It's a messy, badly structured Japanese ghost story. It ends well, but it's cramming enough plot for two movies into an hour and short-changing most of it.
Fundamentally, this is the story of an evil shop manager, Kinbei. He wants to become the shop's owner, not just its manager, but he's also liable to perform other malicious deeds of only tangential relevance. His plans are threatened by the owner adopting a young married couple (Kiku and Yasujiro) as his heirs, so he persecutes them. He robs. He kills. He does other stuff. There's an early scene of a dissatisfied customer at the shop, which just happens and then is never followed up. This looks like a "what was the point of that?" scene, but in hindsight it seems clear that Kinbei had swindled this customer and is staying out of sight until she's marched off in high dudgeon.
(a) A girl comes into the shop to buy an expensive wedding kimono, but he gives her a cheap one. We don't know this at the time, but we do know that the actor playing Kinbei is glowering in a panto-sinister fashion for no obvious reason as he (gasp) sells someone a kimono.
(b) He beats up Yasujiro and robs him.
(c) He kills Yasujiro's dad, when the latter volunteers to sell a family heirloom to pay back the money Yasujiro lost when he got robbed.
(d) He kills that girl to whom he'd given a shoddy wedding kimono. Its cheapness had been taken by the in-laws as an insult and they'd called off the wedding, thus ruining the girl's life. (Personally I'd be glad to be rid of in-laws that touchy and obnoxious, but I'm not a girl in Edo-era Japan.) She'd been going to commit suicide and curse Kinbei and his shop as a ghost, but then changes her mind on seeing Kinbei and tries to murder him instead.
(e) He sells an innocent girl to a whorehouse.
(f) A few other people get murdered. Don't expect me to keep track of them all.
Kinbei also has a floozy on the side (Naka), who's his Lady Macbeth. They're planning their takeover together. Naka murders the shop owner's wife and replaces her into the owner's bed (not quite in that order), then starts persuading the owner to be a monster on her uncorroborated word and/or after showing him faked letters. They murder someone who's about to repay a debt, because they'd been hoping he'd be unable to pay and thus would have to forfeit his shop.
That's not even everything. There's the killing scene with the old hag, for instance. That was cool and surprisingly gruesome in a "what's playing behind your eyelids" fashion, actually.
Anyway, in a TV mini-series or a three-hour epic, this could have been amazing. Here, though, it feels as if two or three films have been shoved together, without enough time given to any of them. At first, we think the main characters are Kiku and Yasujiro, while Wedding Kimono Girl (Kiku's sister) kimono barely exists as a character.
Oh, we meet her, but in that introductory scene, she doesn't get dialogue. When asked a question, she looks away shyly as an answer. Her grandmother is much more memorable. In fairness, she gets a powerful scene when distraught at the tearing of her kimono at her wedding, even before the in-laws come in to show that she's better off without them. That's strong. Fundamentally, though, this plot thread is an undercooked tragedy that's being sketched rather than properly presented. What's our heroine like? What kind of person is she? I'll be blowed if I know. I don't think she even gets to have a conversation before everything falls apart. Her later transformation into a suicidal banshee is thus not meaningful, because it's not a proper transformation if we've got no idea what she's transforming from.
Most of the film's better than that, but even Kiku and Yasujiro start out looking like protagonists and end up looking like minor supporting characters. Kinbei and Naka are such busy villains that the story has just too much villainy to go around. You turn around for a moment and they've found some new victims.
The shop owner is unconvincing, too. For the first half of the film, he's an avuncular benefactor. We like him. He's nice. Then, as soon as Wedding Kimono Girl puts her curse on the shop, he's suddenly trying to molest Kiku, who I think is his own daughter. (I'd need to rewatch to be certain, but she calls him "father" and he's definitely not her father-in-law.) Hmmm. Hadn't expected that. It's conceivable that that's meant to be the influence of the ghost, but if so, that's even less clear than the meaning of the dissatisfied customer bitch scene at the beginning. Anyway, from this point on, Shop Owner turns into a lech and a gullible idiot who's willing to do appalling things on the say-so of anyone who'll drop her knickers for him. Eventually Kinbei and Naka are openly committing murder in front of him and he's going along with it without a qualm.
Even the spectres are perfunctory. Anyone who dies will come back as a ghost, but in most cases that'll be for a cameo where they return from the afterlife, say a few words and then... um, never appear again. In addition a cat licks a murder victim's blood from the weapon, which is a big deal in Japanese ghost stories. Nothing is done with this. No more cat business.
Not having read the original 19th century story it's adapted from, I'm going to speculate that this is a bad film based on a good story. There are some strong scenes here. Kinbei and Naka are thoroughly evil. I'd be interested in seeing a fuller adaptation. There's nothing wrong with what happens here. It's just that it needs fleshing out, foreshadowing and/or explanation, especially in the case of certain characters (Wedding Kimono Girl, Shop Owner). Even just another half-hour to bring it up to standard feature film length could have made all the difference. The actor playing Kinbei seems a bit of a panto villain at times, but in part I think he's being let down by what he's being asked to do. (Other cast members create more vivid and coherent characters, mind you, e.g. the actress playing Naka.)
All that said, though, there's still plenty to like here. The film does well at the big supernatural set-pieces, which is important since one of those is the entire finale. It ends in a juicy apocalypse. There's also a spooky interlude with Old Hag In Forest.
Incidentally, this film is adapting a story by Encho San'yutei, who was a 19th century Japanese horror writer and comedian. I love that. Awesome combination. Specifically he did rakugo, which is still going strong today and is a bit like stand-up comedy except that you do it sitting seiza-style. Rakugo-ka tell long, complicated stories with only a paper fan and a small cloth as props.
On the face of it, this film might look pretty good. Its individual scenes are often excellent. You also can't fault the body count. It's just that, as a complete story, it's missing connective tissue. Shop Owner's character just doesn't work, while Wedding Kimono Girl is leaving a hole where the central tragedy should be. It'll get you going "hang on" and "does that make sense?" It comes together in the end, as we realise that all along it's been the story of Kinbei and Naka, but overall, I'd call it an example of Mistakes Not To Make In Movie Adaptation.