samuraiTakashi ShimuraKo NishimuraMayumi Ogawa
Botan Doro (1968)
Also known as: The Bride from Hades
Medium: film
Year: 1968
Director: Satsuo Yamamoto
Writer: Encho Sanyutei, Yoshikata Yoda
Keywords: Botan Doro, horror, ghost, samurai
Country: Japan
Language: Japanese
Actor: Miyoko Akaza, Kojiro Hongo, Hajime Koshikawa, Ko Nishimura, Mayumi Ogawa, Michiko Otsuka, Takashi Shimura, Atsumi Uda
Format: 89 minutes
Website category: Japanese old
Review date: 24 July 2013
It's the one with human-ghost sex.
It's another classical Japanese ghost story, like Yotsuya Kaidan. Both even have a similar superstition attached, in this case about harm coming to those who play the ghost roles. (In 1919, both actresses playing the ghosts in a stage production died within a week of each other.) However Botan Doro has an even longer and more complicated history and you can't point at any one version and say "that's the original". Here's a quick timeline:
Ming Dynasty China - a story appears in New Tales Under the Lamplight by Qu You (1341-1427), a writer who created a new genre (fantasy with political subtext).
1666 - Japanese author Asai Ryoi adapts some of Qu You's stories for his own book, the massively popular Otogi Boko (Hand Puppets).
1884 - adapted into a rakugo, which these days is a sit-down version of stand-up comedy. (The rakugoka will tell a long story with only a fan and a cloth for props.) This version was fleshed out considerably from Asai Ryoi's, with more subplots and backstory.
1892 - adapted into a kabuki play. Further stage adaptations would be written in 1974 and 1989.
1910 - the first of many film versions. The early ones (1910-1937) are all lost. The one I'm reviewing today is Daiei's in 1968, but there's also a Nikkatsu Roman Porno version (1972), plus others in 1955, 1990, 1998 and probably more.
What's different about Botan Doro is that it has ghost sex. (You can see why Nikkatsu took an interest.) You could compare its ghost to a succubus, although she's not necessarily evil despite the fact that her affections will eventually kill her sexual partners. Sometimes she's just lonely. In other versions, she's being reunited with a former lover.
This particular film starts with Kojiro Hongo being told to marry his late brother's widow. His relatives are scum, i.e. samurai. They think he's bringing shame on the family by teaching poor people to read. Hongo unsurprisingly doesn't have time for any of this nonsense and leaves home, setting up in a little place of his own where he's about to have a visitation. (This story takes place during Obon, a Japanese Buddhist festival to honour the dead.)
The oogie-boogie stuff is excellently done and all the more interesting because the film isn't really trying to scare us with them. Its ghosts are sympathetic. Eerie and potentially lethal, yes, but they're characters rather than monsters. That's probably the best bit of the film, actually. Yotsuya Kaidan's ghosts tend to be that story's weak point, but in Botan Doro they're where the story's strongest. Satsuo Yamamoto uses all kinds of tricks, starting with the simple one of making even still-living women seem spooky and ghost-like. Ohaguro (ewwww), eyes that look like black holes in the face (probably just mascara) and serene, distant expressions that give you the willies. There's a lot you can do with the voice. Talk softly (if at all), perhaps in a slow, high-pitched monotone or alternatively with a tinny echo added in the editing booth. Then finally there's something as simple as movement, such as floating along as if you're gliding from place to place rather than walking. That's obvious, though. Creepier for me was Miyoko Akaza's way of hitting a drum and saying "om". That might sound silly, but just look at her. She's like a mechanical doll.
Those are subtle tricks, all effective. However Yamamoto also has more spectacular ones, e.g. the scene with the Peeping Tom. I stopped and rewound that bit to get a better idea of what the hell I'd just seen. I was also startled by the Noppera-bou moment. (Hallucination?)
There's a subplot with Ko Nishimura and his unpleasant wife that adds a rich layer of greed and selfishness to what might otherwise have been a slightly colourless plot. (Man has sex with ghost. The end.) Nishimura's antics are horrific and the just deserts at the end are satisfying and thoroughly deserved, although I was slightly disappointed not to get any supernatural vengeance.
I hardly understood a word anyone was saying, by the way. Even if you think your Japanese is quite good, don't turn off the subtitles unless you're practically a native speaker. It's samurai language.
The actors are fine. The director was a fervent member of the Japanese Communist Party and has been called "the Red Cecil B. DeMille", making many films that made powerful statements about the state of Japanese society. Or so they say, anyway. This is my first film of his and this isn't political.
I liked this one. It's good. It's a great ghost story and it's got Takashi Shimura in it. It also doesn't really have nudity. (If that's what you're looking for, there are other versions.) Good luck trying to hunt it down, though, since you might find it under Bride from Hell, Haunted Lantern, Ghost Beauty, My Bride is a Ghost, Bride from Hades or Peony Lanterns. I suspect there will be much more variation among Botan Doro adaptations than there is with Yotsuya Kaidan, because the core story is vaguer and there's so much more scope for reinventing the characters. You could given them a hundred different motivations and backstories. This though is a strong, solid adaptation with plenty of good stuff and no missteps. If you're a fan of ghosts, you should like this.