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Saturday, 15 November 2008

The Ghost of Yotsuya (1959)

Director: Nobuo Nakagawa
Stars: Shigeru Amachi, Noriko Kitazawa and Katsuko Wakasugi

Now here's a film that bridges eras! Made in 1959 in full colour, it begins as a samurai film but turns into the most obvious precursor of J-Horror I've ever seen. There's no technology to fear and no lesbian schoolgirls, but there's everything else. We open in Bizen, Okayama where Iemon Tamiya is lying in wait for Yotsuya Samon. They're both samurai but of very different classes: Samon looks down on the young man with contempt as 'a libertine' and 'an uncouth ronin'. That doesn't bode well for Tamiya who wants his daughter Iwa's hand in marriage, and so as it's patently obvious that approval is never going to be granted, he kills Samon and his companion.

Also present is his crony Naouseke, who wants Iwa's sister Sode for his own, and step one to that end is the death of the father of Sode's fiance Yomoshichi Hikobei, who just happens to be Samon's companionon this fateful night. Sure enough, Yomoshichi himself soon follows, ironically being murdered by Iemon and Naouseke at the Shiraito Falls, a shrine dedicated to revenge. Iwa and Sode have persuaded them to come here to pray for revenge for the death of their father, which Iemon and Naouseke have blamed on a noted villain, Usaburo, who has a memorable sword slash across his face.

Things progress down the invitable path for such a dishonourable pair. Two years later in Edo, Naouseke has Sode and Iemon has both Iwa and their baby son, yet everyone is broke and dissatisfied. The pair do work on occasion for a rich man called Ito but promptly gamble away the profits, so with nothing left to pawn they attempt something a little more audacious, hatching a plot for Iemon to marry It's daughter Ume. Of course this means that they have to kill off Iwa and this is we kick into definite horror territory. This film shouldn't be called The Ghost of Yotsuya, it should really be The Ghost of Iwa, as discovering the plot too late to avoid her own death, she comes back to haunt Iemon and she doesn't quit.

Early for a graphic horror film, this is occasionally clumsy, such as in how the happy ending is set up; and some of the gore is far from convincing, such as a severed arm, unfortunately one of the first gore effects in the film, but it picks up with a vengeance. In solid Japanese tradition, what we get isn't just horrific but genuinely creepy too, though of course what may be creepiest is that it's so unexpected for a 1959 Japanese ghost story. I was expecting something far similar to The Black Cat: a black and white period piece, slow but sure in pacing and subtle in its horror. Amazingly that came nine years later, but feels far more traditional.

This one has less staginess and nods to kabuki theatre, though the early scenes seem very ritual and lead actor Shigeru Amachi looks like he belongs on stage, but it has just as much of a deliberate and stylish use of lighting, sound and wind. Here that shocks not just in its intended effect but in demonstrating to us that what look like outdoor scenes are amazingly actually indoor sets. One in particular has Iemon raging insanely through haunting experience at the river bank where he dumped the bodies of his wife and the merchant he sets up as her lover. It's powerful in itself with the fading of light, waves of wind and the river of blood, but it also stunned me that it must have been a set.

I liked this so much I left it on my DVR to watch again later with my better half here to enjoy too. There are a few bits I want to get a clearer picture on, as I was a little confused at a couple of points. I also want to watch the first half again with knowledge of how the second half unfolds: this feels like the most obvious film of two distinct halves I've seen since From Dusk Till Dawn. And I want to see again the corpses nailed to shutters, the bucket full of snakes, the Japanese fondness for ghosts to defy gravity... among other highly memorable horror scenes. The second half of The Ghost of Yotsuya blindsided me. Let's see how well it works second time round.

I should mention the names involved, but I didn't recognise any of them. The director is Nobuo Nakagawa, who seems to be something of an inspiration to leading J-Horror filmmakers like Hideo Nakata of Ringu and Dark Water fame. Having seen this I'm not surprised, but I'll have to watch the other many ghost stories from his repertoire, not just the ones I've heard of, such as The Lady Vampire and Jigoku (both of which also star Shigeru Amachi) but others completely new to me like The Ghosts of Kasane and Black Cat Mansion. I'd seen Amachi before, in Zatoichi films, but didn't know his name. He seems to be a regular Nakagawa collaborator, as do many of the rest of the cast. Kazuko Wakasugi and Noriko Kitazawa, who play Iwa and Sode, made five films each for him, notable given that they only have nine and ten films respectively to their names.

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