I preferred Masaki Mori's version
. I'm a Nobuo Nakagawa fan, but for me the most important thing is character work and in that department there's no comparison. This film, alas, has samurai-like samurai.
It also didn't help that I'd read that this is "often considered the finest screen adaptation of the story", so had expectations that for me weren't fulfilled. Out of the adaptations I've seen so far, it's second in a field of two. It's also quite short. This makes its storytelling lean and efficient, but I don't think it would have hurt to spend more time on making us empathise with the characters. However that said, it is still very good. You'd have to bend over backwards to get something bad out of Yotsuya Kaidan.
Time for a plot recap. Yotsuya Kaidan might be Japan's most famous ghost story (well, pre-Ringu
) and this is just one of its 30+ adaptations in the cinema alone. Iemon (Shigeru Amachi) is a samurai who fancies the beautiful Oiwa (Katsuko Wakasugi), but her father doesn't like him. They have a discussion about this. Bye-bye, daddy. Now there's nothing to stop Iemon marrying Oiwa, but unfortunately there are still a couple of minor problems. The first is that Oiwa wants Iemon to avenge her father's murder. This could be tricky. The other is that they have no money, which is where the plot turns really evil.
This feels like a more straightforward adaptation than Mori's. There's no malevolent mother, with her arguments being given instead to Iemon's friend, Naosuke (Shuntaro Emi). This tidies up the plot and makes Naosuke's role more meaningful. Combining the poison and the lover still doesn't make any sense that I can see, but what the hell. It's traditional.
Obviously the last act is worth watching... but, to be honest, it's not great. I've seen better, both from Nakagawa and from J-horror. The thing is that this is a traditional Japanese ghost story, so it's a million miles away from Ju-on
. You'll be disappointed if you're expecting those. The ghosts don't really do much, really. I'm increasingly convinced that this story is best adapted as purely psychological horror with no supernatural elements, turning the ghosts into Iemon's guilty conscience, although that said I'm curious about the 2006 anime version (as episodes 1-4 of Ayakashi: Samurai Horror Tales). However, that said, Nakagawa does do some things of interest.
Firstly, in a Hammer-influenced move, he's doing his "classical horror adaptation in a historical setting" in colour despite the fact that it's 1959. The gore level is fairly modest, but even today the blood as Oiwa combs her hair is hard to look away from.
Secondly, he's again showing his theatrical roots. This is most obvious in the opening with a curtain and a stage, but the incidental music is also exactly what you'd expect to hear in a stage production. Drums, cymbals... I really liked that.
Thirdly, the ghosts are quite clever in who to appear to and how they manipulate the living.
The most vivid scene is Oiwa's last while she's still alive. That face reveal... yikes. Mori's Oiwa had been so pure and noble that, to be honest, I hadn't quite bought her transformation into a ghost of vengeance. Nakagawa's Oiwa doesn't have that problem. When she curses the man who destroyed her, you'll believe it.
As for the character work, it's good. It's not brilliant. Mori's had been brilliant. Here we don't get quite so close to the characters and we don't have details like Oiwa working in a tea shop to help support her husband (making her less passive and more of a character rather than a plot token). The big problem of course is that Amachi's Iemon is a traditional samurai, i.e. boring and with no personality. Why do people make samurai movies? It's the violent equivalent of watching paint dry. It's hard work to tease out any trace of a human being from behind that macho samurai front. That'll be why it took me twenty minutes for me to start caring about the characters. (Putting up one's wife as collateral for gambling debts at a brothel will do that, as will the evil "what can we pawn?" scene.)
Meanwhile the girls aren't particularly sympathetic, banging on about wanting vengeance for their father and also being a tad snobbish in their attitude to our protagonists' low birth. You understand their feelings and it's necessary build-up for later, but it still means their main defining action as characters (in acts 1-2) is whinging at a man.
I think I had my expectations mis-calibrated. I'd have been more impressed if I'd stumbled across it in a Nakagawa marathon, knowing nothing of Yotsuya Kaidan. It's a fine example of a traditional Japanese ghost story, by a director whose visual style I admire. By all means, don't be afraid to seek it out.