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Review: The Ghost of Yotsuya

Updated on November 17, 2011


3 out of 5 stars

The Japanese have some of the world's most inventive and exotic ghost stories. Without a shared cultural basis for these stories, they appear especially disquieting to Western audiences. This largely adds to the appeal of The Ghost of Yotsuya.

The Ghost of Yotsuya is based on a popular Japanese folk tale, with a basis on an actual murder. The folk tale has been the subject of numerous woodblock prints and ukiyo-e paintings, and was most famously adapted in the kabuki play by Tsuruya Nanboku IV.

The story would have been well-known to Japanese audiences at the time. Knowing the story in advance, the audience would have been watching for subtle twists in the plot and mentally comparing it to other stagings.

In a nutshell, the story is about Iemon, a ronin samurai whose wife, Oiwa, is weak and ailing after giving birth to their child. Iemon falls in love with the granddaughter of his wealthy neighbor. The neighbor gives Iemon some medicine that will purportedly heal his wife, but instead leaves her disfigured and eventually kills her. Iemon also kills Oiwa's sympathetic masseur, Kohei, who is a possible witness. He then nails their bodies to opposite sides of a shutter and throws their bodies in a lake.

Iemon proceeds to marry his neighbor's granddaughter, but his guilty conscience haunts him. At their wedding, he sees Oiwa and decapitates her. But after inspecting her body, he discovers to his horror that he has killed his bride. He then confronts his new grandfather-in-law, but finds Kohei instead. He then decapitates his in-law, thinking he's Kohei. Iemon goes on a killing spree as he sees Oiwa's disfigured face on everybody.

Iemon can't escape Oiwa's vengeance, and retreats to life as a hermit on Mt. Hebiyama (Snake Mountain). Even here he is not safe. When he goes fishing, he pulls out the shutter with the two bodies nailed to it. In the iconic finale, the ropes and vines around Iemon turn into snakes (symbolizing the world of death and revenge), and Oiwa's face confronts him on a lantern. Iemon's brother-in-law finally avenges Oiwa and Kohei at the end.

It is a moralistic story. In a culture where women had virtually no legal repercussions against abusive husbands, The Ghost of Yotsuya warns about the supernatural consequences for cruelty against women.

This 1959 film directed by Nobuo Nakagawa is considered the definitive screen adaptation of the story. The Ghost of Yotsuya is more or less faithful to the legend, although the filmmakers have added some flares of their own. There are minor changes to names and details. Iemon and Oiwa's relationship is also given a bloody back-story, and it takes almost an hour for the movie to get to the heart of the legend. Nakagawa uses vivid colors reminiscent of a woodblock print, which effectively lend a distinct look to the film.

I had a few problems with this film. One was the acting. Japanese acting, even today, tends to be very affected. The style was developed for the kabuki theater, and looks unnatural on screen. I realize this is a cultural difference. It looks like horrible overacting to an American viewer, but if the Japanese think it's good, then it's good. The execution of the story also left something to be desired. Nakagawa seemed to rely more on shocking, gory imagery rather than create a sufficiently creepy atmosphere necessary for a ghost story.

The Ghost of Yotsuya should please die-hard fans of Japanese horror films, and could be seen as a forerunner to Ringu (remade in the U.S. as The Ring) and Ju-on (remade as The Grudge), both of which take cues from the legend of Oiwa.


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