“I was dreaming … or was I?”
In The Ghost of Yotsuya, director Nobuo Nakagawa (Jigoku) has crafted the greatest adaptation of the popular Japanese folk tale, Yotsuya Kaiden. The film plays like kabuki theatre dealing with passion, infidelity, and revenge. As in Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies, there’s always a tempter trailing at the protagonist’s heels leading him down the road to self-destruction and there is always the betrayed; an innocent who has given nothing but love and selflessness.
As the story goes, Iemon is a selfish ronin samurai who is not above murdering the father of Oiwa (the woman he desires) to ensure their marriage. A lamp carrier, Naosuke, witnesses the incident and they form an alliance from which they both will benefit. Soon however, Iemon becomes bored with Oiwa and casts longing eyes at Oume, the scion of an affluent noble. Iemon plots to poison Oiwa on the grounds that she had an affair with her masseuse, Takuetsu. This is, of course, a complete fabrication. Iemon brings Takuetsu into his confidence before the event, but slays him anyway as an adulterer when the deed is done (though he never defiled her). All of this is done on the night Iemon is to marry Oume. He cuts the corpses in half, nails them to shutters, and tosses them into the river (with the help of Naosuke). They depart for the ceremony, the fireworks of Ryogoku above them. The ghosts of Oiwa and Takuetsu stalk Iemon and Naosuke throughout the night however, tricking Iemon to kill Oume and her parents with hallucinations. It’s a nightmarish sequence of events. It finally falls to Oiwa’s sister who discovers the truth behind the strange behavior of Iemon and Naosuke.
The lighting of the film is impeccably done and really showcases Nakagawa’s sensibility and ability to infuse an authentic mood. This is a film about atmosphere after all and it plays very much like a Hammer film as would be directed by Hitchcock. The sheer opulence of the cinematography and set design is immaculately conceived. So, it goes without saying that Nakagawa’s direction is completely on-point; he is a director who knows when to engage extravagance and when to allow the writing/mood to take over. His is not an egotistical craft, but one that is purely concerned with telling the story in the most effective manner possible and indeed, this is the most spiritually-accurate film adaptation so far. The film is also a strong representative of the fantasy/horror genre often revisited by Japanese cinema during this period. Nakagawa does present the film very theatrically, but the stagy quality even furthers its fable-like aspirations.
Nakagawa does attempt to humanize Iemon periodically throughout the film, but never does it elevate Iemon beyond the realm of the cowardly and pathetic. He complains about his poverty yet is not above selling Oiwa’s sentimental possessions to pay for gambling debts; he is guilt-ridden after killing Oiwa who’s only given him love and Takuetsu who’s only given him money but enough to accept responsibility for his actions. In this simple folk tale, Nakagawa has constructed a universal theme about the darkness in man’s soul; the selfishness within us all that’s only waiting to arise and overtake us.