There’s a lot of things I love in life. Good food, good friends, travel, a fine kungfu film, a crappy kungfu film — the list goes on, but few things can make me all warm inside quite like a ghost story. Growing up in the rural South, ghost stories and folklore about haints, beasts, and certain death lurking in the woods were a given, and like many Southerners, I developed a healthy dark streak and affinity for the more macabre side of life — or death. Whichever. I think it probably comes from the fact that the South is a very bloody, death-filled part of America. From the Revolutionary War to the War Between the States, on to the struggle for civil rights, the soil of The South is as rich with the blood of countless Americans as it is with the history of America itself. You have to learn to deal with the dark stuff, and it’s a lot better to deal with it as “a spooky but familiar friend” than some sort of antagonist.
I can recount endless nights spent camped out in the back yard or propped up on the front porch swing swapping yarns with friends about local hook-hand killers, cave dwelling goatmen, and chanting devil worshipers. The spectre of evil was all around us, threatening our every moment of life, and it certainly made things a lot more interesting during slumber parties, though things went too far when our friend Roman’s mom decided to give us a good one by dressing up as an ax murderer and scraping on the basement window while we were all downstairs holding a seance to try to summon the spirit of the recently departed John Belushi.
A ghost story is a universal. The appearance may change, the clothing may be different, but the spirit, if you will, remains a constant. They reflect fears and fascinations that transcend race and geography. You won’t find a single culture on the planet that doesn’t have it’s fair share of spooky stories and tales of the dead come back to haunt the living. Whether you are squatting down by the fire conversing with some remote Amazonian tribe or sprawled on the front porch in the rural south, whether you are sitting cross-legged on the tatami mat of a Japanese living room or sitting at a table on the sidewalk of some narrow, winding Italian street, if talk turns to ghosts, we’re all speaking the same language.
For those not well-versed in the ways of Japan and Japanese films, the trappings of Nobuo Nakagawa’s classic Tokaido Yatsuya Kaidan may seem strange and exotic. Set in medieval Japan, the film is full of samurai and demure kimono-clad ladies, gruff fishermen and haughty nobles. Even in today’s supposedly well-connected global community, it’s a history about which very few Americans know much beyond the most basic and stereotypical of facts. However, even those with a complete and total lack of knowledge regarding the formative years of Japan (you really should brush up on your history though), will instantly recognize the language underlying the Japanese being spoken — and I’m not talking about the English language subtitles.
Tokaido Yatsuya Kaidan is one of the most famous of all horrific Japanese legends. It’s been told and retold countless times via literature, word of mouth, kabuki theater, and of course film. The 1959 version directed by acclaimed master of Japanese horror Nakagawa Nobuo is generally regarded as the best of the movie versions, and with plenty of good reasons. The story itself is simple enough, something that any fan of ghost stories will recognize regardless of the number of samurai with which one may be acquainted. The story opens with a group of jovial nobles out for a late night stroll around town. They are accosted by a young wannabe samurai named Iyemon. Iyemon wants to marry one of the samurai’s daughter, but since our man Iyemon is known as something of a screw-up and all-around crummy bastard, the samurai is less than enthusiastic about welcoming the ne’r-do-well into the family. In a fit of rage, Iyemon attacks the samurai from behind, killing him and his friends.
Aware of the fact that multiple homicides will not do too much to improve the town’s opinion of him, not to mention the fact that it won’t really help him get in good with the woman whose father he just sliced down, Iyemon and his partner in crime, Naosuke, make up a story about being attacked by a well-known local ruffian. Naturally, they valiantly defended everyone, but the gang that set upon them was just too many. His “bravery” ingratiates Iyemon to the slain samurai’s daughter, Oiwa. Iyemon vows to avenge the murder, which wins him even more bonus points and eventually Oiwa’s hand in marriage, which also gives him the social status he so desperately desired.
You can’t keep a slimy samurai clean, of course, and it isn’t long before Iyemon and Naosuke are up to their old treachery again. On a pilgrimage to visit a famous waterfall and pray for justice, Naosuke is endlessly annoyed by the brother of Oiwa and her sister, Osode, to whom Naosuke has taken a shine. Using not-so-subtle threats about exposing Iyemon’s guilt, Naosuke pressures his old “friend” into helping him kill off the brother. Being a despicable couple of guys, they stab him in the back and push him off a cliff while he is kneeling in meditation. Then, of course, they go running back with yet another story about how they were jumped by the same bandits, who were looking to kill them before they could seek out their righteous revenge. The two couples then split up to search for the non-existent bandits, and they wind up not seeing each other for a long time.
Time passes and Oiwa gives birth to Iyemon’s child. Contrary to what you might expect from a murderous, lying samurai, Iyemon proves to be a less than stellar husband, though he remains with Oiwa despite her failing health in order to continue sponging off her status in society, or what little of it remains after she loses most of what her father once possessed. Naosuke, meanwhile, lives life as a hustler, constantly promising Osode that he is spending his days seeking the villains who murdered her father. Until he has avenged that death, she refuses to marry or sleep with him, even when he does that thing where he grabs her and makes ugly kisses faces as she fights him off.
When Iyemon goes out for a stroll one night after gambling much of his wife’s money away, his presence foils some attempted thuggery. Even though Iyemon really didn’t do anything but take his hat off, the criminals bolt and the victims, who turn out to be some local nobles, lavish him with thanks. When he catches sight of the noble’s lovely daughter, he instantly falls for her in the most base and shallow ways. When the noble offers him a reward, Iyemon magnanimously refuses, reciting a speech about honor that Oiwa’s own father lectured him with seconds before getting stabbed in the back. Duly impressed by Iyemon’s spirit, he becomes a welcome guest in the home, while at the same time plotting a way to get out of his life with Oiwa.
A chance meeting with his ol’ murderin’ pal Naosuke results in Iyemon getting the bright idea to murder his wife. He immediately chickens out though, realizing that the ol’ “some bandits jumped us” shtick probably wouldn’t work for him a third time. Naosuke is just bored, however, and if that means he has to come up with something new in order to relieve the monotony of not murdering people all the time then blaming it on bandits who never materialize, well then he’s man enough to devise new schemes for bloodletting.
Naosuke drums up a plan in which he will hook Iyemon up with a special poison that will cause Oiwa to die a horrible death. Since the rumor around town is that Oiwa and her doctor, a portly gent named Takuestu, have been seeing one another on the sly (an untrue rumor, even though Takuetsu is fond of Oiwa), Iyemon can either claim he caught them in the affair and thus exercised his right as a wronged husband to kill his wife, or even better, he can just pin the crime on a jealous Takuetsu and be completely free from involvement. At first, he’s hesitant, but then he thinks about things for a while and realize that yep, murder is the way to go.
Iyemon plays nice for his suffering wife, talking to her like a decent gentleman for once and vowing to her that he will make amends for his less that spotless treatment of her in the past. In a touching display to cap off his tenderness, he then replaces her medicine with the poison that will cause her face to melt and result in an excruciatingly agonizing death. Being the sporting sort of man that he is, he then even arranges for a special visit from Takuetsu so he can be blamed for everything.
After Takuetsu unsuccessfully puts the moves on Oiwa — something Iyemon himself said she would like — Oiwa’s death begins. Her face begins to burn from the inside, as does much of the rest her body. Freaked out by the whole melting face thing, Takuetsu confesses to Oiwa that her husband enlisted him to seduce her, though now he’s not so into it. She surmises that she has been the victim of a horrible plot concocted by her rotten husband, but before she can extract any revenge, the poison runs its course and she dies. Iyemon reappears just in time to accuse Takuetsu, who he then kills. Just as the plan seems to be going perfectly, however, something in Iyemon’s already warped brain seems to snap. He nails the corpses to two wood panels and sets them adrift in a nearby river, expecting the current to carry them far away.
While all this is going on, ol’ Naosuke doesn’t want to not be performing some heinous deed as well, so he finally tracks down the villain he and Iyemon blamed for the murders that started this whole sordid chain of events, and in classic form, stabs him in the back. Her father’s murder now avenged, Osode will consent to marry Naosuke.
So things seem to be going pretty well. Naosuke has Osode, even though she is not wild about the marriage, and Iyemon is now free to chase his latest skirt. Nothing could be finer, at least until the ghost starts showing up. Seems like every time Iyemon tries to lie and relax after a long, hard day of being a jerkwad, there’s the gory disfigured apparition of his slain wife floating around and taunting him.
Naosuke, on the other hand, is out fishing for eels one day when he hooks the hair comb and kimono that had once been worn by Oiwa. Not realizing their nature, he decides to take them home, clean them up, and give them to his wife since nothing will impress a lady quite like giving her a wad of stinky stuff you fished out of the local swamp. Osode immediately recognizes the two items, however, both of which were family heirlooms. Just has her suspicions are being piqued, Oiwa shows up. It’s funny how people never seem to notice the deceased state of a loved one and just go about their business as if their friend isn’t all pale with a green supernatural light shining on them. Oiwa’s arrival is a little much for Naosuke to handle, what with him knowing she’s been murdered and all. He breaks down and confesses everything to Osode, right down to the fateful night Iyemon and he murdered her father. Needless to say, this is even less healthy for their relationship than trying to give her the swamp water-soaked rags of her murdered sister.
Iyemon isn’t faring much better. Now both Oiwa and Takuetsu’s bloody corpses are harassing him. In a fit of hysteria, he slashes out at the ghosts with his sword, which only results in him accidentally killing two innocent people. As if having the horrible decaying remains of your murder victims plaguing you wasn’t enough, Osode soon finds that her brother, previously left for dead, actually survived the attempt on his life. He confirms Naosuke’s confession by saying, “Yeah, they tried to kill me too.” Brother and sister then set off to seek revenge against Iyemon. By this time, of course, Iyemon’s madness is complete. The ghosts refuse to leave him alone. It could be that they are all in his head, and that his latest round of murders just pushed his already fragile mental state over the cliff, but that doesn’t really matter when you’re trying to deal with ghosts causing rooms to fill with bloody water and things like that.
As he stumbles insanely about the courtyard of the temple where he was seeking refuge, he comes face to face with Osode and her brother, both wielding swords and looking to get some justice for their father, Oiwa, and everyone else Iyemon stuck a sword into. Aiding them in their battle are the ghosts, of course, and Iyemon’s treachery is ultimately no match for them.
There is nothing that isn’t predictable about the story. After all, it’s a timeless classic with which everyone is familiar. We know Iyemon is going to murder his wife, and we know her ghost is going to come back for revenge. What makes a film a timeless classic, however, is that you can know every single plot point and still find yourself riveted to the screen. Tokaido Yatsuya Kaidan manages to do just that. It doesn’t matter that you know what’s going to happen, just like it doesn’t matter if you already know some local legend about ghosts. It still sends a chill up your spine every time you hear it. Tokaido Yatsuya Kaidan draws its power from its highly stylish look, deliberate and increasingly frantic pacing, and overwhelmingly eerie atmosphere.
The film is, for starters, stunning to look at. The art direction, use of sets, eerie lighting, and surreal atmosphere were obviously heavy influences on the better known but not necessarily better Kaidan from 1964. Director Nobuo Nakagawa was a big fan of European horror films, and you can sense a lot of what would become the Hammer Studios aesthetic in his film despite the decidedly Japanese trappings. Much like the later Kaidan, you could turn the sound off and simply look at this film, and it would be a wonder to behold.
The seemingly “normal” first half of the film is deceptive. You have your murderous samurai, but that’s nothing out of the ordinary. Well, unless you’re talking modern-day South Bend, Indiana. The minute Oiwa ingests the poison, however, the film spirals off into completely bizarre and chilling territory. Nobuo Nakagawa made a name for himself directing horror films that were, even by today’s standards, shockingly gory. Though this movie is not nearly as bloody and violent as his 1960 masterpiece Jigoku (which featured folks in hell getting sawed in half, nailed in the face with spikes, and other fun hellish past times), it’s definitely an eye-opener for the time. The disfigurement of Oiwa is wonderfully pulled off and genuinely nasty to look at. Likewise, a number of the surreal appearances of her ghost will drop the jaw of even a jaded movie-goer. Nakagawa’s imagination is as genius as it is warped, and I’d put many of the ghost scenes from this movie on par with my favorite ghost story of all time, The Haunting (not the remake, of course).
Everything else about the film is top-notch. The music is effective. The acting is accomplished. There’s a reason this is considered a hallmark in the history of Japanese horror films and why Nobuo Nakagawa is considered one of the great masters, if not the greatest master, of the genre.
Of course, this sort of film isn’t for everyone. Those who get kicks out of visceral gut-punch gore films and have no appreciation for the building of characters and suspense will no doubt be lost during the films lengthy build-up to the frenzy of the final half-hour. Myself, I happen to be a fan of horror films that take time to build suspense, and this one does so wonderfully. You know horrible things are going to happen. It’s just a question of when, and the waiting keeps you on the edge of your seat and, at least if you’re like me, far more enchanted and entertained than a rapid series of fifteen second gore effects.
I’m reminded of a story once told by Alfred Hitchcock when describing his philosophy on telling a good story. Imagine, he said, you have a scene where two men are sitting in a cafe discussing trivial matters. The scene goes on like this for a few minutes, and then suddenly, BOOM! A bomb goes off. The audience is startled, and you get that ten seconds of fright and giddy recovery time. Then it’s over. Now imagine the same scene, only this time the first thing you establish is that there is a bomb underneath one of the men’s seats, and that it will go off in three minutes. Then you continue with the scene same as before, with the men sitting there talking about pointless things. Now, the audience spends the entire three minutes on the edge of their seats, screaming at the screen that there is a bomb under one of the seats! What was a ten-second long shock suddenly becomes three minutes of nail-biting suspense and tension that will drive people crazy.
Tokaido Yatsuya Kaidan, like the classic horror films that inspired it, operates on this level of tension and anticipation of grisly acts to come, and it pays off for your investment of time. It also helps that the minutes leading up to the final acts of retribution are well paced and often exciting. As Iyemon’s nasty deeds pile up, we keep waiting and waiting for the big payoff when the ghosts of the murder victims get their revenge, and when it finally comes, the revenge is sweet. So if you like build-up and tension, if you like horror tales that handle themselves as well-crafted stories rather than a succession of effects and cheap scares, then this is your kind of movie. If you dig the classic horror of the 1930s or the bloodier yet still artfully constructed horror of Hammer Films, then this is your type of movie.
It was definitely my type of movie. I was enraptured through the whole thing, marveling at the surrealistic and highly stylized set pieces, gleefully allowing the anticipation of horror mount until the final big pay-off, which was both eerie, shocking, and worth the wait. Tokaido Yatsuya Kaidan is undeniably a classic of horror, regardless of which side of the ocean it comes from. It’s an ageless, multi-cultural tale of revenge from beyond the grave that can speak to and chill the bones of everyone, regardless of your standing within the ranks of the samurai.