Life, art and the supernatural combine in the latest offering from Miike Takashi…
Nearly 200 years old and having been adapted for the screen some 30 times, kabuki play Yotsuya Kaidan is arguably the definitive and most influential Japanese ghost story. Such a history obviously also makes for a great deal of familiarity, and so it’s hard to imagine a better choice for a new version than Miike Takashi, a director as unpredictable as he is prolific, equally known for big budget stately samurai dramas and insane, off the wall gore.
Real life kabuki performer Ichikawa Ebizo, who also starred in Miike’s Hara-kiri: Death of a Samurai, plays Kosuke (or Lemon, as the subtitles refer to him), a lowly actor who lands a top role in a new theatrical version of Yotsuya Kaidan thanks to his more famous girlfriend Miyuki (Shibasaki Kou, 47 Ronin). An ungrateful sort, Kosuke is soon carrying on an illicit dalliance with a younger actress called Riho (Miho Nakanishi), mirroring events in the play. Meanwhile, Miyuki becomes obsessed with her role as the wronged wife Oiwa, and the line between art and life starts to blur, with bloody and horrific results.
Despite a title which makes it sound like a 1980s spooky comedy from Hong Kong, Over Your Dead Body is very much a serious adaptation and a genuine attempt to bring something fresh to Yotsuya Kaidan. While sticking closely to the time-honoured themes of jealousy and revenge, Miike Takashi offers a new angle by playing on the theatricality of the kabuki origins of the tale, switching between the two unfolding stories on and off stage and using its inherent predictability to generate an ominous air of doom. The script by Kikumi Yamagishi (who previously worked with Miike on two different extremes of his career in The Happiness of the Katakuris and Hara-kiri: Death of a Samurai) is a slow-burn affair, offering hints rather than explanations, and it’s a deliberately paced film which requires patience and a basic acceptance of the malevolent supernatural as part of its reality. The film is obtuse and cold in places, with little exploration of its characters or indeed any real attempt to make them sympathetic, and while on the one hand this also ties in with its near-stoic formality in effective fashion, it’s understandable that some viewers might find it frustrating and distant.
As it descends into murder and madness, Over Your Dead Body does feel like a mix of Miike’s classier efforts like 13 Assassins and Hara-kiri and some of his wild gorefests, combining handsome production values and controlled direction with moments of real nastiness. Audition is probably the closest point of comparison in this regard, and even for those not familiar with the story it’s clear that the film is building towards something grotesque. Miike certainly delivers on this score, and after a quiet beginning the film works in some genuinely unpleasant scenes, including a gruesome shower scene involving cutlery – the highly imaginative director again proves himself a master when it comes to knowing exactly which buttons to press to make the audience squirm, and the film is creatively sadistic rather than simply bloody.
To be fair, this might not be enough to make Over Your Dead Body sit too comfortably with Miike Takashi fans looking for something more in his usual over the top style, though as a foray into more traditional and studied Japanese horror it works very well, and is one of his accomplished films of late (admittedly, it’s a little hard to keep track). Unsettling and atmospheric, it’s a film which underlines just how versatile a director Miike is, succeeding in the difficult feat of injecting new life into Yotsuya Kaidan rather than simply repeating what a long line of other adaptations have done before.