Nobuo Nakagawa’s legendary 1959 adaptation of Japan’s most famous ghost story still manages to haunt the viewer with its surreal imagery and gritty violence…
Today, director Nobuo Nakagawa is often refered to as “The Father of the Japanese Horror Film”. His kaidan eiga (“ghost films”), which he directed in the 1950s for the Shintoho film studios belong to the most famous specimens of their genre. However, it would be wrong to call Nobuo Nagawa a mere horror director.
On the contrary, Nakagawa was a contract director in the best sense of the word, who could adapt himself to every genre, from sensationalist gangster films up to lightweight musicals. His oeuvre includes 98 films, but even back then only his comparatively few kaidan eiga received attention in the West.
Many years before H. G. Lewis made his “legendary” schlockfest Blood Feast (1963), Nakagawa’s ghost films already offered more grotesquely mutilated bodies and fake blood than the the stomach of the average critic could endure. This led to the films initial dismissal in the West and decades later, ironically, to their rediscovery as part of the program of European and American film festivals.
Besides of Nakagawa’s epic pictorialization of infernal punishment, Jigoku (1961), his screen adaptation of the popular Yotsuya Kaidan ghost story is now considered to be his most famous work. Based on the often filmed kabuki play by Nanboku Tsuruya from 1825, he created a nightmarish world of images that, not entirely unjustified, gave the films its status as the best reworking of the old ghost story.
The ronin Iemon Tamiya (Shigeru Amachi) wants to marry the beautiful maiden Oiwa (Kazuko Wakasugi). When her father refuses to give his approval, he kills him. The sole witness of the murder, Naosuke (Shuntaro Emi), helps Iemon to cover up the horrible deed. Under the pretense of wanting to avenge her father, Iemon finally is able to wed Oiwa. Meanwhile, Naosuke falls in love with Oiwa’s sister Sode (Noriko Kitazawa) and demans Iemon’s support for eliminating her boy friend. Years later Iemon and Oiwa live together in a humble dwelling in Edo. Suddenly, Iemon receives the offer to marry the rich samurai daughter Ume (Junko Ikeuchi). Together with Naosuke and Ume’s family he concocts a devilish plan to dispose of his poor wife Oiwa…
Despite its tremendous reputation, Nakagawa’s Ghost Story of Yotsuya belongs to the more routine Yotsuya Kaidan adaptations. Less powerful than Kenji Misumi’s cinematization, released the same year, and not nearly as emotionally nuanced as Keisuke Kinoshita’s masterful two-part 1949 version, Ghost Story of Yotsuya is primarily a film of visual excess.
The image composition with its carefully constructed long shots and long tracking shots approaches the look of traditional scroll paintings of ukiyo-e artists such as Hokusai. Muted colors, sombre browns and greens, dominate the sets of the film. These stylized scenarios are then seamlessly merged into the surreal iconoclasm of a nightmare soon to be freezing the blood in the characters veins.
Thus, Nakagawa creates a profoundly unsettling mood that still puts the viewer under its spell, even after more than 50 years. Highlights are of course the ghastly appearances of the ghosts. Here it is not only the dreadfully disfigured figure of Oiwa, but also the ghost of the blind masseur Takuetsu, unwittingly drawn into the cruel scheme of the protagonists, who is driving his tormentors to insanity.
As in many adaptations of the story, the ghost’s appearance can be interpreted as the psychological manifestation of Iemon Tamiya’s guilt. It is their malign presence alone that leads Iemon into his certain demise. His sword may strike at them, but always finds its way only into the body of those that are part of the revenge of the hate-filled undead.
Narratively, Ghost Story of Yotsuya remains firmly rooted in the common portrayal of the story’s characters, at most it is the extreme wickedness of the nasty schemer Iemon that stands out. This hapless central character is played by Shigeru Amachi, a great star of Shintoho’s sensationalist crime films.
His Iemon is a stone-cold beau, full of poisoned charm, whose opportunistic pursuit of social advancement makes him commit deeds that do not shrink from murder and cruelness. Seldom was a Tamiya so hateful, rarely was his descent into madness so well-earned.
Ultimately, Ghost Story of Yotsuya adds barely any new facets to the old material. Nonetheless, it is the screen adaptation, whose style most perfectly parades the potential for shock and horror of the original play. The film versions of Misumi and Kinoshita may have been more complex, but never, before or after, had the ghost scenes been so eerie, the atmosphere so gloomy and the surreal horror imagery so impressive as in Nobuo Nakagawa’s film.