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Kwaidan (DVD)

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A twisted path led to the creation of Kwaidan, an unforgettable collection of four ghost stories from director Masaki Kobayashi. A pacifist who saw the worst of WWII from the front, Kobayashi had received acclaim for his sprawling trilogy The Human Condition when he chose to turn to period films, first with Harakiri and then with 1964's mammoth Kwaidan, an adaptation of folktales drawn from Lafcadio Hearn's turn-of-the-century stories. A journalist from America by way of Dublin and Greece, Hearn began covering Asia in the late 19th century. After falling in love with Japan and marrying a Japanese woman, Hearn adopted the name Koisumi Yakumo and began writing about Japanese customs and adapting Japanese folktales to widespread popularity both internationally and in his adopted homeland. Readers particularly admired his ghost stories, paving the way for this large-scale 1964 adaptation. All of which goes a long way toward explaining how Kwaidan happened, but does little to explain its peculiar power: It unfolds like the most beautiful nightmare imaginable. Using stylized sets, bold color schemes, and langorous, lingering direction, Kobayashi weaves supernatural tales both creepy and profound, eerie stories that also explore the relationships between men and women, the subject of justice, and the pull of history. The lattermost of these topics gives shape to Kwaidan's third and most spectacular segment, "Hoichi The Earless," the story of a blind musician so gifted at recounting a centuries-old sea battle that its casualties attempt to abduct him. But just as memorable, in a film without a weak segment, is a sequence originally trimmed from the American theatrical release and restored for home video: "The Woman Of The Snow" is a heartbreaking depiction of the seductiveness of denial that almost incidentally takes the form of a ghost story. A student of Asian art, Kobayashi explores common ground between traditional Japanese visual arts and drama and cinematic expressionism, in the process finding the universal language of myth and dreams in a one-of-a-kind masterpiece.