The Ghost of Yotsuya [Tôkaidô Yotsuya Kaidan, 東海道四谷怪談] (1959)
AKA The Ghost Story of Yotsuya
Starring Shigeru Amachi, Noriko Kitazawa, Katsuko Wakasugi, Shuntarô Emi, Ryûzaburô Nakamura, Junko Ikeuchi, Jun Ôtomo, Hiroshi Hayashi, Shinjirô Asano, Arata Shibata, Kikuko Hanaoka
Directed by Nobuo Nakagawa
Expectations: Moderate. Love old Japanese films, not sure what to expect here.
The Ghost of Yotsuya starts off fairly unassumingly. A man pulls back a curtain on a small outdoor stage, revealing an old woman surrounded by three ominous candles, singing a short song about the notion that a woman scorned is one of the greatest horrors. This leads into the film proper where we meet Lemon, a down on his luck samurai hoping to acquire the beautiful Iwa’s hand in marriage. He stops her father while on a nighttime walk and when the father refuses his request, Lemon brutally murders him and his companion, the father of the fiancé to Iwa’s sister Sode. Their servant runs over to Lemon with a plan for how they can avoid any problems the deaths may cause, and with that, the film is off and running.
The Ghost of Yotsuya is based upon one of the most famous Japanese ghost stories, Yotsuya Kaidan, originally written in 1825 as a kabuki play. Part of the magic of the film is watching the descending path into more and more intense situations, so I will try to refrain from directly describing most of the film beyond the opening. This is the first film of director Nobuo Nakagawa that I have seen, and I am floored. His confidence and power behind the camera is incredible. I was nothing but a rag doll under his control, thrown through deep emotions and thrills with his wonderful camerawork and staging of scenes. The opening murder scene was my first clue that he was going to be something special.
The shot begins on a shadowed, dirty image of a ditch. The camera pans up to smoothly track Iwa’s father and his companion walking along the wall; the camera placed parallel to them across the ditch and behind some small, silhouetted trees. When Lemon stops them at the corner, the camera deftly takes a turn to change angles, now framing the two elders on one side of a tree and Lemon kneeling before them on the other side of the silhouetted image. The tree is the line in the sand, and when Iwa’s father deems the conversation over he continues walking, the camera moving around the tree and now framing all the players in one image without breaks. It is here that Lemon crosses that line in the sand and forces his will on Iwa’s father. He will not give in and at the moment Lemon makes the first strike, the camera swings back down the path it came, now tracking Lemon as he deliberately stalks the two men. He slices them both down and their servant slyly hunkers down next to Lemon, stating that while Lemon might be in trouble for this, he’s got a plan. The camera then pans back down to finish on the ditch it started at, but now Iwa’s father lies face down in the mud. That’s all one shot folks, with more power and intensity packed into it than the hundred or so shots that someone like Michael Bay would have used.
This level of quality filmmaking continues on throughout the film, and while Nakagawa does place his camera somewhat far from the actors resulting in an overall theatrical look, The Ghost of Yotsuya is nothing short of excellent. The first half isn’t so much a horror film as it is just a tale of fucked up domestic life. Lemon is an absolute asshole, as the opening suggests, and he will literally stop at nothing to get what he desires in the moment. Once things spiral out of his control, the second half of the film begins and with it comes the amazing, relentless, Gothic horror filmmaking. Nakagawa’s slow camera becomes quick and chaotic, echoing the story beats perfectly. There’s so much insanely great camerawork going on here, I could literally go on for hours. Nakagawa was influenced greatly by the look of the films Hammer was putting out at the time, so it is interesting to see some of their techniques utilized in different ways as I also watch my first Hammer films.
Along with the masterful camerawork, the film’s lighting and music play an integral role in selling the dreadful feeling that permeates the entire film. The final moments are scored with traditional Japanese music that grows in driving intensity with the images on-screen, culminating in a stunning, powerful ending that perfectly caps off the film. The violence is surprisingly graphic and still very effective, over fifty years after release. No US film would have ever gotten away with the stuff they do in this film, and as such it feels like a more recent film than 1959. The violence is nothing compared with later films of course, but given the time, it’s incredible.
The Ghost of Yotsuya is an amazing, haunting, wonderful horror film that fans of the genre should definitely not miss. It is proof that horror films can be artful and grotesque simultaneously. After one film, I’m very much a Nakagawa fan and I absolutely cannot wait to check out his most famous film, Jigoku, next week. His power behind the camera is impressive and effective, resulting in a film that is quickly becoming a new favorite. The film is not currently available on DVD in the US, but Criterion owns the rights so hopefully a release is around the corner. They have made the film available via Hulu Plus though, so if you’re a subscriber, check out this marvelous horror film.
On the other hand, there’s this that I happened upon while searching YouTube unsuccessfully for the trailer.
Come back tomorrow as Horrific October continues with the first color film from Hammer, 1957’s The Curse of Frankenstein! And next Wednesday, I’ll be looking at the film Nakagawa would make following this, Jigoku!