Kwaidan A Feast for the Eyes and Ears
It's easy to see why Kwaidan won the 1965 Special Jury Prize at Cannes: The film is drop-dead gorgeous, a three-hour orgy of color and form. Criterion's DVD preserves that beauty wonderfully; this is a demonstration-quality DVD with phenomenal color saturation and contrast.
Kwaidan means "ghost story," and the film is, in fact, based on four stories by Lafcadio Hearn: "The Black Hair," "The Woman of the Snow," "Hoichi, the Earless," and "In a Cup of Tea." Hearn was a Greek-Irish folklorist who lived briefly in the US before moving to Japan, where he became a naturalized Japanese citizen and changed his name to Koizumi Yakumo. Kwaidan was also the title of Hearn's 1904 collection of haiku translations and ghost stories.
If Hearn's wish was to assimilate Japanese culture, Kwaidan would seemingly validate his success. The film takes cues from Kabuki and Bunraku (Japanese puppet theater) and tells these ghost stories at a languid pace that some might call interminable. Some critics have pointed out that, because the stories have such vestigial plots, the average Western viewer might as well turn off the subtitles. This might be good advice; even with subtitling enabled, I had many questions about what was happening onscreen. On the other hand, I have that experience with most operas, so I don't necessarily count it as a shortcoming of the film. If, however, you're impatient, or require that movies make literal sense, Kwaidan may not be for you.
Kwidan is a feast for the eyes and, even in mono, for the ears—thanks to an arresting, atmospheric score by Toru Takemitsu. The Criterion transfer is simply gorgeous. Daring videophiles who purchase Kwaidan will be rewarded with a subtle treasure—one filled with scenes that will haunt them for years. Could a ghost story ask for better than that?