Produced the same year as Ghost Story of Yotsuya, Kenji Misumi’s excellent, but overlooked version doesn’t have to hide behind the reputation of Nakagawa’s unjustly more famous adaptation…
Lurking in the shadows of Nobuo Nakagawa’s famous film version of Japan’s Yotsuya Kaidan ghost tale, Kenji Misumi’s Ghost of Yotsuya produced the same year is often overlooked. Nevertheless, it must be noted that Kenji MisumiI’s adaptation, in contrast to Nobuo Nakagawa’s film, was conceived as the more elaborate project.
A prestige production with Daiei superstar Kazuo Hasegawa in the lead role. Ultimately it was also Nobuo Nakagawa’s version, not that of Misumi, which had to put a Tokaido in front of the Japanese title Yotsuya Kaidan, probably to avoid confusion with Kenji Misumi’s cinematization hitting the theatres 10 days prior to Nakagawa’s film.
In 1959, Kenji Misumi was already a respected Daiei contract director, but still awaited his big breakthrough, which should follow in the 1960s with films like Buddha (Shaka, 1961) or The Tale of Zatoichi (Zatoichi monogatari, 1962). During the time of shooting Ghost of Yotsuya, he was in process of developing his unique style of filmmaking, which would soon turn him into one the greatest jidaigeki directors of all-times.
But not only the choice of the director seems interesting, it’s the presence of actor Kazuo Hasegawa which elicits the most attaction from the film. Hasegawa was a celebrated idol rather difficult to imagine in the role of the devious character of Iemon Tamiya. Perhaps it is precisely because of this pecularity that Ghost of Yotsuya enjoys a certain reputation among connoisseurs of the genre.
Thus, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, the noted director who became famous in the early 2000s with his iconic kaidan eiga (“ghost film”) Pulse (Kairo, 2001), once singled out Misumi’s version as his personal favourite among the many “Yotsuya Kaidan” adaptations…
The impoverished ronin Iemon Tamiya (Kazuo Hasegawa) doesn’t manage to acquire a position as samurai. Now he has to live in a humble dwelling in Edo with his wife Oiwa (Yasuko Nakada). However, very soon he gains the attention of Ume Ito (Yoko Uraji), the daughter of an influential samurai, who falls in love with Iemon and demands to marry him. Since Iemon doesn’t want to divorce Oiwa, Ume’s family is planning to secretely disfigure Oiwa’s face with the help of the insidious Naosuke (Hideo Takamatsu) in order to force Iemon to abandon his faithful wife.
Ever since the introduction of motion pictures in Japan, ghost films were an integral part of Japan’s popular culture. Traditionally, “Yotsuya Kaidan” adaptations were screened in the heat of summer to literally run a chill down the spine of the sweating audience.<
Surprisingly, Kenji Misumi doesn’t put much emphasis on exciting thrills during the first part of his “Yotsuya Kaidan” adaptation. His story develops slowly and deliberately, while cinematographer Yukimasa Makita, listed as Y.Marika by the imdb for some reason, paints the tale in bright and colourful images.
This first part of the film serves to give the actors enough time to fully explore the potential of their characters, who quickly take considerably more well-rounded features than in many other adaptations of the source material. This is particularly true for the main character of Iemon, played by the great superstar Kazuo Hasegawa.
With his noble facial features and his reputation as a national icon, he seems to be not very suitable for the portrayal of a cunning villain like Iemon. Indeed, his Iemon is no malicious monster, but a naive, ultimately good-hearted ronin forced into the role of the tormentor of his wife against his will.
This unique depiction of the nasty main character of the original play grants the figure of Iemon a rarely seen depth. Here, his conflict with the spirit of his wife is not only the satisfying catharsis, but also possesses a profound tragedy. The revenge of Oiwa may be justified, but seems to be much harder to swallow in the face of this charismatic anti-hero.
Thus, very soon the light-hearted mood of the first part proves itself to be deceptive. Making great use of the technique of blocking, Misumi literally denies the spectator a clear view of the characters and manages to create a subtly unsettling mood, which then explodes in the second part of the film.
When the spirit of Oiwa finally returns to take his revenge, the film attains an extraordinary force. Accompanied by the rattling soundtrack of composer Seiichi Suzuki and the sinister moaning of the bloodstained phantom, the ghost scenes reach great intensity that has lost not much of his effectiveness in the more than 50 years since the release of this film.
Ultimately, however, Misumi’s Yotsuya Kaidan film is much less a story of revenge than it is a powerful appeal for reconciliation. With the appearance of the spirit Iemon embarks on a stony path to absolution. Thus, Ghost of Yotsuya for once doesn’t end with Iemon’s demise, but with a moving gesture of forgiveness.
It is this peculiar approach to the original material that distinguishes the film as one of the best adaptations of the old ghost story. Kinoshita’s 1949 version may have been even more complex, but Misumi’s film certainly doesn’t need stand in the shadows of Nobuo Nakagawa’s famous Ghost Story of Yotsuya (Tokaido Yotsuya kaidan, 1959).
In its setup, Ghost Story of Yotsuya is sometimes too slow and, due to its great number of characters, is certainly not the best introduction to the tale of Yotsuya Kaidan. In his unusually powerful catharsis, however, Misumi’s film exceeds the bulk of the many adaptations with ease. After all, who wouldn’t rely on the judgment of a horror icon like Kiyoshi Kurosawa?