I don’t believe in ghosts at all (an unapologetic non-flaw of mine), but I do believe in a good ghost story when it works flawlessly in delivering the spine-chilling stuff that leads to a restless night. That said, Nobuo Nakagawa’s 1959 masterpiece Tōkaidō Yotsuya kaidan (Ghost Story of Yotsuya) is one of the more frightening horror films I’ve ever seen. Given that it’s based on Japan’s most popular ghost story (written as a kabuki play and originally performed in 1825), Nakagawa’s film is memorable on a few fronts, melding its stage origins with the director’s perfectly placed camera as he brings us a tried and true tale of murder and vengeance, Japanese style.
You may initially feel sorry for rōnin Iemon Tamiya (Shigeru Amachi) as he begs for the hand of Iwa (Katsuko Wakasugi), but that feeling will vanish about a minute later after Iemon kills Iwa’s father and retainers and his scheming lackey Naosuke (Shuntarô Emi) disposes of the bodies and comes up with a perfect alibi. He later goes to visit a grieving Iwa, but she and her sister Sode (Noriko Kitazawa) want revenge on the man Iemon claims murdered her father. Of course, this doesn’t happen and instead, a respectable samurai named Yomoshichi (Nakamura Ryozaburo) who had a chance with Iwa is tossed off a waterfall thanks to Iemon and Naosuke wanting the two women for themselves. Clearly, Iemon and Naosuke are right bastards, ladies and gentlemen.
A while later, we see the now unhappily married Iemon and Iwa living in near poverty with their baby son. Iemon makes umbrellas to get by and is still in contact with Naosuke as he schemes to leave Iwa for a new bride, Ume (Ikeuchi Junko), daughter of a wealthy family. Naturally, Iemon needs to be rid of his current wife and Naosuke suggests poison as the way to go. For some reason, the plan is to not only poison Iwa, but to disgrace her reputation by getting a local masseur, Takuetsu (Otomo Jun) to sleep with his wife with the hope of catching them in the act. I guess having a Plan B is important, but not if it’s as wretchedly backwards as this one. Anyway, Iemon slips Iwa the poison and slips out for the evening as Takuetsu pops in to do his part.
Fortunately, he doesn’t have his way with Iwa. Unfortunately, the powerful poison takes effect and the film goes into full-on scare mode from this moment on. Iwa’s face is a ghastly, disfigured mess, her hair starts coming out in clumps and though dying, she manages to terrify the hell out of the masseur before killing him and taking her life along with her son’s, vowing revenge on Iemon and Naosuke. Both men get it but good as Iwa’s ghost preys on the men with genuinely disturbing illusions and straight up “look behind you… boo!” frights made all the more unsettling by some nicely horrific practical effects.
The film is somewhat tame for the first half as violent scenes where Iemon and Naosuke commit their murders are deftly (and bloodlessly) handled with long shots or the camera placed so everything is implied rather than shown. Nakagawa lures you in and saves the gory stuff for the big moment Iwa’s face is revealed and her formerly lovely long hair starts falling off her newly misshapen face. After that, it’s bodies nailed to boards popping up out of a bloody lake, a case of mistaken ghostly identity leading to a murderous outburst and a chilling finale that’s going to leave you leaving a light on if the film has gotten under your skin by that point.
Interestingly enough, while Nakagawa’s influential, essential version is arguably the best version of this classic tale (which has been filmed somewhere around 30 times over a few decades), it’s currently not available on disc outside of a Region 2 PAL format DVD you can find on eBay for around $20 with shipping. Or, you can luck out and happen to see it on TCM like I did. Thankfully, it also popped up soon afterward on TCM On Demand. so guess who watched it twice? Hey, I wanted to be sure it was just as scary the second time and yep, it most certainly was. I may even buy that questionable DVD, but I’m hoping Criterion or some other company steps up to the plate with a Region 1 remaster at some point.