It's disturbing, but not because it's a ghost story.
We begin with Chiyonosuke Azuma (a samurai) picking a fight with some other samurai in a manner that reminded me of a game that was briefly popular when I was at school. It went as follows. Two boys would be walking towards each other. The natural, non-psychotic thing would be for one of them to step aside so that both could walk past each other. However this game was all about making the other person step aside, so that you'd have won the "victory" of being able to keep walking in a straight line. I remember walking towards a bigger boy, neither of us getting out of the way, so of course as a result I ended up flat on my back.
Boys are really stupid. However at least we're less humiliatingly pathetic and dick-waving than samurai. Chiyonosuke Azuma plays exactly that game. "Get out of my way!" "No, you get out of my way!" A couple of minutes later, everyone's got out their swords and we have about half a dozen fresh corpses. In fairness, though, we're supposed to think Azuma's gone too far, because he's violating a lord's strictures about fighting in the red-light district.
Anyway, Azuma goes home and starts chatting up one of his servants, Hibari Misora. Yes, that Hibari Misora. The mega-star enka singer. She's only twenty here, but she'd already been performing for twelve years by that point. She has those slightly sleepy-looking eyes and that serenity that makes her seem older than her years.
Azuma fancies Misora. He wants her and he's not taking no for an answer. She keeps giving him convincing-sounding reasons, but I wasn't sure whether the character really means what she's saying or whether she's just being Japanese and finding a polite way of turning down her boss without saying "you're a creepy reptile-faced killer with the emotional maturity of a brat throwing a tantrum". We're watching the head of the household badgering one of his servants to accept his advances. He wants something and neither of them seems to think it's marriage. Again, this is disturbing... and it's Misora who's the key to it. We just don't know. We're watching like a hawk, but Misora's performance keeps us wondering.
Then it turns out that Azuma apparently means it. He loves her. When she finally manages to get her refusal through to him, there's a tear on his cheek. Misora notices too. They lie down together. When we next see them, she'll be pressing him to marry her even though everyone knows that a commoner can't marry a lord and indeed that had been one of her reasons for turning him down.
Azuma then finds himself being invited to marry the daughter of another local lord, for political reasons.
This film never stops getting more messed up. It's not trying to be a transgressive Joe Orton farce, mind you. Half of it is the fact that Azuma is way more creepy than he was presumably supposed to be for a 1957 Japanese audience. They'd have thought he was a cock, but I presume they'd have had more sympathy for him than me. After that, the other half is Hibari Misora. She plays the role wholeheartedly, but there's always room for different psychological interpretations of what's going through her head... and they'll all give you the screaming ab-dabs. At what point did she fall in love with Azuma? The big set-piece with the plates will have your heart in your mouth from the moment we're told that to break them will ruin the arranged marriage. (It'll also mean Misora's death, mind you.) Misora treads an agonising line between audience empathy and inscrutability.
It gets worse. "I am happy to die at your hands." She seems to want to be loved, but also killed by the man she loves. Japanese subservience and duty is leading her down some wrong psychological places, or at least that's how it looked to me.
How far are we through at this point? Halfway?
There's seppuku on a lord's orders, albeit offscreen and of a character we haven't met. There's a despairing Azuma who doesn't want to pull a corpse from a well because that would mean taking his love further away from him. (There's a public health issue here, isn't there? That can't be good for the water.) He's decided he made a mistake, but when the ghost comes, he attacks it with a sword.
And then, in the end, Misora sings. I hadn't thought she would. It doesn't look like that kind of film. It's a black-and-white ghost story in the samurai era, not a Cliff Richard musical. Nonetheless there's a death at the end and Hibari Misora sings over it on the soundtrack, which has even more significance than it would otherwise because she's Hibari freaking Misora.
This isn't a particularly well-known film, as far as I can tell. It's a quiet, nasty little story of samurai, ghosts and worrying sexual politics that will mess with your head. Chiyonosuke Azuma is a fascinating character, I think. He's in the tragic hero role and he does appear to be sincere in his love and trying to do his best for Misora, but even for a contemporary audience he'd have been a heavily flawed figure and he's easily twice as bad for me. There's something weaselly and unattractive about him, but he means everything he says and I have a feeling he never lies to Misora. Even he admits to his weakness and his mistakes. Azuma works well in the role, I think, while Misora brings presence and her own kind of star quality to a character that could easily have come across as weak-willed and annoying.
I'm a fan of these 45-minute Japanese films they made in the 1950s, incidentally. They don't feel cut-down or rushed at all. The ones I've watched so far have been great. They feel like any other normal-length film, except for being over and done with in 45 minutes.
I've liked Hibari Misora in everything I've seen her in, but what she brings here is the difference between the film's success and failure. She carries it, almost single-handedly, but in a matter-of-fact, unshowy way that's not drawing attention to itself. I'm sure it wasn't meant to have that effect, but for me, this was one of the most quietly warped ghost stories I can remember.
"I'm feeling very happy now."