Director Shiro Toyoda’s take on Japan’s most famous ghost story disappoints as one of the master’s weakest works…
Director Shiro Toyoda remains largely unknown in the West until today. Despite of the fact that already Donald Richie singled him out as one of Japan’s seven most talented filmmakers in his legendary standard work, The Japanese film: Arts and Industry (1959), his work is neglected – even by the most devoted fans of Japanese cinema.
Nevertheless, it must be noted that Shiro Toyoda was considered a first-rate director during the 1950s, who rose to fame with his prestigious screen adaptations of Japanese high-brow literature. Like that of many great directors of the 1950s “Golden Age of Japanese Cinema”, Shiro Toyoda’s oeuvre suffered under the steady decline of the Japanese studio system in the 1960s, resulting in him filming fewer works of great importance over the course of the decade.
It’s even more regrettable that with Portrait of Hell (Jigokuhen, 1969) and Illusion of Blood (Yotsuya kaidan, 1965) only two of his minor films were released in the West. At least Portrait of Hell can be named a relatively successful work that manages to transpose the nightmarish atmosphere of Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s short story of the same name to the silver screen.
Illusion of Blood on the other hand can be seen as symptomatic for the career-low of the once celebrated director. It’s another movie version of Japan’s most famous ghost story, Yotsuya kaidan. A clear indication of the financial crisis of the producing studio Toho. Instead of entrusting Toyoda, the highly experienced veteran, with the direction of prestigious literary works, Toho prefered to take the safer route and committed him to direct a remake of this populist subject matter, which had previously already been filmed countless times…
The story unfolds in predictable fashion: The impoverished ronin Iemon Tamiya (Tatsuya Nakadai) lives with his faithful wife Oiwa (Mariko Okada) in a simple dwelling. But then Oume (Mayumi Ozora), the rich daughter of an influential samurai, falls in love with Iemon and sends his wife a tox tincture, disguised as a facial cream, which disfigures her face. Disgusted by her deformed appearance, Iemon tries to dispose of the pitiful Oiwa to be able to marry Oume. Together with the petty crook Naosuke (Kanzaburo Nakamura), he hatches a devilish plan …
Even in 1965 a remake of the Yotsuya kaidan story already possessed a hackneyed character, it’s production values, however, show that Illusion of Blood was certainly not an ordinary company product. With a running time of 109 minutes, the film is one of the longer adaptations of the old ghost story. The soundtrack is composed by star composer Toru Takemitsu and as cameraman acts the excellent Toho cinematographer Hiroshi Murai. Additionally, a star-studded cast proves that Toyoda’s work had been conceived as a prestige production.
Nevertheless, the selection of the subject matter is also a testimony to the unwillingness of Toho to enter new ventures in a time of crisis. In this respect, “Illusion of Blood” turns out to be a rather tedious by-the-numbers adaptation, which handles the action in a routine manner and introduces barely any new plot elements.
Symptomatic of this conventionality is for example the surprise-free depiction of Oiwa. In the “Yotsuya kaidan” films of Kenji Misumi or Keisuke Kinoshita she was the secret heroine of the story. A pitiful woman who excels only in death and torments her tantalizers as a fearsome spirit.
Here the character is rather unremarkable. The beautiful Mariko Okada plays her as a hysterical and weepy woman, who pales in comparison with the furious performance of Tatsuya Nakadai. Her return as a vengeful ghost is powerful, but in the end the character remains too anchored in the common clichés of the suffering wife to make a lasting impression.
This is not necessarily a negative point, after all, the archaic origin material is well known and has been rarely varied. Yet, most famous “Yotsuya kaidan” adaptations of the postwar years were distinguished by their directors, who managed to enliven the material with their unique directorial handwriting or pure visual spectacle.
Shiro Toyoda, however, was not a visual stylist, but a director who put extraordinary emphasis on carefully drawn characters and the performances of his actors. His best films are characterized by a visually restrained style of directing, which gave actors the opportunity to unfold their entire range of emotions in front of the camera.
For the adaptation of an old Kabuki piece as Yotsuya kaidan with its simple figures clearly seperated into good and bad, he seems unsuitable. At least the personality of Naosuke is somewhat expanded. While he remains a nasty villain who supports Iemon with his evil deeds as in most films, at least initially he is given the motive of unrequited love, which form his malicious nature a little bit more well-rounded.
Like that of Oiwa, the main role of the Iemon as well remains anchored in the usual clichés. At most, it is Tatsuya Nakadai’s almost comically excessive wickedness thereof that makes it remarkable. It must have been the fame of the great actor, who also enjoys relative prominence in the Western hemisphere, that led to the release of the film in the West.
With the soulless glance of his eyes and the subtly threatening tone of his voice, he somewhat anitcipates his performance in Kihachi Okamoto’s legendary “Sword of Doom” (Daibosatsu toge, 1966), but does not reach quite the same intensity as in his portrayal of the psychopathic Ryunosuke Tsukue in the latter film. As Tamizo Iyemon he is not much more than a vicious villain, without redeeming features.
As you would expect from a veteran director, Illusion of Blood is at least competently mounted. Toyoda develops his story a little too gentle for the sensational original material, but his image formation is always composed carefully, the atmosphere subtly sinister and the performers, despite of their flat characters, rock solid.
But Illusion of Blood also shows the limits of Toyoda’s style of directing very clearly. When he adapted more complex literature his characteristic unobtrusive style ensured deeply complex characters and career best performances of many actors. Here, this exact style of directing lacks the eerie thrill and visual tour-de-force of the best Yotsuya kaidan films, which is why Illusion of Blood disappoints not only as a film adaptation of the famous kabuki play, but also has to be named one the weakest entries in Toyoda’s impressive ouevre.