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There's a good bit of discussion of this film as "horror"; may I suggest
that it's horrific in the sense of the ancient Greek tragedies. There's no
attempt to coerce your Hollywood-abused adrenals into delivering just one
more squirt by means of some in-your-face special effect. In fact, for each
of these slowly developed stories, once you've understood the premise, the
story will unfold pretty much as you've guessed it must, inexorably,
relentlessly. The ghosts aren't there to "spook" us, they're to show us our
common human spiritual and emotional failings. The horror of a ghost wife,
for instance, isn't that her chains drag noisily across the the hardwood
parquet floor, but that we've created her by our insensitivity, our
misplaced values, or our betrayals.
The visual style is stupendous! The action takes place in a disappeared, iconic world of classical medieval Japan, perfect, and admitting no trace of the reality of modern times. Overlaid is a European Expressionist color sensibility, with emotionally charged color displacements of sky and skin, as if Hokusai and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner had been working cooperatively on the sets and lighting.
This is a wonderful movie. Please ignore attempts to fit it into some box, some genre. Rather look at it as a mature work of art, which happens to choose old Japanese ghost stories as its starting point.
'Kwaidan' is an astonishing film, once seen never forgotten. It's labeled horror, but while the four stories within deal with ghosts and the supernatural, I doubt that anyone would be actually frightened watching it. Haunted, yes, scared, no. It's a beautiful movie, very stylized with a very imaginative use of colour. I can't think of anything else I've seen that comes close. Mario Bava, maybe. The movie consists of four stories. I think it's best watched as a whole to let each story blend in to the other, but if forced to choose I would say my favourite segment is the second one ('The Woman In The Snow') which I believe was left out of the version of the movie originally shown outside Japan. 'Kwaidan' is one of those rare movies that leaves you stunned the first time you see it. For me it's equal to 'Rashomon', 'Woman In The Dunes' and 'Branded To Kill' as the most amazing Japanese movies I've ever seen. Each one of these movies blew my mind. It's difficult not to gush about all four. They come with my highest recommendation. I sincerely believe that anybody who watches them will be incredibly impressed. They are all masterpieces.
Kwaidan is one of the great underappreciated films: no one's heard of it,
but you'll never, ever forget it once you've seen it. Parts of it may seem
slow to some viewers, and most of the stories are extremely predictable, but
I have to say this is one of the most beautiful, haunting movies I've ever
Of all the stories I prefer "Black Hair," the first one. Though a rather pointless horseback archery scene just slows it down, it's by far the scariest and most nightmare-worthy of the stories, using sound to incredibly chilling effect. There's more terror in the last minute of this segment than in all three Scream movies put together. Trust me, if you consider yourself a serious fan of horror cinema, you have to see this.
The second story, "The Woman of the Snow," is good, though I wish it ended more like "Black Hair" (you'll see what I mean). "Hoichi the Earless," with its jaw-dropping sea battle sequence, is by far the biggest and most popular of the stories. It's also the most influential, with its main premise prominently re-used in Conan the Barbarian. The film ends with "In a Cup of Tea." This is the only story that doesn't completely telegraph its ending, and coming after three utterly predictable stories, its complexity is a bit unexpected and disorienting. Certainly it's as creepy and beautiful as the rest of the film, but I have to admit I don't really understand it.
Being a tremendous fan of elegant, understated horror movies, as well as a student of Japanese culture, I consider this film one of my all-time favorites. Granted, some viewers may be turned off by the leisurely pace and the theatrical, intentionally unrealistic sets. But this is undeniably a beautiful and chilling film, absolutely perfect to watch late at night, alone, in the dark.
Over a time span of some 35 years, I saw Kwaidan twice on the large
I liked it the very first time, and it got better when I saw it the second
From the very opening when credits were introduced, color ink drops penetrating clear water generated an extremely soothing visual effect. The execution was low-tech, but it goes to show the power of human creativity before the age of fast computer chips. This opening also sets the tone of what you are about to get into - a film of great visual beauty, a film that requires a relaxed and unrushed mental frame of mind to appreciate.
It consists of four stories, all about ghosts, spirits and a blood-sucking woman in white. Some stories are better than the others, and my favourite is 'Hoichi the Earless', which also has the longest running time. It is about escapism, tales of morals, and cinema at its best.
The words "beautiful", "lyrical" and "evocative" aren't
ones that you would normally attribute to a horror movie, but they are
precisely the ones that best describe Kwaidan, a quintet of Samurai
based (interestingly enough) on the writings of an American author by the
name of Lafcadio Hearn. Shot in gorgeous, sumptuous color way back in 1964
by director Masaki Kobayashi, Kwaidan is an unusual, unique and quite
extraordinary entry in the old horror anthology genre best represented by
1945's Dead of Night and Milton Subotsky's Amicus anthology series (i.e.
Terror's House of Horrors, Tales From the Crypt & Asylum).
Kwaidan differentiates itself from the pack in a number of significant ways. To begin with, all of the episodes eschew the usual O. Henry "twist" endings and deliberately telegraph their punches, case in point being "Hoichi the Earless", which gives away its climax with its very title! This film is also missing the compulsory "wrap-around" story normally employed by anthology films to tie all the stories together, and the horror elements are far more low-key than most horror aficianados are used to. Kwaidan is far less concerned with springing shocks and fraying nerves than it is in exploring the whirlwind of conflicting emotions that swirl in the dark night of the human soul.
"The Black Hair" is the tale of an impoverished samurai who abandons his loyal and loving wife to marry the daughter of a wealthy lord in another province, only to discover many years later that he is still in love with his first spouse. He returns to their decaying old house to find her exactly as he left her, affectionate and forgiving as could be. You know something in this household just ain't right. "The Woman in the Snow" concerns an apprentice woodcutter who encounters an eerily beautiful female ice-vampire - called a "Yuki-Onna - who spares his life on the condition that he never tell a soul about their encounter. (If you saw the last episode of the flaccid Tales From the Darkside movie, on which this was based, you have an idea of how this one ends).
"Hoichi the Earless", easily the most powerful of the bunch, regards a blind biwa (a stringed instrument resembling a guitar) player renowned for his moving rendition of the tragic tale of the battle between the Genji and Heiki clans. Each night he is summoned to the nearby graveyard to chant the epic tale for the ghosts of the warriors who fell in that battle, duped by the spirits into believing that he's performing in the home of a wealthy lord. When Hoichi disocvers that he has been decieved by the dead and refuses to perform for them again, the ghosts exact a terrible revenge.
A note of warning to those deterred by long foreign films: this shimmering jewel in Japanese cinema's crown clocks in at nearly three hours of length and is, of course, fully subtitled. Visually bold, rich and color and texture, and atmospherically photographed with a spine-tingling elegance, I can't guarantee that you'll like Kwaidan, but I think that I can safely assure you'll never forget it. Highly recommended, especially for Japanophiles and those with a taste for high class horror.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This film looks much like a painting. It's really a piece of art. I love
films with brilliant cinematography and godly colors wich this film has. I
bought it on Criterion Collection cheap without knowing anything about it.
But I got more and more in to it when I read the user comments here on the
internet movie database.
The film is four Japanese horror stories. They are maybe not so frightening when you see them but later on when you think about the film they GET scary. The first one is about a samurai who leaves his wife because of that she are so poor and marries a rich woman. It all ends up in horror. The second story are about two woodcuters that meets a snow woman that kills one of them(the old man) but let the young boy live if he promise to not tell anyone.
The third story which are one of the best things I have ever seen on film. It's a masterful story and even if the three others also are superb this might be the best. And the last story is great. This is a masterful film. A must see
Kwaidan is a four-segment horror anthology but you'd be hard pressed to
find one more removed from the typical plastic bats and cobwebs Gothic
anthologies of Amicus or Hammer. While it can be billed as a "horror"
movie and it deals with the supernatural, it's not really frightening.
All four segments are more like traditional Japanese folk legends about
ghosts, the kind of spooky stories you could hear an elder narrating to
kids around a bonfire in a village near Kyoto or the outskirts of
Okinawa. However if "work of art" was a genre, Kwaidan would be among
the best it had to offer.
Just two years after the seminal Seppuku which was done in stark black and white with a geometric, well disciplined style, Kobayashi returns with another tour-de-force, this time in extravagant, expressionistic colour. A visual feast proving that in the right hands style can be substance. His camera with its slow tracking shots is like a brush, painting a celluloid canvas with vivid, lush compositions and it comes as no surprise to find out that he had a background in painting. The combination of eerie, supernatural material, the dreamlike atmosphere and the use of colour in lighting and sets reminded me of the great Italian maestro, Mario Bava; although Kwaidan by no means fits in the Gothic horror mold.
Conscious of the folk legend material he's working on, Kobaysi wisely shot the movie in studio sets using large painted backgrounds that look deliberately artificial as much as they look gorgeous. In many ways, it feels like a big stageplay or an elaborate dramatic poem. In that aspect, Kwaidan takes place somewhere between the real and the mythic. A land of some other order.
The stories all revolve around ghosts and are as simple and predictable as any spooky story that you might hear as an adult. But they do a great job of providing an eerie skeleton for Kobayashi to hang on his beautiful style. Style over substance one could argue. Isn't that an erroneous statement though? By making the distinction one implies that style is somehow insubstantial to a film, something that couldn't be further from the truth. The use of colour is incredible, the lighting, at times subtle and evocative or wild and expressionistic, the slow tracking shots, long stretches of silence, a body painted with holy text, Tatsuya Nakadai looking calm and happy for a change, Tetsuro Tamba in full plate samurai armor, white ghastly faces, bodies falling in blood-red waters, a painted sunset backdrop, an intelligent play on vague endings, the minimal score, chords echoing from somewhere. Kwaidan proves that style IS substance. A visual feast by all means.
It's really a shame that Kobayashi is not as widely celebrated as Akira Kurosawa. Kwaidan is just another in a series of absolutely brilliant films he did in the 60's. Beautiful, creepy, poetic, atmospheric as hell; it is the work of a master cinematician and one of the best Japanese movies you're likely to see.
Cinematographer Yoshio Miyajima did a marvellous job, although most of the
visuals in this masterpiece are obviously invented by Kobayashi. It is
clearly studio-work, but Kobayashi turns that to his advance by making the
most marvellous background paintings I've ever seen in a movie and his
virtuosity comes to full exposure in the light effects that are fabulous for
such an old film. That together with the beautiful colors creates a
mesmerizing and sometimes terrifying experience. 'Marco the magnificent'
(Patelliere&Howard, 1964) reminded me of the visuals in Kwaidan, because of
the beautiful environmental shots and because of the (supposed) history of
mixture of eastern and western stories. Forget that movie instantly plz.
Another film that has nothing to do with this one, but is brilliant and
comparable only because of the episode structure, the fairy-tale nature and
great cinematography is Kaos (Taviani, 1984).
Kwaidan has such a haunting effect because of the scary music and the sound effects are unnerving(-ly edited). Some call it horror. I thought the pace was rather slow for horror, but it is a film that does not let go easily. The actors (one of which is Takeshi Shimura) convince enthusiastically and they too make it an entertaining film. According to the user-rating this is Kobayashi's least interesting work of these three: Joi-uchi, Seppuku, and Kwaidan. I can't wait to see the other two, although I don't think they can surpass this masterpiece.
10 points out of 10 :-)
This is one of my favorite horror films, and I daresay one of my
favorite films in general as well. Anyone who doubts that a horror film
can be great art as well ought to give this one a try.
I will have to revisit this comment after viewing the film again, as it has been a while, but there were a few comments I thought people might find useful regarding the stories the film adapted.
Two of the stories can be found in Lafcadio Hearn's book Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things. These are "Hoichi the Earless" ("The Story of Mimi-nashi-Hôïchi") and "The Woman in the Snow" ("Yuki-Onna"). The other two can be found in other books of Hearn's; I'm grateful to Kenji Inadomi for pointing out that "Black Hair" can be found as "The Reconciliation" in Shadowings, and "In a Cup of Tea" is to be found in Kotto: Being Japanese Curios, with Sundry Cobwebs.
Many of Hearn's stories can be found online, including all of the above except "In a Cup of Tea." Attractive early hardcovers of Hearn's books are pretty plentiful, though, and not terribly expensive either.
As some others have noticed, there's an uncredited adaptation of "The Woman in the Snow" as the "Lover's Vow" segment of Tales from the Darkside: The Movie (1990). It's not bad, but Kaidan (1964) is the one that got it right.
Kwaidan is a somewhat difficult work. Its four stories, with the exception
of one, are not very involving and they can even become a little boring in
their narrative. They are not very frightening, although they all attain a
level of creepiness. Except for "Hoichi, the Earless," one of the most
stunning tales I've ever experienced in a film, you can see the ending
coming from a long ways away (the final episode, "In a Cup of Tea," is a
little different, in that it has no ending, per se; the ending the
filmmakers do come up with is a little disappointing).
The reason that this film is a masterpiece is its masterful composition. I think I have heard that Kobayashi was a painter. Even if I just made that up, it would fit. The colors are godly. Any frame of the film is a masterful painting. If you are interested in composition and cinematography in film, this is the one to see. If you only care about narrative, read books. Don't watch films. But at least see "Hoichi the Earless" for its composition and story. I suggest buying the Criterion released DVD. It is one of the cheaper DVDs of that company. And you don't have to watch the four stories in succession. If you watch them apart, and they could very easily be watched apart, the boredom factor will fade from existence.
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