GHOST STORY OF YOTSUYA
This version is from Shintoho, a Japanese production company of the 1950s who specialised primarily in lurid crime thrillers. There had been a great interest in period ghost stories following the international acclaim of Ugetsu Monogatari (1953) and Shintoho quickly jumped aboard this turning out a series of traditional kaidan eiga (Japanese ghost story films). One of Shintohos primary directors was Nobuo Nakagawa who made other horror films such as The Vampire Moth (1956), The Ghosts of Kasane Swamp (1957), Black Cat Mansion (1958), M.P. and the Ghost (1958) and Jigoku (1960).
It is interesting seeing Ghost Story of Yotsuya on the big screen (at a retrospective of Shintoho films at Vancouvers Pacific Cinematheque). Alas, what we get is a digital print and one suspects that this is not the best means to watch it, as the digital projection tends to blur the richness of the colours. The film also has the problem in that it was originally shot for widescreen in Eastmancolor. You get the impression that Nobuo Nakagawa was not a director who had had much experience with widescreen. It is a film that you expect would get a good deal more effect out of being shot in black-and-white like one of Akira Kurosawas neo-realist classics from earlier in the decade. The latter scenes are dependent on intimacy and tension, which is not something best suited to widescreen shooting. Although some plot aspects have been dropped, the film keeps closely to the play you can almost see when the scene changes occur and Nakagawas efforts to open the film up and take it outdoors feel awkward. He gives the impression of a director who is far more used to shooting on soundstages the backgrounds during the journey through the countryside and the venture to the falls feel as though you keep expecting them to be painted cycloramas.
Ghost Story of Yotsuya is very different to the type of kaidan eiga we have come to expect of modern Japanese horror post Ring (1998). The modern Japanese ghost story, in particular works like Ju-on: The Grudge (2003), is dependent on a constant series of eerie intrusions, jumps and pop-up shocks. By contrast, Ghost Story of Yotsuya is based on a play. Plays dont have such an easy opportunity for making audiences jump via editing, lighting schemes and so on that films do and are far more story and actor driven. Thus fully three-quarters of the film here plays out as a mundane historical character drama centred around the samurai, his becoming wound into various murder schemes, before making the decision to kill his wife, and it is only towards the very end that the supernatural element emerges. As a character driven piece, it becomes very much a work of economic horror about how circumstances force a man of honour to extremes.
In these latter scenes, Nobuo Nakagawa, despite being a somewhat pedestrian director, does make the film work. The scenes on the wedding night where the ghosts appear and cause Iemon to eliminate his wife and father-in-law are well achieved. Although the spookiest moments are not in fact the appearances of the ghosts but rather the bared tension of Iemons complicities and in particular the scenes where Jun Otomo comes to Katsuko Wakasugi and her face becomes disfigured due to the poison. When her mutilated face is finally shown, this holds an undeniable shock. The entire scene works, as does the subsequent supernatural retribution scene, because the film has taken the time to build its story and lead toward the consequences with grim effect.