Drama, Films, Historical / Period, Horror, Japan, Recommended posts, Reviews

Ghost of Oiwa

Master director Tai Kato gives an early taste of his unique style in this “Yotsuya Kaidan” adaptation…

Compared with other film studios, especially Shintoho, Toei produced only a few “Yotsuya Kaidan” adaptations in the 1950s. Toei specialized in light-weight jidaigeki that allowed the audience some escapism into a world of colorful costumes, trivial plots and romance.

Adaptations of eerie ghost stories such as “Yotsuya Kaidan” thus appeared to be feasible unsuitable material for a production company that had committed itself to the light entertainment film for the whole family. Only towards the beginning of the 1960s, when viewers hungered for more sensationalistic material, Toei’s first remarkable ghost films emerged.

One of them was Ghost of Oiwa whose Japanese title, Kaidan Oiwa no Borei, reveals itself to be a rather faithful adaptation of the old ghost story that mainly arouses interest because of its director: Tai Kato, an eccentric Toei contract director giving an early taste of his later so idiosyncratic directorial style.

After he killed an innocent man, the ronin Iemon Tamiya (Tomisaburo Wakayama) has to leave his wife Oiwa (Yoshiko Fujishiro) at the behest of her angry father. Meanwhile, the nasty Naosuke (Jushiro Konoe) has fallen in love with Oiwa’s sister Sode (Hiroko Sakuramachi), who works in a brothel. Finally, Naosuke and Iemon ally and together kill not only Oiwa’s father, but also Osodes fiancé, Yoshimichi (Sentaro Fushimi). By pretending to avenge the victims, Naosuke can win the desperate Osode for himself, while Iemon returns to his Oiwa. However, he soon grows tired of his faithful wife. Together with Naosuke he plans to eliminate Oiwa in order to be able to marry into the influential family of samurai daughter Ume Ito.

Ghost of Oiwa is the perfect example of a film adaptation which may be a hackneyed retelling of a well-known source material, but convinces due to its fascinating directorial style. Director Tai Kato structures the story a little bit differently, yet remains firmly rooted in the common narrative patterns and roll clichés of the Kabuki play.

Not even the actor of Iemon Tamiya is new. After already playing the role in 1956, Tomisaburo Wakayama reprises the part of the nasty antihero. Back then he was a young inexperienced actor, now he has matured into a seasoned character actor, whose presence almost seems as enormous as is his imposing stature.

With his brutish looks, Wakayama was always a rather unusual choice for the role of Iemon Tamiya, who’s most often portrayed as devilish pretty boy, but Wakayama convinces as tragic psychopath whose nefarious deeds are at least somewhat mitigated by his constantly flashing shades of remorse.

The biggest surprise is the casting of chambara star Jushiro Konoe (Duel of Blood and Sand) in the role of Naosuke. Traditionally, the figure of Naosuke is portrayed as meakish and being of rather skinny stature, not a strongly-built giant as Konoe, but a treacherous manipulator. And indeed, Konoe’s Naosuke is also a conniving schemer, albeit a bit louder and coarser than other incarnations of the role.

Much more interesting than the routine plot, however, remains Tai Kato’s direction. In 1962, the director had acquired his artistic breakthrough with the Kinnosuke Nakamura vehicle In Search of Mother (Mabuta no haha, 1962), here he seems to be further developing his newly-found directorial handwriting.

As very few directors, Tai Kato has a natural understanding of the three-dimensionality of space. By meticulously using the technique of “blocking”, Kato creates a multi-layered image in which actions take place both in the front and background of the frame, serving for example to create atmosphere or to mediate the words of a character and the response of the listener to the audience at the same time.

Also present, albeit significantly less excessive than in later Tai Kato films, is the preference of the director for long shots filmed from an unusually low camera angle. For example, the murder of Oiwa’s father is filmed in just one single shot from the distance.

Most effective, however, is Tai Kato’s refusal to use excessive makeup. This gives Kato’s medieval recreation additional credibility while also granting considerably more expressiveness to the unmistakable character heads of actors such as Atsushi Watanabe or Sonosuke Sawamura.

Ultimately, this film is hardly more than a style sample of a great director. Later, Tai Kato’s films combined his precisely constructed imagery with gripping and intelligent plots. Ghost of Oiwa on the other hand, is undoubtedly intriguingly staged, compared to other adaptations of Japan’s most famous ghost story, however, it’s not necessarily very remarkable.

Tai Kato’s Ghost of Owia concludes our series on Yotsuya Kaidan adaptations; catch Pablo’s regular column on the first and third Friday of every month.

About the author

Pablo KnotePablo Knote Pablo Knote
A film critic and researcher on Japanese film. Founder of www.nippon-kino.net, Germany's largest website solely dedicated to the classic Japanese cinema... More »
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