‘Kwaidan’ – Japanese ghost stories on HBO Max and Criterion Channel

Masaki Kobayashi directs the quartet of Japanese ghost stories

Kwaidan (Japan, 1964), Masaki Kobayashi’s quartet of ancient ghost stories, may not be strictly speaking a horror film. It’s not scary or particularly unsettling apart for a few exquisitely created images. It is, however, breathtakingly lovely, visually composed like a painting, scored and sound designed by Toru Takemitsu with a spareness that leans on silence, and suffused in sadness, regret, and loss. The four stories play out with a deliberate direction that emphasizes the stillness and the film runs just over three hours in this restoration, which is 20 minutes longer than the version previously available in the U.S.

The story is made up of four classic Japanese folktales adapted from the work of Lafcadio Hearn. “The Black Hair” follows a samurai who abandons his devoted wife for better prospects with a rich wife and a new master and then returns to find… what he finds. “The Woman of the Snow” is a forest spirit that spares a woodcutter so long as he keeps a promise. “Hoichi the Earless,” the longest of the chapters at more than an hour, begins with a stylized sea battle created in a studio tank and then resurrects the ghosts of battle to hear the epic song histories of a blind musician. “In a Cup of Tea,” based on an unfinished story, plays with the idea of a story without closure and then merges story with storyteller.

This film is directed with a total control that would make Josef von Sternberg jealous. Kobayashi shot the film entirely in a studio built in an airplane hangar with painted backdrops (in “The Woman in the Snow,” the clouds of the hand-painted sky become eyes watching the woodcutter) and sets pared to their essence, like an ancient scroll painting. There’s not a natural image in the film.

This is a beloved film, embraced for its beauty and the haunting quality cast by its unreal sound design and painstaking direction. I confess I’m not one entranced by its spell—I find the film remote, a meditation upon stories and storytelling rather than a story told—but I appreciate the craft and the atmosphere, not to mention the amazing quality of the restoration. And in some sequences, the film does indeed manage to hold me in its thrall.

It won the Special Jury Prize at Cannes and was nominated for an Academy Award

Not rated, Japanese with English subtitles

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Also on DVD and Blu-ray in a deluxe Criterion edition and on SVOD through Amazon Video, iTunes, GooglePlay and/or other services. Availability may vary by service.
Kwaidan [Blu-ray]
Kwaidan [DVD]

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The Blu-ray and DVD editions from Criterion Collection presents a 2K restoration mastered from Kobayashi’s original cut of the film and presented in Japanese mono with a new English subtitle translation. This disc is so vivid both visually and aurally and it features new commentary by film historian Stephen Prince, new interviews with assistant director and restoration supervisor Kiyoshi Ogasawara and literary scholar Christopher Benfey, who discusses Lafcadio Hearn’s stories, and a 1993 discussion between Kobayashi and fellow filmmaker Masahiro Shinoda, plus trailers and a fold-out insert with a new essay by Geoffrey O’Brien.


Sean Axmaker is a Seattle film critic and writer. He writes the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website, and his work appears at RogerEbert.com, Turner Classic Movies online, The Film Noir Foundation, and Parallax View.

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