As anyone who’s clutched the arms of his chair during a screening of (the original version of) Ring or felt a tightening of her chest during (the original version of) Pulse can attest, there’s something about Japanese horror movies. It’s not that the stories are so much more sinister than their Western counterparts (although there are an awful lot of vengeful ghosts in the Japanese afterlife, which is a rather disquieting notion), but that there’s something in the Japanese filmmaking tradition that gives the supernatural plenty of room to live and breathe on screen. Where American horror movies generally put the monster in your lap, their Japanese counterparts have a way of making you meet them halfway — drawing you in, piquing your curiousity, expertly suspending your disbelief, and finally, with exquisite timing, sending the coldest shiver down your spine.
J-horror has been in serious vogue for the last eight years or so, but the country didn’t figure this shit out overnight. The tradition goes all the way back to Kinugasa’s A Page of Madness, released in 1926, and maybe even farther. One of the best-known examples of Japanese horror filmmaking is 1964’s Kwaidan, which isn’t grab-your-chair scary but manages to work up a pretty good head of creep anyway. It’s an anthology film based on ghost stories by Lafcadio Hearn, a Western author who took root in Japan in the late 19th Century, and was apparently tailored to make a splash with Western audiences. The first story is about a Samurai who abandons his wife only to come crawling back to her years later, with dire results; the second has to do with a deadly woman who shows up in very bad weather — apparently the very personification of hypothermia — and is definitely not to be fucked with; the third details the sad story of Hoichi, a talented biwa player who is recruited to sing ballads in the middle of the night for the spirits of dead Samurais and loses his ears for his trouble; and the last, especially curious one, deals with a fellow who sees an odd man’s face appear in a cup of tea — for some reason, not sure why, he reminded me of Robert Walker in Strangers on a Train — and comes to regret gulping it down.
Each story is a gorgeously mounted production, with the art direction taking center stage via ornate sets (at one point I felt like I was seeing the inspiration for every PlayStation 2 adventure game ever made) and deliriously expressionistic backgrounds. (Just as a stranger in this film is never an ordinary stranger, a sky is never just a sky.) And if you let yourself slip into the right frame of mind, each segment is nicely creepy in its own way. The main liability here is an overly indulgent pace — the Criterion DVD is over 160 minutes, and the new (NTSC) DVD from London-based Eureka’s Masters of Cinema collection clocks in north of three hours — that makes proceedings soporific as well as occasionally scary.
The extra 20 minutes of material (including a brief sex scene in the second episode) seems to make the new European release a no-brainer, but I’ve got to say that I miss the vivid colors of the older Criterion transfer. Criterion’s picture is quite a bit darker and shadow detail is lacking, but the image is in my eyes more filmlike overall, gives the painted backdrops a chance to blend more smoothly into the image, puts some blood in the faces of characters, and emphasizes the film’s extravagant visual qualities. The new DVD’s colors are frankly bland by comparison. (You can see a side-by-side comparison of three different transfers of this film, including the Criterion, at DVDbeaver.com.) Without having access to a properly timed theatrical release print, it’s hard to say which transfer has the more accurate color — but, for what it’s worth, if I feel like watching this again I may well reach for the Criterion version.