Criterion upgrades their previous DVD edition of Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan to Blu-ray, now delivering the full 183-minute version (whereas the previous DVD was the more common “foreign” 161-minute version). It is again presented in its original aspect ratio of about 2.35:1 on a dual-layer disc. The new transfer was taken from new 2K scans of the original negative and an interpositive, delivered here in 1080p/24hz.
The DVD wasn’t awful in any respect but it was certainly open to improvement and the release improves upon it tenfold. Though a small smattering of shots and sequences can look a little fuzzy and not as sharp as others (looking to be more a condition of the source) this image is far sharper and more filmic in look. The level of detail can be quite staggering at times, particularly in a few close-ups (like the sequence where the priests are writing on poor, poor Hoichi’s body) and in the intricate details of the sets. The transfer also renders the film’s very fine grain structure rather well.
Colours look far better with better saturation and balance. It’s a very colourful film, with some vivid blues and gorgeous reds and oranges, all of which look wonderful here, and you get a good sampling of this right at the beginning of the film and the splashes of ink in the water. Blacks are fairly rich and thankfully shadow detail is strong, with crushing not being too big a concern.
The print has also been cleaned up far more thoroughly in comparison to the old DVD. Though there can be some fading on the edges of the screen and the occasional flicker I don’t recall any blemishes of note popping up. There is some noticeable distortion on the edges of the frame sometimes, but that has more to do with the anamorphic lenses used while filming and nothing to do with the transfer.
In the end it’s a beautiful looking upgrade and the long wait (it was teased at over six years ago) has certainly been worth it. 9/10
All Blu-ray screen captures come from the source disc and have been shrunk from 1920x1080 to 900x506 and slightly compressed to conserve space. While they are not exact representations they should offer a general idea of overall video quality.
I was always surprised that Criterion’s previous DVD was essentially a barebones release, sporting only a handful of trailers. Criterion now gives it a far more deserving special edition. As noted before this edition features the longer 183-minute cut, which was Kobayashi’s preferred version. A feature on here does go over the different cuts of the film but the version that Criterion released before was the more common 161-minute version that ended up being used as the “international” version and has been the one available primarily in North America.
Accompanying the film here is a brand new audio commentary by film scholar Stephen Prince, a nice surprise since Criterion hasn’t been recording many new tracks lately. Though he does go quiet at around the 2-hour mark, picking up again a few minutes later, he packs this 3-hour track full of details and analysis. He talks at length about the style of the film, the use of colour (this being Kobayashi’s first colour film) and the film’s editing and building of mood. He also talks about the stories by Lafcadio Hearn, which were the basis for the segments here, even making comparisons and explaining how Kobayashi embellished on certain aspects of the stories to make them more visual. Prince spends a lot of time talking about the film’s unique sound design, and he even points out the political aspects found within it and how they fit into the time period the film was made. It’s a packed track, Prince keeping it engaging and informative. Well worth listening to.
The remaining supplements are made up of interviews, starting with an excerpt from a 1993 interview between directors Masaki Kobayshi and Mashiro Shinoda. Shinoda first points out how Kobayashi’s style changed between The Human Condition and Kwaidan, where his earlier stuff was far more realistic but then with Harakiri his direction became more stylized while Kwaidan went fully for the surreal, which Kobayashi addresses to an extent. Most of the interview finds the director talking about the financing of the film, though, and how Toho managed the money, basically only giving him enough money to cover each segment at a time, though this ended up leading him to borrow money from others. This all led to it being the most expensive film made in Japan at the time. He also talks about the film’s sound and the issues he had with it, especially when it came to playing it back. It’s a bit short at 15-minutes but a fascinating overview of the production.
Assistant director Kiyoshi Ogasawara then records a new interview. Here he explains his duties (as the fourth assistant director) and explains how Kobayashi worked and how he assembled the film, from picking out the stories to studying art books to get ideas for the visuals, even making his own scrap books (which we get to see here in some photos). He admits it was also a fairly grueling experience since it really was like working on four films at the same time.
Ogasawara also talks in great detail about the various versions of the film and how they came to be. Kobayashi’s finished (and preferred) cut is the longer 183-minute version but he ended up cutting it down to 161-minutes after he found out Cannes had put a restriction on the films being shown in 1965, insisting they be no longer than 120-minutes. He hoped that he could still negotiate in his shorter edit (which cut the intermission and made a number of trims, which were quite heavy on the first two stories) but they still refused. He then made a version just over 2-hours long, which completely cut out the Woman of the Snow story, and that was accepted into the festival. He essentially explains what happened with each version, why the 161-minute cut seemed to have been the most common for decades, and the difficulty in performing a new digital restoration of the longer 183-minute cut (they couldn’t find the original negative for a very long time).
There isn’t a lot of detail about what was different between the various edits, and it would have been great to maybe get some sort of comparison, if only to satisfy the curious. Still, the interview proves to be an invaluable resource. It runs 22-minutes.
Criterion then gets a new interview with English literature scholar Christopher Benfey, who talks about Lafcadio Hearn and his work. He gives a bit of backstory to Hearn, explaining how he ended up coming to move from the States to Japan, where he would take the name Yakumo Koizumi. While there he started picking up on folklore and old tales, finding texts and having them translated. From these he reworked them, adding his own flourishes, and publishing them to make them more accessible to Western audiences, with the side effect that even in Japan his own tales actually started replacing the original ones on which they were based. Benfey even looks at how they were adapted in Kobayashi’s Kwaidan and theorizes on why the director may have selected these stories, figuring it was because they offered some great visual possibilities. He even addresses some criticisms that have come against Hearn in recent years. It runs about 17-minutes.
The disc then closes with three theatrical trailers and then an insert featuring an essay by Geoffrey O’Brien on the film and the stories the segments are based on.
It would have been great to maybe get the original stories in some form, either in text notes or as an included book (O’Brien mentions the stories used total about 37-pages) and I still would have liked some sort of breakdown of the different versions. But, having said that, I think Criterion has put together a well-rounded edition for the film, offering some wonderful scholarly material while also giving details about its production. A nice improvement over the previous DVD’s barebones release. 8/10