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Yotsuya Ghost Story, Parts 1 and 2 (1949)
Director: Keisuke Kinoshita

review by Amy Harlib

A rare treat shown at Japan Society of New York's cinematic series: 'The History of Japanese Horror Films' (1 December 2003 to 24 February 2004), was a fascinating and gripping Edo period piece. Set in the late 18th or early 19th centuries, Yotsuya Ghost Story, Parts 1 and 2, helmed by prolific veteran Keisuke Kinoshita, offered a decidedly character-driven take on an exceedingly popular, classic ghost story which has been filmed in myriad versions all based on the original kabuki theatre hit from the early 1800s. This 1949 incarnation, a drama with no martial arts, the oldest feature among the other programme items screened, stands out for its quality production values, fine performances and atmospheric score.

The plot concerns a ronin (unemployed samurai) named Tamiya Iemon (Uehara Ken), who married against his family's wishes to his youthful flame, a former waitress called Oiwa (Tanaka Kinuyo) - self-conscious and sensitive about her lower-class background being a source of social stigma for her higher status husband. Oiwa yearns for a child but a miscarriage and her subsequent weakness and inability to carry on the small-time, umbrella-making business that supported herself and her mate, makes her feel more of a burden on him than ever.

One of Iemon's drinking buddies, is Naosuke Gonbee (Takizawa Osamu), an ex-con now employed supervising the gardening at the home of a wealthy widower merchant with a beautiful, single daughter Oume (Yamane Hisako). Iemon, when Naosuke informs him of this fact, learns that this desirable young woman is smitten with him ever since he saved her from a near-fatal accident. Soon after, Oume herself approaches Iemon, declaring her feelings and her desire to wed him despite the fact that the object of her adoration already possesses a wife. Naosuke then uses his wiles to try to convince Iemon to divorce Oiwa and marry Oume in order to inherit the wealth that would come with the new union, a share of which the ex-con desires to obtain by sinister means.

Naosuke, to stir things up in his favour, urges a fellow ex-con Kohei (Sata Keiji), a former lover of Oiwa's, to seek out the woman, hinting that she may still have feelings for him. Oiwa, faithful to Iemon, rebuffs Kohei but the mere possibility of the presence of another man around his spouse arouses Iemon's jealous ire. Iemon, importuned by the love-lorn Oume, manipulated by Naosuke and irritated by Oiwa's inability to meet his needs and the thought that she may be cuckolding him, becomes tempted more and more by the prospect of a better life with Oume.

Iemon, broaching the subject of divorce to Oiwa, causes her to become quite distressed, for she dotes on her husband and feels very dependent on him. Anxiety and strife escalate gradually and build to a climax, affecting negatively the lives of relatives and acquaintances of everyone connected to the focal couple. At the crisis point, Oiwa's face gets horribly disfigured in an accident sustained while she and Iemon are arguing. Even more tragically, Iemon unintentionally poisons Oiwa fatally with medicine tainted by Naosuke who reveals what he did, to the bereaved man in order to coerce him into following the plan to marry Oume now that he is 'free'. Iemon, technically guilty of murdering Oiwa and to keep Naosuke from revealing this crime, after a period of mourning, weds Oume according to plan. He fails to find any happiness with her for he remains troubled over his part in the death of Oiwa and gets harassed by Naosuke, blackmailing him for money.

Oiwa's younger sister Osode (also played by Tanaka Kinuyo), perturbed about her sibling's demise, gets the local law enforcement officials to begin investigations that soon discover clues that place Iemon and Naosuke under suspicion. Beset by his feelings of guilt, by the hounding of Naosuke, by the probing of the police and by the visitations from spectral apparitions of his deceased, frightful-looking former wife, Iemon reaches a breaking point. This culminates in a final denouement, at once harrowing, fitting and bittersweet for the survivors.

Yotsuya Ghost Story, shot in beautiful black and white, offers dazzling visuals of period costumes; sets; and locations - all accompanied by a lovely, atmospheric score evoking traditional melodies on modern orchestral instruments to enhance the superb performances by some of the finest actors of their day. This intelligent, emotionally involving treatment of a classic, supernaturally-tinged tale, takes on richer meaning in its explorations of the socio-economic pressures and the flaws in human nature, that drive a man to get involved in killing his devoted wife for the opportunity to form a nuptial tie with a woman of substantial financial means.

This film, skilfully, methodically paced to effectively build tension, fraught with powerful emotions, spiced with eerie, uncanny events and, amidst intricately detailed backgrounds - filled with vivid characters - results in outstanding, dark fantasy, historical period entertainment that will haunt one's memory. How fortunate that this screening of a rare print could be made possible by The Japan Foundation and The Japan Society.
Yotsuya Ghost Story

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