It's a Nikkatsu Roman Porno version of Botan Doro, the Japanese ghost story about sex with the dead. It's wittily directed, but its Shinzaburo is a charisma-free zone and the plot's not particularly coherent.
Firstly, a recap on Botan Doro. It's one of Japan's most famous kaidan, most often translated as Tales of the Peony Lantern, and it reached Japan in the 17th century from a translation of a Chinese ghost story. There have been lots of versions and reintepretations, of course, but they all boil down to a man having sex with a female ghost and eventually being found dead and entwined with the skeleton.
This film appears to be based mostly on San'yutei Encho's 1886 Kaidan Botan Doro novelisation, which was originally published as a weekly newspaper serial. The character names are the same: Shinzaburo, Otsuyu, Tomozo, etc. It has three plot strands:
(a) Otsuyu and her maid Oyone live in the household of Otsuyu's father, Iijima Heizaemon. Otsuyu is extraordinarily beautiful in a porcelain kind of way, but she's also sickly and unworldly. When one day she's shown kindness by a poor young ronin (Shinzaburo), she can't handle it and hurries away abruptly. Then, when Oyone brings him to the house later on, Otsuyu hides in her bed and tries to send him away because she's frightened that he won't like her. She's got the mentality of a child. I laughed at the scene where they're alone together for the first time and she's nervously trying to pour him a drink.
Otsuyu isn't destined to stay long in this world, but that won't stop her keeping her promised assignation with Shinzaburo.
(b) Iijima has a slightly older female servant, Okuni, who makes sexual advances on him in the bath. (Encho's book has Okuni as Iijima's wife, but I'm pretty sure she's a servant here.) Anyway, Iijima isn't responsive, but Okuni isn't deterred and tells him that she's considered herself his, body and soul, for the last three years. That's the last time we have any sympathy for Okuni, who spends the rest of her screen time being a bitch to Otsuyu, having sex in secret with another man and making plans to murder the rest of the household for their money.
(c) Shinzaburo lives next to a lowlife couple, Tomozo and his wife Omine, who'll realise that he's shagging the dead and end up making a financial deal with the spirits. In return for money, they'll remove the Buddhist seals that protect him from further visitations. (This will of course be fatal.)
The good stuff is Setsuko Ogawa as Otsuyu, who's beautiful, ethereal and funny. She didn't have a long career in the movies, but I'm sure that's true of a lot of actresses at the pornier end of the Japanese movie industry in the 1970s. I'm sure a lot of the talent married early, quit the business and didn't look back. The film also looks excellent. The period recreation is spot on, the production values are respectable and almost all of the acting is good. The only person I'm not keen on is Hajime Tanimoto as Shinzaburo and, let's face it, he's playing a samurai. It was practically their job to have no personality. He's dull, but that's samurai for you. Overall, this is a solid, well-acted, well-produced historical drama that also happens to be an atmospheric ghost story. It's not as sinister as Satsuo Yamamoto's 1968 version and it has fewer special effects, but it's still perfectly respectable and does the ghosts pretty well.
It's not even particularly pornographic, with only a few modest boob shots and discreet sex scenes. They'd laugh it off the screen at HBO. If you showed this film to someone today, they'd never guess it was anything to do with porn. They'd just think it was a film.
The stuff I'm less keen on is the story. Okuni's planning to kill Otsuyu, but then Iijima gets there before her and kills his own daughter because he thinks she's sleeping around. This is a bit confusing, because there's a dreamlike snippet before that slips into black-and-white and had me wondering if Okuni had already killed Otsuyu and what we were seeing now was a hallucination or something. I suppose it doesn't really matter, since dead is dead, but the film has a problem with Okuni. It doesn't know what to do with her. Those murderous schemes peter out. The scriptwriter forgets about Okuni because he wants to concentrate on Shinzaburo's necrophilia. She's irrelevant, really. She belongs to an Encho subplot that's been included in a half-hearted way.
Eventually we return to Okuni and her toyboy, but only long enough for them to have a fight about money that ends in swordplay that kills them both. I laughed at the foot-planting to pull out an impaled sword, but after that I was less impressed by Toy Boy slipping and, whoops, accidentally killing himself.
What's more, this happens again with Tomozo and Omine! Once again the man kills the woman in a fight over money, then dies himself. The Tomozo-Omine death scene is mostly better because it's funnier and stars characters who were more important to the story. Omine stuffing her mouth with gold bars to keep them from Tomozo is an extraordinary (and funny) image, after which there's outright horror as Tomozo gets busy with a chisel. That was nasty. However Tomozo's death after that is bizarre. He just falls over, clutching at his throat. Are we supposed to think a ghost's throttling him? We've just seen them walking away!
That was silly. It's also drawing attention to a plot redundancy, in which we have two vaguely evil sexually active couples who make trouble for the main characters and end up getting killed in similar fights with each other. This also dilutes their wickedness. Okuni's a bitch, but then she fades out of the plot. Tomozo and Omine aren't nearly as loathsome as they were in the 1968 version, because they're comedy characters who only agree to sell out Shinzaburo because they're terrified of the ghost that's come into their house and is threatening them.
What makes this version of Botan Doro worth watching, I think, is the characters. I could have asked for them to be slotted into a stronger plot framework, but that doesn't mean there isn't some good work in there. It's feminist, with the women being by far the most important characters and the only man worth a damn being the scummy lowlife comic relief Tomozo. (Iijima doesn't get much screen time and Shinzaburo is a nonentity.) The three-way scenes with Otsuyu, Oyone and Bitch Okuni are memorable, while the Otsuyu-Oyone relationship comes alive convincingly and is sweet. I even like Tomozo and Omine. It's not the actors' fault that they've been given less attention-grabbing roles than they might have had and they do very well as what might call Shakespearean Fools. In a story that's otherwise full of elegant, softly-spoken people associated with the samurai caste, these are entertainingly shameless lowlifes. Their sex scene is earthy, their conversation is ribald and they're adding a lot of energy to the film.
I haven't discussed Chusei Sone yet, though. The film's most imaginative moment, I think, is Setsuko Ogawa's Otsuyu asking, "If I die, can my soul float where it wants?" That could have been haunting, chilling, sad or all kinds of other sombre notes. What you'd never expect is for Chusei Sone to play it for laughs with a hallucination of umbrellas drifting on the wind like dandelion seeds. However there's more where that came from. Sone's having fun. Note also the fuzzy "vaseline on lens" sex scene, the laid-back jazz soundtrack at one point and other directorial flourishes that make this in many ways more interesting than a straight ghost story.
I liked it. It's brisk and directed with life and imagination. However the storytelling is impressionistic, with all kinds of plot points elided or ignored. Who wrote the ghost-repelling seals, for instance? No idea. Nice actors, nice production values and pornographic content so discreet as to be almost invisible to an audience today. Its sexual politics haven't dated either. It's serving its female characters well. It's still watchable and enjoyable today, even to those who cringe at torture porn, rape, misogny or any of the other things that can make Japanese pink films problematic, especially in the 1970s. I preferred Yamamoto's 1968 version, but this one's still pretty decent.