This film has much to teach if you are a student of film or if you enjoy art films. Generally classified as a horror film (unfairly, I think), this classic Japanese movie directed by Masaki Kobayashi should really be classified as a fantasy. It certainly has many fantastical elements as well as a few horrific elements, too, but I doubt this scared many people, even in 1964.
This anthology film is divided into four spooky stories taken from a Japanese novel. It is rather long, clocking in at 2 hours and 44 minutes (shorter than the original 183 minute version), and is made longer by the languid style of the film itself. I suspect many viewers would be quickly bored and turn this film off, dismissing it completely. But for students of film, this movie takes you on a fascinating journey through set decoration, lighting techniques, sound design, cinematography, and acting. It is a tour-de-force of film making technique.
Filmed a good 30 years after the Golden Age of Expressionism, this film uses the same techniques as German classics such as “Nosferatu” (1922) and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919). This is particularly evident in the first two stories, “The Black Hair” and “The Woman of the Snow”. Sets are skewed and angular, as is the actual filming of the stories themselves. Each and every scene is a gorgeous set, the same way that every scene in “Caligari” had an individual set. The use of color and lighting in each scene is absolutely astounding. Color explodes from the screen with the same vibrancy as when Dorothy lands in Oz after her harrowing journey inside a tornado. “Lavish” is the word that comes to mind when viewing the color and sets of this film. A great example is the ever-changing sky in “The Woman of the Snow”. Purples and blues are followed by yellows and oranges, then by various shades of green, but not matter the color of the sky, there is always an all-seeing “eye” that is always waiting and watching along the horizon.
There is very little music; indeed the sound design is quite unique. Many scenes are totally devoid of both music and sound of any kind. For instance, a woman working in the kitchen should make some sort of clatter, but in this magical world, sound is caught in a vacuum and there just isn’t any to be heard. Entire scenes take place where, instead of hearing the normal sounds of life, we hear crashes, beats, wails, and moans. This unsettles us and projects an other-worldly, a fantastical feel to the film. There are a few musical cues, notably in “Hoichi the Earless”, a story about a blind biwa (musician and singer much like would have been found during the European middle ages) who is summoned to sing his stories each night. And in the final section of the film, “In a Cup of Tea”, the director foregoes his rule of silence and does use several musical cues.
The lighting techniques are fabulous. Gorgeous backlights of every color of the rainbow abound, and simple lighting techniques such as switching on a light to illumine a samurai as he realizes his fate, are flawlessly used in many scenes.
I’m not a serious student of film, but I like to think I know enough to appreciate when a filmmaker puts this much effort into a film. It’s not a film for everyone, but if you enjoy studying film technique and how it can be put to use to evoke emotions from the viewers, then this film is for you. If you are expecting action or even large doses of dialogue, you might want to stay away from this one. It is divided into four stories ranging in length from about 30 minutes to 45 minutes, so for those of you that find this too slow and ponderous, you might try viewing each story separately over several days. I think its well worth viewing!
In fact, my only gripe with this DVD is the fact that it is a Criterion DVD—and we all know how expensive Criterion DVD’s are—and there are no special features at all! Criterion usually does a wonderful job, but some of their DVD’s do sometimes have inferior picture quality (such as their original version of “Salo”) or are released with little or no special features. I have no complaints about the picture, but if ever a DVD cries out for special feature treatment, this is it. I’m hoping that someday Criterion will release a 2-disc (or even 3-disc!) version of this film with documentaries on all the aspects of this film that I mentioned in my review—it would be the cheapest film school you could ever hope to attend.