The power of the visual medium perhaps the one true universal language, there are ideas and stories which transcend borders, questions which go beyond culture to the basis of human nature and identity, life and death, honour and responsibility, marriage and children, status and ambition, the comfort of belief in religion and an afterlife and the dread of vengeful spirits, all of which are tied together in Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan.

Originally released in Japan in 1965 but radically cut for international distribution yet still receiving an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film even with a full hour absent, Kwaidan (怪談) means quite literally “ghost stories,” adapted from those gathered by the Greek writer Patrick Lafcadio Hearn (Πατρίκιος Λευκάδιος Χερν) who in 1890 travelled to Japan to work as a newspaper correspondent and remained there until his death fourteen years later at the age of fifty-four.

Taking a Japanese wife and raising a family and adopting the name Koizumi Yakumo (小泉 八雲), Hearne collected Japanese legends and ghost stories which he published in several volumes, the most famous being 1903’s Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things which along with 1900’s Shadowings and 1902’s Kottō: Being Japanese Curios, with Sundry Cobwebs provide the basis of the four segments of Kobayashi’s Kwaidan.

Now released on Blu-ray from a 2K restoration of Kobayashi’s original three hour cut of the film, Kwaidan joins Eureka’s prestigious Masters of Cinema range, surreal and ethereal, beautiful and enchanting, alien and yet familiar, the essence of Japanese culture as grasped by an outsider and distilled to its fundamentals, adapted by Yoko Mizuki, a rare woman in the male-dominated Japanese film industry, director Kobayashi and his cinematographer Yoshio Miyajima and composer Toru Takemitsu.

A serpent of shadow and purpose snaking across red robes, the first segment is The Black Hair (黒髪, Kurokami), based on the story Hearn named The Reconciliation, as a Samurai (Rentarō Mikuni) leaves Kyoto for a new master and a new wife, daughter of a nobleman, only to be drawn back years later to find the welcome of his abandoned first wife (Michiyo Aratama) to be a nightmare in the rotting beams and overgrown courtyard of what was once their home.

The wind howls through the branches of the forest in The Woman of the Snow, (雪女, Yukionna) the tale of woodcutter Minokichi (Tatsuya Nakadai) who encounters a spirit in a blizzard which spares his life, allowing him to meet and marry the beautiful Yuki (Keiko Kishi) only for him to forget the promise he made on that night ten years before; a fantastical colour-saturated chiaroscuro with theatrical shifts of light and mood, this was the piece once excised from the international version.

The longest piece, originally placed after the intermission, is the tragedy of Hoichi the Earless 耳無し芳一の話, Miminashi Hōichi no Hanashi), a blind musician (Katsuo Nakamura) whose passionate recitation of The Tale of the Heike, chronicling the Battle of Dan-no-ura where the Minamoto defeated and overthrew the ruling Taira clan, draws the dead from their watery graves to demand he play for the ghost of the Emperor.

Shortest and oddest and told within a frame of a writer who is composing the story, In a Cup of Tea (茶碗の中, Chawan no Naka) sees a swordsman first troubled by then defiantly challenging the ghosts which appear reflected in his cup of tea before returning to the writer in a post-modern twist which informs such later Japanese horror as Ringu and Ju-on where the viewer is as much a part of the story as the characters.

Filmed almost entirely on vast sets built in a disused aircraft hangar at vast expense which almost bankrupted the studio, Kwaidan is unique and astonishing, whole forests blowing in the wind against skies whose swirling colours reflect the scene, a sea-battle recreated on life-size props on an indoor sea, each of the four segments entirely different in tone and style yet part of a consistent whole, the skewed reality of a dream made mesmerisingly real.

Reflecting its justified stature as a classic of world cinema, the new edition of Kwaidan contains an extended video essay from David Cairns and Fiona Watson and an interview with film critic and writer Kim Newman, discussing the themes of the film, the production and the careers of Hearn and Kobayashi, while the limited edition hardbound slipcase also contains a collector’s book with the original stories of Hearn and other archive items.

Kwaidan is available on Blu-ray from Eureka from Monday 27th April