Sunday, September 09, 2007
Movie Review: GHOST STORY OF YOTSUYA
aka TOKAIDO YOTSUYA KAIDEN
Directed by Nobuo Nakagawa
Nobuo Nakagawa's 1959 gothic classic GHOST STORY OF YOTSUYA was the apex of a series of groundbreaking horror films he made for doomed studio Shintoho during the 1950s. Although he would accomplish his ultimate masterpiece a year later with the delirious JIGOKU, GHOST STORY was at the time regarded as the finest work of the 'Japanese Hitchcock' and for damned good reasons. The movie is based on a 19th century piece of Kabuki theater and had already been filmed many times since the silent era but Nakagawa takes this deeply Japanese ghost story and crafts something truly hallucinatory and unsettling, even for those of us unfamiliar with its traditional origins.
A samurai of no social position, egged on by an unscrupulous pal, murders the father of the woman he longs to marry and so begins to weave an insidious web of deceit which ends up trapping him in a loveless marriage with a sick wife and a child he cares nothing for. An accomplished warrior, he impresses a high standing official and his beautiful daughter and so begins to contrive of ways to rid himself of his current missus and latch on to this new, and rich, honey. Or course, more murder is the only answer. Nakagawa stages this drama, at least initially not unlike a theater piece, with the action mostly set on a sound stage and recoding the events with long, almost static takes with few if any close-ups. He builds a tightening grip of karmic retribution with this method and releases the eventual supernatural vengeance in a flood of bewildering phantasmagorical imagery.
The astonishing conclusion generates some genuine shudders as the ghostly apparitions of the doomed samurai’s victims haunt him into a fit of murderous madness. The ghosts are creepy, blood-drenched and horrific, though are essentially passive, different from the aggressive specters of western gothics, but a common trait in Japanese yarns. Trust me, you won’t be unmoved by the uncanny site of the deformed spirit of the samurai’s wife arising out of bubbling blood pool in the middle of a otherwise peaceful pond. GHOST STORY is bizarre and baroque in technique, leaving any vestiges of realism far behind. It creates its own unique version of the universe, hemmed in only by the grotesque fates of the characters depicted. All in all, a marvelous and strange movie that has held up remarkably well over the last nearly 50 years, and is worthy of Criterion-like care for a domestic DVD release. It’s a true classic of world cinema in overdue need of wider recognition.