Saturday, August 29, 2009

[Japanese Film Festival] The Ghost Story of Yotsuya (Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan)

Don't Haunt Me When You're Gone

Arguably the most famous Japanese ghost story of all time, there's a certain staged feeling in the way the film got presented, probably because of its Kabuki roots, expanded to include some on location outdoor shoots. Otherwise the story could conveniently unfold on stage for all and sundry, given the limited number of characters involved in a pretty straightforward narrative. In fact, amongst all the films screened during this year's festival, this is the most conventional of the lot.

The main protagonist of the film is an anti-hero with enough reasons for anyone to dislike him from the onset. Iemon Tamiya (Shigeru Amachi) opens the film as a murderer, killing just because he got faced with a "No" answer to his desire of marrying Oiwa (Kazuko Wakasugi), and then cooks up an elaborate story just to gain her trust, which involves more murder and the pining of the blame to a criminal on the loose.

An ambitious man, he continues looking for a way to better his life and status as a lowly samurai, and sees the quickest way is to marry into a rich family by asking for the hand of Oume (Junko Ikeuchi) in marriage. The complication here is of course his wife whom we had seen him go to great lengths to well, win her over, and the only way to gain a shortcut to the higher class, is to bump her off through an accusation of adultery that he sets up with Takuetsu (Jun Otomo).

Directed by Nobuo Nakagawa, the film runs under 80 minutes, and the hauntings well placed only toward the last act where they come quite fast and furious. The bulk of the film gets stuck in setting up how repulsive Iemon is as a person, who will stop at nothing in order to fulfill his desires, never for once hesitating that his grand plan is nothing short of immoral. Being a significant role later, time is also devoted to how virtuous Oiwa is as a wife, bringing to life the mantra of for better or worse, and believing that one day her husband would make it good. Little does she know of course that she doesn't figure in his future plans at all.

Much of the horror comes from Iemon's guilt consciousness in constantly seeing visions of his disfigured wife and friend whom he had sent in the act of seduction. Stylistically the appearance of ghostly apparitions are done in old school fashion with plenty of make-up and lighting effects at play, especially since this is a revenge flick where the guilty gets punished because the spirits come back to settle their unfinished business, being wrongly accused and punished. Iemon is quite the fine swordsman that he is, and his swiftness with the sword would prove to be his downfall as he hacks and slashes at his ghostly visions.

Naturally the fun comes in the haunting of Iemon, but amongst the artistic presentation of the other films in this year's festival, The Ghost of Yotsuya stood out for its simplicity, and turned out to be very much enjoyable.

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