Kwaidan (1964)

JULY 11, 2012


I’ve never denied that I try to pick movies that are (well) under 90 minutes for HMAD, because there’s just so much I want to do with my day, and longer movies will prevent me from doing those things. But as a result, that means having to put off movies like Kwaidan: revered classics that are supposed to be the sort of movies that I started HMAD to finally see in the first place. So what if a Puppet Master sequel is barely over an hour; I never intended to see that sort of junk.

Still, 163 minutes is pretty daunting, and I had to pack for Comic Con. Luckily, it’s an anthology film with no wraparound or any sort of relation between the tales, so it was actually kind of ideal: watch one story, go eat, watch the 2nd, go pack, watch the 3rd, m, make sure I had packed things I couldn’t replace at a store, like my glasses (which I ended up forgetting!), and then finally watch the 4th entry, some six or seven hours after I began the film. Ideally I’d sit and soak it in all at once, but that just wasn’t possible today (or probably any other day, really) so I apologize.

Part of that was dictated from the fact that I wasn’t overly wowed by the first story, which was about a guy who had a wife, left her for a supposedly better wife, realized he liked the first wife better, and went home to her. There is of course a horror-tinged twist, but it wasn’t particularly interesting to me as a horror OR a drama tale, because I wasn’t able to get a strong enough grasp on any of the characters to really give much of a care as to who ended up with who. And the moral of the story is basically “the grass is always greener”, so it felt a bit of a waste of time.

The second, however, turned out to be my favorite, and I was stunned to learn later that it was actually cut from the film to (heh) make the runtime a bit more digestible for US audiences. Obviously everyone will have their favorites, but to me it was not only the most accessible on a plot level, but also had the most horror appeal, given its tale about a ghostly woman who sucks souls from weary travelers in an isolated, snowy area. After killing one of our two travelers, she opts not to kill the other, seemingly feeling sorry for him, but warns him not to speak of their encounter. Ten years later, he’s happily married with some children, and (drunk, I think) tells his wife about what he saw. The twist is pretty fun, and this one also has a touch of sadness revolving around sandals, of all things (the shot of them being slowly buried by snow really made me sad). In fact, the sort of tragic romance angle was better delivered here than in the first story, even though it didn’t completely revolve around such matters.

The third was the longest, and took some adjusting, as it started off with a lengthy ballad about a war. It went on so long I began to wonder if the entire segment was actually just some abstract, long-form music video, but then the real main character was introduced and it picked up some. He’s a blind singer who was so good at singing about this particular battle that the ghosts of those lost in said battle came back to haunt him, and the rest of it is about his buddies’ attempts to save him. It probably could have used some trimming, but I enjoyed it mainly because it was so strange. I also enjoyed seeing gore by way of 1960s Japan, as one character suffers a pretty nasty head injury.

The final story was quite short, only about 25 minutes, and was a bit of a head-scratcher – I even rewatched it a couple days later (if you notice, this review went up well beyond the day I watched it due to Comic Con) to try to figure out the ending, but failed yet again. If I am understanding, the story is actually about how some stories don’t have endings, and gives an example why? I was really at a loss here, but the main part, with a guy seeing someone’s reflection when he looked into a cup of water, was enjoyably creepy, and eventually led to some fun sword fights against a trio of ghosts (?). It’s just how it wrapped up (or didn’t) that threw me for a loop, and as always, I think it’s best to go out strong rather than hope the good of what came before will be enough.

However I or anyone else felt about this or that story, one thing is certain and undeniable: this is one of the best looking movies I’ve ever seen. The rich, vibrant colors and intentionally surreal lighting were just divine; I don’t know if I’d ever sit and watch the entire movie again on its own, but I may buy the Blu-ray just to leave it on in the background while doing other stuff and just admire whatever bits and pieces of imagery I caught in between. It’s remarkable and yet depressing that the movie is nearly 50 years old and somehow looks better than most of what comes along now, especially for a “horror” film since so many are seemingly shot with the intention of muting as much color as possible while still presenting a definable image.

Criterion didn’t do much of a special edition here; just the trailer and the usual color bars. Even the essay (which I read online) was basically just a detailed plot summary – come on, even Armageddon’s has a must-read analysis that is of real use to anyone doubting its right to be in the collection. Hell, it’s not even the most complete form of the film – apparently there’s a 183 (!) minute version available in Japan (I am assuming this isn't just a frame rate/NTSC to PAL thing; way too tired to do the math). None of the film felt rushed in any way (even the final story – the odd ending doesn’t seem the result of being edited down, just storytelling that’s a bit over my head), so I’m curious what was excised for this version. Good job on the transfer though!

If this ever plays theatrically at your revival house, and you can be patient with the length/slow stories, I highly urge you to check it out. It’s definitely “film school” horror, in that people with no appreciation for cinematography and sets and such won’t have any use for it at all, but those of you who can will find a lot to love here. And three of the four stories are intriguing – 75% is an above average success rate for an anthology, in my book.

What say you?


  1. I'm not shocked that most of your movies are about 90 mins, as most horror films seem to be about 90 mins. For example the only entries into the Nightmare on Elm Street series that aren't under 100 minutes is New Nightmare (at 112 mins).

  2. I know you've seen Tales from the Darkside: The Movie, so I'm sure you realized that the 2nd story in Kwaidan was remade as the 3rd story in Tales.


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