November 06, 2006

THE GHOST OF YOTSUYA (1959) samurai vs ghost story

(1959, Japan, Tokaido - Yotsuya Kaidan)
Region 2 NTSC DVD (from Eclipse)

Wow, 1959, and the little bits of blood and violence in the early Hammer films must have made quite an impression in Japan. All the more shocking for being vividly shown in colour, this old traditional ghost story uses Hammer tactics to breathe new life into to an oft-repeated tale (according to IMDB it's been filmed at least seven times).

A scheming samurai and a low-life apprentice double-cross their partners. The samurai dumps his wife to marry into money. Dumps as in 'kills horribly slowly'. No sooner does he marry again, then the haunting begins. His ex-wife exacts a long and terrible revenge from beyond the grave.

This is certainly more explicitly violent than the fifties Hammers, I'd thought this was made mid-sixties, while watching it. The samurai fights are shown in long-shot, but we see wounds in lingering close-ups. Gorier still is the disfigured ghost Yotsuya, whose face starts to peel off as she dies, a wound that stays with her spirit even after death.

Again and again she appears to the samurai, from every conceivable hiding place, repeatedly sabotaging his life in revenge. The story is in fact quite thin - it develops slowly, despite plenty of action. I suspect the film succeeded mainly as a series of shock moments, the story already being very familiar.

This is a good-looking film, and a good introduction to this classic tale. Director Nobua Nakagawa's version would be hard to beat. After the slow, dastardly set-up over the first half-hour, it's then drama, chaos and death until the surprisingly sudden ending - the film is only 76 minutes long.

Nakagawa seemed to specialise in ghost stories, and must have hit his stride with this one. His previous Lady Vampire was pretty poor, though I understand his budgets were very low. Yotsuya was low-budget too apparently, but like the Hammer films, certainly doesn't look it. The cinematography is lush, colourful and gloriously wide at 2.35. The camerawork is mobile and creative.

The cast is fine, lead by Shigeru Amachi as the haunted samurai. He knows what he wants and stops at nothing, no matter how drastic, to get it. Amachi seemed to be the first choice for leading man by the director, working with him in Lady Vampire, Yotsuya and the highly-regarded vision of hell Jigoku (1960).

This is a period piece from nearly fifty years ago and doesn't really scare or shock any more. But if you want to see what a creepy Japanese equivalent of a Hammer film looks like, this is a very good example.

No extras on this Eclipse series of DVDs, but the films are in very good condition, obviously carefully chosen and restored to represent the best of past Japanese cinema. Very good english subtitles. You can still easily get copies of this DVD from CD Japan.

I've seen another version of Yotsuya, made for Fuji TV, as the first episode in a 2002 series called 100 Tales of Horror (Kaidan Hyaku Shosetsu). It was atmospheric but fairly tame, done more as a period drama. But I will still check out Kinji (Battle Royale) Fukasaku's version, called Crest of Betrayal (1994), and the more famous Illusion of Blood from Shiro Toyoda, made only a few years later in 1965.

Do you want to know more?
Gotterdammerung has the complete plot, a glowing review and lots of screengrabs... Spoilers ahoy!

Weird Wild Realm has a great well-illustrated guide to many other versions of Yotsuya's ghost story.

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