Choko IidaThe Ghosts of YotsuyaTomisaburo WakayamaHaruo Tanaka
The Ghosts of Yotsuya (1956)
Medium: film
Year: 1956
Director: Masaki Mori
Original creator: Nanboku Tsuruya
Keywords: The Ghosts of Yotsuya, horror, ghost, samurai, favourite
Country: Japan
Language: Japanese
Actor: Tomisaburo Wakayama, Choko Iida, Shigeru Ogura, Haruo Tanaka
Format: 86 minutes
Website category: Japanese old
Review date: 2 July 2013
Bloody hell, that was evil. It's a let-down when the killer ghosts show up.
It's an adaptation of Yotsuya Kaidan, possibly the most famous Japanese ghost story of all. It started as a kabuki play in 1825 and was immediately a massive hit, forcing the producers to schedule extra performances to meet demand. It's been adapted into more than 30 films, of which obviously I'm most looking forward to Nobuo Nakagawa's. There are TV and anime versions. Even Ringu is paying homage to it. What was special about it, then?
(a) It was a Japanese ghost story about ordinary people instead of being set in mansions and temples.
(b) It borrowed from two sensational real-life murder cases, one involving two servants who had murdered their masters and the other involving a samurai who discovered that his concubine was having an affair with his servant. (He had them nailed to a wooden board and thrown in the Kanda River.)
(c) Its onryo (vengeful ghost) was unusually brutal and had cool special effects.
(d) It's bloody good.
One could draw comparisons with its near-contemporary Frankenstein (anonymous first edition 1818, second edition 1823, first stage adaptation 1826). They're completely different stories, of course, and Mary Shelley's is obviously far more iconic and famous internationally. However Japan in the 1820s was a closed society and there was no chance at all of a kabuki play reaching the outside world.
There's also a story about point (b). Oiwa (the real woman who in this story becomes an onryo) is apparently buried at a temple in Sugamo, in Tokyo. She died on 22 February 1636. Over the years, film and stage productions of Yotsuya Kaidan have reported accidents, injuries and even deaths, so now it's a tradition for the director and cast of any new show to visit her grave and ask for her blessing. This is especially important for the actress playing Oiwa herself.
However that's enough of that. Let's talk about the plot. As you'd expect of something that's been around so long, Yotsuya Kaidan has been changed so often over the years that it might be barely recognisable as the original. Sometimes they even remove the supernatural element. (I approve. They should have done that here, too.) This particular film sidelines Oiwa's sister (who's not a prostitute here), makes the Ito family blameless and has no incest, but instead concentrates almost all the evil in Iemon, his appalling mother and the marriage negotiations.
We begin with a simpering girl called Oume, who's in love with a samurai called Iemon. (We already think she must be shallow, because Iemon's a swaggering boor who runs up debts, lives by sponging and is being blackmailed by a friend of his for something he did two years ago.) We don't know all this yet, though. We just think he's a cock who, as usual, has make-up that makes him look like a drag queen. However Oume's parents want Iemon to wed their daughter and are being encouraged in this by Iemon's mother, who sees this as her chance to marry her son into money.
Unfortunately Iemon already has a wife, Oiwa. What's interesting here is that Iemon genuinely seems to love her. He repeatedly rejects everyone's entreaties, preferring to live in poverty with Oiwa than to discard her and marry Oume instead. He's doing the honourable thing. Unfortunately though he's also the worst kind of chauvinist bully, who reacts to all stress by hurling abuse at Oiwa and justifying what he's eventually going to do by treating her as if she's, um, worse than him. (She's beautiful and a saint, by the way. Among all these obnoxious or disturbing people, she's gentle and normal.) Paradoxically, it wouldn't have been so evil had Iemon simply ditched Oiwa without a second thought, but it's the fact that you can see that he really has feelings for her that makes his eventual behaviour all the more appalling.
Then there's his mum, oddly being played by the adorable Choko Iida. Somehow she's still sort of adorable here, even though her usual huge smile has been painted over with creepy ohaguro and she's playing someone who'd make Lady Macbeth look cuddly.
All this is vile. If you've ever wanted to hate, watch this film.
However eventually the inevitable happens. Ghost time. The onryo gets into the act and... it's just not as good. All that character work had been powerful, compared with which the supernatural is a let-down. It's just the usual Japanese ghost stuff. People go mad. Balls of fire fly through the air. It's not bad at all and we get some decent vengeance, but at the end of the day it's not personal enough. The supernatural stuff isn't as satisfying as all that build-up deserved. Visually there are a few imaginative bits (the Pac-Man paper lantern, the giant phantom, the Addams Family wedding dance), but Masaki Mori lacks the flair to really take this somewhere. (Again, I'm looking forward to Nobuo Nakagawa's version.)
I'm not sure the storyline makes sense. Giving the poison subplot to Choko Iida makes her even more evil, yes, but it's illogical. She had a plan. This wasn't part of it.
As I see other adaptations of this story, by the way, the more impressed I am with how strongly this version plays its character drama. It's not just Yotsuya Kaidan. It's this specific adaptation. The characterisation and the betrayals might not always make sense, but boy, do they hurt. I think the best way to experience this film would be to watch it without knowing the title. Imagine not knowing that ghosts were coming. You'd fill your trousers. This movie isn't perfect, but its first two acts are stone cold brilliant and its conclusion has plenty to like too. I'm fascinated by its Iemon-Oiwa relationship and they find the perfect ending for it, at once laughable and sad.
"Oiwa, forgive me."