and third stories at 79:15.

Video Ratings Summary
Sharpness
Shadow Detail
Colour
Grain/Pixelization
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts
Overall

Audio

The sole audio track is Dolby Digital 2.0 and is the original mono soundtrack.

The audio scrubs up well after 40 years. Dialogue is clear and there are no issues with hiss or distortion. At lower frequencies the audio tends to be a bit boomy - this is especially noticeable with Takashi Shimura's voice - but this is also present on the Criterion release.

The film also has a superb score by Toru Takemitsu. His on-screen credit is for sound effects rather than for music, and indeed there is rarely a conventional musical phrase in the score. There are brief snippets from various traditional instruments, sometimes deliberately out of sync with the visuals. It all combines to create an eerie effect.

Audio Ratings Summary
Dialogue
Audio Sync
Clicks/Pops/Dropouts
Surround Channel Use
Subwoofer
Overall

Extras

Main Menu Audio

Some of Takemitsu's sound effects.

Teaser Trailer (1:24)

A trailer which does not give much away about the film.

Trailer-Production Trailer (1:06)

A pre-release black and white trailer which makes much of the scale of the production, and features some behind the scenes footage.

Theatrical Trailer (3:48)

This trailer has a colour scheme in keeping with the Criterion release discussed below.

Gallery-Production Gallery

Thirty black and white stills, mainly publicity shots with a few shot of the director wearing his trademark white cap.

Trailer-Godzilla: All Monsters Attack, Seven Samurai (6:36)

Trailers for other Eastern Eye releases.

R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

The immediate direct competition to this release is the US Region 1 disc from Criterion. The Criterion has the shorter cut and a colour scheme that looks a lot more blue than the Region 4. My personal preference is for the Region 4, as the flesh tones look far more natural, while the Criterion's colour appears boosted and over-saturated. The Criterion also has a lot of film artefacts, with plenty of flecks and tramline scratches. The audio on the Region 4 sounds better as well, though that may be because the Region 1 has a 1.0 configuration. As extras the Region 1 has just an original trailer and an insert with an essay about the film.

While the Region 4 sweeps the board at the time of writing, an upcoming May release from the UK outfit Masters of Cinema will also contain the complete version, transferred in NTSC format so there will be no PAL speed-up. It will contain a text interview with the director (the last interview he gave) in a substantial booklet also including the original stories on which the film was based. A screen caps comparison at DVD Beaver suggests that the visual quality is on par with the Region 4. So the Region 2 will probably win out on the extras, but as the Region 4 is easier to obtain and costs less than $25 it hardly pales in comparison.

Summary

A superb, haunting set of ghost stories from a master director.

The video quality is excellent.

The audio quality is excellent.

A small selection of extras.

Ratings (out of 5)

Video
Audio
Extras
Plot
Overall

© Philip Sawyer (Bio available.)
Thursday, May 04, 2006
Review Equipment
DVDSony DVP-NS9100ES, using Component output
DisplaySony 86CM Trinitron Wega KVHR36M31. Calibrated with Ultimate DVD Platinum. This display device is 16x9 capable.
Audio DecoderBuilt in to DVD Player, Dolby Digital and DTS. Calibrated with Ultimate DVD Platinum.
AmplificationSony TA-DA9000ES for surrounds, Elektra Reference power amp for mains
SpeakersMain: Tannoy Revolution R3; Centre: Tannoy Sensys DCC; Rear: Richter Harlequin; Subwoofer: Richter Thor Mk IV

Other Reviews NONE
Comments (Add)
Is this version Progressive or Interlaced? And why is the UK release NTSC? - Darth Lavender REPLY POSTED
Great review, Philip, thanks - Bran (my bio, or something very like it)
Identifying an interlaced transfer - EvaUnit02
Eastern Eye Prog vs NTSC->PAL listing - graeme