There’s a lot of things I love in life — good food, good friends, travel, a good kungfu film, a bad kungfu film — but few things can make me all warm inside quite like a ghost story. Growing up in the country, ghost stories and folklore about haints, beasts, and certain death lurking in the woods were a given, and like many kids, I developed a healthy dark streak and affinity for the more macabre side of life…or death. Whichever. 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 specter 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 we held 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 its fair share of spooky stories and tales of the dead come back to haunt the living. Whether you are sitting down by the fire conversing with some remote Amazonian tribe or sprawled on the front porch in rural Kentucky, 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.
Ghost of Yotsuya (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 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 is something that any fan of ghost stories will recognize regardless of the number of samurai with which one may be acquainted. It 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 (Shigeru Amachi). Iyemon wants to marry one of the samurai’s daughter, but since Iyemon is something of a screw-up and all-around 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 (Shuntarô Emi), 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 (Katsuko Wakasugi). 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 (Noriko Kitazawa), 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 the brother 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 duo then splits up to search for the non-existent bandits, and they wind up not seeing each other for a long time. Oiwa gives birth to Iyemon’s child. Contrary to what you might expect from a murderous, lying samurai, Iyemon proves to be a terrible 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 bored, however, and if that means he has to come up with a new cover story in order to relieve the monotony of not murdering people, well then he’s man enough to devise new schemes for bloodletting. He gifts Iyemon 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-than-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 the doctor can be blamed for everything. After Takuetsu unsuccessfully puts the moves on Oiwa — at the suggestion of Iyemon — Oiwa’s death by poison 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 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 tracks down the villain he and Iyemon blamed for the murders that started this whole sordid chain of events, and stabs him in the back. Classic Naosuke! 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 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 an asshole, there’s the gory disfigured apparition of his slain wife floating around and taunting him.
Naosuke, meanwhile, is fishing one day when he hooks the hair comb and kimono that had once been worn by Oiwa. Not realizing their origin, 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 recognizes the two items, however, both of which were family heirlooms. Just as 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 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. 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.
There is nothing that isn’t predictable about the story. After all, it’s a timeless classic, and even those unfamiliar witht he Japanese story are probably familiar with a similar story from somewhere else. 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 plot point and still find yourself riveted to the screen. Ghost of Yotsuya 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. Ghost of Yotsuya draws its power from its highly stylish look, deliberate and increasingly frantic pacing, and overwhelmingly eerie atmosphere. Director Nobuo Nakagawa was a big fan of European horror films, and you can sense a lot of what would become the Hammer aesthetic in his film despite the 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 bizarre and chilling territory. Nobuo Nakagawa made a name for himself directing horror films that were 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 pastimes), it’s definitely an eye-opener. The disfigurement of Oiwa is 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.
Ghost of Yotsuya, like the classic horror films that inspired it, builds tension and anticipation of grisly acts to come, and it pays off. As Iyemon’s nasty deeds pile up, we keep waiting for the big payoff when the ghosts of the murder victims get their revenge, gleefully allowing the anticipation of horror mount until the final big pay-off, which was both eerie, shocking, and well worth the wait.