There is a tradition in Japan to present ghost stories during the warm summer months. An 18th century kabuki play by Nanboku Tsuruya provided the most popular and durable storyline – that of an ambitious, would-be samurai named Iemon who marries and then murders Iwa, whose ghost returns to wreak revenge on her faithless husband.The story has been filmed numerous times; director Nobuo Nakagawa’s 1959 version THE GHOST STORY OF YOTSUYA (Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan) is, many feel, the best filmed adaptation of this classic Japanese tale.
Though most versions of the tale follow the same basic storyline, there are interesting variations. There were several silent adaptations, now mostly lost, including Daisuke Ito’s silent YOTSUYA GHOST STORY NEW EDITION (Shinpan yotsuya kaidan, Nikkatsu, 1928), which starred Matsumoto Taisuke as Iyemon, & Fushimi Naoe in a double role as Oiwa & Osode. Other silent versions include Inoue Kintarou’s IROHAGANA YOTSUYA KAIDAN (1927), Nakagawa Shirou’s TOKAIDO YOTSUYA KAIDAN (1927), one by film pioneer Shozu Makino from 1912, and over a dozen others. Early talkie versions were done in 1936 by Furumi Takuji and in 1937 by Onoe Eigorou. Keisuke Kinoshita did a two-part political version in 1949 that did its best to eliminate the ghost elements of the tale, making Iemon sympathetic.
Masaki Mori’s 1956 version featured Tomisaburo Wakayama, best known as Itto Ogami from the Lone Wolf and Cub movies. Wakayama starred also in the 1961 version directed by Yasushi Kato known as KAIDAN OIWA NO BUREI (GHOST OF OIWA). The same year as Nakagawa’s color version, Kenji Misumi did a black-and-white version released in the U.S. as THOU SHALT NOT BE JEALOUS, starring Kazuo Hasegawa.
Kazuo Mori, best known for the Zatoichi series, did YATSUYA KAIDAN: OIWA NO BUREI (CURSE OF THE GHOST aka GHOST OF OIWA) in 1969. 1981 brought the release of MASHO NO NATSU: YATSUYA KAIDAN YORI (aka SUMMER DEMON or SUMMER OF EVIL) from Yukio Ninagawa. Kinji Fukasaku (MESSAGE FROM SPACE; BATTLE ROYALE) contributed the notable CREST OF BETRAYAL version in 1994, that actually manages to combine both the Yotsuya ghost story with the tale of the 47 Ronin, two of Japan’s most popular tales.
Nakagawa is considered by many to have been Japan’s first great horror director. In addition to his version of THE GHOST STORY OF YOTSUYA, he also directed SNAKE WOMAN’S CURSE (Kaidan Hebi-Onna, 1968), JIGOKU (”Hell,” 1960), LADY VAMPIRE (Onna Kyuketsuki, 1959), THE GHOST OF KASANE (Kaidan Kasane-ga-fuchi, 1957), BLACK CAT MANSION (Borei Kaibyo Yashiki, 1958), and others.
A few things that distinguish Nakagawa’s version of the tale is that this Shintoho production was the first in color and widescreen. Shigeru Amachi, who also starred in Nakagawa’s famed evocation of Buddhist hell JIGOKU, gives a strong performance as Iemon Tamiya, a drunken, libertine ronin (i.e. a samurai without a lord to serve). At the start of the film, he accosts some nobles and asks one of them, Samon (Shinjiro Asano), for his daughter’s hand in marriage. Samon has a low opinion of the wastrel and turns Iemon down flat, infuriating the ronin so that he takes his sword and kills the entire group as they flee from his rage.
Iemon, realizing that murdering his intended bride’s father will not endear him to her – not to mention how the constabulary is likely to react to multiple homicides – conspires with his partner-in-crime Naosuke (Shuntaro Emi) to lay the blame on a local bandit Usaburo, claiming that they valiantly fought a band of ruffians who got away. Iemon promises Iwa (Kazuko Wakasugi) that he will avenge her father’s murder, securing her hand in marriage and her fortune for himself.
Naosuke becomes attracted to Iwa’s sister Osode, and threatens to expose Iemon if he will not assist in eliminating the sisters’ suspicious brother. When the brother goes to a sacred waterfall to pray for justice, the rogues stab him in the back and push him off the cliff. They return to town with a story about how they were attacked by the same bandits as before, and the pair split up to seek the non-existent bandits.
Iemon and Iwa have a child, but Iemon proves a poor husband, spending most of his nights out drinking, while Iwa begins to suffer from ill health. Iemon gambles most of his wife’s money away, but one night he inadvertently foils a mugging, causing the robbers to flee and the nobles to thank him effulsively, while Iemon instantly falls for the nobleman’s lovely daughter Ume (Junko Ikeuchi). The nobleman offers Iemon a reward, and Iemon ironically responds with the same speech about honor that Samon had given him right before Iemon had murdered him.
Meanwhile, Naosuke is frustrated that Osode refuses to marry or sleep with him until he makes good his promise to avenge her father’s death. When Iemon happens to bump into Naosuke, Naosuke wonders whether he can pull off the murdering bandits gimmick a third time, but resolves that he’ll need another plan. Naosuke comes up with the idea of procuring some poison to kill Iwa to make way for Iemon to marry Ume. Because the portly village massues Takuetsu (Jun Otomo) is constantly coming by to see the ailing Iwa, a rumor has sprung up that the pair are having an affair. Naosuke sees how Iemon can claim to have caught the pair in flagrante to justify the murder of his wife. Dishonorable to the core, Iemon readily agrees to the plan and conspires to make Takuetsu his patsy.
In a telling scene, Iwa cries tears of joy that her husband has started treating her kindly for a change, apparently attempting to see to her happiness rather than being thoroughly selfish all the time. Little does she realize that his thoughtfulness in giving her the medicine she requires is simply a ruse to provide poison in her cup of tea. Takuetsu comes to give her a massage and starts coming on to her because Iemon has suggested that she fancies the doctor: however, Iwa, innocent and loyal to her faithless husband, is shocked by Takuetsu’s behavior.
Then it is Takuetsu’s turn to be shocked as the poison causes the skin on Iwa’s forehead to break out and become discolored, depriving her of her beauty. The shaken Takuetsu confesses that it was Iemon who asked him to seduce her. Realizing the extent of Iemon’s treachery, Iwa vows to kill their infant child rather than leave it to such a father. (Nakagawa doesn’t show this death, but the baby disappears from thenceforth, suggesting that Iwa did indeed carry out her vow).
When Iemon returns, he kills Takuestu for “betraying” him, and then with Naosuke’s help, nails the body of Takuetsu and Iwa to the shutters from his house, and has them carried to the local lake and cast into the water to sink. Naosuke finally sees the bandit that he had earlier blamed the other murders on, and proceeds to stab the bandit in the back so that he can finally marry Osode.
It is at this point that the genre elements now dominate the film. Iemon becomes haunted by visions of his dead wife nailed to the shutter. Naosuke snags Iwa’s comb and kimono with his fishing line and makes the mistake of taking them home to Iwa’s sister, who naturally recognizes these very personal items. When Iwa’s apparition appears in Naosuke’s home, he breaks down and confesses to helping Iemon kill Samon.
Iemon visits Ume’s parents, but when Iwa’s ghost reappears, he strikes out, killing his prospective bride and his prospective father-in-law when his blade passes through the ghost and strikes them instead. Osode finds that her brother wasn’t dead after all, but survived his attack, and the pair team up to get their revenge.
Nakagawa gives the film a very rich look, with beautiful art direction and lighting. Unlike American or European horror films fo the era, however, there is not much attempt to build atmosphere — no creepy sounds, crashing thunderstorms, or howling winds to generate feelings of dread. Instead, the film is briskly paced and presents the supernatural elements rather matter-of-factly. Nonetheless, there is some terrific imagery in the latter part of GHOSTY STORY OF YOTSUYA, particularly the makeup on Iwa and the image of bloody water or bodies floating on shutters in the air.
The narrative very much fits into the Japanese tradition of critiquing corruption and the lack of honor among those most entrusted with upholding the honorable traditions. Iemon is a most thorough villain, as is Naosuke, and we know inevitably they will be paid to pay for their terrible crimes. Nakagawa does a great job of building our suspense in finding just how such vengeance will be extracted.
Nakagawa depicts the ghosts so that they may well be figments of Iemon’s wicked imagination – a sudden appearance of conscience in a hitherto totally immoral character. As in THE GHOST OF KASANE, spirits provoke and enrage Iemon until he takes action that drives him to his own self-destruction. (A few years later, Mario Bava adopted a similar approach in such films as BLACK SABBATH and KILL, BABY, KILL, in which ghostly vengeance is staged so ambiguously that it appears the victims may actually be killing themselves.)
THE GHOST STORY OF YOTSUYA isn’t a film for those with attention-deficient disorder. The characters are solidly portrayed and the psychologies are built up before there is much in the way of a pay-off. However, I must say that I find the conclusion far more satisfying than those endless horror films of the recent past which substitute a few seconds of explicit gore for interesting characterization or a plot worth paying attention to.
THE GHOST STORY OF YOTSUYA (Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan, 1959). Director: Nobuo Nakagawa. Cinematographer: Tadashi Nishimoto. Music: Michiaki Watanabe. Producer: Mitsugu Okura. Cast: Shigeru Amachi, Noriko Kitazawa, Shuntaro Emi, Junko Ikeuchi, Ryozaburo Nakamura, Jun Otomo, Kazuko Wakasugi Writer: Masayoshi Onuki, Yoshihiro Ishikawa.